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Shills and Charlatans of "Smart Growth"Uploaded: Jun 16, 2014
Any decent manager approaching a new project asks about the lessons-learned from similar projects. Novices ask about successes, not realizing how hard it usually is to distinguish the key factors in such successes from ones that were merely incidental. Experienced managers use the discussion of successes as a warm-up for a discussion of the failures, of how failing projects were turned-around, and of how problems were avoided. That is where you find the important lessons-learned. Such managers then ask about the size of the "sweet spot"—how much room there is for scaling up and down, and beyond that what are the rates of diminishing returns.
When I talk to "Smart Growth" advocates—professional planners, politicians, citizens—I rarely encounter any of this, and even then it is minimal. When I try to raise the lessons-learned question, the typical response is that every "Smart Growth" project has been a success, and that every "Smart Growth" project will be a success.
Why "Shills and Charlatans"? Judge advocates by what they do, not what they say. When there is a persistent lack of due-diligence relative to the proclaimed goals, and when there is a failure to make credible adjustments to projects as problems are identified, this licenses the assessment that there is a different agenda involved.
In evaluating the seriousness and credibility of a theory or approach, I listen to the significant presentations of the ideas—ones that are given by an acknowledged spokesperson for those ideas and that should have been carefully prepared and had its remarks vetted. For example, a formal presentation that has been given to multiple significant audiences. (Aside: I expect a certain amount of hyperbole and nonsense to creep into informal remarks, and into remarks by "J. Random" adherents, that is ones who don't rise to the level of a spokesperson.) The following is based on my many years of participation in meetings, from those on individual projects to ones on city-wide policy to ones on regional policy. The advocates of "Smart Growth" include City Staff, consultants, and citizen advocates, and a few regional planners (ABAG, MTC, VTA).
For "Smart Growth" as practiced here, my experience has been that the proffered rationalizations for projects routinely fall apart under the most cursory of examinations. When one continues to find glaring problems with the data, the logic and adherence to its own stated goals/principles, it becomes difficult to see it as a genuine problem-solving approach. (More H. L. Mencken: "The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived.").
One of the patterns throughout history is that of well-intentioned causes getting exploited/hijacked/usurped… for different, often contrary, agendas.(foot#2) Because this problem is so well-known, my view is that supporters of a cause have a responsibility for how practice differs from theory, and that only small allowances are to be given for those supporters "having good intentions".
Exceptional cases proffered as typical:
Example: The City's Planning Department hosted a series of talks on the State laws pushing densification in cities, with speakers who had been highly influential in the formulation of those laws. The rationale was that densification would greatly shorten commutes, which would reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG). One speaker asserted that a newly minted lawyer hired by a firm in the Stanford Research Park would be unable to find any housing that she could afford any closer than Tracy (60-some miles, map). Another speaker asserted that an engineer hired by H-P would have to go all the way to Los Banos for housing (95 miles, map). (foot#3) During question time, I noted that Census data indicated that Mountain View to Santa Clara (foot#4) was far more likely and asked how that would change their judgment. The question was squelched by a Council member (I forget which one).
Example: In talks by Smart Growth advocates, you are likely to see a picture of a large house—4,000-8,000 sq.ft.—on a lot of well over an acre, and with spectacular views. You will be told that the reason that people are buying such houses is the unavailability of their preferred choice: much smaller apartments and condos in a high-density development near a train station.(foot#5) (foot#6)
For the "public outreach" meetings for One Bay Area plan, ABAG/MTC/… had hired a highly partisan group, Greenbelt Alliance, which ran those meetings like pep-rallies for their politics/biases. (foot#7) It is not that much of an exaggeration to characterize the public-input opportunities they provided as: "How much do you agree with our position?" (a) "Enthusiastically", (b) "Unreservedly", (c) "1000%", (d) "All of these". I went to the meeting intended for northern Santa Clara County, which Palo Alto's then-Director of Planning Curtis Williams also attended. In his report to City Council on that meeting, he expressed serious disappointment with how it had been conducted.
During the primary presentation, the Greenbelt Alliance speaker said that the problem with building additional housing on the outskirts of cities was that fire engines would have to travel longer and longer distances from the existing fire stations, adding to Greenhouse Gases. I looked around and the faithful were nodding in agreement. Didn't they realize that when housing developments that large are built, they are accompanied by a range of supporting infrastructure: schools, parks, fire stations… That ABAG/MTC/… would allow such nonsense to be part of the primary presentation at major meetings indicates how intellectually corrupt the process was.
Commuting from San Francisco
Currently, the most prominent instance of misrepresenting the commute problem revolves around the "Google buses" (and those of similar high-tech companies). The problem is that high tech workers are squeezing out other long-time residents of San Francisco. But you see this being used as a justification for additional high-density developments in Palo Alto and other Peninsula/South Bay cities. The implication is that these high tech workers are locating in San Francisco because it is more affordable than Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara… Really? Might it not be that these are people choosing San Francisco for lifestyle/culture?
The second fallacious part of the diagnosis of San Francisco's problem with high tech workers is that this is primarily the result of job increases on the Peninsula/South Bay. This conveniently ignores that San Francisco has been aggressively, and successfully, pursuing high tech companies to locate there for over 15 years (since during the Dot-Com boom).
Rejecting local experience
"Smart Growth", as it is practiced here, has an established history of rejecting local experience that differs from what the ideology calls for. Case-in-point: The Arbor Real development (El Camino and Charleston; former Hyatt Rickey's). ABAG's demands for facilitating large amounts of high-density housing caused this site to be included, despite it having negligible walkable destinations and being poorly served by usable transit (experience from residents' behavior in similar developments). Based upon national averages, the developer claimed that virtually none of the residents would have children. In hearing after hearing, residents pointed out that experience with similar local developments amply demonstrated that this was not the case here. Yet City Staff recommended, and Council approved, a development based on this negligible-children assumption. (foot#8) The year the units started to go on sale, the local elementary school (Juana Briones) was under-subscribed and received the overflow from other sections of the city. The very next year, the number of children in the new units overwhelmed that school, leaving some parents to drive their children to other schools. Even for students at Briones, some/many parents were driving because they didn't see the route as safe-enough for children (especially crossing El Camino during peak traffic hours). "Smart Growth" was used as a transparent smokescreen for the true impacts of this development on public infrastructure.(foot#9) And where did the "Smart Growth" advocates stand on this: They had wanted to see even higher density—none of the other supposed principles/goals of "Smart Growth" mattered to them.
Similarly, in projecting the number of Caltrain users from a proposed development, the City Staff and "Smart Growth" advocates use numbers much higher than local experience (such as the Palo Alto Central complex which is right there at the Cal Ave Caltrain station). City Staff has resolutely resisted collecting statistics on usage (foot#10) However, there is/was useful data available from the San Mateo County portion of Caltrain. The Palo Alto Planning Department sponsored a talk by the operators of Caltrain (part of SamTrans: San Mateo Transit) that included a profile of who used Caltrain and why. For the cities similar to Palo Alto, it was not the residents of the typical high density development near the tracks. But did this become part of Palo Alto's planning? Of course not. Palo Alto, supported by "Smart Growth" advocates, base their projections on statistics from dissimilar rail systems.
Remember to not conflate/combine in-bound users with out-bound: People commuting into Palo Alto (work) tend to be very different from those using Caltrain to commute from Palo Alto to work.
Rejecting outside expertise:
Example from Mountain View: During the planning of the redevelopment of the San Antonio Shopping Center, Mountain View officials repeatedly said that they wanted it to be another Santana Row, and persisted in this long after a developer explained why he viewed it as impossible. (foot#11) The developer's assessment may well have been skewed by his own interests and biases, but I didn't see responses from the planners about why his points were wrong (but it being a Mountain View story, I could have missed that).
One of the repeated problems I have encountered with "Smart Growth" project proposals is that the advocates try to sell it as meeting a laundry list of noble goals, but then refuse to deal with the contradictions that are revealed by even basic questions about the details.
For example, the California Avenue area has been designated as a Priority Development Area (PDA) (because it is close to a Caltrain station), with the purpose of enabling and accelerating the redevelopment of the area to much higher density.(foot#12) (Note: Do not confuse the rezoning for the PDA with the Streetscape Project.) The initial part of the vision articulated by "Smart Growth" advocates, government and citizens, was for the area to be a tiny version of Santana Row, disregarding whether it had the critical mass to be even that. But that vision rejected a key aspect of Santana Row—the synergy between the housing and the retail. Santana Row's housing targets people who have the income and leisure time to spend in upscale restaurants and boutiques. The vision articulated for the Cal Ave housing was that it be predominantly "affordable" units. The visionaries refused to consider that the envisioned retail would be of negligible use to those residents, and those businesses would therefore not have the expected benefit from patronage by those residents. And since those residents would be badly served by the nearby business, they would have to drive to many of their destinations. All this is contrary to the purported goals of "Smart Growth".
Over the years, my experience with development projects has been that people who identify themselves as supporters of "Smart Growth" are indistinguishable from those who advocate simply for more and higher density commercial projects and for high-density housing.
Readers, if you can remember instances when "Smart Growth" advocates opposed a high-density project as a misapplication of the principles of "Smart Growth", those would be interesting additions (in the comments).
"Principles" that are infinitely flexible
"Smart Growth" calls for concentrating high density near transit centers because of the valid observation that in the generic case transit usage typically falls off very quickly with distance. In multiple presentations I have heard professional planners use a half mile, or less, as the boundary. But when a developer wants to build a high-density project where usable transit is far beyond that distance, the "Smart Growth" advocates turn out to support such projects. If you try to talk details with them, expect to be dismissed with the statement "Anywhere is Palo Alto is close to transit". If you follow-up on this, don't be surprised to get one of a variety of contorted explanations. My personal favorite is "Anywhere is Palo Alto is closer to transit than Tracy (is?)." Some advocate mean that quite literally, whereas others treat it as a shorthand for the technical ability to extend bus lines to serve such a development, ignoring the issue of cost and usability (satisfactory levels of service).
Refusal to consider how things work in the real world
During the considerations of the 195 Page Mill project (between Park Blvd and the Caltrain tracks; currently under construction), the representation was made that an exceptionally high proportion of the residents would use public transit. Various of us pointed out that parents of elementary school students would likely be driving them because both of the distance (1.4 miles) and the small-pedestrian-unfriendly route (including crossing El Camino during peak hours). (foot#13) Question: If the parent has already driven the child to school, isn't that parent more likely to continue driving to work rather than drive back through heavy congestion in order to catch a train? This is the sort of practical question that I have repeatedly found "Smart Growth" advocates unwilling to even consider.
Related blog entries (past and planned)
1.(Introduction) Stupid Growth: So-called "Smart Growth" is a cancer on the community
2.The Law of Supply and XXXXXX, and other bad economics
1.Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?
2.Public Transit Follies
---- Footnotes ----
1. Popularized version of H.L. Mencken's "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." from "The Divine Afflatus" in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); later published in "Prejudices: Second Series"(1920) and "A Mencken Chrestomathy" (1949)
2. Historical example: Communist/Third International (aka Comintern) (Wikipedia) and its successors. While idealistic individuals around the world saw this as advancing the cause of Socialism/Communism, the USSR used it to advance their national interests, and the USSR leadership was so cynical and contemptuous of those other Communists that they referred to them as "Useful Idiots (Wikipedia)",which has become political terminology that is used more often in a cautionary sense than as an accusation or characterization.
Please do not use this term here—it is too provocative.
3. From a series of talks hosted by the Palo Alto Dept of Planning and Community environment in 2009-2010 entitled "Planning for Sustainable Development". These talks focused on state law SB375 "Land Use and Green House Gas". A talk on 10 November 2009 by Kenneth Kirkey, Planning Director, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Ted Droettboom, Regional Planning Program Director, Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The JPC coordinates the regional planning efforts of ABAG, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), The Bay Area Quality Management District, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.A talk on 16 February 2010 entitled "Charting the Future under SB375" by Bill Fulton "a highly regarded expert on planning and land use statewide and nationally and is the author of the "Guide to California Planning", as well as being a journalist and a current member of the City of Ventura City Council."
4. Acterra hosted a panel of three talks on Smart Growth in February 2007. I was invited as the skeptic as a balance to two advocates—Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, and the Greenbelt Alliance.My talk was entitled "Smart Growth: Caveats from a Skeptic ("Yes, ...but what about...", "Show me the data!")" and its slides are available. See slide 7 for a breakdown of where people who work in Palo Alto live, based upon the 2000 Census. Although the data was dated at the time of the talk, I regarded it as still useful because more recent data—to which I did not have access—was showing that the average commute had decreased
Aside: I have not bothered to update the numbers for the 2010 Census because Smart Growth advocates showed no interest in considering such data.
Notice that San Joaquin County (Tracy+) accounts for only 0.4% of the commuters, and that there are more commuters from Sonoma County than from San Joaquin (348 vs 333). And for the Los Banos fallacy, notice the commuters from San Benito County (189) are outnumbered by those from Marin and by those from Southern California. If the Smart Growth advocates were to claim that people were commuting from Marin, Sonoma, and San Diego because they couldn't find housing they could afford in Palo Alto, they would be laughed out of the room. So why is "affordability" assumed to be the only/primary reason for commuters from San Joaquin and San Benito?
5. Example: a series of talks by Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, including: "Cities for All Ages: Land Use and Our Aging Population" 03 June 2010 (in Palo Alto City Council Chambers), "GLUE: Green, Liveable Urban Environment" February 2007 (Acterra), and "Winds of Change" 28 January 2006 (American Association of University Women)
6. My initial reaction was that these pictures were just hyperbole to get the audience thinking. While that might have been the case in the distant past, the presenters now seem to actually believe this (based on responses to my questions).
7. Further indication that Greenbelt Alliance regarded this meeting as theirs: Although it was advertised as an official public-input meeting, they took the email address from my sign-in and put it on their list of supporters of their advocacy group.
8. Residents did score some minor "victories". At one stage, the developer, with Staff's concurrence, tried to count narrow landscaping segments, such as between the sidewalk and curb, as part of the required "open space" (where people could play, exercise…).
9. The City's pattern of understating impacts has multiple motivations. For one, it allows the developer to avoid payments to mitigate those impacts. For another, it facilitates approval of projects so large that there is no reasonable mitigation.
10. I have pointed out to the PA Planning Dept that there are students in Urban Studies and other disciplines for whom collecting and analyzing the data would be an interesting and useful group class project. First surveys can often be done by inexperienced people because their primary goal is to give a sense of direction and what needs to be in the follow-on survey to make it useful (and more accurate).
11. Dense homes at San Antonio called 'pipe dream': With 16 shopping center owners and Walmart in the mix, a Santana Row-like development is not possible, Thoits says (Mountain View Voice, 2009 February 13).
12. This designation was at the insistence of ABAG/MTC. It was made by then-City Manager Frank Benest without notification to Council or the public, and hence no public input or debate. Council subsequently voted to retroactively approve with that decision.
13. The site is right on the attendance boundary between the Escondido ES and Barron Park ES (map).