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Top California Planning Stories of the 2010s

Josh Stephens on
Jan 3, 2020

It’s a truism that cities take a long time to develop. In some cases, they take entire span of human civilization. And still, some cities changed more profoundly in the 2010s than any others in history. Lagos gained nearly as many people as live in Los Angeles total. Dubai almost collapsed but then came charging back. Oklahoma City got an NBA team. Brooklyn became a meme. Aleppo vanished.

California hardly changed. That’s ironic. And it’s a problem. 

It’s ironic because California, at least for now, can credibly claim to be the most advanced jurisdiction in the history of the world. Jerry Brown liked to call us “aspirational.” Donald Trump likes to call us a “disaster,” which means we must be doing something right. 

In the past ten years, the market cap of a certain computer concern based in Cupertino went from $200 billion (with a B) to $1.2 trillion (with a T). Menlo Park’s top performer did almost as well, and it changed global culture to boot. A search engine firm with a funny name went from humongous to ginormous and runs the world from its Mountain View headquarters. Not to be outdone, a mail-order DVD company now occupies its own building off Hollywood Boulevard and has overtaken the great movie studios, rendering them little more than landlords. 

Ten years ago, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Snap, and Salesforce barely existed. And neither did the housing crisis. 

In short, California of the 2010s played host to the most potent combination of innovation and finance the world has ever known. We figured out how to build just about anything as long as it was made of gigabytes and lived in the cloud. We built some infrastructure too, like light rail and airport terminals. Building housing, though, was another story. Yes, Los Angeles built some new high rise apartment buildings (and exactly one commercial high rise) and Sacramento’s Midtown came alive with mid-rise apartments. Still, the deficit stands at an oft-cited 3.5 million units. Californians are paying more, squeezing more tightly, and, in some cases, moving out entirely. In the greenest state in the country, urbanized areas just keep expanding, as 21st century California keeps chasing the 1950s suburban dream. 

The revival of downtowns that swept the nation included California too, fueled by changing demographic trends, new appreciation for urban life, and new distaste for sprawl and driving. That, along with the development of light rail, may be the one bright spot. Many downtown neighborhoods are livelier than ever. Even so, this is a trend that has been in the offing for well more than 10 years and that has moved achingly slowly. You can nearly build a whole city in China in the time it takes to get an alcohol license in California.

Certain residential neighborhoods have transformed profoundly, under the cloud of “gentrification.” They’ve transformed demographically but, in most cases, not physically. And when a finite amount of real estate meets with increased demand, you know what happens...

Granted, it was a weird decade. The world had ground to a halt in 2010. Jerry Brown was nearly going to rent out San Diego on Airbnb and sell Stockton for spare parts. Those schemes didn’t come to pass, but the dissolution of redevelopment did. 

Ten years later, California maintains its precarious economic and cultural dominance. And it has adopted big plans. Policies that might house more people and make cities more livable are on the books. But, as every planner knows, adoption often waits a great while for implementation to arrive. Maybe California will need another decade to solve its crises. Maybe more. 

The point is, even amid one of the greatest outpourings of creativity since the invention of the city itself, California of 2020 doesn’t look that much different from California of 2010. The state’s flat population growth, announced just last week, is both a symbol and a result of our statis. But, many of the changes in the 2010s may yet lead to radically new urban landscapes in this new decade.

As California ponders life in the 2020s, here are CP&DR’s top stories and top non-stories — on issues that took us forward, backwards, and sideways — of the 2010s. 

The Housing Crisis

Obviously. 

For all that is right with California, housing is one thing that we have gotten woefully, massively, tragically wrong. California cities were caught unawares as the malaise of the Great Recession gave way to the exuberance of the tech boom. Housing needed by 2012 should have been started in 2008. Instead, no one was building anything. When creeping rents and outrageous sale prices reached the ears of city council members by the middle of the decade, they were often drowned out by opponents of growth, who could not fathom how California’s built-out cities, especially those on the coast, could accommodate more people. Only when the crisis reached the attention of the middle class — parents fearing for their children's future, everyday compassionate people counting more homeless on the streets — did legislators begin to act. Right now, the unofficial deficit stands at 3.5 million units. Ideas for how to develop abound

So far, we’ve had a few big years — 2016, 2017, 2018 — of pro-housing legislation, including everything from streamlining to funding, to accessory dwelling units, and more. Many of these policies have stirred tensions between the state and localities, the latter of which routinely raise concerns about local control. Perhaps no state policy has done more to put cities on edge than the historically weak Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, which has been strengthened by recent legislation, laying out newly enforceable targets for all cities in a given region. Gov. Gavin Newsom has put his political capital behind lawsuits and some aggressive laws in the 2019 session, and other state officials have followed suit. The state is also giving localities more money and more technical assistance. It has loosened up rules on accessory dwelling units and other forms of mild density in single-family zones.

Beyond the human tragedies of Californians who are homeless or under-housed are macroeconomic consequences by which the state as a whole has been impoverished. Every dollar that goes to excessive rents and crushing mortgage payments is a dollar that cannot go to local businesses (which have suffered mightily), new hires, and other investments in the California dream. The economic boom that created the housing crisis is, ironically, also hindered by the crisis. The question for the 2020s is, will it get worse before it gets better? 

Death of Redevelopment 

Purely as a matter of policy, the death of California’s redevelopment system would qualify as a top story in its own right. With the state reeling from budget cuts in the late 2000s, Gov. Jerry Brown requisitioned monies from what was, by some accounts, a possibly effective but loosely regulated program to support local development in “blighted” areas. It’s been a long time since anyone used the world “blight” in California. The drama that unfolded was about as exciting as urban planning gets, with California-sized doses of conflict, hubris, legislation, legal battles, and, ultimately, exhaustion. 

Cities, led by the California Redevelopment Association, overplayed their hand with a disastrous lawsuit that attempted to prevent the raid of funds but instead cleared the way for the state to eliminate redevelopment agencies entirely. For months on end, CP&DR covered announcements, arguments, and court decisions. After the state Supreme Court signed redevelopment’s death sentence on Dec. 29, 2011, we covered the incredibly intricate wind-down process and analyzed its impacts on a range of statewide planning goals, including the development of Sustainable Communities Strategies and funding of affordable housing. The popularity of redevelopment led to occasional speculation about its revival, in one form or another. Thus far, that remains a story for the 2020s. 

Sustainability & Density

A few decades from now, the current era may be seen as a turning point not just in the history of urban California but in the history of all urbanism. Since the first Anatolians folded up their tents and created the buildings, streets, and public spaces that we now know as cities, every successive generation of city has strived to grow outward. That growth was exponential — and inexorable — over the past 150 years as successive improvements in transportation technology led to mass mobility. In 2008, California initiated what is arguably the most deliberate, significant attempt to break with that 9,000-year-old pattern. In the 2010s, California cities looked inward: to grow more dense, to emphasize old-fashioned transportation methods, cut down on energy use, and combat climate change. 

From a policy perspective, the 2010s was the Decade of Senate Bill 375 (to the chagrin of the Tea Party — remember them?). The Air Resources Board set its first greenhouse gas emissions targets. The MPOs drafted and adopted their SCSs throughout 2011 and 2012 (Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Bay Area) and have since updated. Complementary legislation like SB 743 came along in 2013 to align the state’s approach to analyzing urban transportation, and cities have begun to implement vehicle miles traveled metrics accordingly. And, since housing and transportation aren’t separate things, cities and regions have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in intra-regional public transit lines, around which future development will likely cluster (streetcars aren’t so hot, though). We don’t yet know what the world of SB 375 will look like or what they will accomplish — that will take decades more — but California laid the regulatory groundwork, if not the literal groundwork, in the 2010s. Meanwhile, cities are also preparing for the ill effects of climate change and other shocks with resiliency plans.

The Bay, The Beach, The Valley

It’s a cliché and a parlor game to count the differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles and the Bay Area and the greater Los Angeles area, so we won’t dwell on them too much. What they share in common, of course, are their own acute versions of the housing crisis. Just as the regions’ economies have diverged, so have their housing crises. In the Bay Area, the tech economy attracted residents by the thousands. They created a scarcity of housing and bid up real estate prices, thanks to handsome compensation packages for entry-level programmers and exiting founders alike. Tech companies do not deserve all the blame for the housing shortage, but they do deserve blame for ignoring it for way too long. Only recently have they begun to invest in housing and acknowledge that good urbanism may be good business — Exhibit A being Google’s plans for a massive urban campus in San Jose. Meanwhile, stakeholders around the Bay have called for rent control to protect incumbent residents from the pressures of displacement. A few cities, like Oakland and El Cerrito, have gingerly welcomed new residents while the Peninsula cities cling to their image as bedroom communities, though not without controversial new development like Vallco and CityPlace

Michael Storper’s The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies includes some provocative, and not always convincing claims for the relative weakness of Los Angeles’s economy, but his point is well taken: the two regions operate very differently. As far as the housing crisis goes, Los Angeles hasn’t been flooded with new wealth the way the Bay Area has. Instead, it has a vastly higher percent of low-income residents, for whom the region’s (slightly) lower housing prices are daunting. The plight of low-income residents, who are overwhelmingly of color, is exacerbated by the region’s imbalance between jobs and housing and its imperfect transit system. The city’s effort to increase the minimum wage is a pittance compared to what residents are throwing away on housing. Southern California is also where coastal cities, like Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, have dug in against housing development, claiming that, despite their abundance of jobs and obvious appeal, more housing will ruin their pleasant beachside characters. Not to be left behind, Los Angeles grappled with its own tech-related headaches.  

Any talk of the state’s two largest metro areas necessarily warrant a mention of its less glamorous regions, especially the Central Valley. Fresno, Stockton, and, Bakersfield and the smaller valley cities have continued to struggle. Some bright spots include the growth of UC Merced and ambitious plans in Fresno to redo its downtown. Stockton has come out of bankruptcy with a new spirit, and relatively lower housing costs have rendered the Valley more attractive for some Californians – at least those who aren’t moving to Nevada or Texas.

YIMBYs vs. NIMBYs vs. Radical Left

The politics of land use got really interesting in the 2010s. California doesn’t have a ton of political diversity as far as national issues go. Contemporary California is as progressive as can be. But when you pack enough liberals into a small enough area, you don’t always get Woodstock. The Great Recession caused homeowners no small amount of anxiety as the value of their once-stable investments plunged. As good times returned, NIMBYism arose with a vengeance to prohibit neighborhood change and maintain scarcity in order to prop up the value of existing homes. They often discourage infill development and, indirectly, encourage sprawl. NIMBYism arguably reached its peak with Los Angeles’s failed slow-growth ballot initiative, Measure S

For the first time in recent memory, younger residents of cities around the state are banding together to lobby for housing and provide a counterweight to the politically powerful homeowners (and homeowners associations) that have long dominated local politics. Enter the YIMBYs. Originating in the Bay Area, YIMBY groups started out testifying at city council meetings to support projects but quickly branched out into lobbying for statewide bills, including SB 827/50 (see below). Some YIMBY groups have gone so far as to “sue the suburbs” for not permitting enough housing, and others have become legitimate lobbying forces in Sacramento. 

Not to be outdone, a faction of far-left, pro-social justice, anticapitalist activists are one-upping both NIMBYs and YIMBYs, demanding rent control, demonizing for-profit development, protesting against eviction, rejecting calls to increase the housing supply, and equating both real estate development and economic development with gentrification, the influx of the “creative class,” and even imperialism. This brand of activism rightfully wants to undo historical patterns of segregation and marginalization (as do many YIMBYs). They have taken to protecting incumbent tenants with little regard for would-be renters who are looking for housing. If social justice prohibits development in low-income areas, then new development will just have to take place in high-income areas. The upshot is that Californians are confused to the point of paralysis. These are the political rivalries that planners and other local officials now face.

TOP NON-STORIES 

Gentrification

Gentrification isn’t a non-story in that it’s not happening or isn’t important. It is happening, and it’s very important. It’s a non-story in that everyone is confused by it and, as a result, no one is solving the problem. There was a time when gentrification would have been considered a good thing: a formerly depressed neighborhood gets some development and investment, and the neighborhood becomes nicer and more prosperous for all residents. Instead, in a few pockets of California — pockets that may be fewer in number than the headlines would suggest — the housing crisis has pushed well-off new residents in, and it has pushed low-income residents, often from marginalized demographic groups, out. 

This process has occurred in formerly low-income neighborhoods like Los Angeles’s Echo Park and Oakland’s downtown and in formerly middle-class neighborhoods like Venice Beach and, well, almost all of San Francisco. Interestingly, some of these neighborhoods have seen very little new development. Places that have experienced new development, like the South Park area of downtown Los Angeles have also, technically, gentrified. But they haven’t really displaced people because there were few people there in the first place. Gentrification has caught the imagination of all sorts of activists, ranging from sincere defenders of incumbent, at-risk populations to anti-capitalists who see gentrification as a violent expression of capitalism — even if the “capitalist” is a young couple who just want space to raise a family. Is gentrification good because it means investment and higher quality of life, or is it bad because it raises property values untenably? And does it raise property values or is it caused by high property values elsewhere? 

Many planners — and, indeed, planning itself — were not cut out for answering these questions. The emotions that surround gentrification overwhelm mild-mannered questions like parking minimums and floor-to-area ratios. And, unfortunately, they are politically perilous, so very few elected officials have weighed in to give planners the guidance and support they need. This all but ensures that gentrification will continue. Whatever it is. 

SB 827, SB 50, & Top-Down TOD Planning

For about 20 years, the poster child for transit-oriented development has been the Del Mar Station Transit Village, designed by New Urbanist architect Stefanos Polyzoides, in Pasadena. Hugging and literally overhanging the tracks, it was supposed to be the model for dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of similar developments around the state. And still we wait. 

As long ago as 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 226 to streamline infill development, and other laws have followed. But they haven’t done much. In 2018, State Sen. Scott Wiener, elected relatively recently from his position as a San Francisco supervisor, introduced the bill that promised to turn every transit stop into Del Mar Station. It’s safe to say that, in its short life, it generated more buzz among planners than any other bill in recent memory. For progressive planners, SB 827 promised to be the culmination of all the smart growth policies that they’d been pushing. For state officials, it was that law that could help make SCSs a reality. For demographers and environmentalists, it promised to put residents in the right places. For homeowners and city officials, it was a virus designed to destroy neighborhoods and hasten gentrification. SB 827 got almost everyone riled up and shouting at each other, with precious little discussion of the logic behind transit-oriented development. Wiener amended SB 827 to make it softer, but it ultimately died in committee. Or did it

SB 827’s successor, SB 50, was in many ways even more aggressive. And what a difference a year made: it got all the way through the Appropriations Committee — and had plenty of support from committee members — before it was unilaterally shelved by Chair Anthony Portantino. Wiener will reportedly have another go at it this year. If it passes, SB 50 will surely be one of the biggest stories of the 2020s. If it doesn’t, we’ll always have Pasadena. 

High Speed Rail

This one probably needs no explanation: high speed rail remains, as ever, the most exciting infrastructure project that may never get built. The project has proceeded as slowly as could be imagined, hampered by everything from local lawsuits to the natural complexities of major infrastructure projects. An alignment between Palmdale and Los Angeles hasn’t even been agreed upon yet. This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom defiantly promised to complete the segment from Bakersfield to Merced. He implied that, short of knitting the state together, it would stimulate the Central Valley and invigorate its cities, giving them a new urban identity. While there’s skepticism in the Bay Area, many Valley cities — particularly Fresno — are already planning their station areas and hoping that the plans can work even if the train never arrives. Then again, it’ll arrive long before Hyperloop does. 

The Death of Sprawl 

For haters of sprawl, California has been a tease over the past ten years. We began the decade with two landmark pieces of legislation firmly inked: Assembly Bill 32 and SB 375 (see above), which seemed to herald the death of sprawl. Of course, sprawl is a controversial notion in and of itself, and hard to measure. Pedants like to point out that much of California is pretty dense. But, of course, sprawl depends on far more than just density. And there are no simple fixes to it. While those regulations have led to a sea change for planners and plans, their impacts on the built environment remain a long way off. Meanwhile, once developers shook off the recession, they went right back to many of their old habits, meaning bulldozing greenfields in order to build tract housing. 

Some of the biggest developments the state has ever seen are roaring ahead, and, by definition, they’re being built ever farther away from urban centers — Exhibit A being Newhall Ranch, north of Los Angeles, and Exhibit B being Tejon Ranch, which is so far out that it makes Newhall Ranch look like infill. Interestingly, much of the cheerleading about smart growth and New Urbanism has died down, in large part because those ethics have prevailed (replaced, arguably, by YIMBYism and fierce calls for social justice). Many of the old apologists for sprawl, such as Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, who are usually half-right at best and bonkers at worst, continue to bolster the NIMBY movement, often with some pretty twisted logic. 

CEQA Reform and Prop. 13 Reform

The way things are going, at least one of the polar ice caps will literally melt before major CEQA reform passes. Almost every planner in the state knows that the California Environmental Quality Act, for all the good it’s done, is as much a product of its time as were disco and earth tones. Back when sprawl was the default form of urban development, CEQA had the power to halt a project that threatened to, say, trample over natural habitat on the urban fringe. (It didn’t do that very well, but it could have.)

Now that people actually want to live in cities, CEQA has often become a tool of obstructionism, holding up infill housing developments on grounds that have nothing to do with — or are even antithetical to — ecological concerns. It’s not the worst thing ever to happen to California, as some claim, but it’s sometimes pretty bad. In the absence of legislative amendments, few, if any, laws in history have been molded by the courts as much as CEQA has, with hundreds of precedent-setting cases over the years. With this, every year there’s a whimper or two about CEQA reform. Sometimes, laws pass for streamlining here or an exception for a special project there. But, for all the predictions and recommendations made by this publication and many others, CEQA still prevails. It still evolves one excruciating court case at a time, and it still frustrates many of the progressive policies that cities are trying to embrace. 

While we’re talking about archaic laws badly in need of tune-ups, let’s not forget about Proposition 13. Prop. 13 has always vexed non-homeowners and pretty much everyone younger than age 60, especially for its devastating impact on school funding. Social justice activists have always known it not just as a protectionist policy for homeowners but also as yet another manifestation of segregation and discrimination against minorities. With the rise in real estate values in the 2010s, the disparities — we dare not call them injustices — between many (wealthy) residents’ real estate taxes and the true value of their homes has increased literally exponentially. Calls for reform of Prop. 13 abound. The idea of a “split-roll” to liberate commercial properties may have traction (and could make the 2020 statewide ballot), but everything else has been a non-starter. And why not? Homeowners are voters. Now, as ever, California’s fiscal system remains rooted not in 2020 but rather in 1978. 

Homelessness 

Homelessness is hardly a non-story, especially if you’re one of the 130,000 people in California sleeping under cardboard this December. Homelessness is not so much a story as it is a moral crisis and a national shame. It presents a particular challenge, though, for planners and for CP&DR

Admittedly, CP&DR under-covered homelessness in the 2010s, mentioning it in housing-related stories but failing to dedicate entire articles to it. Homelessness has arisen in part from the housing crisis, which is, of course, a planning issue. If we don’t plan for enough roofs, people end up on the streets. It’s simple math. And yet, it’s not a planning issue because the planners and planning have no power to help people once they are on the streets. In many cases, attempts to build even a paltry amount of supportive housing and other services have met with intense, and often hypocritical stakeholder outcry. Moreover, the story of homelessness has followed, so far, a dispiriting narrative arc: it has only gotten worse. And much of the story does not need to be told by journalists: it’s plain to see for all but the most cloistered Californians. We must all pray that the 2020s are a more humane decade.