Marin, California gear for transit hub zoning fight
By Katy Murphy and Erin Baldassari, Bay Area News Group
The train stop near San Marin Drive in Novato is one of four SMART stops in Marin, with more planned. Senate Bill 827 would allow housing of up to 10 stories near transit stations. (Robert Tong/Marin Independent Journal)
Taking aim at climate change, highway gridlock and soaring housing costs, a California lawmaker has ignited a red-hot debate with a proposal that would force cities to allow more apartments and condominiums to be built a short walk from train stations and bus stops.
Arguably the most radical in a series of legislative fixes for California’s crippling housing crisis, Senate Bill 827 has the potential to reshape neighborhoods up and down the state, from Berkeley to Los Angeles, by overriding single-family zoning and superceding limits on new housing near public transportation.
BAY AREA MAP > TALLER BUILDINGS NEAR TRANSIT?
In Marin, several cities have sent off letters of opposition, saying that usurping local control over development is not the way to build a community. Among the Marin cities in opposition are Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael and Novato.
“This legislation overrides local zoning and design considerations,” said Mill Valley Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters. “This is a problem.”
The Mill Valley City Council was among the first in Marin to take on the issue, saying that for the past two years, city officials have been working toward affordable housing efforts, including an affordable housing fund and committee. The council argued that the bill would undermine that work.
Likewise, the Marin County Board of Supervisors has taken a stance of opposition.
“We’ve consistently taken positions against measures that seek to establish a one-size-fits-all solution,” Supervisor Damon Connolly said. “You have to take local zoning and design standards into account while meeting housing objectives. ... We believe it’s an overreach.”
SB 827 is the latest attempt by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, to attack a severe housing shortage widely blamed for runaway rents, astronomical home prices, and the rise of climate-warming “super commutes” from far-flung suburbs.
“This bill goes right to the heart of what has prevented more building near transit in California,” said Ethan Elkind, who directs the climate program at Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. “It would be really transformative. Over the coming decade or so we could have millions of new homes with access to transit.”
The bill has electrified supporters — including the pro-development YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) coalition sponsoring it — who believe California’s attachment to single-family neighborhoods is strangling the state. And it has inflamed opponents, panicked by the prospect of stripping local government of some of its long-held authority and failure to ensure adequate affordable housing.
The measure would allow housing developments of four to eight stories within a half-mile radius of every BART station, SMART station, Caltrain stop or other rail hub, and a quarter-mile from bus stops with frequent service. The limit would be higher for main streets and developments near bus stops or immediately surrounding the rail stations.
The bill would also allow developers to apply an existing density bonus state law that encourages more housing near transit, adding roughly two stories to the total. That works out to six to 10 stories, depending on the location.
A map from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission with nearly identical parameters as the bill shows large swaths of Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose shaded where the legislation would apply, as well as around SMART stations in Marin.
In San Francisco alone, the planning department estimates height limits would increase in 96 percent of the city if the bill is ultimately approved.
Denise Pinkston, a developer who supports the bill, said in an interview that she expects some owners in affected areas would divide their sprawling homes into smaller apartments, or add two granny units to the backyard, or sell their house to a developer seeking to build a triplex or four-story walk-up on the lot.
“This is not Shanghai on the BART system,” she said, referring to the lofty skyline of the world’s largest city. “What you’re going to get is infill that’s going to feel more like Boston.”
That’s just what Wiener envisions. California has the capacity to add 1 million to 3 million homes within a half-mile of transit hubs, according to a 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report. But that won’t happen, he argues, as long as local elected officials stand in the way.
“Traditionally in California, we have viewed housing as purely a local issue with little or no role for the state,” he said in a recent interview. “That approach doesn’t work anymore. That approach of allowing this race to the bottom among local communities has helped to drive the car into a ditch, and we have to recalibrate.”
The proposal would not fundamentally change how cities evaluate and approve such projects. They could still reject a development if they deemed it would destroy a historical landmark or violate local demolition rules. But officials could no longer subject a proposed housing development to local height or density limits that are lower than those in the bill, or require developers to build off-street parking.
Wiener made his first revisions to SB 827 last week, adding anti-demolition provisions and other protections for tenants whose buildings could be redeveloped under the bill. But strong political headwinds will almost certainly require more compromises.
The idea quickly won the support of prominent tech leaders as well as trade associations representing landlords and developers. But the League of California Cities is opposed, and Wiener has yet to win over labor, a dominant force in Democratic state politics.
Cesar Diaz, a lobbyist for the powerful California Building and Trades Council, called the bill “incomplete” and lacking provisions such as those that require contractors to pay the prevailing wage — changes that could weaken the proposal’s impact.
Some housing advocates have yet to take a stance on the bill, disappointed it does not include affordable-housing requirements beyond what cities currently require.
Dave Coury of Corte Madera, a landlord and affordable housing advocate, said he believes SB 827 and the recent amendments are a “positive step in the right direction.”
“But it falls short in providing for incentives for affordable housing and protecting both areas that already provide housing for diversity as well as potentially disrupting areas that are not equipped to handle the density that the law allows,” he said, referring to targeted areas at the transit hub in Fairfax, bus stops in San Anselmo and the ferries in Sausalito and Tiburon. “The bill should be improved further.”
San Rafael activist Richard Hall called SB 827 “an extreme solution” that would “upzone large parts of Marin,” including Miller Avenue and East Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from Larkspur through San Anselmo.
“These are some of the most acutely congested areas in our county,” he said. “Marin needs more affordable housing, but housing that is locally planned and not a dictate from the state.”
Marin Independent Journal reporter Adrian Rodriguez contributed to this report.
SB 827 DETAILS
• What is it? A closely watched state zoning bill that would force cities to allow taller buildings near transit. It would apply to the half mile surrounding every SMART station, Caltrain stop or other rail hub, and a quarter of a mile around bus stops with frequent bus service. Cities could not use lower height or density limits to reject projects proposed within those areas or require off-street parking.
• How high? Up to roughly four stories on side streets or five stories on main streets. Those limits get even higher within a block of a rail station or a quarter mile of a stop with frequent bus service: five stories on side streets and eight stories on main streets. The bill would also allow developers to apply an existing state law that encourages more housing near transit, adding roughly two stories to the total. That works out to six to 10 stories, depending on the location.
• Who is for it? Tech CEOs and associations representing landlords, developers and realtors, SPUR, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council. California YIMBY, a coalition of pro-housing groups, is the bill’s sponsor.
• Who’s against it? The League of California Cities, Sierra Club California, the Marin County Board of Supervisors and several cities, including Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael and Novato.
• New amendments: Sen. Scott Wiener announced changes to the bill last week to protect tenants from being evicted or displaced as a result of the legislation. The changes would require developers to give tenants, even in cities without rent control, a “Right to Remain Guarantee.” That includes moving expenses and assistance to cover higher rent in a comparable temporary apartment for up to 42 months during construction, and the right to live in the newly built apartment building with the same rent.