The Sustainable Communities Strategy unveiled in December by the Southern California Association of Governments struck its member cities and counties with all the uncertainty of an unwrapped Christmas gift.
Rather than surprise the six counties and 191 cities that make up the SCAG region, SCAG planners spent the better part of the past two years surveying their members' own plans and their own projections for population growth and future development in order to develop an SCS that would be far more predictive than prescriptive. As such, SCAG tried to build consensus pre-emptively for the regional plan rather than attempt to come up with a document that would compel cities and counties to change course or to otherwise compel jurisdictions to alter their development patterns. Under SB 375, SCAG must adopt an SCS by next April.
"This is very different from what some feared when SB 375 was adopted that we might see a top-down regional imposition of one-size-fits-all," said Richard Lambros, senior policy advisor for the Building Industry Association of Southern California. "That is not what this plan is."
Though the SCAG region includes a diverse array of jurisdictions, the SCS attempts to bring some uniformity to the region by identifying a handful of "community types," defined according to density, jobs-housing mix, and transit access. These "types" include, in roughly descending order of density, urban, city, town, suburban, and rural. With these types in mind, the SCS encourages the development of housing in main street and downtown areas. Roughly 1 million new housing units will be directed towards urban, city, and town areas, with 417,00 units directed towards suburbs; suburban areas currently comprise roughly 40% of the region's households but will receive only 28% of projected growth. And much of that growth will be in denser housing types than the region has historically been accustomed to.
"We're portraying in our SCS 68% multifamily between today and 2035," said Douglas Williford, SCAG's deputy executive director. "That is about the reverse of what happened in the past."
The SCS outlines a plan for integrating the transportation network and related strategies with an overall land use pattern that responds to projected growth, housing needs and changing demographics, and transportation demands.
"There was lot of outreach to all 191 cities and six counties," said SCAG President and Santa Monica City Council Member Pam O'Connor. "The document is based on the existing general plan in all of those cities. That's the core foundation."
"It was the most collaborative process I think our agency has ever gone through," said Williford. "It surprised us, to be honest, we ended up with over 80 percent attendance of our 197 jurisdictions within our region."
The result of this approach, unveiled as the SCAG draft SCS/Regional Transportation Plan at the Dec. 1 Regional Council meeting in Los Angeles, is a twofold benefit: first, the strategy has been roundly praised by member jurisdictions; and, second, if followed in full by 2035, it may beat regional per capita emissions reduction targets set by the state. As mandated by Senate Bill 375, the SCS is intended to reduce the region's per capita greenhouse gas emissions 13 percent by 2035; the draft SCS predicts reductions of 16% by 2035 and on-target reductions of 8% by 2020.
Williford said he is "100% confident" that the region can reach those targets. "We wouldn't have gone over and above our initial targets unless we were completely confident of success."
Although new development in the region has been relatively stagnant during the recession, SCAG's growth projections call for the region to add 4 million residents and over 1 million households by 2035.
These optimistic numbers and a unanimous vote to release the draft plan for public review is a far cry from the last major discussions surrounding SB 375. Just over a year ago factions in the Regional Council were at odds over the per capita targets, with representatives of some suburban jurisdictions lobbying for less ambitions targets than SCAG staff had originally recommended. Those factions won out, and the California Air Resources Board assigned SCAG the lower targets.
Now that the targets are set, almost no one seems to have a problem with the regional planning scheme that the SCS envisions.
"The fight that happened was important, because that's the civil discourse that's got to happen," said Simi Valley City Council Member and incoming SCAG President Glen Becerra. "I think we're there now. The agreement is there for the targets we need to hit." Becerra originally led the lobbying in favor of lower targets.
Developers and builders were also wary of the higher targets, but they too have expressed support for the draft RPT/SCS.
"We have been focused on four key principles that we hoped to see in the SCS: local control, providing reasonable flexibility, positive economic impacts, and making sure it would be realistic in its market assumptions for real estate and housing," said the BIA's Lambros. "We're very pleased that the SCS as drafted seems to have addressed all of our concerns."
In fact, a certain amount of regional pride has come to surround the SCS, with Regional Council members suggesting that the SCAG region could be a model for cooperation--a model that policymakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., would be wise to emulate, according to some speakers at the Regional Council meeting. Adding to its appeal, the RTP/SCS is being pitched in part as a job-creation scheme, with transportation-related projects generating nearly 170,000 annual jobs, according to SCAG estimates. SCAG also predicts a healthy multiplier, of $2.90 generated for every $1 spent implementing the RTP/SCS.
Beyond these optimistic predictions, the SCS was devised in such a way that it would be nearly impossible for it to fail. The drafting has been more of an information-gathering process than a planning process. SCAG planners researched the general plans of nearly all of the region's jurisdictions and matched them up against population growth predictions for the region. They confirmed that the vast majority of jurisdictions are already pursuing development strategies that promote higher-density housing and place it along transit corridors. These patterns have long been advocated by SCAG through its Compass Blueprint regional planning strategy and other decentralized efforts.
"Beginning in the 1990s the amount of emphasis….on smart-growth type planning and implementation of actual projects that was already going on," said Williford. "There were in fact hundreds of examples around the SCAG region of great projects that were either focused already on transit areas…or downtown mixed-use re-visioning that were entirely consistent with the goals of SB 375."
"We did not want it to be a blue sky plan that was not realistic," added Williford. "We wanted it to be a progressive plan that was absolutely realistic."
Complementing this approach to regional planning are subregional SCS's that are being prepared locally for Orange County and for the Gateway Cities subregion (including Long Beach and neighboring cities of southern Los Angeles County). Of the four metropolitan planning organizations statewide that are required to craft SCS's under SB 375, only SCAG was granted special dispensation to draft subregional plans, in part because SCAG is by far the state's largest MPO region in both population and land area. The concession, as well as deference to cities' general plans, was considered crucial for buy-in among SCAG members.
The SCS attempts to create a unified picture of growth in the region by identifying "High Quality Transit Areas," in which a great deal of projected growth will occur. A HQTA is generally a walkable transit village, consistent with the adopted SCS that has a minimum density of 20 dwelling units per acre and is within a ½ mile of a well-serviced transit stop, and includes transit corridors with minimum 15-minute or less service frequency during peak commute hours. The RTP/SCS assumes that 51 percent of new housing developed between 2008 and 2035 will be within HQTAs, along with 53 percent of new employment growth (compared with 39 and 48 percent, respectively in 2008). The RTP/SCS predicts that the number of households in HQTAs will double by 2035.
Then again, some are quick to point out that higher density does not eliminate the type of suburban, single-family developments that have long characterized Southern California.
"We want folks to recognize that there's still room in this plan for well-planned greenfield development," said Lambros. "We don't want folks to think that the adoption of the SCS means the elimination of certain housing types."
Becerra, of Simi Valley, said that despite his initial skepticism about the emissions targets, these development patterns do not represent a major imposition, even for a largely suburban city.
"It won't really have a dramatic re-direction of our community," said Becerra. "Our community was already on-target with our updated general plan. We're not talking about 100 units to the acre. We're talking about 15 units to the acre."
Of course, an HQTA can only succeed if the transit actually exists. The RTP calls for $216.9 billion of investment in transportation infrastructure. That includes roughly $50 billion for local bus and rail transit, plus $72 billion for highway upgrades. Infrastructure to promote walking and bicycling alone is budgeted for $6 billion, to increase the region's bikeway miles from roughly 4,000 to over 10,000 and to upgrade 12,000 miles of sidewalks.
The RTP includes financial projections that would fund these investments. Some funding comes from local tax measure that have already been implemented, while other funding comes from more speculative sources, including a mileage-based user fee intended to replace the current gas tax. That fee is projected to raise $110 billion. However, many officials are cautious about spending funds that have not yet materialized.
"Every plan is implemented incrementally," said O'Connor. "We build what we can."
Funding also poses a challenge to cities, many of which are hoping to update their general plans to complement the SCS and yet do not have the funds for such an intensive planning exercise.
"City governments….are more than ready to respond to this marketplace and respond to changes and do intelligent long-term land-use planning," said Williford. "But they need help."
Though Williford and others admitted that funding is tight, especially with the possible elimination of redevelopment throughout the state, he said that SCAG is disbursing planning funds through a grant program. SCAG gave out $14.5 million in planning grants this year and Wiliford said that SCAG hopes to put out another call for projects shortly, though a timeline has not been announced.
Contacts & Resources
SCAG RTP/SCS Site: http://rtpscs.scag.ca.gov/Pages/default.aspx
Glenn Becerra incoming president of SCAG, Simi Valley City Council Member
Lucy Dunn, Executive Director, Orange County Business Council, 949.476.2242
Rich Lambros, Sr. Policy Advisor to BIA Southern California, 949.553.9500
Pam O'Connor, President, Southern California Association of Governments, Santa Monica City Council Member, 213.236.1800
Douglas Williford, Deputy Executive Director, Southern California Association of Governments, 213.236.1919