These development measures are really antigrowth

This article was originally published on the front page of the Sunday, September 28, 2014 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to the original article: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/These-development-measures-are-really-antigrowth-5785520.php

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By John King

It’s election time in the Bay Area, which means ballot initiatives designed to undercut development plans are already in the works.

But there’s another way to look at this year’s crop: as confirmation of an ongoing cultural shift in favor of tall buildings and mixed-use neighborhoods with access to transit outside the region’s largest cities.

“Whether people love the idea of density or not, they’re starting to grasp the benefits that can come from transit-friendly neighborhoods.” –Jeremy Madsen

In both Berkeley and Menlo Park, slow-growth initiatives are framed in such a way that proponents can say they’re not actually against the concept of dense development at all. Such arguments might be cynical or simplistic, but they tacitly concede that more and more people are comfortable with more urban ways of life.

“A decade ago, things like smart growth and transit-oriented development were being pushed by planners and environmentalists as what we should do,” said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for reining in sprawl and protecting open space. “Now, more and more people want neighborhoods where they can walk out the door and have a degree of urbanity in their lives without living in San Francisco or Oakland.”

There’s no better city in which to gauge the shift than Berkeley, where voters in 2010 approved a measure to focus residential and commercial growth in the center of the city. Among other details, the measure loosened downtown height limits to allow a trio of 180-foot towers.

Opponents of that approach want to roll back the clock with Measure R on November’s ballot. But they don’t tout Measure R as antigrowth; no, it’s Berkeley’s Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative, intended to “ensure our downtown is built on Berkeley’s values.”

The reality is that the measure would erect hurdles to new buildings above 60 feet. To go higher, a structure would need to be LEED Platinum, the top rating of the U.S. Green Building Council. Fifty percent of the construction workers would be required to live in Berkeley (hardly a lunch box-toting blue-collar ’burb). Developers would be required to put money into a fund for small-business loans, and building owners would be required to pay prevailing wages to maintenance and security workers.

The noble-sounding bullet points are emphasized on the pro-Measure R website and flyers, rather than the fact that height limits in most of downtown would be lowered by 10 to 15 feet. The most disingenuous move of all: The campaign’s main argument is that Measure R is necessary to protect Berkeley’s historic post office — as if anyone at City Hall is opposed to the one civic cause that all local politicians embrace.

Measure R proponents want to have it both ways, using high ideals to pull the rug out from under future projects. But campaign leaders include many of the naysayers who in 2010 warned in ballot arguments that a new downtown plan was a ruse “allowing outsized development to overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods” with “dramatically raised building heights.”

The critics lost by a 64-36 percent margin. They also lost a 2012 lawsuit challenging the environmental studies for the downtown plan.

The change in tone is clear. It’s also a clear signal that the conventional wisdom of a generation ago, that tall buildings are synonymous with some dire Manhattanization, doesn’t sway younger Bay Area residents who visit New York City every chance they get.

“We’re starting to see a separation between the traditional antigrowth crowd — ‘We want to keep our small-town nature. We want to drive our cars’ — and the other crowd that says, ‘We want to have transit-oriented growth and an active downtown, but we want it to be perfect,’” said Madsen, whose organization opposes Measure R as “misguided.”

Where Berkeley’s measure allows taller buildings as long as they’re a utopian shade of green, Menlo Park voters are being asked to change the rules to allow a procession of buildings resembling nothing so much as a row of gap teeth — by intent.

The peninsula city’s Measure M comes two years after passage of a plan that raised height limits from 30 feet to as much as 60 feet along portions of El Camino Real near the Caltrain station. The goal is a mix of activities in the heart of town, albeit within limits: no more than 680 residential units and 474,000 square feet of commercial space.

Since then, two large proposals have moved forward that, if approved, would consume more than half of the new development allowed under the 2012 plan. Measure M strikes back by limiting the size of any single commercial project to 100,000 square feet, with no more than 240,820 square feet of new office space.

Also, open-space requirements for new projects must be satisfied within 4 feet of ground level. Raised plazas, apartment balconies and rooftop gardens wouldn’t count — even where the 2012 plan specifically requires private residential space.

“The El Camino plan was created to encourage transit-oriented development, and we’re not challenging that,” said Patti Fry, a Measure M proponent who served on the planning commission from 2000 to 2004. The reason for Measure M, she argued, is that current proposals violate the expectation that growth “will be higher density, but it’s supposed to be respectful of the community.”

The office-space restrictions are straightforward though debatable. The new tabulation system for open space is convoluted at best. In essence, it allows tall buildings along the city’s major thoroughfare but also ensures that there would be an abundance of empty land between them, including ample open spaces where passersby are not allowed.

“More open space between buildings will help avoid urbanization,” Fry explained.

A cynic would say the muddled details of Measure M would make it easy for growth opponents to mount legal assaults against any large development proposal that followed its passage. More cause for cynicism: Most of the funding to gather initiative signatures was contributed by an Atherton resident, venture capitalist Gary Lauder, who explained to the news blog the Almanac that he was concerned about “urban canyons” and “further erosion of quality of life due to traffic congestion.”

That’s the old vision of suburbia, where five-story buildings (no more than 38 feet tall along the street, by the way) are equated with canyons. Quality of life is measured by how quickly you can drive your car through a neighboring town.

The vision emerging is more complex — and, in the long run, more compelling.

There’s a hint of this evolution in San Bruno, a city of 44,000 between Millbrae and South San Francisco where a 1977 ordinance capped heights at three stories or 50 feet without voter approval.

November’s Measure N would allow 90-foot buildings around the city’s Caltrain station and increase heights by 20 feet along El Camino Real and 15 feet along San Bruno Avenue. These aren’t towers by any stretch, but they acknowledge a need for housing beyond single-family homes.

The measure was placed on the ballot by a 3-0 council vote after a public planning effort focused on the small city’s commercial heart. The ballot argument against it is a generic complaint about “stack and pack housing” from the head of the county’s Libertarian Party, a Millbrae resident.

“Whether people love the idea of density or not, they’re starting to grasp the benefits that can come from transit-friendly neighborhoods,” Madsen said. “The more we can get away from the fear factor, the better.”

John King is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

E-mail: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

Growth on the ballot

Berkeley Measure R

An ordinance amending the provisions of zoning as it applies to downtown Berkeley, including height limits.

San Bruno Measure N

Would help implement the city’s Transit Corridors Plan from 2013 to allow extra height in certain commercial areas.

Dublin Measure T

“Directs the city to pursue annexation” of the 1,650-acre Doolan Canyon area between Dublin and Livermore that is agricultural land outside the city’s urban limit line.

Union City Measure KK

Would allow the Masons of California to pursue development of 63 acres of land northeast of Mission Boulevard that is within the city’s Hillside Area Plan.

Menlo Park Measure M

Would amend the 2012 specific plan for El Camino Real to, among other things, reduce the allowable size of new commercial buildings.

Napa Measure A

Would extend the city’s “rural urban limit line” to include the 154-acre Napa Pipe property, where the county last year approved an amendment to the general plan that allows a mixed-use project including more than 900 residential units and a 150-room hotel.

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