To some, infill development still occupies a quaint niche in the world of city-building. But over the past few years, greenfield development on the urban fringes has gone fallow and a host of economic, social, and regulatory forces have made infill more viable. Attempting to lead that charge is the newly formed California Infill Builders Association, a professional group made up of established and aspiring infill developers who seek mutual support in their effort to bring new development to urban areas. CP&DR Editor Josh Stephens spoke with CIBA President Meea Kang, of Domus Development of Sacramento, and founding board member Geof Syphers, who is chief sustainability officer for Codding Enterprises of Rohnert Part.
What's the purpose and motivation behind the Infill Builders Association?
Meea Kang: The purpose of the Infill Builders Association is promote the business of developing great neighborhoods in California cities and towns. We are focusing efforts to catalyze investments in city centers in urban areas as well as to promote the policies that support sustainable development.
How did it come about? Why now?
MK: SB 375 was a big impetus as far as the state realizing that it was time to look at how we're going to grow sustainably as a state as well as make room for the millions of new people who are moving to California. We thought it was a good opportunity as well to align forces, because we as builders often face similar barriers to building in infill locations. We are looking to engage local governments in terms of education and awareness around infill development.
What are some of the barriers that make infill development more difficult than you think it should be?
MK: The barrier list is quite long. Some of the ones that rise to the top are things like insufficient funding for infrastructure, and the fact that much of the new infrastructure is borne on the development. There's also issues around CEQA and getting local jurisdictions to work with us on exemptions and other avenues to facilitate a more streamlined process. Sometimes the process of getting an infill project through the local planning commission can take years, and it really is not necessary especially if it means we are re-utilizing existing urbanized uses, which might be abandoned or under-utilized.
Geof Syphers: Another one that at least needs to be in the top 10: a lot of the parking standards that are used in urban areas and even in fairly dense small towns were developed for outlying areas where there's no use nearby where parking could be shared. So a lot of the parking standards are much higher than they need to be, and that drives the cost of housing up. We need parking regulations that acknowledge the possibility of using transit and shared parking.
What policy initiatives are you gong to be championing at the state level or the local level?
MK: We are still working on our legislative agenda, and we are having a lot of conversations with a number of folks. We are looking at the possibility of a parking reduction bill. We're having a lot of dialog at this point.
What do you like about SB 375? What do you think the challenges are going to be as people figure out how to implement it?
GS: I think there's a lot of expected answers to that question, but I think one of the things that's not talked about very much is that the local input from our smaller cities and towns is something that is often overlooked as part of ‘regional' or SCS planning. One of the things that we want to support is that the voices of local government in those towns do get heard. We want to make sure that those people have access to good, solid economic data about what decisions will make their economic picture better or worse over time. We're doing some research in that area to find out in our cities and towns what over time – in boom years and in recession – tends to make the economic picture for things like property taxes and sales taxes more stable, more secure, and more predictable.
Who are your members now and whom do you want them to be?
GS: Our members now, whether folks who are recognized as leaders in the area of infill development--and particularly good-quality, greener infill development—and the folks that we want to have as members in the near future are the people who want to learn how to do that or who are just beginning to do that. Some of the bigger developers who want to move into that space because they really haven't been doing that in the past but now that they're seeing that things like AB 32 are helping steer them in that direction. They want to learn how to do it, and they want to learn to make money at it. There's a really solid business in doing this, and there's room for other folks to get into that game.
How much inertia is there among the greenfield developers who have never done infill? How steep is their learning curve, and how willing are they to embrace this building type?
GS: I'm a developer myself, so I can say this: developers are kind of like sheep. If somebody is doing it and they're making money, and they can figure out how they're doing it, they'll follow along. That's not a slight. Sure, there are those of us who have an altruistic bent that we want to slip in. But by and large this is a business decision.
The challenge that some of the greenfield developers have is that they have a long period of time when they were going so fast that there was really no reason from a financial standpoint for them to stop and slow down and look at alternatives to their model. Right now, there's a big incentive to do that. There still is a very good market for infill. A lot of the products in infill are much stronger than in greenfield and outlying locations.
That motivation at least gets them to the table. The next step is, what are the techniques: how do you finance things? How do you assemble property? How do you get the infrastructure built? But the same people who do greenfield development can do infill. It just requires some training and learning.
It seems like the policy has evolved in California. Are the lenders also evolving?
MK: I think that the lenders are coming around. I think what you're going to see now where lenders are nervous are funding large new, sprawl, single-family home developments that are farther and farther away from job centers.
GS: I think this is a hard time to call anything normal in the lending community. Everything is changing. The very ground of what is normal is changing month-by-month. I think to compare today to 3-4 years ago is kind of silly. It's better to compare it to the middle or end of our last recession. If you do that, you'll see that actually the lending community is coming around. There's a far bigger appetite than emerging from the last recession to get involved with infill projects. And yet, infill development is still slower than we'd like it to be.
Is sprawl finally dead in California?
GS: Sprawl in the sense of taking farmland and building ranch homes on it that are far away from anything – that business model is dead. People don't want to live in those houses anymore. The new homebuyers are looking for places where their kids can walk to o school where they can get to work with a short drive or a ride on the train. That can be some of the existing suburban communities that we have, if they're built well and reconstructed well with infill projects. They can certainly be some of our urban areas in our bigger cities. I would say that the 3-acre plot that's six miles to the nearest grocery store is dead. The gas bills, the headaches and stress of being in traffic jams all the time. I think that model is dead.
MK: However, that doesn't mean that everyone is going to leave those homes and move into the city. I think there's still choice.
Any prognostications for the new year and the new administration in Sacramento?
Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before Gov. Brown was sworn in.
MK: We're very excited about governor-elect Jerry Brown. He's shown a history of being bold in Oakland and the encouragement he had for building housing in the downtown. We hope that he can apply some thoughtful thinking on land use in California that will make infill housing the preferred choice of development in California.
GS: We have a partner in the governor's office that is going to look very serious at how to spend California's resources far more efficiently. Our money, our energy, our water, all of those resources.
MK: The co-benefits of doing good infill development go far beyond just the sticks and bricks of the housing itself. The fact that we can preserve California's open space by building on already-utilized land, the fact that we can support existing communities in providing more revenue to promote their growth, infrastructure, schools, all of it. It makes sense for California.
Contacts & Resources:
Geof Syphers, Board Member, CIBA; Chief Sustainability Officer, Codding Enterprises, (707) 795-3550
This interview has been edited and condensed.