The term “density bonus” in urban planning might seem to be an innocent expression used by architects to explain how they can build more units on a given building site than existing zoning ordinances might allow. While this text book terminology would appear to be of little consequence, the ramifications of how density bonus elements are implemented are at the forefront in the battle to determine where people in the Bay Area will reside in the next quarter century.
With the loss of redevelopment agencies by the State of California after Jerry Brown took office, there is less public funding available to finance Project Development Areas (PDAs). Most of these PDA’s are intended for locations in close proximity to BART Stations. They are supposed to reduce carbon foot prints, encourage use of public transportation, conserve open space, and provide affordable housing for the less wealthy residents of California.
These density bonus goals are the center piece of the recently adapted blueprint by regional governmental agencies Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), that were incorporated into the Plan Bay Area. In order to take care of the government’s priorities, granting density bonus points to plans to increase the number of residents to infill their PDAs has become a necessity.
Mandating these requirements to gain suspect social economic, and environmental benefits, density bonus enables developers to make money on volume, not quality. Consequently, a large percentage of affordable and low income houses could be constructed in PDAs. These numbers would start at about 20% to over 50% of the units that the State’s regional government agencies wants from these developments. Not what cities want.
Denisty Bonus considerations also have their own baggage. In addition to income considerations, the social engineers in Sacramento want other factors including ethnic background, age, marital status, and physical limitations to be factored in to determine who should occupy these “public palaces,” not to mention special consideration fo members of the welfare industrial state including teachers, first responders,municipal workers represented by powerful unions. Somehow this added “diversity” will lead to improved quality of life for all concerned.
Density Bonus impact on housing construction
Without density bonus, it is much more difficult to attract entrepreneurs to construct housing that meets State guidelines. As a rule of thumb, a developer needs to obtain approximately three times the cost of what they are paying for land in order to break even on a project. This equation can be slightly altered depending on permit fees, environmental impact reports, and other opportunity costs.
If a builder is asked to charge less than market rates or do construction projects that are more costly, companies must be compensated. The easiest way to do this is for a construction project bid to build more units than local zoning ordinances allows by:
1. Build higher, wider, and more densely than general plans allow
2. Reduce square footage so additional dwellings can be constructed, as well as smaller dwellings
3. Relax parking standards for each unit in order to cut costs and encourage use of public transport like daily trips to Safeway
This is where density bonus policies become the primary tool to achieve the State’s social objectives. Unfortunately, the consequences that will impact communities are not factored, as if these plans are designed to fail.
Presently, there is strong local control monitoring this type of this type of local development. An example would be the recent downsizing of a previously approved housing complex in downtown Lafayette by its City Council. Residents complained that increased congestion merited reducing the number of units that were to be built. In Walnut Creek, another case foreshadowing problems created by density bonus projects, lack of parking for a project resulted in the builder having to install a car elevator to increase available spaces for apartment dwellers.
Cities having power in such matters may become a thing of the past under proposed legislation in the State Senate. Co-sponsored by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), SB-1, if passed, would allow PDA administrators to have ultimate authority determining the size and scope of individual projects.
Under SB-1 these PDAs would be able to impose special property taxes and issue bonds(!) to do work in areas under their jurisdictions without a direct vote of the people. In addition they would have the power to designate single family homes as “blight” and be able to condemn such properties as they feel is appropriate. Granting density bonus would be determined by the State and Regional Agencies.
In the last legislative session, SB-1 was passed by both Houses but did not become law because of a veto threat from the Governor. It is expected that the legislation will be approved once again in 2014 with minor changes to be made so Jerry Brown would agree to sign the bill into law.
The problem for cities, especially suburban locales in Contra Costa County, is that if density bonus is bestowed to developers doing projects in congested downtown areas or near BART stations, the impact on these communities will be drastic. This is why there is so much opposition to the One Bay Area Plan in parts of Marin County, the Peninsula, Orinda, Lafayette, Danville, and San Ramon. There are indications that this discontent may be spreading to less affluent cities, as well.
Major concerns exist not only on the impact on infrastructure such as parking, traffic, sewer, water, as well as overburden fire and police services, and also added enrolment in public school systems. Missing in the One Bay Area Plan is a way for individual cities to pay for civic improvements without reducing the quality of life for existing residents.
With the One Bay Area Plan there seems to be a chasm between the big cities on the Hwy 80 corridor where the “stack and pack” model is intended to work and the suburbs. The major difference is that in the big cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, residents can use public transportation to get around as opposed to Contra Costa where the automobile is still the preferred manner of conveyance.
There is a growing perception that the State Government wants to discourage automobile use wherever they can. Determining where and how people live with density bonus programs seems to be a handy way for them to achieve this objective.
Instead of offering contrasting life style decisions up to each community, the Plan Bay Area is exactly that (One Plan). Those who do not desire to live in apartments and condos nor abandon their single family residences, are being challenged by unelected central planners who want to impose their utopian visions and questionable science on families who reside in the suburbs. Density Bonus is the planning tool to accomplish this aim.
This is where the battle lines are being formed in determining the future landscape of California. Thus far, the Democratic Super Majority in the California Legislature has been able to prevail with their surrogates at ABAG and the MTC gaining authority to manipulate and intimidate local communities to meet their urban planning objectives. What remains to be seen is if disenfranchised residents can persuade current office holders to change their policies; or alternatively, replace them with elected officials who will.