New zon­ing nul­li­fi­ca­tion plan has same old flaws

Porterville Recorder - - OPINION - Thomas ELIAS Email Thomas Elias at [email protected] For more Elias col­umns, visit www.cal­i­for­ni­afo­cus.net.

Cal­i­for­nia’s hous­ing cri­sis was bad enough last year, when Gov. Gavin New­som – then a mere can­di­date – called for build­ing 350,000 new units ev­ery year for the next decade.

The crunch is worse this year, with some of those who lost their homes to last fall’s dis­as­trous wildfires now added to the tens of thou­sands al­ready home­less and liv­ing on streets around the state and hun­dreds of thou­sands more who are housed, but over­crowded be­yond the lim­its of many lo­cal codes.

This scene last year led San Fran­cisco’s Demo­cratic state Sen. Scott Wiener to push a pro­posed law al­low­ing builders to over­ride lo­cal zon­ing or­di­nances and place high-rise apart­ment build­ings with a plen­i­tude of “af­ford­able” units near light rail sta­tions or heav­ily used bus routes. This pro­posal didn’t last long in the Leg­is­la­ture last year, shot down by a coali­tion of lo­cal gov­ern­ments, home­owner groups and lack of en­thu­si­asm by for­mer Gov. Jerry Brown, an ad­vo­cate of lo­cal govern­ment con­trols since his years as mayor of Oak­land.

But there is more pres­sure now to over­ride lo­cal con­trols on de­vel­op­ment, and Wiener is back with a slightly re­done ver­sion of his build­ing plan, which would re­verse a cen­tury of Cal­i­for­nia ur­ban sprawl by con­cen­trat­ing de­vel­op­ment in ar­eas long be­lieved to be built out.

Wiener has touted the changes he’s made to his pro­posal for the last cou­ple of months, stress­ing ways the newer ver­sion pan­ders to the de­sires of left-wing “pro­gres­sives” dis­sat­is­fied with the pre­vi­ous ver­sion.

Now known as SB 50, the mea­sure would let cities de­lay build­ing in ar­eas where long­stand­ing apart­ment ten­ants might be at risk of evic­tion to make way for newly-man­dated high rises. If a ten­ant has been in a build­ing more than seven years, for ex­am­ple, that build­ing couldn’t be de­mol­ished to make way for a new, far taller one.

This is meant to ap­pease ten­ant groups that dom­i­nate pol­i­tics in cities like Santa Monica, San Fran­cisco and other cur­rently dense places.

But the essence of Wiener’s orig­i­nal plan re­mains: It al­lows new build­ings of six to eight sto­ries in all ar­eas within half a mile of any light-rail sta­tion or within one-quar­ter mile of a fre­quently used bus route. Pref­er­ences of lo­cal vot­ers, city or county gov­ern­ments and nearby home­own­ers or apart­ment dwellers wouldn’t mat­ter.

As Wiener says, such de­vel­op­ment could prob­a­bly never occur un­less the state man­dated it. Few lo­cal of­fi­cials could sur­vive po­lit­i­cally if they okayed high-rises over­look­ing the yards of thou­sands of sin­gle-fam­ily homes or caused the tear­downs of ex­pen­sive con­do­mini­ums.

But Wiener claims many elected of­fi­cials tell him they want dense de­vel­op­ment, but can’t pub­licly ad­mit it. He told the New York Times that “City coun­cils, may­ors, county su­per­vi­sors have (told) me ‘We can’t say this, but we need help. We need to be able to tell our con­stituents ‘We have to ap­prove this project be­cause the state re­quires it.’”

But just as the state’s high-speed rail project has seen years of de­lay and op­po­si­tion over at­tempts to take land by em­i­nent do­main, forced new de­vel­op­ment could also run into le­gal buzz saws. Es­pe­cially new de­vel­op­ment with vir­tu­ally no new park­ing spa­ces re­quired.

For ex­am­ple, Wiener’s plan is founded on the no­tion that denser hous­ing won’t worsen grid­locked traf­fic be­cause new res­i­dents will ride nearby trains and buses. Fig­ures from the Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sug­gest that’s pie in the sky.

The bus and light rail agency re­ported last year that bus rid­er­ship shrank in the re­gion by 15 per­cent in 2017 from lev­els of five years ear­lier, while rail rid­er­ship was up 4 mil­lion – less than the drop in bus rid­er­ship. Trans­la­tion: there’s been some switch­ing from buses to trains, but lit­tle net in­crease in mass tran­sit riders de­spite cre­ation of sev­eral new lines cost­ing bil­lions of dol­lars.

So the logic be­hind Wiener’s plan re­mains false and would worsen ex­ist­ing grid­lock in cities he wants to den­sify. It ig­nores many thou­sands of home­own­ers who in­vested their life sav­ings in res­i­dences Wiener’s plan could rad­i­cally down­grade.

The bot­tom line: Some other so­lu­tion must be sought, be­cause it ac­com­plishes lit­tle to be­gin solv­ing one se­ri­ous prob­lem while mak­ing other prob­lems far worse.

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