Can’t Win the Debate? Then Shut it Down

Can’t Win the Debate? Then Shut it Down

Successful democracy depends on community discussion to reach the best outcome. But what if special interest groups infiltrate key positions to promote self-serving, green-washed schemes on the public? What happens when the public awakens to realize what’s happening and disagrees? Supporters of high density, transit oriented development, including Wall Street banks, developers, builders unions, and social equity activists, reap benefits from the very policies they helped shape like California Senate Bill 375, ABAG’s Plan Bay Area and the Marin County Housing Element. These financiers and activists mask their motivations behind claims of social justice and combatting whatever else is ailing the planet. Volunteering Needless Sacrifices Without those Affected Present These special interests have helped formulate policy such as Plan Bay Area, housing quotas, Climate Action Plans and Housing Elements in a bubble – a bubble removed from the input of residents who might be concerned about foundational flaws in the thinking  – such as transit emits less greenhouse gases than cars (disproven by facts covered by this Planning for Reality article). This policy-formulation bubble was also removed from what sacrifices residents might be willing to make to achieve these special interests goals – such as diverting money from roads to other transport modes, even despite these modes declining in usage after increasing investments. Or imposing developments such as WinCup across Marin – in the hope that the new residents work in Marin or a disproportionate number will take transit – more flawed thinking. A Revolving Door Between Planners and Special Interests  Recently I emailed an ABAG employee to understand how Priority Development Areas (PDAs) are rescinded. Using LinkedIn, I discovered that he was a former employee of Urban Habitat, the social equity advocacy group that filed suits against Pleasanton and Menlo...
Preserving Strawberry’s Charm – By Rescinding the Growth Designation

Preserving Strawberry’s Charm – By Rescinding the Growth Designation

On Tuesday Feb 25th the Marin County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to rescind the Strawberry Priority Development Area – a designation targeting the area for significant housing growth – supposedly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and secure transportation funding. The Marin IJ provided this coverage of the topic. As an attendee of the session I made several interesting observations: 1) Priority Development Area Proponents Continued to Talk of Myths and Disinformation But these same proponents didn’t specify any alleged myths beyond “there are no strings attached“. The evidence contradicting PDA proponent’s assertion couldn’t be much stronger: a) One of the leading planners in the county, Paul Jensen who is the community development manager for Marin’s largest city, San Rafael, and more qualified than almost anyone in the room, stated in his presentation on PDAs on September 6th 2013 not once but twice that PDAs create an expectation of growth. View the video and jump to the 35 minute mark to see this. b) In January 2014 ABAG, MTC and the other organizations behind Plan Bay Area published a PDA Application Form. The form clearly states: “the area has plans for a significant increase in housing units to a minimum density of the selected place type from the Station Area Planning Manual,” c) The designation provides a clear tool to a developer to show that the area has been volunteered by residents for high density accelerated growth. This is a key part of justifying a specific plan for development by a developer. d) The designation enables developers to qualify for Transit Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH) Loans. This is clearly stated in...
Top 10 Planning Pitfalls

Top 10 Planning Pitfalls

Planning Toolbox Planning is a highly complex topic. This complexity can allow progression towards an outcome that may not be in the best interests of a city. This guide is designed to alert elected officials to areas that may be subject to pitfalls if the right questions aren’t asked.   Elected Officials, Planners & Advisory Committee Members Should Always Remember… You live in a bubble, surrounded by expert advisors who may benefit from receiving grants or progressing agendas for other groups and interests. It is your duty as a public servant to make the effort to get outside this bubble and understand residents’ genuine viewpoints. Advocates routinely attend meetings (sometimes they can be paid advocates, or attendees giving the appearance of support may be financially incentivized) Paid lobbyists routinely attend meetings Residents rarely attend meetings, they are busy and getting on with their lives Residents are trusting you to represent and serve them Residents outnumber advocates and lobbyists hundredfold Residents hold the votes to get you re-elected Top 10 Planning Pitfalls Mayors, councilors, planning commissioners and advisory committee members can increase their effectiveness by understanding common planning pitfalls, and knowing what questions to ask… It Reduces Greenhouse Gases – So We Must Do It to Save the Planet The word “sustainability” has become a mechanism for seeking unquestioning approval. We are confronted with facts that can be misleading about car emissions being the greatest source of CO2 emissions for the town or city that we live in. What is overlooked is that the car usage is what 98% of people use to get around – to work, school, shopping…...
Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem

Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem

Many residents attend community meetings objecting to high density housing near transit – yet find themselves facing highly organized, well-funded opponents who have controlled the conversation for years – before the residents ever showed up. These groups helped usher in designations of many Bay Area neighborhoods as Priority Development Areas – hot-spots where 80% of new housing growth is targeted by Plan Bay Area. While residents would learn of neighbors wanting to build kitchen extensions, somehow our elected representatives overlooked telling us about far more radical development plans. Finally when residents did show up to voice their concerns they found themselves either dismissed as a nuisance as anything from “johnny come latelys”, to being labelled as NIMBYs and racists. The outcome despite a near 10 to 1 ratio of high density opponents to proponents is that fast growth and high density is going through in the Bay Area. In Marin, where the author lives, the following has occurred: Civic Center in San Rafael is going to be turned into a 5-story Northgate City metropolis. Its “Transit Town Center” PDA designation signals MTC’s target to pack in 7,000 housing units within ½ mile of the SMART train station where there are currently only 1,165 units. (Read this MTC guide to understand PDA designations). Update: Through a multi-year opposition by hundreds of residents, including the author, this Civic Center PDA designation was finally rescinded in September 2013. It will be revisited in 2016. Marinwood and Lucas Valley face absorbing 546 high density housing units. This has the potential to cause significant impact on schools – it is estimated to place a burden of...
Supervisors: We May Defy Logic, But Don’t Question Our Motivations

Supervisors: We May Defy Logic, But Don’t Question Our Motivations

Tuesday’s Marin supervisors meeting agenda issued a “soft warning” to the public. The warning reads: “The Marin County Board of Supervisors encourages a respectful dialogue that supports freedom of speech and values diversity of opinion. The Board, staff and the public are expected to be polite and courteous and refrain from questioning the character or motives of others.” I am still trying to reconcile how the supervisors’ own behavior qualifies as respectful. This must be another case of “do as I say, not as I do”. The Broken Record Request – Who is Being Unreasonable? Bruce Corcoran from Strawberry has now formally asked at 13 consecutive Supervisor meetings for a date for the Strawberry PDA to be put on the supervisors agenda.  This seems reasonable to me given that Strawberry residents, just like Civic Center residents, were never consulted before being designated as a target for high density development. When the issue was raised in San Rafael Mayor Phillips put in place a thorough and well thought through process to review if the designation was appropriate: – he convened a committee to understand the key questions (I was one of 10 on this committee; the committee was balanced with 5 pro and 5 against the designation) – he tasked his planners to research the answers; Paul Jensen and Nancy Mackle produced this excellent document addressing PDA questions that all inflicted with the PDA designation should read – armed with complete questions and answers the council conducted a dedicated session, then in a subsequent session voted to rescind the PDA Are Hundreds of Strawberry Residents Making Unrealistic Demands? Does something seem illogical about Bruce’s request? The same request initiated a very thorough...
How to Rig the Community Input Process

How to Rig the Community Input Process

Plans are meant to incorporate community input – the experience in San Rafael made remarkable leaps of logic – arriving at a pre-ordained outcome of a future that had already been decided before us. I never used to pay any attention to local politics – I was too busy with my family, job and the busy day to day and trusted our elected officials and taxpayer paid employees of public agencies to do the right thing. But in August last year I had a sobering awakening into how our future gets chosen for us – and it doesn’t matter if or when you show up. Public input was carefully controlled, and input that diverged from the desired outcome was somehow conveniently disregarded. Now with Plan Bay Area the stakes are much higher – a “mega-plan” will see regional agencies MTC and ABAG place significant pressure on target areas -Primary Development Areas (PDAs) – to plan for very high numbers of new residents which must be housed in high density housing near transit. The $528,000 Carrot Our local planners and elected officials must respond to this need with plans – plans that should align with the communities they represent – but how can this work if trust has broken down? How can we buy into a plan if we cannot even trust the local process that executes on the plan to respect community input?  The MTC $528,000 Contract with the City of San Rafael Back in May 2010 Mayor Boro (since replaced by Mayor Phillips), Barbara Heller (still a serving councilor) and Greg Brockbank (now running to get back onto...