Judging by the likes of Oakland, Berkeley, and, of course, San Francisco, a plan to encourage density, transit use, and environmentalism in the Bay Area might seem redundant. But these vibrant urban centers are just small elements in the sprawling, nine-county region that is the subject of the fourth and final Sustainable Communities Strategy to be drafted for California's major urban areas.
Branded as Plan Bay Area and devised by the area's paired regional planning organizations—the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission—the SCS attempts to extend the smart growth ethos from the bustling streets of SoMa and the Haight all the way out to Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties.
"The plan is this notion of trying to knit together housing, land use, climate change challenges, and livable communities into a unit so that we can talk about it all at one time," said Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs for MTC.
The plan's Preferred Land Use Scenario and Investment Strategy was approved unanimously by a joint session of the MTC and ABAG boards in May; the agencies are now working on alternatives and will release a full draft of the plan in December . MTC also voted to approve the "One Bay Area Grants" (OBAG) program, and ABAG approved a draft housing allocation methodology for Bay Area cities. The plan is intended to help the region accommodate 2.1 million new residents and 1.1 million new jobs by 2035.
Whether every locale in the Bay Area will welcome these jobs and residents remains to be seen.
Many of the Bay Area's outlying suburbs have long maintained their cultural distance from the center cities and have been concerned that regional planning efforts would impose unwanted density on them. Self-described Tea Party supporters have been concerned that Plan Bay Area would go so far as to force residents out of their homes and put strict moratoria on the development of single-family houses.
Officials say that the plan has been deliberately constructed so as not to upend residents' suburban lifetimes.
"They got this idea that we were going to try to impose this urban vision in places were it didn't make sense," said Rentschler. "That's the last thing we were trying to do."
As with the SCS's devised by the other three of California's "Big Four" MPOs—mandated to create SCS's by Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law that seeks to reduce driving via compact development and transit use—Plan Bay Area is designed around a core of transportation investment as described in the accompanying Regional Transportation Plan update.
Though the Bay Area already famously has Bay Area Rapid Transit and other major elements of public transit infrastructure, the RTP includes elements such as a BART extension to San Jose, the San Francisco central subway, and 270 miles of new and converted express lanes on the region's freeways.
Even with all of those investments, the plan actually emphasizes maintenance of the existing transportation system over the development of new infrastructure. Planners have hailed this "fix it first" strategy, which allocates 88% of transportation funding—up from current levels of 80%--to maintenance.
"The very positive change is when we look at the shift in transportation money, where a much higher percentage is spent on maintenance and operation and a decline in the amount of expansion," said Egon Terplan, regional planning director at San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association.
As well, the plan includes performance-based funding, which directs transportation investment towards areas of greatest need.
To meet SB 375's goals of reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions by 7% in 2020 and by 15% in 2035, planners estimate that—if current residents maintain their travel patterns, then each marginal resident will have to drive 75% less by comparison.
On the land use side, Plan Bay Area centers on an innovative program that encourages cities to comply voluntarily with SB 375. Cities may submit applications to adopt "Priority Development Areas" (PDA's) and thereby become eligible for grants and technical assistance from MTC/ABAG. To be eligible to become a PDA, an area had to be within an existing community, near existing or planned fixed transit or served by comparable bus service, and planned for more housing.
Though PDA the program has been in effect for six years, the advent of the SCS has given it greater purpose. Currently, there are 115,000 acres of PDA's in the Bay Area, in various stages of build-out. The "OBAG" grant program will allocate $14 billion of One Bay Area Grants to localities to plan and invest in PDA's. The plan intends for 75% of new housing and 64% of new jobs to be located in PDA's and for per capita vehicle-miles travelled to fall accordingly.
Though this strategy has garnered widespread praise, some observers fear that achieving SB 375's greenhouse gas emissions reductions poses a greater challenge in the Bay Area than in the state's other big three MPOs. Many places in the Bay Area—most notably San Francisco—are already compact and already have high transit ridership. Therefore, achieving the marginal decreases in greenhouse gas emissions may be more difficult because the region is relatively efficient in the first place.
"For SCAG to reach its targets, it was more about encouraging a modest densification of land use patterns that are already in line with what the market is doing," said Terplan. "For the Bay Area, a place where per capita driving is already less than in a lot of other regions, getting a 15% reduction is harder."
In fact, the plan acknowledges a six-percentage-point gap in emissions reductions for 2035.
"The region really needs to look at pricing mechanisms, particularly road pricing, as a way to close the greenhouse gas emission gap," said Terplan.
Others feel that those concerns are overblown, and they say that the region's density and, especially, its transit infrastructure simply provides greater opportunities for effective infill development.
"There's lots and lots of redevelopment opportunities around the Bay Area's existing network," said Hobson. "We don't have to spend a lot of money to put thousands of new homes and jobs around transit centers. In other regions, they need to build transit in order to have TOD."
The big money, though, will be directed towards transportation projects. Through 2040, the region will invest $277 billion in roads, mass transit, and non-motorized transportation.
As it turns out, getting people around is only half the battle for Plan Bay Area. Many planners and public officials in the region have also approached it as sort of economic development plan, with housing at its core.
While MTC can direct the investment of transportation funds, Rentschler stressed that the plan's success relies on the participation of the region's localities—namely the 101 cities that make up the metro area. The plan calls for those localities to complement the region-wide investments with local plans and investments of their own.
"If you want the Smart Train in Marin and Sonoma, that's great," said Rentschler. "But unless you want empty trains, communities in those counties have to ….you have to support those stations. In some cases that means TOD, in some cases that means retail, in some cases that's a big parking lot."
The plan is designed to accommodate the Bay Area's Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation, which is determined by the state. However, many planners are concerned that the plan still will not alleviate the region's notoriously high combination of transportation and housing costs.
"The most significant concern is that the agencies' own analysis shows that the share of income that low-income families spend on transportation and housing is going to get worse, not better," said Hobson. "So displacement risks are going to be much higher.
Though many communities consider the production of housing—especially affordable, subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income residents—to be a burden, regional planners are trying to convince localities of the opposite: that more housing will translate to greater regional economic growth.
"If you provide the housing at a reasonable cost, you're going to get the strong economy that you're seeking," said Rentschler. Rentschler noted that, despite the tech boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the Bay Area economy has been largely stagnant for the past decade.
Those goals are frustrated by communities that are reluctant to grow, regardless of what incentives Plan Bay Area may offer.
"I am concerned with a growing perception in the Bay Area that we are built out," said Terplan. "One of our great challenges is to overcome that perception and see the positive benefits of growth, particularly of adding housing…and the densification of existing employment centers."
If that growth comes to pass, it would likely contradict the claims of Plan Bay Area's loudest opponents. Members of the Tea Party movement have accused the plan of being everything from a United Nations conspiracy to a plot to advance communism. More substantively, they fear that the plan's emphasis on dense development will impose on the suburban lifestyle in the suburbs.
"A lot of these folks don't like government anyway so they're not going to give it a chance to be understood," said Rentschler. "What's ironic is that many of these folks who are from the Tea Party live in places that are going to be protected because we're going to be building dense housing in other cities. They should have come to our meetings and cheer-leaded us."
More mainstream critics have raised concerns about whether the plan provides sufficient incentives and accommodations for private sector partners. A coalition of Bay Area business groups—including the Building Industry Association (BIA), the Bay Area Council, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group—issued a letter to the MTC and ABAG boards imploring them to ensure that the plan matches up with the realities of the housing market. As well, BIA officials have questioned whether the plan disadvantages suburban areas by investing in city centers.
"We are concerned that the preferred scenario is not geographically balanced and may lead to ‘planned' economic marginalization of large parts of the Bay Area, especially suburban jurisdictions," said Paul Campos, senior vice president of governmental affairs for BIA of the Bay Area. Campos said he was concerned that inland job centers such as Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, and San Ramon might get overlooked and suffer from under-investment.
Supporters of the plan contend that, despite the plan's nominal promotion of "urban" virtues, it is designed to benefit outlying cities as well.
"If anything, the Priority Development Area framework sets such a low threshold, there are communities all around the Bay Area that have access to these funds," said Terplan. PDA's have been approved for cities on the region's outer edges, such as Gilroy, Livermore, and Petaluma.
Terplan said that if outlying cities feel shut out of transportation funding, it's only because the plan's performance-based funding naturally hews towards center cities, where transit use is particularly intensive and, therefore, "more people are going to ride them for less money."
Moreover, planners say that the BIA and other critics are responding more to a discomfort over the dense, multi-unit housing than to genuine flaws in the plan.
"The challenge is always going to be, when you make public investment and improve a place, it changes the economics of that locale," said Rentschler. "I think one thing they're responding to is the fact that a traditional model in which their members worked and built is in transition."
Rentschler added that planners need to pay attention to developers' concerns, to the extent that those concerns can bear on the plan's execution. "If they're advising us that we're creating a situation that can't happen in the real world then we want to be responsive to that," he said.
In fact, suburban communities are already following Plan Bay Area's principles. Though the Contra Costa County city of Danville has not applied for a PDA, Chief of Planning Kevin Gailey said that the city's new downtown plan would be a strong candidate. He said he did not feel that the plan would be a burden on the city or its residents.
"We're embracing the idea that…the lion's share of job growth and residential development is going to happen within 4-5% of our area" said Gailey. "Whether we're doing the SCS and doing a PDA, I don't think we'd be doing much different on our update."
Whether or not their concerns are well founded, the Tea Party participation, in particular, has made public meetings unusually popular, according to Rentschler. Whether the volume of public participation—and strong gripes from the left and right—has created a better plan is not clear, however.
"We used to have a hard time getting anyone interested in what we were doing. If we had 10 people show up and fed them cookies we thought we were doing good. Now we have packed rooms," said Rentschler. "I'm not sure that's a huge qualitative improvement, but it certainly means that a significantly larger spectrum of society is engaged."
Rentschler also cautioned that the current plan is designed to evolve as it is updated at regular, four-year junctures.
"What we're in here is a continuous planning effort," said Rentschler.
Paul Campos, Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs, BIA of the Bay Area, 925.951.6840
Kevin Gailey, Chief of Planning, City of Danville, 925.314.3305
Jeff Hobson, Deputy Director, TransForm, 510.740.3150x312
Randy Rentschler, Director of Legislation and Public Affairs, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 510.817.5780
Egon Terplan, Regional Planning Director, San Francisco Planning & Urban Research, 415.644.4284