In Year Three of the Great Recession, it's comforting to think that California has heard all the bad news it's going to hear. Or at least we're so accustomed to bad news, that we've stopped getting depressed by it. As a result, many of this year's top stories come with silver linings.
The no-growth vs. slow-growth vs. build-everything debate has become a faint murmur, since not much of anything is getting built anyway. What is getting built, though, is generally pleasing to the smart growth crowd.
Fans of infrastructure development have surely cheered the progress on projects like High Speed Rail and Los Angeles Metro's 30/10 Initiative. Then again, skeptics may be assuring themselves that these projects will never get built.
The impacts of SB 375 are a long way off, but the Air Resources Board managed to set targets that many consider to be attainable and reasonable. The movement to mitigate climate change survived a scare from Prop. 23, which would have curtailed SB 375's sister legislation, AB 32: The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.
Redevelopment took perhaps the biggest hit this year, with a court ruling in favor of a $2.05 billion funding transfer and some scathing reports and news stories about inefficiency and alleged misuse of affordable housing funds. Then again, voters approved Prop. 22, thus protecting local funds and affirming their distaste for Sacramento's use of local governments as piggy banks.
With that, here are the California Planning & Development Report's Ten Most Important Land Use Stories of 2010:
High Speed Rail
It's been slow-going for High Speed Rail. While nary an inch of track has yet to be laid, high speed rail has spread its tentacles across the state, into places that are dying to welcome it (Fresno, Bakersfield, the rest of the Central Valley) to places that would prefer that travel be replaced by iPhone video conference (Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto). Where it will go, what it will cost, and how to pay for it -- even with billions in federal stimulus funds -- have dominated conversations in both land use and transportation planning circles. Locally, cities have begun to plan for downtown stations that would serve as catalysts for development. But for all that $40 billion worth of talk, some say we're going to end up going from nowhere to nowhere http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2826 -- fast.
Redevelopment Funding Raid/Proposition 22
According to many in the redevelopment community, the Legislature signed the death warrant for many redevelopment agencies in 2009, and this year a judge refused to grant a stay of execution. In May, Judge Lloyd Connelly ruled that ABX 4-26, the budget trailer bill that authorized the transfer, was in fact legal and that the Legislature could order the transfer of $2.05 billion from local redevelopment agencies to the state. Most agencies delivered the payment by the May 10 due date. Many of them had to summarily halt all activities requiring public funds that were not already budgeted with the funding take in mind. The California Redevelopment Association battled back by successfully prompting Prop. 22, and it has taken its suit to stop the take to the Third District Court of Appeals. Until that court rules, many agencies feel like they are on Death Row.
Los Angeles County 30/10 Transportation Funding Initiative
So little development is going on in California's cities these days that you can probably rent a crane and cement mixer for about the price of a ham sandwich. That's one of the many reasons why folks in Los Angeles County are excited about the so-called "30/10" plan that's been promoted by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. 30/10 seeks to complete 30 years' worth of transportation projects in just a decade, financed by an up-front $40 billion loan from the federal government using the county's Measure R sales tax to repay the loan over time. The plan would initiate miles of subway, light rail, and freeway construction all at once, with the intent of giving county residents easier ways to move around and promoting transit-oriented development along high-traffic corridors. Many say that it might even turn Los Angeles into a more "urban" city http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2752. Embattled Mayor Villaraigosa also hopes that it will resurrect a legacy that is otherwise full of charm, enthusiasm, and unfulfilled promises.
Will it kill cities' ability to raise funds through fees, or won't it? That debate will continue as local officials and lawyers sort out all the implications of Prop. 26, but the voters' intent seems clear: now, as ever, they are skeptical of any kind of new tax. It's likely, however, that a slew of exemptions http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2827 will lessen Prop. 26's impact on land use.
Slow Housing Development
The crater in residential development isn't so much a story as it is a way of life at this point. Nevertheless, anyone who was expecting a boom has been disappointed. Construction remains anemic, and developers http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2823 remain anxious. At least, the ones who are still developers are scared. Many have left the business entirely. Infill development, however, may be a saving grace for those developers who already have a toehold in center cities or who are nimble enough to change their business model. Beyond the developers' plight, many are concerned that in some areas -- notably the Central Valley and Inland Empire -- anemic development means that SB 375 and local plans oriented towards smart growth will never make it off the drawing board.
SB 375 Targets
Two years ago, the passage of SB 375 was CP&DR's top story of 2008 http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2221. It marked a fundamental shift in the way that the state approached regional planning and promised to offer profound co-benefits relating to both greenhouse gas emissions and livability. But it takes a while to turn principle into policy. This September the California Air Resources Board finally announced its regional greenhouse gas targets http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2797, thus initiating the actual implementation of SB 375. Some environmentalists felt that the targets -- 7% in San Diego, Sacramento, and the Bay Area, and 8% in the five-county Los Angeles area -- did too little, and noted that a per capita reduction in greenhouse gas emissions still could lead to an overall increase in emissions http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2715. Others feared that SB 375 would stifle developers or require Soviet-style urban relocation programs. The overwhelming consensus, however, was that the targets came from an unusually rigorous vetting process, marking a new day for regional planning in the state, if not the country.
Governor-Elect Jerry Brown
When former Governor Jerry Brown first came to office, in the midst of a punishing recession, Californians were enveloped in a new environmental ethos and concerned about everything from gas-guzzling cars to emerging solar power technologies. They lived in cities that were imperfect but vibrant places and the suburbs were still developing their identities. He acquired a funny nickname. When Governor-elect Jerry Brown comes to office, in the mist of a punishing recession, Californians will be enveloped in a new environmental ethos and concerned about everything from gas-guzzling cars to emerging solar power technologies. They live in cities that are imperfect but vibrant places and the suburbs that are still developing their identities. He succeeds a governor with a funny nickname. One major difference that may give planners pause is that for all the things that have stayed the same, Brown now arrives with local government experience. Credited by many with stoking a modest revival in Oakland, Californians have reason to believe that the new old governor http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2802 will pay more attention to cities than ever before.
Gail Goldberg Steps Down in L.A.
The departure of a single city's planning director doesn't usually have statewide implications, except when it reflects the zeitgeist of an entire profession. Gail Goldberg stepped down http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2713 from the top post at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning in July, thus ending a four-year run that began with nearly infinite promise. One of several star female hires by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Goldberg arrived in L.A. with a promise to "do real planning." She saw promise in the city's neighborhoods and never once succumbed to the clichï¿½ that L.A. is an unplannable mess. The real mess, she found, was in the department itself, which was rife with inefficiency and a bland spirit. Goldberg was succeeded by department insider Michael LoGrande http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2739, who has promised to make the department more user-friendly, according to a business-inspired model. Meanwhile, Goldberg's energy, optimism, and visions for a "city of villages" appear to have been put on the shelf.
Walkscore and Web-Based Planning
The capacities of websites have advanced so quickly that terminology like "Web 2.0" (or is it 3.0?) or "mashup" now seem hopelessly quaint. Even urban planners should simply expect that the next great advance will happen any day now. In fact, it just did. While the popularity of the Walkscore city-rating website -- a mashup of urban data with a metric for assessing pedestrian-friendliness -- is not a story per se, planners cannot ignore its influence. Case in point: Publisher Bill Fulton's blog about Walkscore was the single most-read story http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2592 on CP&DR all year. Walkscore uses both sophisticated data and appealing graphics to put into layman's terms many things that planners have struggled to articulate. And in case you thought Walkscore was cool back in February, check out the new neighborhood-level ratings http://www.planetizen.com/articles/node-47154 that came out last month.
Planning Department Budget Cuts
On the plus side, there's not much development for planning departments http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2662 to worry about. On the negative side, revenues are down, from both fees and general funds, and planning departments have had to let go of enormous fractions of their workforces, through everything from early retirement to outright layoffs. Some departments see this lull as a good chance to work on long-term plans, while others find little solace in reductions of up to 40 percent of their planning capacity.