A page-turner of a land-use scenario

On Friday March 9, the Association of Bay Area Governments released the draft preferred land use scenario (PDF) for Plan Bay Area, the region’s Sustainable Communities Strategy.  The draft plan, called the Jobs Housing Connection Scenario, is a great read – really!

ABAG contracted with some of the best experts around to include a thorough analysis of the Bay Area’s top industries and economic sectors as well as the demographic shifts in age and ethnic background the Bay Area can expect in the next 30 years.  It’s a great primer for anyone who wants to understand our diverse and dynamic region.


It’s the economy, stupid!

Here’s my pick for the most interesting two sentences in the entire draft plan:

“According to Steve Levy, from the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, the region could capture another 110,000 jobs of the total national growth.  However, the total job growth is constrained by our ability to produce housing  …” (page 8).

Wow.  A top economic expert says outright that the Bay Area is missing out on over ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND jobs because of our chronic inability to build enough homes people can afford in desirable neighborhoods.

If we learn only one thing from the whole Plan Bay Area process, it should be that building homes is an essential strategy to ensure a thriving economy and jobs base.


How much growth to expect

The good news: The draft plan does a good job of projecting likely future growth, while taking into account the current reality.  It projects 1.1 million new jobs and 660,000 new homes by 2040.  These projections take into account the recent economic downturn in two main ways.  First, almost 300,000 of those “new” jobs are just making up for jobs lost since 2007.  Second, the plan takes into account current housing vacancy rates (approximately 6.4%) and fills vacancies first before planning any new construction.

The bad news: The region will still have an overall housing shortfall going forward – and all the negative impacts that entails for the economy, environment, and social equity.  We’ll still see the same level of in-commuting from other regions. Tens of thousands of workers driving long distances from neighboring counties each day are a prime cause of the Bay Area’s trouble meeting its greenhouse gas emission targets.  In addition, the plan does not address the perennial problem of over-crowding, caused by an extreme shortfall of homes affordable to families at the lowest income levels.


Where new development will go

The good news: The plan does an excellent job of focusing growth.  Over 2/3 of new development (74% of homes and 67% of jobs) occurs in Priority Development Areas – places in existing cities and towns near frequent transit where local governments are planning for more growth.

The bad news: The plan doesn’t maximize potential for development near transit.  While it’s mostly right on, there are a few places that have significant transit resources and jobs that could accommodate more homes – particularly affordable homes.  For example, Walnut Creek, with its BART station and healthy employment sector, adds homes at a slow rate of just 7% by 2040.  Compare that to neighboring cities along the same BART line, most of whom grow by 2 to 5 times that much.

What’s still unclear: It’s impossible to tell from the draft document what the impacts of growth are on the Bay Area’s open spaces.  The only maps included are of the Priority Development Areas; there’s no map of where the remaining 1/3 of growth will go.  Some of the growth numbers for unincorporated county land are cause for unease – the plan shows almost 5,000 new homes in unincorporated San Mateo County, for example.  But without a map, it’s hard to know how much of that development is truly sprawl.


What’s next?

ABAG will take feedback on the draft preferred scenario over the next few months and release another version in May.  The May version will also incorporate a draft transportation network – we’ll see a first version of the draft transportation preferred scenario in April.

One Comment on “A page-turner of a land-use scenario

  1. “…the plan takes into account current housing vacancy rates (approximately 6.4%) and fills vacancies first before planning any new construction.”

    First: The Bay Area likely has the lowest vacancy rate of any large region in the state, and yet it is the first MPO to suggest that filling vacancies can be a reason to reduce the housing target by a six-figure amount.

    Second: Even if this were a valid strategy on its face, it misses two important factors:

    1) Location: Many of the vacant units are located in undesirable areas, far from transit and job centers. Vacancy rates in walkable neighborhoods near transit with low crime are at normal, even low levels.

    2) Demand by unit type: Much of the vacancies are for single family homes, especially those in poor locations. Much of the demand is for townhomes and multifamily units near transit. Just because there is a surplus of the former doesn’t mean that there is no need to construct the latter.

    In reading the draft SCS, I see no mention of demand for units by unit type, especially not in the nuanced manner that has become normative in post-SB375 planning in California: Single Family Large Lot, Single Family Small Lot, Townhome and Multifamily. While Dr. A.C. Nelson’s report “The New California Deam” is referenced, his specific demand projections by unit type and by location are ignored.

    For these reasons alone, this is a fatally flawed plan; but also add to this list the fact that it does not specify where non-TOD growth will occur (beyond while travel analysis zone it will fall in); and that it admits that it fails to provide enough housing to meet potential demand (to such a degree that job growth will be lowered by ~110k future potential employees as a consequence).

    The hope lies in the basic framework of concentrating growth around transit, and the programs that are being proposed to help make this happen. Let’s hope that future iterations of the plan will build upon this, but address the issues mentioned above…

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