Dear Albany residents,
With this blog post I’m asking you take a stand on an important issue in Albany. Here is the contact information for our State Senator Nancy Skinner. I’m asking you to read the following, and if you agree with me, contact Sen. Skinner to let her know that a bill she co-authored, SB 827, is unnecessary and should be abandoned.
The bill is a clumsy attempt to micro-manage local government zoning decisions in a way that will not (at least in Albany) address the problem of housing shortages. And probably not anywhere else. But it will cause many other problems.
I see SB 827 as part of a growing trend to scapegoat elected local government officials and brand them as obstructionists. I strongly suspect that with the success of right-wing, pro-business groups in Washington, DC, and with the takeover of many state governments by the same interests, the focus of these groups is now turning to demonizing local governments, which are becoming the last bastions of community-based democratic control.
I have spent too many weeks writing a draft about a bill from last session, SB 649, which was also supported by Sen. Skinner (but opposed by our Assembly Member Tony Thurmond). This bill was a giveaway to Verizon and AT&T and other cell phone providers. The bill would have stripped local governments of the ability to regulate to location of mini-cell phone transmitters in neighborhoods.
Bills like this are the brainchild of ALEC, a right-wing organization that provides model conservative legislation at the state level. Fortunately, Governor Brown, who learned something about the value of local governance while the mayor of Oakland, vetoed SB 649. I’ll reexamine SB 649, and its relationship with net neutrality, in a later post.
Now my concern turns to SB 827, which remains threat to local governance generally and to Albany specifically. As an introduction, here is the op/ed piece I wrote on SB 827 for the East Bay Times. It appeared in the Albany Journal on Friday, March 16 (the editorial text is in italics):
Opinion: Albany has lessons for bill that will encourage ugly, thoughtless growth
The year 2017 was when California’s Legislature began to take the state’s housing crisis seriously. A package of 15 bills, written by a variety of state senators and Assembly members, was signed by the governor.
To implement these bills, new administrative codes will have to be written, money will have to be allocated to state agencies and new staff will have to be hired and trained. Meanwhile, legislators are already crafting new housing bills.
In the middle of this flurry of activity, Senate Bill 827 has landed with a thud. It is such a troublesome piece of legislation that it has local government officials (like me) scratching our heads. The bill was sponsored by San Francisco’s state Sen. Scott Weiner and Assembly member Phil Ting, along with East Bay state Sen. Nancy Skinner. It is unclear who actually wrote the bill, but it was clearly someone who lacks experience.
The bill is based on the notion that zoning restrictions should be removed along public transit corridors, allowing apartment buildings up to 85 feet tall to be built by developers, with almost no review by planning departments. This will apply statewide. If a developer wants to build a drab big-box apartment building that fills an entire lot, local planners will have no control over how it looks, except for making recommendations on paint and trim.
The authors of SB 827 made some rookie mistakes. For example, the bill ties maximum building heights on transit corridors to curb-to-curb widths, which can vary as sidewalks are replaced, triggering zoning changes. A deeper problem is that the definition of a transit corridor hinges on bus schedules. A change in bus schedules can also trigger changes in zoning, making the transit agency a city’s de facto zoning agency.
Even worse, the bill’s definitions of transit corridors are so broad that with minor exceptions, the whole city of San Francisco becomes a zoning-free transit corridor. If SB 827 passes as written, most of Albany will be defined as a transit corridor, and our current zoning maps will become irrelevant. Large parts of our city would be upzoned to allow for bulky buildings of up to 85 feet tall — even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.
The bill is also notable for what it leaves out. The bill makes no effort to encourage affordable housing. If anything, it will discourage developers from creating affordable apartments. Nor does the bill do anything to reform the state’s absurdly bureaucratic and abused CEQA review process
SB 827 is a mess — and an unnecessary one. Like other cities and counties in the state, Berkeley and San Francisco already have the authority to change their zoning laws. If the bill’s sponsors can’t create local political coalitions, elect their allies to city councils and have them vote to change zoning, why should the state get involved? Our senators’ effort to allow Sacramento to override local zoning authority is a sign of the weakness of their ideas, not their strength.
Our little city of Albany has some lessons to share about this controversy. Back in the 1970s, Albany’s city council allowed the development of small, boxy, unattractive apartment buildings with inadequate parking. The neighbors began to complain about both how these structures looked and how street parking was being affected. In 1978, a group of Albany residents took matters into their own hands and passed a local voter initiative, Measure D. The measure required two off-street parking places for new residential development, and prevented zoning changes in residential neighborhoods.
Today, Albany’s residents are concerned about high rents and housing shortages, and the city is trying to do its part to help. Over the years, Measure D has turned out to be a big headache. In 2016 the Albany City Council proposed an amendment to Measure D that removed the parking restrictions. Its success gave a green light to our homeowners to develop “in-law” accessory dwelling units.
Albany’s city council and our residents both favor thoughtful growth that makes our city more lively, attractive and walkable. But there is another kind of growth. For lack of better term, let’s call it thoughtless growth. Albany experimented with thoughtless growth in the 1970s. The result was resentment, lack of trust and backlash. Decades later, we are still living with the political consequences. (The unattractive apartment buildings are still here, too.)
SB 827 will encourage ugly, thoughtless growth. State Sens. Wiener and Skinner would do themselves and their communities a favor by keeping in mind what happened right here in Albany in the 1970s. We don’t want to be forced to repeat the past.
Michael Barnes is a member of the Albany City Council. He is expressing his personal opinions and not speaking on behalf of the Albany City Council.
By the time my op-ed appeared in print, the original version of the bill had passed through its first committee hearing and had been amended. A good review of the changes can be found here as a big pdf. Scroll down to the second-to-last page for a one-page summary. Here is the League of California Cities’s letter to Sen. Wiener opposing the revised bill.
Basically, one of the rookie errors I mentioned, basing street width on curb-to-curb measurements, was changed to measurements based on property line boundaries. And in the revised bill some local planning elements will be allowed, including daylight planes and setbacks from the streets. In addition, the bill now specifies floor-area ratios. These changes will prevent buildings from becoming too bulky and occupying whole lots.
However, minimum building heights of up to 85 feet will are not changed. The bill still eliminates most of Albany’s current zoning. And the new version doesn’t allow for any subjective design review. As long as buildings conform to some basic objective standards, they are allowed to be ugly. The suggestions of local planning and zoning commissions on how to make the building more attractive can be ignored.
Below is an image of how zoning in Albany would change under SB 827. You can click to enlarge the image. The blue circles show areas within a half-mile radius of major transit stops, including both our local BART stations (North Berkeley and El Cerrito Plaza) and the intersection of two main bus routes where Solano and San Pablo Avenues meet. The green areas show the regions within a quarter mile of bus routes the run at 15-minute intervals or more often during peak times. Here and here are two sources of maps with the zoning overlays.
Most of Albany would be upzoned to allow buildings with a height of 85 feet in the green areas, and up to 55 feet in the blue areas. The two areas of Albany not affected would be the area NE of Memorial Park and the area near St. Mary’s High School.
To provide a sense of scale here is a photo of one of the taller apartment buildings in Albany, at about 40 feet tall. This is about half the height of new buildings that would be allowed in the green areas in the map above under SB 827.
There remain several other problems with the bill. First of all, it doesn’t make sense to base zoning on bus routes and bus stops. Buses move, buildings don’t. It makes more sense to take buses to the buildings than vice versa. Sen. Wiener has argued that bus routes in San Francisco should be considered fixed, but that is not what I heard from AC Transit planners at a recent meeting I attended in Richmond. They spoke at length about how bus routes often need to be adjusted. Under SB 827 when bus routes and bus stops are adjusted, zoning automatically follows, and that can create serious problems.
Alternatively, if we could just convince AC Transit not to run buses through Albany too often, that would instantly solve many of the problems that SB 827 would create. The bill’s transit-orientated zoning requirements apply only to bus routes that run at 15-minute intervals (or more often) during peak times. The bill unintentionally creates perverse incentives to slow down transit growth because of the zoning problems that would result.
Secondly, circles and squares don’t mix. Cities are laid out in grids. SB 827’s zoning rules around BART and bus stops are based on circles. That means curving zoning boundaries will cut city blocks into oddly shaped pieces. For buildings cut in half by these circular zoning boundaries, precise calculations with have to be used to determine which set of zoning rules apply. From a practical standpoint, this will be a big problem for planners—the zoning equivalent of trying to put square pegs in round holes.
Thirdly, this one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter zoning doesn’t work given the variety of cities throughout the state. Albany exists on a different scale than Los Angeles. Albany packs 18,500 people into about one square mile of developed space. Our city’s population density (and ethnic composition) is remarkably similar to San Francisco’s, which packs 871,000 people into 47 square miles of developed space. The City of Los Angeles alone, not including its metropolitan area, holds 3.976 million people in 469 square miles at a density of 8,480 people per square mile. That Albany and Los Angeles should be subjected to the same top-down zoning rules doesn’t make sense.
Apart from all the problems above, there is a fatal flaw in SB 827—when it comes to building more housing, zoning is seldom the main problem. The important thing to remember is that cities don’t build housing, developers do. Here is a short list of constraints that get in the way:
1) Lack of property for sale.
2) Lack of interest among trustworthy developers.
3) Lack of capital.
4) Lack of a skilled workforce.
5) Burdensome regulations (including state-mandated ones like CEQA).
Unless all of these constraints are removed, new housing doesn’t happen. In a built-out city like Albany, 1) is the main problem. Further north, even before the fires in the Santa Rosa area, 3) and 4) were the problems. In other parts of the state, it’s other combinations.
Under existing law, cities are already required to zone for densities at levels necessary to meet their entire state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). This does not mean cities have to build housing themselves, only that local zoning cannot be an impediment.
In other words, under current law, zoning is not allowed to be a binding constraint. If zoning isn’t a binding constraint, then what good does it to do to relax this constraint? Why is it rational to assume that relaxing zoning requirements statewide will lead to a building boom, if they are not the main problem in the first place?
The proponents of SB 827 fail to address this issue. The reality is that in different cities and in different regions, different sets of constraints are binding. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why local control remains important.
Sen. Wiener might have to you believe that building new multi-family housing in San Francisco is bogged down in morass of zoning rules. But it’s not. Nor would gentrification be solved by turning San Francisco, one of our country’s most beautiful cities, into a zoning-free laughing stock like Houston, TX. Some portions of Houston are gentrifying quickly, while San Francisco is not.
There is a real problem with bills like SB 827 and the pie-in-the-sky talk coming from some gubernatorial candidates that propose simplistic solutions to complex problems—they create unrealistic expectations that will eventually fail to be met, leading to cynicism and backlash. A good rule of thumb is that solving problems in the public sector takes at least as long as it took to create the problems in the first place. California’s housing crisis has been gaining steam for years, and it may take a generation of hard work to turn it around.
We have our work cut out for us, and SB 827 isn’t the tool we need to get it done. I suspect Sen. Wiener is opportunistic and ambitious enough to realize this and not care, just as as long as he gets the media attention. Meanwhile, other thoughtful legislators, with more thoughtful approaches (here and here) get very little media attention.
That’s why I encourage you to write to Sen. Skinner to encourage her to drop this bill. Again, here is her contact information. And while you’re at it, please contact our Assembly Member Tony Thurmond here. Unlike Sen. Skinner, he voted the right way on SB 649 last session, so I’m hoping he can support our concerns once again.