Density Bonus considerations threaten quality of life in the Bay Area

density-bonus-plan-bay-areaThe 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.

SB-1

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.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Peterson says

    The Terraces of Lafayette, just went from a design challenged 315 apartment complex to an incredibly bad idea. I guess it will be my job to come up with a better idea for the parcel. I was a friend of the late Anthony G. Lagiss, who deeded the property to his daughter, who gave a developer the job of maximizing profit for her family trust.. If anyone has positive ideas for the Terraces of Lafayette parcel. Please let me know..

  2. Valerie Sloven says

    This “white Judeo/Christan nation”. Are you serious? If anyone needs to wake up it is you. Read some American history.

    • says

      I agree with Valerie. To claim America for only grumpy rich white men and blue-haired Bush poodles is socially, humanly, historically (and Biblically) wrong. What needs to be focused on in the One Bay Area Plan is if real people are being served. Not just the interest groups and their supporters. Secondly, we need to watch for crony capitalists as people who aspire to be in charge of MTC and ABAG have interests of their own, even a Scott Haggerty of Alameda. What we have witnessed so far has not been an open and democratic process, but a technocratic one fueled by economic interest. We’re talking $20B, and that’s just the first round.

  3. says

    SB1 will fund Plan Bay Area and make it much easier for government to condemn private property as “blight” and rezone it for high density housing. It is imperative that we stop this bill. The bill will probably come up for consideration in the January/February time frame. We need to get organized and let the legislators know that we don’t want this bill.

    • Janet Maiorana says

      It is my understanding developers will not have to follow normal regulations such as Cequa.

      We will help as we can. Suppose you will want people going to Sacramento.
      Janet

  4. E. Hudson says

    Thank you for this article. ABAG’s One Bay Area plan, and “I know better than you” legislators like Mark DeSaulnier, are merely a future threat. They are currently striping Lafayette and other communities of any ability to meaningfully control the nature of their communities. Lafayette is seeing this play out now as statutes passed in Sacramento is being used to support the developer’s argument that Lafayette cannot stop the horrible Terraces 315-apartment project on what is now a beautiful, rural entrance to the city. Lamorinda is still asleep about these enormously critical issues.

    The people who have worked their whole lives in order to be able to live in these safe, beautiful communities with top-rated schools have no idea how close they are to irreversibly losing it all at the hands of legisators like DeSaulnier and unelected bureaucrats in ABAG.

    A first step would be to withdraw from being a Priority Development Area within ABAG. Lafayette’s City Manager Steve Falk, Thank you for this article. ABAG’s One Bay Area plan, and “I know better than you” legislators like Mark DeSaulnier, are merely a future threat. They are currently striping Lafayette and other communities of any ability to meaningfully control the nature of their communities. Lafayette is seeing this play out now as statutes passed in Sacramento is being used to support the developer’s argument that Lafayette cannot stop the horrible Terraces 315-apartment project on what is now a beautiful, rural entrance to the city. Lamorinda is still asleep about these enormously critical issues.

    The people who have worked their whole lives in order to be able to live in these safe, beautiful communities with top-rated schools have no idea how close they are to irreversibly losing it all at the hands of legislators like DeSaulnier and unelected bureaucrats in ABAG. A first step would be to withdraw from being a Priority Development Area within ABAG. Lafayette’s City Manager Steve Falk,

    • Lois says

      We have lost our individual rights. Money comes first, control comes next..

      Who is to say where one person’s rights begin, and another person’s rights end, some will say. I say because of money, government and private parties are destroying some Peoples established environments by these jail cell urban housing. The housing will bring in crime..

      We are up against the U.N.’s Agenda 21. The government has opened our gates to people we have nothing in common, wanting to destroy this white Judeo/Christian nation.

      Wake up America!