Why Plan Bay Area Failed

Why Plan Bay Area Failed

An article “The Actions of Discontent – Tea Party and Property Rights Activists Pushing Back Against Regional Planning” by Karen Trapenberg Frick was recently brought to my attention. The author, an assistant adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, purported to address the underlying reasons for opposition to two regional planning initiatives including Plan Bay Area and a similar exercise in Atlanta. An otherwise well written piece, it seemed to fall short of understanding the true reasons for opposition.

It seemed appropriate to get to the bottom of why so many opposed Plan Bay Area, and while enacted to understand why the plan failed in so many different ways – most of all for its’ largest stakeholders – Bay Area residents. But ultimately by putting plan proponents ABAG and MTC into an impossible situation as they progress new regional planning efforts.

Focusing on the Wrong Places: The Tea Party and Property Rights Groups

The piece focused on two groups that are away from the mainstream that allegedly led  opposition to Plan Bay Area. A tactic historically used by many regionalization proponents as an ad-hominem attack – seeking to give a stigma to those who might otherwise oppose. These groups did come across as vocal and well represented in their opposition, they tend to polarize conversations –  but in reality they were the tip of the iceberg. By comparison other grassroots and local groups did not make themselves so easily identifiable. So it was an easy mistake to make.

The real foundational reasons for opposition to Plan Bay Area were at the grass roots level.

What Really Happened #1: Planning Without the Key Stakeholder

At the regional level social equity groups, transit advocates and sustainability groups worked together with ABAG and MTC to progress a plan that would seek to solve a range of issues:

– reduce emissions

– address income disparities and social equity issues

– improve transportation

However, this was conceived in a vacuum, without appropriate involvement of residents who did not happen to hold passionate views on planning, social equity or transportation. Most did not appreciate the impact on their daily lives as it had never been effectively communicated. Only once this input by these groups had been garnered was the conceived draft plan then shared with residents. This then broke the golden rule – never surprise people (and if you do, then you’d better have a water-tight explanation).

The problem is this is that the plan was conceived without one of the most significantly impacted stakeholders at the table – Bay Area residents. Once included, seemingly late in the process after conception, the natural impression given was that the outreach exercise was no more than an exercise to obtain approval. It was not genuine outreach to capture input that would form the plan.

What Really Happened #2: PDAs Instituted Without Buy In

The experience that I and many others had in Marin was one of shock at a planning process that failed to obtain buy-in. In Strawberry, Marinwood and Civic Center in San Rafael many awoke one day to discover that their neighborhoods had been volunteered by county supervisors or city councilors to be “Priority Development Areas”.  This decision was made without a clear understanding of the implications and in almost all cases with zero, or near zero consultation with residents.

Naturally the consequence once this was was discovered was outcry, questioning and fierce resistance. Questions as to what “Priority Development Areas” meant were not clearly answered. Proponents made claims that they planned nothing, but the trouble with these claims is that there was a growing body of evidence that PDAs came with expectations that they would transform neighborhoods by designating them for high density housing:

1) Documents such as Plan Bay Area’s PDA application form (see page 3, housing definition), revealed clearly that PDAs set an expectation of “significant increase in housing”

2) In San Rafael the lead planner’s conclusion also concurred that PDAs set an expectation of growth

3) People questioned why funding was being disbursed without any strings attached – it didn’t align with “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” sniff test

The Win Cup building in Corte Madera

The Win Cup building in Corte Madera

The result was an impression that PDAs had been snuck through, and that once questioned proponents failed to articulate or justify them. Residents were not bought into having their low rise neighborhoods absorb what was perceived as out of character high density housing.

This was further exacerbated in Marin by the WinCup building in Corte Madera. An ABAG clerical error behind Corte Madera’s housing planning quota was one of several questionable parts of a process leading to the building of a 5 story high development quite of character with other low density housing in Marin.

In the meantime politicians such as Marin’s supervisors failed to clearly articulate or take a position that they would defend the county against future development that might be out of character. Worse yet, they continued to support Housing Elements that focused on high density housing. The lack of definitive statements led to a wholesale loss of trust in politicians – 2 of which had voted for Plan Bay Area.

What Really Happened #3: Development Agendas Behind Transportation Projects

A third underlying issue was the SMART train in Marin. This had seemingly obtained voter approval, which was not secured in Marin, by combining Sonoma and Marin voting districts to overcome prior failures.

This  subterfuge might have passed muster had it not been for a story unfolding that the SMART train was not being built to serve current residents, but was only justified (and would only be funded) if it could serve a much higher population by adding high density housing near stations. This was revealed by a document explaining MTC Resolution 3434 (MTC, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is one of the primary regional bodies behind Plan Bay Area).

It didn’t help further that SMART continued to break promises, halving the length of the line that it committed to build, not producing approved ridership numbers and failing to put in place a citizens’ advisory board.

SMART in Marin was essentially the flagship, and most prominent project, for transit oriented development. But people could clearly start to see beyond initial public claims and recognized an agenda of growth, potentially fast growth. Marin has always accepted slow change, but SMART was a different animal, almost a “foreign object” that the body needed to eject as it brought with it accelerated, unacceptable growth.

What Really Happened #4: The Facts Didn’t Line Up

As all of the above was transpiring, many residents stepped back asking “why is this radical growth suddenly being pushed on residents against their will?”. It was the natural human reaction – this defies gravity, why is it happening?

So in Marin there was a renewed focus on the facts behind Plan Bay Area. Under scrutiny the foundational aspects of the plan didn’t add up. This became starkly apparent in the Great Planning Debate, held in May 2013 in the Marin County Supervisors chambers. The topic “Is Plan Bay Area a good thing for Marin?”.

Attendees at the debate watched ABAG Executive President, Mark Luce and MTC Commissioner Steve Kinsey – supervisors in Napa and Marin County respectively – face off against two Plan Bay Area opponents. Any viewer of the debate (please see the video) will recognize that it was a completely one-sided match up. Plan Bay Area proponents, both politicians, argued for the importance of plans in general. One made an attack accusing the other side of being racist for opposing Plan Bay Area, misquoting the Plan Bay Area opponent . Not only did plan proponents fail to make their case, their methods appeared questionable and inappropriate.

But for those interested in the facts – the debate’s audience heard from plan opponents who offered a different, far more concerning story based on a strong foundation of factual analysis that remained (and remains) unopposed by plan proponents:

1) Plan Bay Area actually increased the %income that lower middle income residents would have to spend on housing and transportation. It made social equity and income disparities worse.

2) The plan’s claimed emissions reductions were already being achieved by existing initiatives, negating the need for a plan perceived to make onerous and substantial impact on residents such as imposing high density housing.

3) Beyond the debate, scrutiny of claims to reduce emissions through transit oriented development failed to hold up – with analysis clearly showing that cars were achieving lower emissions than transit and the gap was growing.

4) The plan advocated switching people to using transit and making investments to achieve this; yet it failed to acknowledge near conclusive proof that such initiatives prior had always failed – especially initiatives placing heavy reliance on rail (such as Plan Bay Area). In suburban locations such as Marin transportation is fragmented, and inconvenient for many trips such as shopping or dropping kids at school on the way to work.

Many found it wholly remarkable that in the face of these facts two of Marin’s three ABAG representatives, Supervisors Steve Kinsey and Katie Rice, voted in favor of Plan Bay Area, with a third abstaining. This reinforced that representation was somehow fundamentally broken – and that residents had been disenfranchised. Something needed to be fixed to restore representation.

The Real Story

The real story is that the Tea Party and property rights groups led early on, but ultimately became part of a broad coalition spanning the entire political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right, with a bell curve of grass roots folks in the middle. The core of the opposition ultimately became grassroots – residents discovering by surprise their neighborhoods had been volunteered for high density development, seeking understanding and ultimately realizing the cause was Plan Bay Area.

An iconic building in Corte Madera that showed to people what high density housing could look like – and it was ugly! A train that seemed to be part of the plan kept breaking its promises. This was closely followed by residents discovering a new plan to add an immense amount of housing to Larkspur – already a bottleneck for commuters, and that had little or no additional capacity on ferries to San Francisco.

What’s Next?

The only genuine way to address climate change, improve transportation, and possibly address income disparities (something not all are bought into) is to step back. Unfortunately the fact that Plan Bay Area was enacted and pushed through against strong grass roots opposition may tarnish this process forever.

A new process, with genuinely trusted representative leaders involved, who can be voted out, and stepping back to address specific, realistic and measurable objectives needs to be agreed upon. This needs to be a plan that recognizes not just impact, such as the impacts referenced in Karen Trapenberg Frick’s article, but constraints.

By far the biggest elephant in the room with Plan Bay Area was the premise that the Bay Area needed to rapidly grow. However with climate change now causing more frequent droughts, and with existing water sources at capacity no recognition of this constraint seemed forthcoming. In the Bay Area the only real solutions are desalination plants that generate high emissions, or imposing increasingly onerous restrictions and penalties on residents as more frequent droughts occur.

Ultimately ABAG, MTC and those supporting regional planning, which may not be a bad thing if done right, need to be bridge building. They need to be inclusive right from the conception of future plans (I understand Plan Bay Area 2.0 is being conceived but do not see genuine resident inclusion happening). They need to step back and recognize the damage caused by railroading through policies, and the wholesale loss of public trust in the process.