The unique geography of the San Francisco Bay ensures that there is only one Bay Area. Uniqueness and unity are not, however, the same thing, and planners are now working to convince the Bay Area's own residents and public officials that there is indeed One Bay Area.
One Bay Area is the brand name under which the region's Sustainable Communities Strategy is being developed. It is a collaboration among the region's two major planning organizations – the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is the region's official Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Association of Bay Area Governments – plus the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The process also includes and from the region's nine counties and 101 cities.
Building on generations of collaboration among these entities, the region's SCS, which is mandated by Senate Bill 375, will be called Plan Bay Area. In March, Plan Bay Area took its first step towards becoming reality with the release of the Initial Vision Scenario by MTC and ABAG. The IVS outlines expected population growth in the region and broadly identifies the locations where new residents and households can be located with the least impact on vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions, pursuant to the goals of SB 375.
"Frankly we are trying to get people to think as one," said Randy Rechtsler, director of legislation and public affairs at the MTC. "We often use the phrase ‘Bay Area' so why don't we get people focused on the place they live?"
"Plan Bay Area is the brand that is being put on the concept of this SCS," said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of the transit advocacy group TransForm. "That's all more of a communications issue than an issue of planning conflicts."
The IVS operates on the assumption that in the next 25 years the Bay Area will add [more than] 2 million people and 902, 000 housing units, for a 33 percent increase. The IVF projects that Plan Bay Area, when completed, will direct 97 percent of that growth to infill areas, leaving only 3 percent of household growth to greenfields. It also concentrates growth in the counties that are already most heavily urbanized. Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties will accommodate roughly two-thirds of that growth.
Rechtsler said that the need for cities to conduct Regional Housing Needs Assessments will compel them to accept their allocated numbers. But that will not be nearly enough to make Plan Bay Area attractive to all the region's cities.
"Since (SB 375) has no enforcement teeth in it and was much more the carrot as opposed to the stick approach, the question is, are there any carrots that are going to be available to create some sort of an incentive," said Jake Mackenzie, vice mayor of Rohnert Park and MTC commissioner.
The plan relies to a great extent on Priority Development Areas (PDAs), to which the majority of new growth will be directed. PDAs will be sprinkled throughout the region's cities and, presumably, entail a range of incentives and supporting policies to facilitate development.
To make PDAs worthwhile, planners say that the region will have to abandon its current formula of allocating infrastructure funds and instead start awarding them according to merit. In essence, cities that are willing to openly embrace their PDAs and attract development to them would receive a more generous share of public funds, leaving reluctant cities to fend for themselves.
"It's clear that there are some cities that really are stepping up…those are the places that are going to need to get the lion's share of our dollars," said Stephanie Reyes policy director at the Greenbelt Alliance.
The implementation of PDAs is just one issue that is likely to dominate regionwide discussions, which begin in earnest in May with a series of public workshops.
Portraying the region's growth in such broad strokes, the IVF appears straightforward enough. It is, however, intended largely as a conversation piece around which countless discussions will revolve in the coming months and years. That's where Plan Bay Area and One Bay Area become public relations campaigns as much as they are planning documents. The challenge of getting literally millions of stakeholders on board is one that will face all four of the state's major urban regions as they all develop their own Sustainable Communities Strategies.
"But when it comes back to the county and to the local level, I still don't think that we've properly captured the attention of our colleagues, and we certainly haven't captured the public's attention," said Mackenzie.
Bay Area planners say that the buy-in necessary for the plan's success might come more easily in the Bay Area than it will in the state's other three, less geographically distinctive regions. As diverse as the nine counties are – from vineyard-laced Napa to the city-county of San Francisco – the planners behind Plan Bay Area are hoping to capitalize on the nine counties' physical and psychological connections to the bay.
"The Bay Area also rallied around other things too, building of bridges and building of BART," said Rentschler. "All this groundwork has been laid for us and asking people in the Bay Area to live in a more dense setting is actually asking someone to take advantage of these great assets that we already have here."
This mentality, planners say, has produced a rich tradition of regional planning that might not link, for instance, Redlands to Santa Monica or Oceanside to Poway in quite the same way.
"I think we have a chance better than others because we have the Bay to rally around," said Rentschler. "That's a great asset to have."
If Bay Area stakeholders are to disagree, a host of opportunities for dissention await.
Though SB 375 seeks the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, many insist that it should also lead to – or at least not impede – economic growth. Scott Zengel, vice president at the business group Bay Area Council, said that, as currently articulated, the IVS fails to draw a necessary connection between population growth, housing locations, and jobs.
"Generally what we see as missing from the process—and this goes from performance targets to the Initial Vision Scenario—is in-depth economics and jobs indicators and analysis and scenario-running," said Zengel [spelling?]. "Jobs are an input for the model. From our perspective, it's a bit backwards from how it's supposed to be."
Planners argue, however, that job-creation simply is not a part of the planning process. In fact, they say that the plan will naturally improve the region's economic fortunes and that any attempt to guide job growth would be far-fetched at best and inappropriate at worst.
"We're not doing an activist (population) projection," said Rentschler. "On the other hand, we're doing an activist projection on where we want people to reside. That is true."
Some cities, especially small ones, may not take kindly to an effort that implicitly links them with the region's major centers, no matter how light a city's burden may be.
"Some small cities that have a RHNA number that's less than double-digits will somehow hit the roof that this is just unfair," said Rentschler. "For some folks that just want to be left alone, I don't think they're going to be so enamored of this process."
Others worry that places appropriate for residential growth today may not be appropriate in 25 years. In fact, by then some places might not even be places anymore. That's because the inexorable emergence of climate change and especially sea-level rise could make some low-lying parts of the Bay Area uninhabitable. In fact, a great deal of the developed land ringing the bay is landfill, built up scarcely higher than the current sea level.
Plan Bay Area must, they say, account for adaptation as well as mitigation.
"We're going to have to deal with the impacts of the emissions that are already in the atmosphere," said Will Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. "We need to be doing two things at once: Trying to avoid the unmanageable by reducing greenhouse gases and manage the unavoidable by adapting to the impacts of climate change."
Travis said that some of the area's most prominent areas are threatened, including downtown San Francisco. Meanwhile, Reyes of the Greenbelt Alliance said that she was concerned about the 3% of household growth that is projected for greenfields and not infill locations.
The crucial piece that the IVF intentionally does not yet account for is the transportation connections that will, planners hope, enable new and existing residents to get around and among these new population nodes without despoiling the atmosphere as much as residents currently do.
"We hope the final plan will do more to affect land use patterns, and we just haven't started to change the transportation investment and policies," said Hobson. "We have to know what those distributions are like so that we plan for the transportation scenarios to match up with those."
Contacts & Resources
One Bay Area www.onebayarea.org
Jeff Hobson, Deputy Director, TransForm, (510) 740.3150
Jake Mackenzie, Vice Mayor, City of Rohnert Park, (707) 588-2226
Stephanie Reyes, Policy Director, Greenbelt Alliance, (415) 543-6771
Randy Rentschler, Director of Legislation and Public Affairs, Metropolitan Transportation Commission/
Bay Area Toll Authority, (510) 817-5700
Will Travis, Executive Director, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, (415) 352-3600
Scott Zengel, Vice President, Bay Area Family of Funds, Bay Area Council, (415) 946-8716