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CP&DR News Briefs July 2, 2019: $402M in AHSC Grants; Stanford Invests in Housing; Feds Cut Grants, and More

CP&DR Staff on
Jul 1, 2019
Fourth Round of AHSC Funding Doles out $402 Million
The Strategic Growth Council has awarded $402 million in 25 community development projects under the Affordable Housing Sustainability Communities (AHSC) program. AHSC, which invests cap-and-trade dollars in affordable housing projects that connect residents to transportation infrastructure and services, has invested over $1 billion total over its four rounds of funding. This round's 25 projects will add over 3,000 housing units statewide, over 2,500 of which will be affordable, and almost 1,000 for extremely low-income residents. All projects will offer residents transit connections, and the AHSC will fund free or discounted transit passes for residents' first three years. The majority of the projects funded in the current round are in Southern Californian (37 percent) and the Bay Area (34 percent). The remaining regions served are the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento, San Diego, and one project on the North Coast. All approved projects target communities with a high volume of disadvantaged communities. “At a time when the state is struggling with spiraling housing costs, these projects will provide much-needed affordable homes that are also near transit and jobs." said Kate Gordon, Chair of the Strategic Growth Council and Director of the Office of Planning and Research. "These projects truly are a win-win for the future of our state.” (See prior C&PDR coverage.) 

Stanford Offers $4.7 Billion Housing, Transit Deal to Gain Approval for Expansion
Responding to county-wide pushback against its planned 2.3 million square foot expansion, Stanford University committed to invest $4.7 billion in local housing, transit, and public education. In April, Santa Clara County suspended planning negotiations with the university, claiming that the plans failed to address the local affordable housing crisis. In a recent letter to the county, the University offered $3.4 billion for housing and $1.3 billion for transit and public education for new projects concurrent with its planned expansion. It’s the largest-ever such “benefits package,” and will include 575 affordable units and 1,597 market-rate units – most of which will be built before 25 percent of new academic buildings are constructed over the next twenty years. Transit funds will go to infrastructure improvements and a new transit program, while public education funds will benefit the Palo Alto Unified School District. But Joe Simitan, president of the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, still does not approve of current plans. “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It doesn’t address the underlying concerns around traffic, housing, and open space.” After reviewing the proposal, the county Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, and the final vote will come in the fall.

Trump Administration Cuts California’s Share of Transportation Grants
California’s share of grants from a Department of Transportation infrastructure program has more than halved under the Trump Administration, according to a recent analysis from the Sacramento Bee. In the eight years of the Obama Administration, California received a larger share of funds from the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) and BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) programs than any other state in the nation – at an average of 8.5 percent. However, in the two fiscal years since Trump’s election, the state’s share has shrunk to an average of 3.5 percent. In the past, these awards have funded transformative infrastructure improvements for rail, roads, and bridges statewide. Grant dollars awarded in the largely Democratic states of Illinois, New York, Washington, Minnesota, and Connecticut have similarly shrunk – leading some to guess that such discretionary decisions are politically motivated. “You’ve got a staff that screens these things down to maybe the top three or four dozen,” Tony Boren, transportation planner and Executive Director of the Fresno County Council of Governments, told the Bee. “Then they take those to (Transportation Secretary Elaine) Chao, who I expect consults with the White House. It’s no surprise that more money would be going to those places that favor the president.”

Study Equates New Transportation Metrics with Increased Housing Production
Switching CEQA transportation impact measurements from Level of Service (LOS) to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) will likely increase housing development statewide, according to a study from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. The study precedes a July 1, 2020 deadline for local governments to make this metric switch for environmental review processes. The car-centric LOS metric, which favors projects that make it more convenient to drive, has historically slowed down environmental reviews – particularly for urban developments. By contrast, the VMT metric takes a more holistic view at transportation impact, measuring whether or not a project contributes to state goals like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development. By examining the historic timelines for 153 housing development approval processes in Los Angeles in the past 16 years, the researchers found that the change in metric would have significantly streamlined the environmental review process for these developments – particularly those in low-VMT urban areas. From this, researchers extrapolate that such acceleration of the approval process can bring California closer to reaching its housing production goals. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Quick Hits & Updates 
U2 guitarist “The Edge” David Evans’s 14-year legal battle for five Malibu mansions came to an end after the California State Supreme Court declined to review his appeal. Following a Sierra Club lawsuit against the $100 million development, a lower court denied his bid to build the mega-complex in the Santa Monica Mountains. Should he still attempt to pursue the development, the musician will have to start at the beginning by reapplying to the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.

Los Angeles City Council members are publicly claiming that neighboring cities are pushing homeless populations into L.A. According to Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Mike Bonin, many suburban communities are not complying with a 2018 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that cities cannot stop people from sleeping on sidewalks if they lack shelter. This claim comes a week after L.A. officials announced a 16 percent increase in homelessness within the city.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Trump Administration for its rollbacks of key safety measures from the 2016 federal Well Control and Blowout Preventer Rule. The rule, put in place by the Obama Administration in the aftermath of the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, regulates oil drilling with strict performance standards, real-time monitoring, and third-party reviews of equipment. The Trump Administration amended the rule after public pushback from the oil and gas industry. The lawsuit claims that the U.S. Interior Department was not transparent when replacing the 2016 rule, and failed to consider the evidence and expert findings behind the 2016 law.

UC Berkeley is facing two separate lawsuits for its proposed $126 million redevelopment project on the northeast corner of campus. The proposed Upper Hearst Project, which converts a parking garage into classrooms and housing, attempts to patch the university’s gap in faculty space. The lawsuit from Save Berkeley Neighborhoods claims the university violated CEQA by failing to assess the burdens of rising enrollment on the area – U.C. Berkeley has surpassed its predicted 2020 enrollment by more than 9,000 students. Also citing the over-enrollment, the city of Berkeley wants the university to pay more impact fees for its development plans. However, the city contends that it supports the development plans overall.

The San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency is considering extending the upcoming Central Subway line to North Beach and the Presidio, according to a recent public interest survey submitted by the agency. The current plans for the line, scheduled to open in mid-2020, extend 1.7 miles from Fourth and Brannan to the northern end of Chinatown. However, the agency’s online survey asks residents about possible terminuses at North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina, Cow Hollow, and the Presidio. 

In the spirit of the recently-shelved Senate Bill 50 – which called for greater density near transit – San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed eliminating height limits for new housing projects near transit lines. The proposal, which aims to help solve the city’s housing crisis, lifts height limits in areas already zoned for apartments and condominiums within a half mile of a transit line, excluding coastal zones. The mayor’s proposal follows a similar proposal last winter to eliminate parking requirements for new condo and apartment complexes near mass transit.

The Pleasanton City Council agreed to taller height limits and greater density as part of its new 20-year downtown specific plan draft. The council’s recommendations focus on the city’s “mixed use downtown area.” In this area, they support increasing building height limits from 40 feet to 46 feet, and increasing development density to a 300 percent floor area ratio – meaning, for example, that 30,000 square feet can be built on a 10,000 square-foot parcel of land. The recommendations will go to the Planning Commission and return to the City Council for the downtown specific plan’s final approval later this summer.

In response to the Cupertino City Council’s scheduled "study session" on the controversial Vallco Mall redevelopment project, Senator Scott Weiner and the project’s developer both publicly commented that the session will attempt to sabotage an approved project. At the study session, the council will discuss a general plan amendment to exclude housing and office space uses at the site. Under the Weiner-authored SB 35 law, cities must approve housing developments such as Vallco’s as long as they include affordable homes and meet zoning and planning rules. The amendment, if passed, may not even affect the already-approved 2,4202-unit development, should a judge uphold it. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Young adults in Los Angeles County who live near medical marijuana dispensaries use marijuana more frequently than their peers and report more positive feelings about the drug, according to a recent study from Rand Corporation. Most notably, the study is the first of its kind show that dispensaries with storefront signs had the biggest impact on local young people’s attitudes. In response to research from the same project, the city of Los Angeles adopted legislation in 2018 to restrict some storefront and billboard advertising. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

The L.A. Metro Board revealed its latest proposed alignment of a new 20-mile San Fernando Valley bus rapid transit line. The proposed alignment would connect regional destinations in the San Fernando Valley, as well as other transit services including local bus lines, the Orange Line, Metrolink, and the forthcoming light rail line on Van Nuys Boulevard. The project currently has $180 million from the Measure M half-cent sales tax, and is estimated to cost between $297 and $417 million, depending on the alignment. Services are estimated to begin in 2025, and carry between 27,461 and 28,652 daily riders.

The Federal Transit Agency awarded BART $300 million in funds for its planned Transbay Tube project. BART officials expressed surprised at the positive outcome for its funding request, which has been awaiting federal approval since 2017. The “Transbay Tube” project, which will add a new rail line crossing the San Francisco Bay, will increase hourly ridership capacity from 27,000 people to 39,000 people. This move puts BART on track to receive the full $3.2 billion requested for a new line.

The new Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve just opened its first park section 15 miles south of downtown San Jose. Made possible by a $300 million 2014 bond measure, the 1,432-acre park includes six miles of trails, a 52-car parking lot, restrooms, thousands of redwoods, and a lake. The park sits at the former site of Alma College, and will retain the old chapel and library sites. The other two sections of the park will open in two phases: the former college site will open between 2020 and 2026, and a final southeast piece after 2026.

Over 56 percent of San Diegan solo driver commuters would consider other forms of transportation “under the right circumstances,” according to a recent survey from the San Diego Association of Governments. The survey, which polled 3,945 people from San Diego County and Western Riverside County, found that 84 percent of commuters drive to work by themselves. According to additional questions, “the right circumstances” point toward improved convenience: including faster and more frequent service and free parking at transit stops.

The San Francisco Transbay Transit Center and rooftop park will reopen to the public on July 1, the Transbay Joint Powers Commission recently announced. The $2.2 billion center in the East Cut neighborhood closed in September 2018 only six weeks after opening after cracks were discovered in its steel beams. San Francisco and Oakland mayors London Breed and Libby Schaaf called for an independent Metropolitan Transportation Commission investigation, which has now concluded. Muni and Golden Gate Transit plans to resume limited bus service from the plaza.

Developers of affordable supportive housing in 37 communities statewide received $179 million in funds from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. This is the first award from the voter-backed 2018 No Place Like Home program, and the first statewide program to directly fund developers. The funds will push projects toward construction that will help approximately 2,100 households permanently exit homelessness.