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About this blog: As a teenager (in the 1960s), I stumbled across the insight that real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. As a grad student, I belonged to an...  (More)

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Shills and Charlatans of "Smart Growth"

Uploaded: Jun 16, 2014
"For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong." (foot#1)

Any decent manager approaching a new project asks about the lessons-learned from similar projects. Novices ask about successes, not realizing how hard it usually is to distinguish the key factors in such successes from ones that were merely incidental. Experienced managers use the discussion of successes as a warm-up for a discussion of the failures, of how failing projects were turned-around, and of how problems were avoided. That is where you find the important lessons-learned. Such managers then ask about the size of the "sweet spot"—how much room there is for scaling up and down, and beyond that what are the rates of diminishing returns.

When I talk to "Smart Growth" advocates—professional planners, politicians, citizens—I rarely encounter any of this, and even then it is minimal. When I try to raise the lessons-learned question, the typical response is that every "Smart Growth" project has been a success, and that every "Smart Growth" project will be a success.

Why "Shills and Charlatans"? Judge advocates by what they do, not what they say. When there is a persistent lack of due-diligence relative to the proclaimed goals, and when there is a failure to make credible adjustments to projects as problems are identified, this licenses the assessment that there is a different agenda involved.

In evaluating the seriousness and credibility of a theory or approach, I listen to the significant presentations of the ideas—ones that are given by an acknowledged spokesperson for those ideas and that should have been carefully prepared and had its remarks vetted. For example, a formal presentation that has been given to multiple significant audiences. (Aside: I expect a certain amount of hyperbole and nonsense to creep into informal remarks, and into remarks by "J. Random" adherents, that is ones who don't rise to the level of a spokesperson.) The following is based on my many years of participation in meetings, from those on individual projects to ones on city-wide policy to ones on regional policy. The advocates of "Smart Growth" include City Staff, consultants, and citizen advocates, and a few regional planners (ABAG, MTC, VTA).

For "Smart Growth" as practiced here, my experience has been that the proffered rationalizations for projects routinely fall apart under the most cursory of examinations. When one continues to find glaring problems with the data, the logic and adherence to its own stated goals/principles, it becomes difficult to see it as a genuine problem-solving approach. (More H. L. Mencken: "The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived.").

One of the patterns throughout history is that of well-intentioned causes getting exploited/hijacked/usurped… for different, often contrary, agendas.(foot#2) Because this problem is so well-known, my view is that supporters of a cause have a responsibility for how practice differs from theory, and that only small allowances are to be given for those supporters "having good intentions".

Exceptional cases proffered as typical:
Example: The City's Planning Department hosted a series of talks on the State laws pushing densification in cities, with speakers who had been highly influential in the formulation of those laws. The rationale was that densification would greatly shorten commutes, which would reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG). One speaker asserted that a newly minted lawyer hired by a firm in the Stanford Research Park would be unable to find any housing that she could afford any closer than Tracy (60-some miles, map). Another speaker asserted that an engineer hired by H-P would have to go all the way to Los Banos for housing (95 miles, map). (foot#3) During question time, I noted that Census data indicated that Mountain View to Santa Clara (foot#4) was far more likely and asked how that would change their judgment. The question was squelched by a Council member (I forget which one).

Dubious claims:
Example: In talks by Smart Growth advocates, you are likely to see a picture of a large house—4,000-8,000 sq.ft.—on a lot of well over an acre, and with spectacular views. You will be told that the reason that people are buying such houses is the unavailability of their preferred choice: much smaller apartments and condos in a high-density development near a train station.(foot#5) (foot#6)

For the "public outreach" meetings for One Bay Area plan, ABAG/MTC/… had hired a highly partisan group, Greenbelt Alliance, which ran those meetings like pep-rallies for their politics/biases. (foot#7) It is not that much of an exaggeration to characterize the public-input opportunities they provided as: "How much do you agree with our position?" (a) "Enthusiastically", (b) "Unreservedly", (c) "1000%", (d) "All of these". I went to the meeting intended for northern Santa Clara County, which Palo Alto's then-Director of Planning Curtis Williams also attended. In his report to City Council on that meeting, he expressed serious disappointment with how it had been conducted.

During the primary presentation, the Greenbelt Alliance speaker said that the problem with building additional housing on the outskirts of cities was that fire engines would have to travel longer and longer distances from the existing fire stations, adding to Greenhouse Gases. I looked around and the faithful were nodding in agreement. Didn't they realize that when housing developments that large are built, they are accompanied by a range of supporting infrastructure: schools, parks, fire stations… That ABAG/MTC/… would allow such nonsense to be part of the primary presentation at major meetings indicates how intellectually corrupt the process was.

Commuting from San Francisco
Currently, the most prominent instance of misrepresenting the commute problem revolves around the "Google buses" (and those of similar high-tech companies). The problem is that high tech workers are squeezing out other long-time residents of San Francisco. But you see this being used as a justification for additional high-density developments in Palo Alto and other Peninsula/South Bay cities. The implication is that these high tech workers are locating in San Francisco because it is more affordable than Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara… Really? Might it not be that these are people choosing San Francisco for lifestyle/culture?

The second fallacious part of the diagnosis of San Francisco's problem with high tech workers is that this is primarily the result of job increases on the Peninsula/South Bay. This conveniently ignores that San Francisco has been aggressively, and successfully, pursuing high tech companies to locate there for over 15 years (since during the Dot-Com boom).

Rejecting local experience
"Smart Growth", as it is practiced here, has an established history of rejecting local experience that differs from what the ideology calls for. Case-in-point: The Arbor Real development (El Camino and Charleston; former Hyatt Rickey's). ABAG's demands for facilitating large amounts of high-density housing caused this site to be included, despite it having negligible walkable destinations and being poorly served by usable transit (experience from residents' behavior in similar developments). Based upon national averages, the developer claimed that virtually none of the residents would have children. In hearing after hearing, residents pointed out that experience with similar local developments amply demonstrated that this was not the case here. Yet City Staff recommended, and Council approved, a development based on this negligible-children assumption. (foot#8) The year the units started to go on sale, the local elementary school (Juana Briones) was under-subscribed and received the overflow from other sections of the city. The very next year, the number of children in the new units overwhelmed that school, leaving some parents to drive their children to other schools. Even for students at Briones, some/many parents were driving because they didn't see the route as safe-enough for children (especially crossing El Camino during peak traffic hours). "Smart Growth" was used as a transparent smokescreen for the true impacts of this development on public infrastructure.(foot#9) And where did the "Smart Growth" advocates stand on this: They had wanted to see even higher density—none of the other supposed principles/goals of "Smart Growth" mattered to them.

Similarly, in projecting the number of Caltrain users from a proposed development, the City Staff and "Smart Growth" advocates use numbers much higher than local experience (such as the Palo Alto Central complex which is right there at the Cal Ave Caltrain station). City Staff has resolutely resisted collecting statistics on usage (foot#10) However, there is/was useful data available from the San Mateo County portion of Caltrain. The Palo Alto Planning Department sponsored a talk by the operators of Caltrain (part of SamTrans: San Mateo Transit) that included a profile of who used Caltrain and why. For the cities similar to Palo Alto, it was not the residents of the typical high density development near the tracks. But did this become part of Palo Alto's planning? Of course not. Palo Alto, supported by "Smart Growth" advocates, base their projections on statistics from dissimilar rail systems.
Remember to not conflate/combine in-bound users with out-bound: People commuting into Palo Alto (work) tend to be very different from those using Caltrain to commute from Palo Alto to work.

Rejecting outside expertise:
Example from Mountain View: During the planning of the redevelopment of the San Antonio Shopping Center, Mountain View officials repeatedly said that they wanted it to be another Santana Row, and persisted in this long after a developer explained why he viewed it as impossible. (foot#11) The developer's assessment may well have been skewed by his own interests and biases, but I didn't see responses from the planners about why his points were wrong (but it being a Mountain View story, I could have missed that).

Internal contradictions:
One of the repeated problems I have encountered with "Smart Growth" project proposals is that the advocates try to sell it as meeting a laundry list of noble goals, but then refuse to deal with the contradictions that are revealed by even basic questions about the details.
For example, the California Avenue area has been designated as a Priority Development Area (PDA) (because it is close to a Caltrain station), with the purpose of enabling and accelerating the redevelopment of the area to much higher density.(foot#12) (Note: Do not confuse the rezoning for the PDA with the Streetscape Project.) The initial part of the vision articulated by "Smart Growth" advocates, government and citizens, was for the area to be a tiny version of Santana Row, disregarding whether it had the critical mass to be even that. But that vision rejected a key aspect of Santana Row—the synergy between the housing and the retail. Santana Row's housing targets people who have the income and leisure time to spend in upscale restaurants and boutiques. The vision articulated for the Cal Ave housing was that it be predominantly "affordable" units. The visionaries refused to consider that the envisioned retail would be of negligible use to those residents, and those businesses would therefore not have the expected benefit from patronage by those residents. And since those residents would be badly served by the nearby business, they would have to drive to many of their destinations. All this is contrary to the purported goals of "Smart Growth".

Over the years, my experience with development projects has been that people who identify themselves as supporters of "Smart Growth" are indistinguishable from those who advocate simply for more and higher density commercial projects and for high-density housing.
Readers, if you can remember instances when "Smart Growth" advocates opposed a high-density project as a misapplication of the principles of "Smart Growth", those would be interesting additions (in the comments).

"Principles" that are infinitely flexible
"Smart Growth" calls for concentrating high density near transit centers because of the valid observation that in the generic case transit usage typically falls off very quickly with distance. In multiple presentations I have heard professional planners use a half mile, or less, as the boundary. But when a developer wants to build a high-density project where usable transit is far beyond that distance, the "Smart Growth" advocates turn out to support such projects. If you try to talk details with them, expect to be dismissed with the statement "Anywhere is Palo Alto is close to transit". If you follow-up on this, don't be surprised to get one of a variety of contorted explanations. My personal favorite is "Anywhere is Palo Alto is closer to transit than Tracy (is?)." Some advocate mean that quite literally, whereas others treat it as a shorthand for the technical ability to extend bus lines to serve such a development, ignoring the issue of cost and usability (satisfactory levels of service).

Refusal to consider how things work in the real world
During the considerations of the 195 Page Mill project (between Park Blvd and the Caltrain tracks; currently under construction), the representation was made that an exceptionally high proportion of the residents would use public transit. Various of us pointed out that parents of elementary school students would likely be driving them because both of the distance (1.4 miles) and the small-pedestrian-unfriendly route (including crossing El Camino during peak hours). (foot#13) Question: If the parent has already driven the child to school, isn't that parent more likely to continue driving to work rather than drive back through heavy congestion in order to catch a train? This is the sort of practical question that I have repeatedly found "Smart Growth" advocates unwilling to even consider.

Related blog entries (past and planned)
Previous:
1.(Introduction) Stupid Growth: So-called "Smart Growth" is a cancer on the community
2.The Law of Supply and XXXXXX, and other bad economics

Pending:
1.Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?
2.Public Transit Follies

---- Footnotes ----
1. Popularized version of H.L. Mencken's "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." from "The Divine Afflatus" in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); later published in "Prejudices: Second Series"(1920) and "A Mencken Chrestomathy" (1949)

2. Historical example: Communist/Third International (aka Comintern) (Wikipedia) and its successors. While idealistic individuals around the world saw this as advancing the cause of Socialism/Communism, the USSR used it to advance their national interests, and the USSR leadership was so cynical and contemptuous of those other Communists that they referred to them as "Useful Idiots (Wikipedia)",which has become political terminology that is used more often in a cautionary sense than as an accusation or characterization.
Please do not use this term here—it is too provocative.

3. From a series of talks hosted by the Palo Alto Dept of Planning and Community environment in 2009-2010 entitled "Planning for Sustainable Development". These talks focused on state law SB375 "Land Use and Green House Gas". A talk on 10 November 2009 by Kenneth Kirkey, Planning Director, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Ted Droettboom, Regional Planning Program Director, Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The JPC coordinates the regional planning efforts of ABAG, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), The Bay Area Quality Management District, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.A talk on 16 February 2010 entitled "Charting the Future under SB375" by Bill Fulton "a highly regarded expert on planning and land use statewide and nationally and is the author of the "Guide to California Planning", as well as being a journalist and a current member of the City of Ventura City Council."

4. Acterra hosted a panel of three talks on Smart Growth in February 2007. I was invited as the skeptic as a balance to two advocates—Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, and the Greenbelt Alliance.My talk was entitled "Smart Growth: Caveats from a Skeptic ("Yes, ...but what about...", "Show me the data!")" and its slides are available. See slide 7 for a breakdown of where people who work in Palo Alto live, based upon the 2000 Census. Although the data was dated at the time of the talk, I regarded it as still useful because more recent data—to which I did not have access—was showing that the average commute had decreased
Aside: I have not bothered to update the numbers for the 2010 Census because Smart Growth advocates showed no interest in considering such data.
Notice that San Joaquin County (Tracy+) accounts for only 0.4% of the commuters, and that there are more commuters from Sonoma County than from San Joaquin (348 vs 333). And for the Los Banos fallacy, notice the commuters from San Benito County (189) are outnumbered by those from Marin and by those from Southern California. If the Smart Growth advocates were to claim that people were commuting from Marin, Sonoma, and San Diego because they couldn't find housing they could afford in Palo Alto, they would be laughed out of the room. So why is "affordability" assumed to be the only/primary reason for commuters from San Joaquin and San Benito?

5. Example: a series of talks by Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, including: "Cities for All Ages: Land Use and Our Aging Population" 03 June 2010 (in Palo Alto City Council Chambers), "GLUE: Green, Liveable Urban Environment" February 2007 (Acterra), and "Winds of Change" 28 January 2006 (American Association of University Women)

6. My initial reaction was that these pictures were just hyperbole to get the audience thinking. While that might have been the case in the distant past, the presenters now seem to actually believe this (based on responses to my questions).

7. Further indication that Greenbelt Alliance regarded this meeting as theirs: Although it was advertised as an official public-input meeting, they took the email address from my sign-in and put it on their list of supporters of their advocacy group.

8. Residents did score some minor "victories". At one stage, the developer, with Staff's concurrence, tried to count narrow landscaping segments, such as between the sidewalk and curb, as part of the required "open space" (where people could play, exercise…).

9. The City's pattern of understating impacts has multiple motivations. For one, it allows the developer to avoid payments to mitigate those impacts. For another, it facilitates approval of projects so large that there is no reasonable mitigation.

10. I have pointed out to the PA Planning Dept that there are students in Urban Studies and other disciplines for whom collecting and analyzing the data would be an interesting and useful group class project. First surveys can often be done by inexperienced people because their primary goal is to give a sense of direction and what needs to be in the follow-on survey to make it useful (and more accurate).

11. Dense homes at San Antonio called 'pipe dream': With 16 shopping center owners and Walmart in the mix, a Santana Row-like development is not possible, Thoits says (Mountain View Voice, 2009 February 13).

12. This designation was at the insistence of ABAG/MTC. It was made by then-City Manager Frank Benest without notification to Council or the public, and hence no public input or debate. Council subsequently voted to retroactively approve with that decision.

13. The site is right on the attendance boundary between the Escondido ES and Barron Park ES (map).

----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said. For example, if someone is arguing for less growth than you support and you characterize them as opposing any growth, expect your whole comment to be deleted. Misrepresentation not only generates unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but indicates that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful. respectful conversation.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 9:40 am

Reading through this narrative gives one some sense of what it must have been like to have been an intellectual in Germany in the 1930s—watching the fabric of society being unraveled, and rewoven into a new framework that was built on lies, and the power of the State to do whatever it wanted, to whomever it wanted without any concern for consequences.

Some of these Germans packed it in, and found other places to live. As the Weimar Republic disappeared, to be refashioned as the Third Reich, millions of lives were snuffed out and whole countries were laid waste by the formidable Wehrmacht. Millions of Germans and Russians lost their lives because no one stood up to the NAZIs when they could.

It's very clear that more and more people are overwhelmed by the ever-growing power of the State, and the lack of honesty of the people who are attracted to the machinery of the State.

Locally, we keep re-electing the same faces—the Joe Simitians, the Rich Gordans, the Liz Knisses .. just to name a few. We have failed to elect people who have any sense of history, or any sense of what the future will be like if we don't stick to the principles of the Founding Fathers—augmented by the tools at our disposal.

One particularly distressing point Mr. Moran talks about in his posting is that the so-called Greenbelt Alliance was hired/approached to be involved in any ABAG meetings. This group represents virtually no one, and clearly has an anti-property-rights agenda. The elected officials from every town/city in the ABAG membership should have been up in arms. Yet, it would seem that they sat there as mute as a bump on a log. If our elected officials are not going to represent all of us, then we are pretty much "screwed".


 +  Like this comment
Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 9:52 am

I find it extremely disturbing that the commenter above would suggest that the "Smart Growth" movement and related local political trends are somehow analogous to the situation in Germany in the 1930s.

Whatever you think of "Smart Growth" advocates or local politicians, to use an analogy such as the one Joe chose to use is abhorrent.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 10:07 am

> Whatever you think of "Smart Growth" advocates or local politicians,
> to use an analogy such as the one Joe chose to use is abhorrent.

The point that was trying to be made was that small groups of people can gain access to the seat of power, and most people will stand by and do nothing. That happened in Germany in the 1930s. Hitler did not openly advocate for the global war that was to follow--just like Lenin did not promise to turn Russia into a country-wide prison. Yet, these things happened.

If you find any reference to these well-documented events as abhorent--so be it. Mr. Moran has provided several examples of the kinds of mindset that the advocates of "Smart Growth" where common sense, and a call of data and the intelligent use of that data has been dismissed as unnecessary, and unwarranted.

That--to my mind--is abhorrent, and causes me to mull over how terrible things happen to otherwise good people--in the name of "government".


 +  Like this comment
Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 11:22 am

Joe,

I understand you point are trying to make, but there are likely many other historical or even current references you could make that don't have the overtones of mass murder, genocide, hatred and racial superiority that 1930s Germany and the events that happened afterward, bring to mind.

You state above that the "... kinds of mindset that the advocates of "Smart Growth" where common sense, and a call of data and the intelligent use of that data has been dismissed as unnecessary, and unwarranted... That--to my mind--is abhorrent, and causes me to mull over how terrible things happen to otherwise good people--in the name of "government"."

So what "terrible things" might happen in this situation if the advocates of "Smart Growth" are given free reign? It seems to me the worst might be increased traffic, more scarce parking, perhaps some residences losing views due to taller nearby buildings, and similar effects. This is leagues away from the terrible things that happened following the situation in 1930s Germany.

I still find your original use of this analogy, and your subsequent defense of it, to be incredibly insensitive and disturbing.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

On calling Nazi on something I don't think either of you is going to convince the other. I think to "call in the Nazis" on some kind of argument, the comparison or contrast must be stark, clear, unassailable and the subject must be of great importance. Just for the record I don't think that is the case here.

But in the wider discussion of politics, I do think there is every reason to compare what is going on in America, or any other country at any other time to the Nazis if the charge is made and a reasonable productive discussion can be had. The subject is of such important to the world that that never happen again. But in this case, the broader discussion is out of scope. If Joe thinks what is going on is important and urgent enough to compare it to the Nazis, then he should write his own blog or article, as he is free to do on Palo Alto Online - assuming the editors do not delete it and support it or defend it there.

However, I could also speculate that foolish, greedy or premature engineering of human environments when we do not know the results or effects on people and society in the long term could very well facilitate an insular isolation that could promote regimentation which is in fact the foundation of totalitarianism. It sounds like science fiction, but when we consider all along the line of modern American history we have made decisions of how to plan our public and private spaces and have ended up solutions that favor someones profit as opposed to being intelligent and well-planed, and it is very easy to conceive that "Smart Growth" ... the concept marketed on us, like "Clean Forests", "Healthy Skies" is just another in a long line of bad ideas leading to chaos and crisis which very well could have future consequences vast and dangerous beyond our conception. Future consequences, mind you, but the future seems closer and approaching faster than it ever has.

Maybe, if we did not have the population crisis we do, then all these bogeymen that push us to make decisions we are not competent to make; or not able to bring intelligence to bear unless it blindly supports profit, we would not be able to set ourselves up for such problems??


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Palo Alto Lifer, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Analogies are imperfect. The article is excellent, and Joe's points are worthy of consideration despite OMV's objections. Let's not get sidetracked into an historical discussion of Germany in the '30s.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@OMV Resident

Joe's analogy does not seem so out of touch when you consider how deeply opposed the Property Rights Movement is to what they see as the implications of "sustainable development" and "going green." I found this link helpful to understand their position. Web Link (Web Link)


 +  Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Doug

I would have titled this posting "Acolytes and High Priests of 'Smart Growth'." You are tilting against a religion and its dogma, not open-minded proponents of a reasoned, fact-based proposition. You've read Hoffer's "The True Believer," right?

Your slides on that link present many eye-opening points, especially the census data, that soundly refute "smart" growth shibboleths. Why not extend your series by writing an essay around them?

Not intending to slide into the "Nazi" thing, allow me to point out that meeting AGBAG's 2,179 housing unit goal in built-out Palo Alto would require intense government intervention, wherever it's done. Visualize 36 new buildings the size of 800 High Street. That's 18 blocks of blockhouses. Where are there 18 empty blocks in this town?

New Urbanists swoon over visions of towering urban live-work-shop scapes by the train stations, glossing over the unwelcome fact that some powerful, wealthy, ruthless entity would first have to condemn, buy, and clearcut the existing built environment. Only a government could have that much clout and money.

Put 36 800 Highs in our R-1 neighborhoods? Only in North Korea...maybe.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

From the blogger: On the above comments related to 1930s Germany:

There is a series of sensible responses that I hoped would close out this matter, but there have since been several batches of "Report Objectionable Content" (which are inherently fully anonymous and inherently have no detail). To close out that component of the discussion, my judgment is:

I don't see anything in those comments that rises to the level of needing action. As has been pointed out by previous commenters, coming up with a good analogy can be very difficult: You need one that is prominent enough that your audience will be aware of it, but what makes it prominent is often that it typically an extreme case (either inherently or as a result of simplification).

1930s Germany is widely studied in history and political science because it *is* so instructive of what can happen in real-world politics and larger society. Discussion of practical politics related to an issue under discussion is appropriate for this blog. My reading was that the core of the original comment was about the power of political propaganda, for which the Nazis were legitimately (in)famous.

However, 1930s Germany is *not* an analogy I personally would have used for the current situation: The linkages between what I see as the key features of the politics surrounding local development policy and some of what happened in Germany is difficult to explain succinctly, if not tenuous (because it relates to undercurrents/trends and not specific events).

Because what are the key aspects of an analogy can be different for different people, it behooves the person offering the analogy to identify those aspects. And if the reader thinks an analogy is inappropriate, a good response is to offer what you think is a better analogy.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Res, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Given how difficult it can be to get anything done when it is a good idea with few down sides, of course there are questions about misleading agendas when such clearly bad ideas (like that giant hotel across from Arbor Real, so out of scale) are so easy to get through.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 9:48 pm

@Douglas Moran -
On your Mountain View example of "Rejecting outside expertise", I think you may want to either refresh this reference, or remove it, since the example you cite is extremely outdated - and has since been proven wrong.

The article you cite (footnote 11), points out that Fred Thoits, then-owner of a portion of San Antonio Center: "... leveled criticism at the Mountain View City Council, city staff and the Voice for not informing the public that a Santana Row-style mixed use development is not possible at the shopping center..."

The article continues: ""We can envision the Taj Mahal too -- it's not going to happen," Thoits said. "If (Santana Row) is their vision we just can board up the stores and look at vacant property with no revenue and no sales tax." That's because such a development is not "financially feasible," he said. Thoits added that "high density residential is the farthest thing from our minds." For the owners, the goal is to "establish a precise plan for the next 20 years to give us flexibility" in how the site is developed. "If 15 years from now there's a huge demand for residential, we can include that."

Mountain View's planning director did, in fact, disagree with Thoits at the time, although perhaps not as strongly as he could have. Per the article: "Mountain View planning director Randy Tsuda didn't totally disagree, but said housing has not been ruled out for the site. There is a "possibility of housing and office," Tsuda said. "But retail would still be a major use on the site. It would be tough to create a Santana Row on that site. It wouldn't be realistic. We have to see what's feasible there."

So what happened just three months after the article you referenced was published? Fred Thoits sold his parcel to Merlone Geier (Web Link). Just 3 1/2 years later, Merlone Geier opened Phase 1 of its redevelopment, including high-density residential over retail - just the kind of development that Thoits doubted was viable (Web Link). It's also notable that rents at this residential development currently start at about $3000 for a 1-bedroom apartment (Web Link) - also disproving Thoits' suggestion that high-density residential would not be viable on the site.

And what else has happened? Merlone Geier is now poised to have a major mixed-use development of office, retail, a hotel and movie theatre approved on another portion of San Antonio Center. Just the kind of development that Thoits doubted in the February 2009 article you reference -- and just the kind of development the planning director and several members of the Council believed was possible. The only threat to this development happening is not the market, but rather local opponents who may launch a referendum against the project.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 3:43 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: OMV Resident

Santana Row is so much more than just mixed-use. The new portion of San Antonio Center is an example of a bad application of mixed-use, although not as horrendous as Alma Village (formerly Alma Plaza).

A crucial part of Santana Row is that it is a major shopping center. Shopping centers are not just a collection of stores--there is a lot of science about the placement of stores. Certain groupings of stores are mutually beneficial; others the reverse. Malls had the scale where their management had both the expertise and the control necessary to create an advantageous mix and layout of stores. With their divided ownership, downtowns have great difficulty with this. This was part of the point I understood developer Thoits to be making about San Antonio Center.

The ascendancy of shopping malls was due to them providing better walkability than downtowns. This may seem strange as malls are typically portrayed as "auto-oriented", but once you arrive at the mall, you do a lot of walking among lots of stores. Now look at the redone portion of San Antonio Center. Safeway is the anchor store. Consider the nearby stores(map = Web Link). Is the typical Safeway shopper going to shop at any of those in conjunction with their trip to Safeway (I never have). Do you spot any significant synergies? Additionally, the orientation of the Safeway means that people are unlikely to walk from there to other areas of the overall center. The location of the housing creates an additional psychological barrier that keeps people from walking from this corner of the shopping center to other portions. Bad, really bad.

One of the ways that shopping malls promote walkability is by increasing the density of retail (vs downtowns). Department stores were a previous instance of this by turning multiple small stores into departments, with the consolidation allowing the elimination of various overheads. Department stores also made it practical to have multiple stories of retail (vertical density in addition to horizontal density). But department stores did not scale up further, for example, it was politically difficult to have competing departments under the same ownership. Malls enabled larger scale and density because they kept many of the benefits of consolidation while essentially outsourcing the running of the "departments" as individual retailers (to owners who had expertise in that retail segment).

Mixed-use of housing and retail can present serious complications, especially for the larger retailers. Most notably, they can be very noisy throughout the night: deliveries, restocking of shelves, cleaning, maintenance, remodeling,... Then there are the problems with conflicts in parking lot usage between residents and shoppers. If you just stop and think hard about how stores operate, you will spot complexity far beyond the simplistic notions of "mixed-use". If you then have the opportunity, as I have, to listen to managers of shopping centers (Stanford Shopping Center and Town&Country), consultants making recommendations about business districts and merchants themselves, you will likely be surprised by the many constraints and problems that you would never have thought of (I was).

As to the residential portion being "mixed-use", it is only very minimally so. There is very limited retail under a portion of it: a restaurant, coffee shop, insurance office?,... If you listen to "Smart Growth" presentations, this is *not* what they say they mean by mixed-use. To me, this is token mixed-use in order to convert to housing a chunk of a retail center that is crucial, both in its size and location within the center.

Adding the constraint of what sort of retail that housing can be paired with adds to the difficulty of how one groups the various stores. Having a large scale center, such as Santana Row, gives management more flexibility. Recognize that in considering size of the area that is actually available, you need to factor out the space occupied by Walmart (as pointed out in the article). I believe that it was these problems that Thoits was referring to when he said that housing was not viable (in mixed use), in contrast to what occurred -- converting the retail property (formerly Sears) into housing.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 9:25 am

I would like to apologize to Blog Host Moran that my references in my first post turned out to be so distracting to the theme of this segment of his current assault on "Smart Growth". My intent was to suggest that small groups of people have gained access to power that they should not have in the governance of California, and that seeing many of our cherished beliefs, and rights, disappearing before our eyes leaves many with a sense of helplessness. I used the 1930s in Germany as a reference—but this seems to have been a catalyst for some to thing that I was calling the leaders of the Smart Growth "Nazis". That was not my intent. I suppose I could have used the beginning of the Great War in Europe (1914) as another reference to make the point about the helplessness of people caught in the middle of great change, or the collapse of the American government in 1860, or the sacking of Rome in the mid-5th Century—but having read the comments objecting to the first post, I suspect that there would have been objections to those references too. I will be more circumspect in the future, as clearly there are people in the mix with less of an understanding of history than would be hoped for in an adult discussion of greatly differing viewpoints.

I too would like to compliment Mr. Moran's piece, which provides more than a sufficient number of examples to make his point. Take the following:

> Similarly, in projecting the number of Caltrain users from
> a proposed development, the City Staff and "Smart Growth"
> advocates use numbers much higher than local experience

The transit oriented development on the MV/PA boundary was touted as a national example of how housing near public transit (in this case rail and bus) would reduce the need for cars by those living in this project. It's hard to see much in the way of ridership at the San Antonio Caltrain stop. However, if one takes a stroll through the streets of this development, there are cars lining the streets. It's doubtful than anyone has done any meaningful analysis to determine how many residents use public transportation and how many use their own vehicles—but it's hard to believe that all of the claims of the developers of this project would be shown to be in error.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:06 am

" It's doubtful than anyone has done any meaningful analysis to determine how many residents use public transportation and how many use their own vehicles..."

Very unlikely. As the saying goes: if you don't want the answer, don't ask the question.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Why not use Two Worlds development on El Camino Real, I think all over Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos the need for small scale retail is still desired. I wouldn't wish anyone to live on top of Wal Mart. But a hair salon, real estate office, or a small computer company.

Mixed use can mean different things, ownership housing in back, businesses and rental space in front on large street. Shopkeeper units and etc.

While the cost of rents, housing goes up, what about small businesses that for years have provided for residents.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> > "It's doubtful than anyone has done any meaningful analysis to determine how many residents use public transportation and how many use their own vehicles..."
> Very unlikely. As the saying goes: if you don't want the answer, don't ask the question.

Actually there are many studies, but they are piecemeal, rely on a measure of self-reporting, can be dated, and can be hard to put into a larger picture (incompatibilities and gaps).

For example, one of my footnotes cited commuter data derived from the US Census, which in 2000 asked for the ZIP Code of your home and place of employment and how you commute.

Major employers in this area are required to do a yearly survey of how employees commute and from where ("Transit Demand Management" studies), but confidentiality & privacy concerns results in the publicly available portion not being very helpful.

> The transit oriented development on the MV/PA boundary was touted as a national example of how housing near public transit (in this case rail and bus) would reduce the need for cars by those living in this project.

I believe that this is referring to "The Crossings" (map = Web Link) which is next to the San Antonio Caltrain station.
There was a survey done of transit usage, and it was that 9% of the households in that complex had someone that used public transit (for commuting?) Note: The reports that I saw and that are repeatedly cited do *not* give total commuters or total transit users. This survey was done before Caltrain introduced the "Baby Bullet" express trains. Although the Baby Bullets increased overall system ridership, that change reduced ridership at stations that were non-Baby-Bullet stations. San Antonio station was one of these (as was Cal Ave)--it was too close to the more important stops of PA U Ave and Mountain View (Castro St). At the time of this change, my bicycle route took me through the parking lot of the Cal Ave station (to avoid a dangerous section of Park Blvd) and the drop-off there was stunning: from a not-full parking lot to a lot dominated by empty spaces. Count done by me as part of discussions of Cal Ave development: On 25 Feb 2009 at 1:55pm, of the 169 numbered spaces, only 54 were occupied (32%). Because it is easier for a commuter who drives to a Caltrain station to switch to a nearby one with the better schedule, parking lot counts are *not* a good proxy for what happened with other users of the non-express stations. But it is an interesting peek into the effect of schedule on usability.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:44 pm

[[Deleted by blogger: Disrespectful: multiple serious misrepresentations of what other contributors had said.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 7:02 am

@Douglas Moran -
I appreciate the post you made above about the limitations of the existing local studies on how effective these developments have been at attracting people to take transit or other alternate modes. Your points about the relatively piecemeal nature of the studies, and the fact that major employers are reluctant to share much beyond the headline figures due to confidentiality concerns are spot on, from what I've seen.

This is an area where I'd like to see interested residents of both our cities push our elected officials and city staffs harder. We spend a lot of time on planning studies, but very little on looking back and gathering solid, local data on how developments performing. It's not impossible - it just requires some commitment and political will.

The way I see it, as communities transition to being a bit more urban and a bit denser, the city (especially the staff) needs to exercise a new set of skills... managing what's there becomes as important than just planning or building new things. For example, here in Mountain View, people are scratching their heads about why there seems to be an occasional parking crunch in downtown on busy Thursday or Friday lunchtimes. Part of it is that the even though the city has provided towns of parking capacity (lots of surface lots, and a couple very costly structures), the city does almost no enforcement of time limits... let alone thinking about putting a price on some of the parking as Redwood City has done so effectively. Mountain View's public works and transportation staff need to get accustomed to managing the parking situation, so we don't keep pouring money down the rabbit role by building expensive new structures.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

> Actually there are many studies, but they are piecemeal, rely on
> a measure of self-reporting, can be dated, and can be hard to put
> into a larger picture (incompatibilities and gaps).

Mr. Moran--thanks for setting the record straight on this point. I Googled a little before adding this post to see if I could find this study and didn't readily see it. Are you aware of a web-link, or is it something that probably isn't on-line?

This inavailability of data is a big problem for all of us. We are left with all sorts of claims from government sources, and promoters of various effors at social engineering, and little to back up/refute their claims. It would be a good idea for groups arising to fight "smart growth" to try to collect as many of these studies/reports/datasets and put them in an easily accessible place. Google has a cloud based storage that offers up to 15GB of storage free, by the way. Others companies have similar offerings--so getting this information onto the "cloud" would not be difficult if there were some organizing effort to do so.

[[From the blogger:
On the report: My experience has been similar to commenter "Joe": Many of these reports don't come up in web search. It may be that the identifying information is too vague. Or it may be that the report is part of the "dark web" (not indexed by Google...) Or...

On creating a repository of reports: I have tried to do that several times over the past 15 years and each time failed (failed to achieve critical mass in content and especially in usage). This blog is the closest I am willing to do at this time.

The page-rank boost provided by being part of the PAOnline site can help make info provided here more likely to be found in web search, so commenters, please include links when you have them.
Note: The software limits comments to 4 links, but if you have more useful links than that, I don't object to a separate comment as a continuation.
]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by anne, a resident of Green Acres,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 10:09 am

Dear Doug,
I hope you are writing your very cogent points to the governor.

I wish you would run for City Council.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 2:20 pm

[[Deleted by blogger: It was discussion of moderation policy which is "off topic" for here. Such needs to be done offline (email).]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Interesting website: Web Link

It's Time to Redefine "Sustainability".
Planning for Reality provides a 21st century guide encouraging a healthy, skeptical and informed approach to planning decisions.

On this site you will find:
- a guide on common planning pitfalls for councilors, planning commissioners and advisory committee members

- the tough questions to ask to understand if a project is genuinely "sustainable"

- a reference to rapidly changing transportation and land use legislation

- the latest news on "sustainable" transit oriented development and high density housing


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 9:17 pm

From the Planning for Reality website, this is particularly good:

Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Cheryl, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 9:02 am

Great blog: thank you for providing this richly described perspective and history.

Great news: Today the Citizens of Marin who have actively opposed the effects of of "smart growth" won an important battle: The Larkspur Landing plan was unanimously rejected by the city council.

Web Link

[[From the blogger: That news article is about the vote and the meeting, but provides no discussion of the issues, but might help with web search for those interested]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 9:24 am

[[Deleted by blogger: disrespectful characterization of residents of Marin that seemed likely to be applied to commenters here that disagreed with commenter.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Another victory for SFBay Area CAPR (Citizens Alliance for Property Rights). Ranks right up there with the Measure D vote in Palo Alto.

[[Blogger: I see no mention of CAPR in the articles on Marin, nor did I see this project mentioned when I checked the CAPR website. The absence of content on such projects indicates that CAPR is not even a noticeable factor in the debate on growth. Attempts to portray them as leaders is inappropriate.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by anonymous post , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm

I don't know who CAPR is, but I do personally know that if people at PAHC and the City had genuinely put affordable housing before their own professional ambitions and developer interests, the affordable housing would have been built.

Jerry Underdal seems determined to further the myth of the political campaign that Measure D was about traditional tensions over affordable housing, when the neighbors genuinely tried to negotiate something to make it work while retaining their neighborhood character. But the developer side didn't think they had to budge, so they didn't. Larry Klein even said he had never seen so much "stonewalling" from an applicant, meaning PAHC.

If Mr. Underdal genuinely cared about affordable housing as he claims, he would stop furthering the destruction of PAHC's reputation by constantly reminding the public that PAHC refused to work with them to achieve the stated goals. During the heat of the controversy, it would have been very possible to redirect the very heavy public involvement to support saving BV in a quid pro quo: most people who were very unhappy at feeling forced to oppose PAHC would have only been to happy to put the effort at that time into saving the affordable housing at BV as part of that opposition effort, rather than going to Measure D, in fact, efforts were made to that effect. People like Mr. Underdal who claim to be for affordable housing stood squarely in the way of that.

[[Portion removed by blogger: Recap of above, but stated in manner that would engender unproductive back-and-forth]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

C'mon, put OMV back. Even the most casual observer of contemporary Marin demographics would know the post was way off base. Let him/her make a fool of her/himself.

[[From the blogger: I understand the value of letting commenters "make a fool of her/himself" but the flip side is that doing so typically licenses an increasing number of comments from "fools" which can then overwhelm the serious commenters.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 19, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

[[From the blogger: I found the CAPR posting mentioned below. To save readers time, it was simply an after-the-fact "Kudos" to the participants and a link to that group's website. To me, this strongly indicates that not only was CAPR not involved, but that it didn't see itself involved or about to become involved (confirming my assessment in a comment above). However Jerry sees it very differently.
]]

Doug Moran

Thank you for prompting me to confirm my comment regarding SFBay Area CAPR and its support of overturning the Larkspur Landing project. The CAPR web site is undergoing renovation and a lot of formerly useful links go nowhere for the time being, so I can understand your failure to find the connection I suggested.

But I did a little work and found the explicit link I was hoping for.

Source: SFBay CAPR|Facebook
May 23 post

"MARIN COUNTY ORGANIZES
Larkspur Fights Back
Says "NO" to Stack & Pack

Last night there was a meeting to discuss stack & pack housing plans at Larkspur Landing in Marin County. Citizens turned out in force. It is estimated that between 500-700 people turned out to express their opposition to these ill-conceived. unrealistic, utopian plans.
SFBay Area CAPR"

Would you care to revise your conclusion regarding the connection between SFBay Area CAPR and the Larkspur Landing reversal of the project?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:50 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I presume the chats you describe above is the same thing as "Our Palo Alto" or "Our Palo Alto scoping meetings" which to my mind is a $325,000 slush fund to both push growth --and the apparent inconsistency and capitulating to both more office space downtown and more housing -- and to enforce the status quo by helping the incumbents -- Scharff and Shepherd -- squeak by again, and preserve the Real Estate rout.

And why do we need a $150,000 per year spin doctor, to insulate Jim Keane's office from We The People.

I want transparency and accountability from leadership -- Council, commissioners and Staff. I don't want my tax dollar paying someone like Claudia Keith controlling what we should think or know about ourselves.

Thanks, Doug, for breaking this down the way you have, and I hope my take is complementary.

For $325,000 we could have at least, for example, contracted with Cowgirls Creamery of Petaluma and declared a Political Culture zone, which would have drawn more people to the meetings plus we would meet some actual leaders, those two gals, recently profiled in the Times, plus the bait would be that much better clearly.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 11:30 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I do recommend reading Mencken for some kind of insight into our current cultural miasma. But I don't advocate reducing him to aphorisms and paraphrases.

The quote and essay you reference are about 4,000 words.

I found a version here:

Web Link

More to the point, read George Packer "The Unwinding" -- more current, easier to read, plus he went to Gunn. It says, I would argue, that our problems are related to a series of trends and problems all over.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Blogger Moran wrote—

Dubious claims:
Example: In talks by Smart Growth advocates, you
are likely to see a picture of a large house—
4,000-8,000 sq.ft.—on a lot of well over an acre,
and with spectacular views. You will be told that
the reason that people are buying such houses is
the unavailability of their preferred choice: much
smaller apartments and condos in a high-density
development near a train station.
----

What is needed here, I submit, is a recognition that should a pro-growth/anti-suburbs advocate presents claims like this, that a coordinated response is needed. Presumably trying to stop such a person dead in his tracks isn't going to work, unless most people at the presentation get up and walk out. So—what kind of protest can people stage that will get the point across to these folks that we know that they are either purposefully misleading us—or outright lying?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 21, 2014 at 11:14 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

I thought the theme here was "Smart Growth," not whether there was a trade-off between support for the low-income senior affordable housing project at Maybell and the ability of current residents to continue residing at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park site.

My impression was that people in Barron Park who strongly supported affordable housing at Buena Vista also supported affordable housing at Maybell, with some notable exceptions. "Greenacres," for example, consistently supported the first while rejecting the Maybell project for reasons that included traffic safety, retaining the orchard, and housing density.

Reminder: we don't yet know what the ultimate outcome will be on either property.
-----
Back to Smart Growth: My reaction to the tale about the lawyer who couldn't get housing closer than Tracy and the engineer who would be stuck in Los Banos was similar to yours, I suspect. You don't have to be a "smart growth" sceptic to sniff out exaggeration in an argument. If 70% of a partisan's argument stands up to close scrutiny, no matter what the topic is, I'm impressed.




 +  Like this comment
Posted by Shills?, a resident of Stanford,
on Jun 22, 2014 at 8:20 am

Here's an argument:

-----
To those nimbys who say, "no one wants to live in a car, we should preserve our quality of life."

Lots of people from here and other places would live in their cars in the neighborhoods if we made permanent parking for that available. Since this is where the jobs are, and commuting from farther away would create pollution and urban sprawl, we should zone for this.
-----

To me, this is clearly fallacious reasoning.

But this same argument has been applied several times by at least one analyst here in Palo Alto to claim that we should rezone Palo Alto for more dense, smaller, less desirable housing. The argument is, "many people would buy or rent these units, so we even if they are not as desirable as current stock, we should build them. It provides more choice."

This argument is so off-point, that the only place I can imagine it being used is in a developer's meeting to decide whether they can make money by building such units. It has nothing to do with what benefits Palo Alto.

So is someone pushing this argument a shill for developers or am I missing the real weight and impact of this argument?



 +  Like this comment
Posted by Robert, a resident of another community,
on Jun 22, 2014 at 11:32 am

Shills, the fact that you would refer to it as "smaller, less desirable" housimg shows how off point you are. Do auto manufacturers build economy cars because they are smaller and less desirable? Would you think its acceptable for the government to ban the production of economy cars, because it takes away from the prestige of owning a car? They add to traffic? Take up parking? Any of Doug's arguments for disallowing new home construction?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> For the "public outreach" meetings for One Bay Area plan, ABAG/MTC/… had hired a highly partisan group, Greenbelt Alliance, which ran those meetings like pep-rallies for their politics/biases.

If you want to save yourself the time of attending one of these meetings, you can get the essence of such a meeting in a funny, tightly scripted version on YouTube "Plan Bay Area Meeting - Short Version" (Web Link). This takes the form of a short (6:20) conversation between a resident and an advocate. Having attended such meetings, I can attest to it not misrepresenting what a resident is likely to hear from the advocates (and frustration at the responses).



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