Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Anti-development myth redux

Christian Nicholson responds to Rebecca Solnit with a letter in the London Review of Books:

San Francisco developers are actively building only 4900 new units, an order of magnitude less than Solnit claims. The remainder of her 48,000 units may be approved, but most are unlikely to be developed for many years because of the sclerotic regulatory process. Anyone who has visited San Francisco knows that outside a few neighbourhoods lining Market---the Financial District, the Tenderloin and northern SoMa---the city is about three storeys tall. Paris, the city I left to come here, is seven storeys high almost across the board. Major Asian cities are much taller. San Francisco could double in height without greatly hurting its open space or aesthetics. 

The scarcity of shelter in San Francisco is artificially imposed, the result of a decades-long resistance in many parts of the city to any kind of development. That resistance comes from several quarters. A recent high-rise on the waterfront was voted down by a coalition of local wealth and the political left, which is also leading the fight against evictions. San Francisco’s incumbent residents would prefer the postcard life of a low, sparsely populated city to the high-rises of an Asian megalopolis. Fine. But that means homeowners are forcing the burden of adjustment onto tenants. You can fight development or you can fight evictions, but you cannot logically fight both.

Rob's comment:
You can fight the development of primarily market-rate housing and evictions. The waterfront high-rise Nicholson refers to was for rich people, not ordinary residents of the city.

Building housing in San Francisco is hindered by a "sclerotic regulatory process" and "The scarcity of shelter in San Francisco is artificially imposed, the result of a decades-long resistance in many parts of the city to any kind of development"? 

That's simply untrue, but it's a recurring myth usually invoked whenever there's opposition to a project supported by City Hall: see this, this, and this. Like others who invoke the myth, Nicholson doesn't provide any specifics on exactly who/where there's opposition to "any kind of development."

The only recent obstacle to implementing San Francisco's already aggressive development policy was the Great Recession---not mentioned by Nicholson---which made it difficult for developers to get loans for all the projects already in the city's planning pipeline. Now that the recession is over, the development boom is in high gear.

I've been blogging about this issue for ten years. A post from last month provides a good summation of how the city has been dealing with development during that time. See also how the city's left has failed on housing and other issues.

Way back in 2004, Michael Bernick, one of the formulators of the transit corridors theory, tried to warn the city that applying the theory to "fragile" San Francisco neighborhoods is a mistake (San Francisco's Housing Element---Built on misunderstanding):

More important, transit ridership is not the only goal of transit-based housing. The main goal is community-building. Transit stations, especially heavy-rail stations, provide opportunity for new communities, whose residents are not dependent on automobiles for local or regional trips. These communities ("transit villages") mix housing with neighborhood-serving shops, public spaces, and other amenities, with streetscapes that encourage a safe and easy walk to the station.

By these characteristics, most San Francisco neighborhoods already qualify as transit villages. Their densities are far higher than in the suburbs---in fact, they are higher than nearly all urban areas outside New York City. They mix housing (multi-family and single-family) with commercial and neighborhood-serving retail uses; and residents can get around by foot and bicycle, as well as short automobile or bus trips.

Furthermore, a key transit village concept is scale. There is not one correct density for the transit village; rather, the appropriate density depends on the scale of the surrounding neighborhood. Transit villages respect the character of the surrounding neighborhood, especially as that character is supported by existing residents.

The Housing Element, in contrast, ignores neighborhood character. It seeks to squeeze persons into these neighborhoods, often in odd configurations and against neighborhood opposition. It assumes that many new residents will not own cars---even though our research showed that transit village residents, while using transit for many trips, do own autos and need parking...

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