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Strategic Plan, Grant Programs Drive SGC's Agenda

With funding scarce and plans large and small in abundance, the latest round of Sustainable Communities Grants and Urban Greening Grants awarded by the Strategic Growth Council come as welcome relief to cities, counties, and other agencies. Last month, the SGC announced that it would award $24.6 million in Sustainable Communities Planning Grants and $20.7 million in Urban Greening Grants. Both programs are funded by the clean water bond Prop. 84. CP&DR recently spoke with SGC Executive Director Heather Fargo about the grants and the myriad of projects that they will fund. 

Update: The Strategic Growth Council announced at its meeting today that Fargo will be stepping down. Her departure date has not yet been set. This interview took place before word of her departure became known to CP&DR.  Fargo had been promoted to executive director under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and, for the past year-and-a-half has worked under a council comprised largely of members appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Fargo was reportedly asked to step down by the council after a series of closed-door meetings over the past few weeks. Fargo previously worked in the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation and was mayor of Sacramento until losing to current Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2008. 

How strong were the proposals for the sustainability grants?

I was excited about the projects we recommended. There's quite a diversity of projects, both geographically and in what they're going to be doing. But they all seemed more sophisticated and further along than the first round of grants. I think it helped that we posted the application for what had been funded in Year One. 

People are doing more collaboration, in part because we're requiring it for the grants, but I think it's working out for people. I think there's a lot of conversations about what people can do and how they can work together. Some of the MPO's are working on implementing their SCS's for cities and counties. It's very positive. 

Do the SCS's make matters more urgent for applicants? Did it help put them in the mindset to do these kinds of projects? 

The SCS requirements certainly have motivated the MPO's. They have deadlines. The cities and counties are actually applying for things that will help them implement those SCS's. MPO's can do a great plan, but they don't have land use authority. So unless the cities and counties decide that it's a good idea and actually implement it, nothing happens. 

We're seeing MPO's work side-by-side with cities and counties, we're seeing cities and counties wanting to work on a very wide range of things: active transportation, climate action plans, and economic development components of their general plans. This year we're funding the County of Tulare. They're going to be working on improving water systems to a number of communities in their county by connecting them to an existing wastewater system. So we're seeing some longstanding infrastructure issues that are being taken care of, which is very encouraging.   

A few years ago people were not really ready to embrace the concept of climate change or the need for adaptation and were still in kind of a �let's just build the subdivisions and move on' kind of mode. Now people are looking at their cities, downtowns and their neighborhoods and really thinking about how to make it work. I think the recession has given everyone some breathing room. 

Did you get a sense of desperation or were there more applications from cities that are financially strapped? 

I'm not sure if there were more applications. I think it was actually fewer than last year. Certainly it's a very competitive program and there's a strong desire to get these funds.  For many cities, general funds for planning are pretty scarce. The grants have allowed, I believe, people to keep staff on board. Some of the trends we saw are that people are choosing to have their staff do the work, instead of consultants. 

The advantage of growing that talent in-house and the ability to have people within your organization be able to follow through is very significant. You can have a consultant come in and do things, and that's not bad. But when departments use in-house staff, their knowledge improves....the models and tools that they have improve. So we're just seeing better planning. 

Did anything change on your end? 

Not so much on the evaluations. We did change the method by which people applied. We had an online application instead of a paper form. 

In some ways it made the application stronger because every question was there and you needed to fill it in. People couldn't skip sections. People thought more about SGC's different objectives and really did their best to either do something themselves or acknowledge that someone else is doing something. So maybe they weren't the ones working on water quality, but maybe someone else in the region was. 

As for the actual projects themselves, people are looking at how they bring all these different things together. Merced, for example, is doing a programmatic climate action plan and implementing codes. They're trying to streamline their development review process and adopt a climate action plan in a unified design manual. So, for a city to have all of that in place, when someone does come forward who wants to do something, there's a lot of information readily available to keep the city on track and help the development community do the right thing. 

How did the process of awarding Greening Grants resemble, or differ from that of the sustainability grants? 

One of the changes the urban Greening Grants made this year was a pre-proposal. Everyone could submit a 2-3 page proposal explaining what they wanted to do. Staff went through all of those�about 230 of them�and then gave certain projects the go-ahead. They told people not to submit if they're not going to be competitive, so they don't spend a lot of time on your application. 

The Greening grants funded 50 projects, and 24 of them were over $75,000.  The small projects were not as competitive as we would have liked them to be. We actually had set aside $2 million for projects that were under $75,000 and we're funding $600,000. They're good projects, but most of what we got were the larger projects. We funded 50 and the total was $20,739,300.  

Greening projects are just that: they're projects that are actual physical improvements. They're either putting in a trail system or stormwater bioswales or a tree-planting or community garden program. About 80% were in economically disadvantaged communities, which is a good thing. It's great to go into the core of Los Angeles and rip up asphalt and give students some turf to run on for a change. Some of the projects are within downtown areas and focusing on improvement and adding plazas, lighting and landscaping. Under Greening we also have a planning component: the City of Oxnard is doing a green Alleys Plan. 

How hard it is to evaluate the impact of individual projects to decide if a project is deserving? 

It can be challenging. But the one advantage that you have with the greening projects is that the staff actually goes out and visits the site. They see the neighborhood, they see the condition of the site beforehand. The people that are applying show up and explain it.  It becomes a lot easier once you are there in person to say, "OK�.this looked good on paper, but, boy, it's not going to work for us." It gives them a pretty good sense of what they're looking for. 

How many of the awards would you consider to be innovative, pilot project type of things, versus approaches that are tried-and-true but that these localities didn't have the funding to pursue? 

It seems to me that, for every single one of these, somebody has done it somewhere around the world before.  But applicants apply because, then, other small communities can do it too. They're trying to be competitive but also trying to be as innovative as they can. That is one of the criteria. If you are innovative, then you end up being seen as a role model and potentially more fundable.  

A fair number of them have components of innovation. And a lot of what is happening almost doesn't seem innovative anymore. It's not innovative to work with your public health office. But the reality is, when you look at health issues in conjunction with the environmental issues, that is happening in California but certainly not over the United States yet. A lot of these folks have brought in the business community or non-profits, or you've got the public works department working with the school district.  

One innovating program is the Greening Grants people got their first signed agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District. School districts aren't eligible for grants, but one of the reasons why they're not is that you want someone who is committed to open space, and even though some schools like that, if you lose a principal, the next summer, maybe they won't water. They have to choose what their priorities are, and if you lose money, maybe the landscaping is it. 

Overall, I think the program in and of itself is innovative. But we do get a lot of very interesting grants.  

What are your hopes and expectations for Round III? 

There is about $13 million left for the planning grants and $18-$20 million for the Greening grants. Greening we're probably going to leave it as-is in terms of criteria and process. For the planning grants we're going to take a step back and see if there's some changes in the criteria we want to make or even looking at whether or not we want to change the categories of what we fund. 

We're going to look at whether there is one part of the state we want to focus on. Is there a particular community that we really want to move forward, or is there a particular project we want to see? 

We want to make sure that SB 375 makes a difference. While the state is requiring the development of the SCS's, there is no requirement for the cities or counties to follow through.  The Southern California Association of Governments came in for a grant and their grant is going to be to help implement their SCS by providing general plan assistance to local jurisdictions and come up with monitoring tools so they can monitor the improvements of these cities and counties. The SCS's are great, but unless a city or county follows through, it's just a plan. So we are looking at whether there's something else we might do. And of course we'll have to have hearings or workshops to make sure that everyone has adequate input. 

In light of not having redevelopment funds, there's work going on in the legislature about redevelopment and how it might work. Part of what we're trying to do is make sure that infill happens and inner cities are strengthened. There may be some component that might relate to that. 

What are the highlights and what will it take to realize this plan? 

We did a strategic planning process and looked at the actual legislation, which outlines four main strategies for us to do. We came up with a series of 12 actions. Part of what we'd be doing is sustaining local governments and part working at the state level. 

At the state level we're looking at, how can we coordinate efforts between state agencies so that we can do better, both planning for sustainability and assisting local agencies to do the same. One of the things we're working on particularly right now are the barriers to sustainable development and barriers to infill. We're holding a series of meetings where we're asking infill builders, what is keeping you from doing more? Are there barriers at the state level that we might be able to help with? Are these barriers local? What do we have to do to get more of the kind of sustainable development that we want in California. 

Some of that is going to be a loss or lack of funding. Some of it is going to be local opposition. There's a lot of things that we know about. We're trying to figure out the priorities right now and how the state can help. 

The other two main priorities are infrastructure planning at the state level: how do we make sure that when the state does its planning that it not only focuses on sustainability but also works with local government to make sure that they're not creating yet another barrier.  

The last of the priorities is trying to make sure that SB 375 is implemented and working with the MPO's to make sure that that happens. They take the most time because they're pretty important. 

The other things that we're doing are also important, but they don't take quite as much of our time. The grants programs, and the gathering of data are going to be made available to counties and cities free of charge so they can do better planning. 

An outreach effort is also underway. We've contracted with UC Davis and they've subcontracted with the Institute for Local Government to make sure that we can share best practices. We're developing a Sustainable Communities Learning Network so that people can talk peer-to-peer about what they're doing and be able to steal ideas and borrow advice. Also, the Funding Wizard, at coolcalifornia.org, doesn't need much from us except money, but that's a resource for individuals and government to find out where the state and federal money is that relates to sustainability.  

How much support do you have to achieve these goals, in terms of funding and staff? Is SGC well supported by this administration? 

SGC is definitely well supported by the administration. One of the most significant things is that secretaries of the agencies�who have many things they can do--do take the time to come to our meetings and they are engaged. Every agency has someone who's assigned to work with us, at least on a part time basis. It would be even better if they could be full-time but the state is in a tough spot right now. For each one of these things that we're working on we have staff from other state departments and agencies. So none of these are things that my staff and I are doing on our own. 

For things like the barriers to infill, we're talking with infill builders, with cities and counties, and with the American Planning Assoc. ULI--it's not just us. 

Please click here (pdf) for a complete list of Sustainable Planning Grant awardees, and here (pdf) for a complete list of Urban Greening Grant awardees. 

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Josh Stephens on The Urban Mystique at SPUR: January 19
On Tuesday, January 19, please join CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens and our friends at SPUR for a conversation about his book The Urban Mystique and the ineffable complexities that make all cities wondrous, maddening, and fascinating.
Registration: https://www.spur.org/events/2021-01-19/urban-mystique

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