ABAG – Planning for a Population Explosion

ABAG – Planning for a Population Explosion

population-explosionIf the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is to be believed, the Bay Area is about to take on a wholly remarkable and unprecedented growth in population – growth far in excess of growth estimates by experts. This is important because it is these rapid growth forecasts justify ABAG and Plan Bay Area’s imposing policies – policies such as urbanizing small towns, significantly increasing densities and reducing automobile usage.

Why Present Inflated Projections?

Why would ABAG seek to maximize its’ population projections? I have started to learn an increasing amount about how an organization or individual becomes successful in the public sector. In the private sector the matter is simple – sell more, make money – this will lead to more responsibilities and a higher salary. In the public center it’s also about increasing one’s influence, but this is achieved by building a case to secure grants and financing. The bigger the problem a public entity can set itself up to solve – the more it can secure state and federal grants.

The issue is further compounded by ABAG creating a housing & transportation ecosystem or industry – where it pays to join the parade as there are lucrative contracts for transit and housing consultants; and developers and builders stand to benefit from increased development opportunities. Others simply join the parade as it serves to progress their cause (e.g. transit and housing advocates). I cover this in more detail in the article Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem.

Just How High Are ABAG’s Projections?

Transportation consultant and former Controller-Treasurer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District Thomas Rubin, lays it out clearly:

“ABAG’s projected population increase is 39% higher than the average of four independent sources – Beacon Economics, Caltrans, I.H.S., and California Department of Finance Demographic Research Unit.”

The graphic on the right shows ABAG’s forecast growth in red alongside forecasts from 4 leading forecasting agencies in dark blue, with the average of the 4 in light blue. The difference is stark.

Forecaster’s Unrealistic Assumptions – Constraints are Equal

Last year I met with Steve Levy, the Palo Alto based expert behind ABAG’s forecasts. I challenged Levy that in Marin, where I live, we have significant constraints. For instance the Greenbelt Alliance states:

“Marin has the highest percentage of land protected from development in the Bay Area”

Levy’s response was that all areas would face equal constraints. The implication is that growth in Chicago or Atlanta for example would face the same degree of constraints as growth in the Bay Area. However the recent drought has served to further demonstrate the invalidity of such an assumption.

Here is a map showing the increase in drought risk in the United States. If Steve Levy is correct then the map should be uniform or show only mild variations:

Drought Risk - Feb 2014

Source: Drought.gov. Click to view larger image.

However as we are all now coming to realize droughts are likely to increase or intensify. The adjacent map shows the drought risk for the Bay Area as “extreme drought risk” while the eastern US and midwest remain at no risk.

Levy’s assumption based on water availability alone seemed questionable – then came the next  moment of doubt…

Marin’s Population Forecast

I then asked Levy about Marin’s forecast. Levy informed me that he did not forecast below the regional level. The allocation of the growth across the different cities and counties had been performed by a member of staff at ABAG. Miriam Chion, an interim planning director.

The Marin figures are of particular concern as they diverge significantly from past population trends for the county tracked by the US census. The graph can be seen below – it is one of many where ABAG’s Plan Bay Area forecasts make stark departures from historic trends.

Click to see a larger graphic

Marin Population Forecast. Click to see a larger graphic

So What?

ABAG and MTC state on page 26 of the final Plan Bay Area:

“This [preferred] land use scenario placed 78% of residential growth and 62% of job growth in Priority Development Areas [PDAs]”

Combining ABAG’s substantial growth in population with a policy of concentration in PDAs places significant pressure to increase housing in locations “volunteered” as Priority Development Areas.

Plan supporters tout that PDAs carry no obligations – they are simply a funding mechanism. But this overlooks the motivations of ABAG and MTC whose success is bound to the enactment of Plan Bay Area. If PDAs are rescinded, rejected by localities or do not plan to absorb the growth then they expose themselves to failure. Such a failure serves to jeopardize continued grant funding, growth, political and public support.

The Corte Madera “Accident” – Regional Housing Needs

The rubber doesn’t just hit the road with Plan Bay Area.  ABAG’s population forecasting drives the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). The small town of Corte Madera which covers an area of just 4.4 square miles and has a population of 9,377 was given a RHNA allocation of 244 housing units.

With very few remaining plots of available land this quota forced the city to allow dense zoning of a vacated factory that made styrofoam cups (WinCup). Within 3 weeks of the city passing a housing element the land was sold to developer MacFarlane Partners and months later a plan was proposed for dense housing with 180 units.

However the town council protested and asked for the rationale for the 244 unit allocation. They never received a satisfactory explanation but the RHNA number was reduced to just 77 units. But by this point the reduction was too late – the development at WinCup had already been approved.


ABAG’s high growth population forecasts serve a number of special interests:

  • ABAG is able to justify a plan that is more imposing than necessary, present the problem it is solving as more acute than the reality, and secure greater funding
  • Social equity advocates seeking to reduce income discrepancies by creating more affordable housing units are able to generate far more units than might otherwise be justified
  • Transit projects such as trains that otherwise might not be justified now become valid
  • More acute traffic congestion can be forecast, further justifying the need to switch residents from using cars to transit
  • Housing zoning is accelerated, opening up greater opportunities for developers and their investors

But the effective result is accelerating the Bay Area, needlessly, towards much more acute issues around drought, traffic congestion, transportation funding, school funding, sewer issues, increasing the water toxicity of the Bay, and impact on the environment. It also affects something of great concern to the author – irreversibly changing the architectural character of our small towns.

What Can You Do?

  • Ask your local representative – do they agree with ABAG’s RHNA numbers and Plan Bay Area population forecast? if they agree have them read this article and then respond to you
  • Recruit / Support candidates opposed to ABAG’s fast growth agenda
  • Submit a Public Records Request asking ABAG to provide the rationale for the RHNA numbers for your area (tip: ask for the spreadsheet containing the formulas). Send the request to Miriam Chion at ABAG – miriamc@abag.ca.gov 510-464-7919
  • Ask ABAG (via a Public Records Request) to identify the constraints that were taken into consideration (water, land that cannot be developed, environmental impact…) when they assigned RHNA numbers for your city or county.
  • Speak out when Plan Bay Area 2.0 comes around – they’re working on it and it will likely present scenarios even more needlessly acute than the first plan
  • Read up on other legislation affecting planning in California such as:
    • Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 1 (pending vote and signing into law) which resurrects California’s redevelopment agencies with the ability to declare suburban neighborhoods “blighted” as they make inefficient  use of land, and gives them the power to raise taxes and eminent domain to urbanize these neighborhoods with high density housing. This will be performed by Joint Powers Authorities (explained in this article by Bob Silvestri) so there is very limited accountability – if you object expect to be ignored.
    • Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 743 (enacted) that removes consideration of traffic and parking impact of new developments, diminishing the ability of residents to use CEQA legislation to block development with adverse impacts. This legislation also helps usher in new planning techniques that focus only on impact on transit, bike and pedestrians – completely ignoring impact on vehicle traffic.