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Top California Planning Stories of 2011

Josh Stephens on
Dec 27, 2011

CP&DR usually publishes a top-10 list of the biggest planning stories of the year, but the process enumerating the stories this year took a strange turn this year. Until they repeal Proposition 13 or Nevada launches an invasion, the convoluted quest to kill the state's nearly 400 redevelopment agencies and/or send their tax increment back to Sacramento is a mega-story for the ages and by far the biggest story of the year.

CP&DR has published a news story, feature, or piece of commentary in nearly every biweekly of the past year, since the governor released his budget in mid-January. While redevelopment and its nuances could have occupied an entire top-10 list, we decided to include eight other, unrelated stories on the list. 

Many of this year's other top stories refer to long-term trends, including the future of high speed rail and the implementation of Sustainable Communities Strategies in fulfillment of Senate Bill 375. Then again, if you're impatient, you can pull a permit for a parklet and have a new urban space up and running in no time. 

Death and Life (?) of Redevelopment

The first chapter in this year's redevelopment saga is that of the governor's original budget and the confusion, lobbying, and negotiation that followed. The second was the legislative battle, which ended in the passage of AB 1x 26 and AB 1x 27, the paired bills that disband redevelopment agencies while offering them the option to stay in business if they agree to pay remittance payments. The third, which is still ongoing, is that of the lawsuit filed by the California Redevelopment Association and League of California Cities in order to repeal the two budget bills. Meanwhile, this situation has led to robust discussions about how redevelopment could be reformed and reborn. The state Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and is currently deliberating on a fate that could include everything from reinstatement of the status quo to outright elimination of all redevelopment in the state. 

SB 375 Implementation

After years of anticipation, the state's �big four' metropolitan planning organizations have begun to roll out their Sustainable Communities Strategies, the centerpiece of Senate Bill 375's effort to link land use planning with transportation planning. So far, the San Diego Association of Governments and the Southern California Council of Governments have released their draft regional transportation plans and sustainable communities strategies. SANDAG's plan http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-2955 has already drawn fire for focusing too heavily on highways and passenger cars. Environmental groups recently filed suit against the agency, under the contention that the plan runs afoul of CEQA. Meanwhile, SCAG's brand-new draft has received an enthusiastic response. Once these plans are adopted, they will guide development in their respective regions for over 20 years. That is, of course, if recession ever ends and development picks up again. 

Jerry Brown

Planners had high hopes for the governorship of Jerry Brown, who recently came off a stint as the mayor of Oakland and therefore, it was assumed, would bring an urban sensibility to the job. His choice of a downtown loft in Sacramento burnished his urban cred, and many consider him to be a friend of planning and of cities. While the governor's Office of Planning and Research had languished over the past few years, and faced legislative attempts to kill it, Brown re-energized it with the appointment of attorney Ken Alex to head the office and with the occasional cameo appearance at Strategic Growth Council meetings. Nevertheless, Brown will be forever remembered as the governor who came into office with a $20 billion budget shortfall and for coming up with what some consider a nearly heretical scheme to do away with redevelopment in order to help balance the state budget. 

High-Speed Rail

A few weeks ago the estimated price tag for California's planned high-speed rail network went from roughly $40 billion to nearly $100 billion. Though its supporters press onward, this revision may mean that the system's odds of ever getting built has become ever more slim. The demise of high speed rail might delight certain jurisdictions -- such as those on the San Francisco Peninsula that have sued over perceived negative local impacts -- and would devastate others, such as those that are planning major multimodal stations and transit-oriented development. For the time being, planning in places like San Jose, Fresno, and Palmdale continues apace, but until the first spikes are laid, its unclear whether those cities' train will ever come in. 

Tea Party

We know about NIMBY's and LULU's, but they probably didn't teach you about the Tea Party in planning school. This year the Tea Party have not only raised a fuss about the whole concept of regional planning -- by speaking out against the Sustainable Communities Strategy in the Bay Area, among other places -- but have even gone so far as to reject the use of federal funds for a transit center in Lodi. Many Tea Party activists simply do not trust government to do anything right and therefore are wary of any new land use plans. Others, however, oppose smart growth in part on the grounds that it's part of a United Nations conspiracy. Whether the UN really is out to control the world one city at a time or whether the Tea Party proves to be a short-lived political fad, they have made the year far more interesting for planners in California. 

Institutionalization of Infill 

Infill development has been a trend for a while now, but not a lot of developers know how to do it -- or can afford to do it in this economic climate. The mid-2000s saw major developers set up "urban" units, many of which failed. This year, though, infill has gone from a concept to an organized movement, led in part by the newly established California Infill Builders Association. The IBA wasted no time in trying to sway lawmakers in Sacramento, with the introduction of AB 710. Though that measure failed -- setting up a potential rivalry between for-profit infill builders and nonprofit affordable housing developers -- it's likely that we'll see more from them in the coming year to promote what might become the signature development pattern of the next generation. 

CEQA Reform

Has a crack formed in the armor of the California Environmental Quality Act? While many planners and developers are clamoring for wholesale reform of CEQA based on claims that it unnecessarily slows development and makes projects vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits, radical reform may still be a ways off. However, with the advent of Senate Bill 375, which offers modest CEQA exemptions for certain infill projects and, more importantly, the passage of SB 226, which offers modest streamlining for certain projects in urban areas. 

Census Results

In 2011 we learned that California is getting bigger, but it's also getting slower. Preliminary number-crunching of the 2010 U.S. Census reveals that the state's rate of growth has declined to its lowest rate since annexation from Mexico. Many of those 37.2 million Californians who are already here are pushing into retirement age, and demographers predict that this shift will have deep, long-term implications for development. Elderly residents may return to urban cores, while there may not be a large enough influx of new residents to occupy the already built housing stock in the outer suburbs. 

Parklets & Streetcars

Anyone who needs some nice news going into 2012 need look no further than parklets. Parklets likely will not save California's cities, but they do represent what advocates describe as an inexpensive, low-impact way to create public space atop conventional curbside parking spaces. As major interventions rely on huge expenditures of public capital, parklets hew towards the do-it-yourself movement. They have caught on in San Francisco, and major cities around the state -- including Los Angeles, Oakland, and Long Beach -- have parkets programs in the works. CP&DR's parklet story was one of the most-read articles of the year. Meanwhile, several California cities have caught on to the streetcar craze. While decidedly more expensive than 120-square-foot wooden platforms, streetcars are being promoted for much the same reason that parklets are �as place-making strategies as transportation strategies.