Could the Bay Area solve its housing crisis by building in city centers? An SF group thinks so

This is just a narrow slice of the vision laid out in a series of 26 reports by the urban think tank SPUR, set to be released Thursday. The 50-year “regional strategy,” Bay Area 2070, attempts to redesign the region by looking at housing, transportation, growth, racial equity and climate. It includes 175 policy recommendations on everything from rent control to rapid bus lines to protecting against sea level rise.

The ambitious SPUR project, the result of three years of work by the San Francisco group, starts with the premise that over the next 50 years the nine-county Bay Area will grow by 4 million residents and need 2.2 million new housing units. Under the current land-use approaches taken by the cities and counties in the region, it’s likely that about 1.4 million homes would be produced, and much of that would be put in the wrong places — farmland and open areas that are far from transit, SPUR said.

The SPUR reports compare two scenarios: “business as usual,” based on current zoning and land-use patterns; and a “new civic vision,” which imagines a more equitable and sustainable region with reformed land-use regulations.

“The motivation for the project was recognizing that all of the things we experience as challenges are the result of systems we created,” said Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR’s CEO. “If we want a different future we need to be intentional about designing that future. We wanted to be as aspirational as possible and set aside current political constraints.”

 Could the Bay Area solve its housing crisis by building in city centers? An SF group thinks so

According to SPUR, the “business as usual” approach would result in 358,000 new housing units and office space for 646,000 workers being plopped down in hazardous and protected areas — such as farmland and low-lying waterfront areas. But the SPUR scenario would add almost no new jobs or housing in these zones. SPUR estimates that 500,000 new homes could be built in transit-oriented downtowns and another 543,000 units could be built along major commercial corridors such as El Camino Real on the Peninsula, Geary Boulevard in San Francisco and San Pablo Avenue and International Boulevard in the East Bay.

The “business as usual” planning would result in about 850,000 jobs in transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods while the SPUR approach would add about 2 million jobs in those areas. SPUR calculates that about 523,000 units could be added in smaller buildings — two- to six-unit constructs — in areas currently zoned for single-family homes.

SPUR board member Robert A. Wilkins Sr., a management consultant and former longtime CEO of the YMCA of the East Bay, said the strategy’s goals on housing — increased density near jobs and transit — is not breaking new ground. But the difference is that the strategy is “people centered.”

The report delves into how to stop evictions, how to build less expensive affordable housing and how to strengthen tenant protections. It explores creating a real-estate transfer tax that penalizes short-term “flipping,” expanding homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income families and reforming construction defect laws that make many builders reluctant to construct condos.

“I always start with the question — who are we doing this for? Cities are for people, and the notion is to create an environment in which everybody can flourish,” Wilkins said. “We have some of the greatest prosperity in the world and on the other hand we have some of the greatest poverty. Let’s start out by looking at the gaps. Historically, how did we get here and who has been left behind?”

Nothing in the SPUR vision will come easy — many of its goals have long been crusades for Bay Area housing and tenant advocates but have faced severe backlash from voters and elected officials. For example, SPUR calls for the reform of the state’s environmental review process — a set of laws that opponents regularly use to delay or kill new housing — that multiple lawmakers have failed to get done over the past two decades. It advocates for cheaper modular housing to become the norm, something that building trade unions are battling against.

The SPUR report is careful not to call for the overdevelopment of “communities of concern” — traditionally working-class, Black and brown neighborhoods vulnerable to displacement and gentrification. The “new civic vision” would add slightly less overall housing within these communities compared to continuing business as usual.

Tomiquia Moss, a SPUR board member and CEO of All Home, said the 50-year plan imagines a “more equitable and just Bay Area” where homelessness is eradicated and “housing is seen as a right.” The lengthy horizon makes sense given that the crises facing the region — housing, homelessness, traffic gridlock — took at least that long to develop, she said.

One of the report’s authors, Stephen Engblom, executive vice president of the architecture and engineering firm AECOM, said he and his fellow researchers challenged themselves to reimagine suburban places like shopping centers and office parks, many of which have high vacancies, as well as downtown areas that suffered as retail moved into malls and big box stores on the edge of town.

“A lot of time when you think about urban growth, you think of downtown San Francisco, downtown Oakland and downtown San Jose,” Engblom said. “But those make up a very small portion of our land in the Bay Area. We asked how every place type can fulfill its responsibility, to evolve into their best self. There is so much land that is inefficiently used right now.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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