Tuesday August 11, 2015 - 10:23:00 PM
Smart growth is simply not working in highly attractive urban settings such as San Francisco. The reason is that smart growth in these areas has a paradoxical effect. The reasons are as follows:
From a climatological and topographical standpoint, San Francisco has always been a desirable place to live. There has never been a time when people didn’t want to live there. On the other hand, something very strange has happened in the last 10-15 years. The city has vaulted dramatically to the top in our country to become the most expensive major urban city in the USA for rentals, and the second most gridlocked city in the nation. Why has this happened at the same time that smart growth policies became fully imbedded in local urban planning decisions!? We are getting the exact opposite of what smart growth policy promises should happen! High rise residential structures have exploded all over San Francisco, but the gridlock and prices just seem to be getting worse and worse.
The reason is two-fold. The Bay Area happens to be the cradle for one of the greatest economic revolutions in human history—the high-tech revolution. But this revolution was born in the Santa Clara valley, which does not have the topographical and climatological assets that are characteristic of the North Bay. For a considerable period of time, this did not make much difference in habitation patterns. The techies involved in the industry remained in the valley close to their companies. Being well-paid, they bid up residential prices in the area to quite high levels. Then came the smart phone app application revolution, combined with the move of financial firms to San Francisco, and the concomitant decisions by city planners to start driving the city skyward. San Francisco suddenly became THE place to live if you wanted to show you had “made it”, and all these techies decided they wanted to live in this new “Manhattan”. High rise buildings are part of this “vibe”. As one Bay Area city planner told me when I objected to skyscrapers for Berkeley, “Americans love skyscrapers!”. For awhile, techies started moving to San Francisco and taking corporate buses back to the Valley for their jobs each day. This still goes on. But, increasingly, they now have such high salaries that they can actually buy a condo in the city—and that is the key variable driving the current price explosion.
The other key variable is the fact that, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, about 20% of SF residential purchases are by foreign buyers, primarily from China, as investment vehicles for getting assets offshore. And, frequently, these foreign purchases are empty most of the year. Everybody wants to be part of the new “Gotham by the Bay”. This is why, the more you build, the more they will keep coming—with the disastrous environmental effects of gridlock that we are now seeing. The smart growth theory is that this high-rise density actually can be used to force people out of their cars. Some of the more cynical smart growth advocates actually say that, eventually, the gridlock will get so destructive that people will have no other choice but to virtually abandon the automobile. This mantra is particularly prevalent among young techies. But, sadly, this is the fallacy of hope over experience. It simply is not happening in any urban area that has very limited land availability(SF), high topological/climatological desirability(SF), and high disposable income among the professional class(once again, SF).
To date, Berkeley has not yet become totally infected with this virus—but we are on the cusp. This drive by techies, and out of country buyers, to live in SF at all costs can not be realized by all. Some just don’t have quite enough money to realize the dream. What to do? Move across the bay to the next best alternative—Oakland and Berkeley, commute to our jobs in SF and hope that the “Manhattanization” of Berkeley(for example) moves ahead fast enough so that it can be seen as an “acceptable life-style” type of place to live. The sad fact is that, then,what has happened to SF is going to happen to Berkeley—and fast! We are already starting to see the first wave of this impact. Gridlock is growing, prices are going up steadily, lower income residents are being pushed out. And we are rapidly losing the particular aesthetic, architectural, and livable character of this low-rise city. And the city planners plan for even more of this by urging the construction of high rises because this, allegedly, will provide more housing, at more affordable rates, for all. Unfortunately, this won’t happen.
What we will get instead is "Manhattan by the East Bay”, ever more unaffordable as it becomes a perhaps equally “acceptable" place to live as SF. The bottom line is that, for high desirability, land deficit, urban areas, the high rise codicil to smart growth philosophy simply doesn’t work. The problem is that urban planners simply are refusing to believe that “the emperor has no clothes”. In the face of reality staring them in the face they simply can’t admit what is happening before their very eyes—and ears and noses! When the Downtown Plan was passed several years ago, the people of Berkeley had not come to realize this either. But in the meantime, this revolution in urban development has exploded with exponential force. More and more of the public is beginning to come to terms with what urban planning, by “the best and the brightest” hath wrought—and they don’t like it. This is why Harold Way must be stopped at all costs, Once the people of Berkeley allow city development to cross this high-rise Rubicon, and set a true high-rise precedent in our fair city, there is no turning back. The die will have been cast.
And finally, what happens if this current tech bubble bursts—as it has before—and many are predicting that it will soon—and real estate prices begin to tumble rapidly—as they did so recently. Then we will have a downtown stuck with high-rise structures that don’t appear to be such good investments, and tax reservoirs, after all. In fact, they will be white elephants. This is why true, “smart growth” for Berkeley is to proceed with mid-rise, 4-6 story infill development along the lines of what is presently going on. After all, this has been good enough for Paris, why should it not be good enough for us! There is plenty of opportunity for this to be done—despite what some city planners say. One can argue about the aesthetics and neighborhood impact of these structures, and this is the proper purview of the Design Review Committee, but this more cautious approach to downtown development provides far more protection against the inevitable real estate bust that is coming.