This week there was a fascinating article in the publication Grist, describing a 2009 meeting between Scott Wiener who was then president of his neighborhood association in San Francisco’s Castro district, where developers were presenting ideas for building housing on top of an existing Whole Foods.
“It seemed like a good idea to Wiener,” the article noted. “The development would replace a vacant Ford showroom, it was on a transit line, and it would be designed by deep-green architect William McDonough+Partners.”
However, before they could build, the city had to schedule some 50 meetings to solicit community feedback, even though the project complied with all local zoning codes.
“It seemed like a system designed to stop developers from building housing. This, he thought, had to be bad for the environment,” the article noted.
Writes Grist: “Environmentalists are usually thought of as folks who are trying to stop something: a destructive dam, an oil export terminal, a risky pipeline. But when it comes to housing, new-school environmentalists — like Wiener — understand that it’s necessary to support things, too. To meet California’s ambitious goals to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, regulators say the state must build dense, walkable neighborhoods that allow people to ditch their cars.”
“You can’t legitimately call yourself an environmentalist,” Scott Wiener says, “unless you support dense housing in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation.”
From that point Mr. Wiener decided to get involved in neighborhood development issues, so he got elected to public office first as a county supervisor and now a state senator.
This year “he introduced a bill in the California state assembly that served as the lynch-pin in a historic package of 15 new laws aimed at spurring new housing, which San Francisco and other
parts of the state desperately need.”
The article goes on to talk about the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement, but it reminds me of a comment I heard at a Vanguard forum in early 2016 where a member of the public pointed out that all of these environmentalists in Davis seemingly find it perfectly acceptable for people to drive from Elk Grove and Natomas to come to work in Davis.
The line between smart growth and environmentalism is increasingly difficult to define.
A few weeks ago we found that 28,000 people who live outside of Davis commute to Davis to come to work, while another 21,000 people who live in Davis commute out of Davis to go to work each day.
Last week’s commentary showed just how much of the CO2 impact in Davis is generated because people do not live near where they work. And the biggest problem is that, of those people who live outside of Davis, 65 percent of them drive alone. However, only a smidge over 10 percent of those who live within Davis drive alone. Those who live within a mile of campus – almost 94 percent of them – walk or bike and only 1 percent of them drive.
The bottom line, we concluded, is if you wish to reduce traffic impacts and GHG emissions, putting housing at Lincoln40 and Nishi would be a huge plus.
We have spent a lot of time in the last week talking about city fees and impact rates.
The article in Grist notes that “in San Francisco, all market-rate housing must sell at luxury prices to make a profit. The land itself, the community planning process, and the environmental reviews are staggeringly expensive. One new government-subsidized housing project in San Francisco cost $600,000 per apartment to build.”
A local person with knowledge of development issues argued that the economics are actually worse in Davis. “We can’t achieve the same rents as in the Bay Area, but development costs are similar.”
The article notes: “When environmentalists only support housing that offers below-market rents, they’re essentially opposing all private development.”
As UCLA planning professor Michael Lens puts it: “You could say we need to blow up the system, but it doesn’t strike me as being particularly realistic. I think the YIMBY movement is right to work within that system and work with developers.”
If the solution is to wait for the government to make affordable housing a priority, hardly anything will get built, argues Argues Brian Hanlon, a car-hating, vegetarian YIMBY: “It’s this idiotic thinking where the environment you are trying to protect gets worse and worse because you are waiting for some perfect solution to be delivered from God or the revolution or something. It’s monstrously unethical.”
The bottom line from my perspective is that these issues exist not just in Davis, but we are going to have to figure out solutions in Davis.
Grist asks, “Is YIMBYism the future of environmentalism?” The author writes, “Most researchers I talked to said the pro-housing activists are good for the environment, because they push cities to become denser and more transit-friendly. But not always.”
Grist cites Christine Johnson saying that “the San Francisco director of the urbanism think tank SPUR, applauded YIMBYs for making NIMBYism less attractive, for changing the political conversation, and for fighting single-family zoning, which causes the most environmentally destructive sprawl. But she cautions that there’s a small segment of YIMBYs who embrace any form of housing, including sprawl.
“To really get to a new form of equitable environmentalism, YIMBYs need to take a step further,” she says. “I think they will get there. They aren’t there yet.”
She supports policies that encourage modest and efficient living in cities rather than luxury blight, fights for limits to apartment sizes that allow more people to live in a given development, and backs a campaign for regional transit lines that are needed to make density in cities work.
She warns, “There’s also concern about the movement getting co-opted by developers, who definitely aren’t saints.”
All of this should be food for thought in Davis. If we support a vision of Davis that keeps its current boundaries, then we need to get more creative with the existing space within the city. That means we have to see more density and what concerns me is that every dense project has had neighborhood pushback that has resulted in less impact on the neighbors, fewer stories and less density, which also means eventually the need for more projects and more impacts on others – including, increasingly, more pressure to expand onto agricultural land.
Given Davis’ low vacancy rate, something has to give.
—David M. Greenwald reporting