Sunday Commentary: Is the Future of Environmentalism More Development?

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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



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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34 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Is the Future of Environmentalism More Development?”

  1. Ron

    From article:  “I think the YIMBY movement is right to work within that system and work with developers.”

    From what I’ve read, they often are developers.

      1. Ron

        Here’s some quotes from another article:

        “Deepa Varma, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, says it has been frustrating to see a new group come in and portray Latinos fighting for preservation of their neighbourhood as nimbys.

        “It also riles opponents of gentrification that yimbys often lobby on projects far from their home turf.”

        “Yimby groups have received funding from founders of several hi-tech companies, including tens of thousands of dollars from Jeremy Stoppelman, a co-founder of Yelp, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which is partly funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.”

        https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/02/rise-of-the-yimbys-angry-millennials-radical-housing-solution

         

         

  2. Ron

    From article:  “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.”

    Not true.  Unfortunately, developers have a much greater influence in areas such as Elk Grove and Natomas.  There is no way to stop people from seeking less-expensive, less-dense housing outside of Davis.  (As a side note, it seems quite likely that many in Elk Grove and other outlying areas commute to Sacramento, not Davis.)

    1. Richard McCann

      Yes, whether those in Elk Grove ALSO commute elsewhere isn’t relevant to the question. The question is to what degree do Davis workers commute from elsewhere (and everywhere else is 10 miles or further away), and to what degree is Davis pushing that housing for those workers outside of Davis? It looks like we have the answers to both of these questions.

      The emissions from increased traffic congestion are trivial compared to emissions from a roundtrip of 20 miles or more. And note that the traffic jams on I-80 that include commuters also increase emissions, almost certainly by multiples of any emissions from Davis congestion.

      As to the Nishi emissions, see the extensive discussions on these page:

      https://www.davisvanguard.org/2017/10/monday-morning-thoughts-changes-trains-affect-nishi-assessment/

      https://www.davisvanguard.org/2017/10/commentary-rising-importance-student-housing-issue-lead-us-nishi/

  3. Ron

    From article:  “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.”

    An assumption being made here, that these types of megadorms can’t be built on campus.

    In the case of Lincoln 40, there will be significant impacts on existing traffic (e.g., at Richards/Olive).  Traffic jams increase the production of GHG emissions.

    In the case of Nishi, initial studies indicate that potential residents would be living in the emissions from autos and trains.

    1. Howard P

      In the case of living anywhere in Davis, we are “living in the emissions from autos and trains.”   The only question is to what degree, and to what effect.

    2. David Greenwald

      “An assumption being made here, that these types of megadorms can’t be built on campus.”

      The assumption being made here is that the university will not go beyond 6200 beds in the next ten years.

  4. Ron

    From article:  “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.”

    Wondering if “a local person” is another word for a developer.

  5. Ron

    From article:  “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.”

    This is the opposite of what would occur.

    As the city is allowed to become more dense (and spaces zoned for other uses are sacrificed for megadorms and overly-dense housing), there will be more pressure to expand the borders of the city.

        1. Howard P

           

          Interesting concept… government controlling the “market”… heard of that in a number of places… most have terms like “peoples’ republic” or “union” in their names…

          How much will you be willing to contribute to contribute to the ‘moat’?  We could fill it with ‘toxic soup’…

        2. Howard P

          Thinking more, perhaps we should implement a petition process, or a “vote of the people” to vet anyone who seeks to live here, and require a 50% + 1 affirmative vote… I’d like to have it retroactive, for say a 15-20 year period… an additional vote if they actually want to buy a house/condo.

          Just a ‘swift’ modest proposal.

          Think there are several here who could support (or be subject to) the proposal.

          But those who are “at risk” for such a proposal, and feeling adamantly, “I’ve got mine!  To hell with others…”, may well object…

          As I say, just a thought…

        3. David Greenwald

          “Ultimately, the demand for housing is a “driver” to the degree that the community allows it to be.”

          The demand for housing is a driver regardless of whether the community allows it to be

  6. Greg Rowe

    Among the statements made by David is the following:

    “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.”

    As I pointed out when this data was originally reported, many people chose to live and work in geographically separate areas for completely valid reasons that meet their individual needs and desires. I used the example of a co-worker when I was employed in downtown Sacramento. He drove to work daily from Fairfield. That commute made sense because it was mid-way between his Sacramento job and his wife’s job in downtown San Francisco.  The mid-way home location allowed both of them to pursue careers in their specialties, which they perceived would not have been possible if they both had lived in either Sacramento or San Francisco.

    I likewise know couples where both work in Sacramento County but live in El Dorado hills simply because they feel the public schools there are far better than anything they’ve found in Sacramento.  I know another married couple who both drive from Davis to different law profession jobs in Sacramento. Neither of the positions they hold are available in Davis, and they choose to live in Davis because of the superior public schools. One of them does telecommute one day per week. I also know another person employed by the County of Sacramento, who lives in a small town near Placerville. That’s a long commute, but she prefers to spend her off hours with her family in a rural area.  She’s just exercising her freedom of choice. She is also a committed environmentalist, and is professionally employed in the environmental arena.

    The upshot is that even if all 28,000 of the people who commute to Davis for work could be accommodated with housing in Davis, each person’s personal situation or preferences would provide no guarantee of how many of them would actually choose to live here. This would be especially true of families in which both working adults are employed in different areas.

    It’s all about freedom of choice and personal tradeoffs.  If someone wants to deal with a long job commute in heavy traffic in exchange for spending their off-work hours in a locale that meets their personal needs and desires, that’s their business.  And, as electric and hybrid vehicles gradually replace carbon-based transportation, the air pollution and GHG impacts will lessen.

    As an example of higher density housing that can efficiently maximize land utilization while being attractive, I encourage readers to look at a new  development in Sacramento, The Brownstones in Curtis Park Village, located on Crocker Drive, near Sac City College.  The exteriors are modeled after New York brownstones.  Garages are on the first level, with 2 floors of living space above and rooftop decks.  All models also come equipped with a small barbecue balcony just off the 2nd level kitchen, and tiny front yards. Garages are accessed by a narrow alley at the rear, but many residents may no doubt use the nearby light rail station. Parks and services are within walking distance, and construction recently started on a Safeway shopping center across the street.  These are not tiny homes; all have 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and range from 2,200 square feet to just over 2,500 SF.  Each home is spaced about 6 feet from the homes on either side, but window placement is such that one can’t readily see into a neighbor’s home. This could be a good model for densification of single family homes in Davis, although the exteriors would no doubt need to be different.  I think such a project would meet the definition of YIMBY described in David’s article.

    1. Richard C

      The Brownstones in Curtis Park Village……Each home is spaced about 6 feet from the homes on either side

      I wonder why the homes aren’t built as row houses connected together with a common wall?  This is common in many parts of Europe and part of the US (but typically not in California).  It seems like the 6 feet between houses is just wasted space.  Also, the space contributes to lower energy efficiency as the heat in Summer and cold in Winter have more building surface interface.

      I notice that the stock photo that is being used to illustrate these articles appears to show connected row houses.

      1. Howard P

        There are split-lot duplexes in Davis… a lot of them… common wall.

        Row housing is prevalent in SF, and environs, particularly Daly City…

        The latter being famous in a song… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_2lGkEU4Xs

        But, that said, I agree… row housing should be part of our toolbox.  For the reasons you cited.

        Condos are generally common wall, and we have a bunch of those in Davis, particularly the McKuen (sp?) condos on Pole Line (four units/structure), north of Donner (think a majority of those are now rentals).  Roe Building is a condo, except on street level floor.  Crepeville above the commercial, etc.

        Cottages at Atlantis, Cottages at Fifth Street… similar to ‘row houses’… but to say it isn’t common in Davis or in CA?  Am thinking, not.

        Row housing/condos/manufactured housing/mobile homes (a mis-nomer, generally), should all be in the mix of tools to meet our housing needs.  IMHO.

        Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUwUp-D_VV0

        1. Jim Hoch

          Howard, could you possibly be less clear? The OP was about row houses. We have half-plexes, the problem is not the common wall but the common roof. Most row houses have separate roofs.

          “Any you trust realtors not to “spin things”?  Your choice, not mine.  Follow the money”

    2. David Greenwald

      “The upshot is that even if all 28,000 of the people who commute to Davis for work could be accommodated with housing in Davis, each person’s personal situation or preferences would provide no guarantee of how many of them would actually choose to live here.”

      Granted.  The question is how many would live here if their needs could be accommodated and what would be the impact on traffic and GHG emissions if we better synched live-work.

        1. Ron

          David: I think I like that idea!

          Allow Davis to become so dense, impacted, gridlocked (and simultaneously “broke” and expensive) that residents will voluntarily leave. (And ultimately, expand the borders, anyway.)

    3. Richard McCann

      Anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much when discussing 28,000 commuters. It is useful for raising valid questions, e.g., how many are two income households, other reasons for living elsewhere. (Educational quality runs the other direction–Davis has increasing pressure to accept outside students due to its high ranking.) But the strongest evidence is that many (most?) commuters would prefer to live in Davis, but are priced out of the market.

      A friend in his early 30s told me this weekend that many of his friends who are attorneys and engineers can’t afford to buy a house in Davis despite their “personal needs and desires” to do so. (They won’t qualify for affordable housing and no amount of affordable housing can be built to meet their demand.)  We are driving our younger generations out of town. Is that really what we want to do?

       

  7. aaahirsch8

    This case David cites is far from new trend:
    Environmentalist proposed the Smart Growth 30 years ago.

    This article assume a false bifracation of issue into Just two sides… Growth (developers) vs environmentalism.

    That is the framing developers and deregulators like to use to frame the issue to black mark environmentalist in political discourse.

    David feel into this frame… a trap.

    Also assumed in the article is that this a two sided argument: “environmental” is far from monolithic position.   It has competing internal values.

    Yes, Neighborhoods often claim “environmental values” are on their side to block projects when from another standpoint densification &  infill (smart growth) is arguably meets environmental (if not neighborhood preservation) standards.

    And other developers often use and ally/use cover of environmental groups and arguments to stop competing development.

     

     

     

  8. Todd Edelman

    Every single residential development EIR should have a “no private car on site” alternative. I’d like to see how much more housing we can create on sites with no parking; the alternative EIRs seem to never increase the levels of housing when parking is reduced (Sterling, Lincoln 40, etc.).

    Alternatively, the differential – money saved from not building parking – can be put directly into subsidies for private-car alternatives. In other words, not car parking and hopeful car alternatives, but just substitutes. Not just some extra mitigation thing. As I said repeatedly during the Sterling discussion, there have to be exceptions for ADA and certain types of workers.

  9. Roberta Millstein

    Things that caught my eye on this page:

    But she cautions that there’s a small segment of YIMBYs who embrace any form of housing, including sprawl.
    She warns, “There’s also concern about the movement getting co-opted by developers, who definitely aren’t saints.”

    and

    This article assume a false bifracation of issue into Just two sides… Growth (developers) vs environmentalism.
    That is the framing developers and deregulators like to use to frame the issue to black mark environmentalist in political discourse.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      Also: a lot of faculty definitely choose to live outside of Davis, with Sacramento and Berkeley being common options, with those people often simply preferring those areas to Davis.

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