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Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 9, 2013

Guest Opinion

A primer on regional growth plans

by Stephen Levy

Last month the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) adopted Plan Bay Area, an integrated land use and transportation strategy for the Bay Area through 2040. At the same time ABAG adopted the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) that sets planning targets for housing in each community through 2022.

For nearly 40 years regional growth plans have been required by the federal government to guide federal transportation funding that totals in the billions of dollars each decade. Plan Bay Area provides an overview of the amount and location of job and housing growth over the coming 25 to 30 years — information that is helpful in designing transportation investment plans for efficiently moving people and goods within the region.

With the passage of SB-375 additional goals were added to the long-term regional planning process — goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and locate housing within the region to match expected job growth.

Regional growth plans are based on anticipated growth in jobs, population and housing and on where these jobs and housing are expected to be located within the region. Plan Bay Area is based on local plans, on staff analyses of current and expected trends and input from ABAG members who represent the cities and counties in the region.

Most public discussion in Palo Alto and around the state is about the regional housing needs planning targets. A regional housing target is approved by the state, and ABAG committees work out the local distribution. The criteria for allocating housing to communities are determined by ABAG members and include local plans, expected job growth and access to transportation including freeways and public transit. In addition, ABAG committees have adopted a "fair-share" concept so all cities are expected to plan for some low- and moderate-income housing.

Who makes these decisions? ABAG members include cities and counties within the nine-county Bay Area. Committee members consist of elected officials including mayors, council members and county supervisors. The executive committee, which approved the final plan, consists of a group of ABAG elected official members including Greg Scharff, Palo Alto's current mayor.

What parts of Plan Bay Area and the regional housing needs assessment are mandatory? Cities are required to plan and zone for their housing allocation to 2022. Plan Bay Area provides information and a vision to guide private and public sector decision-makers about future growth trends and related strategies.

What happens if growth trends suddenly change after these plans are adopted? Regular updates are scheduled to take account of new information and trends. Plan Bay Area will be updated every four years and a new regional housing needs assessment will be developed in eight years.

Do people have to live where ABAG has planned for housing growth? No one is forced to live in a specific place, and housing and job developments are subject to review and approval by cities. Moreover, people are free to live outside the region in places like Tracy, Salinas or Davis and commute in to jobs in the region.

Is everyone expected to live and work in the same community? The answer is no. But there is a policy goal of shortening commutes through land use and transportation policies. One part of Plan Bay Area is the identification of "priority development areas" where housing and job centers are relatively near transportation corridors such as freeways, Caltrain or BART. For example, now cities and developers are exploring options for housing and jobs near the new BART stations planned between Fremont and San Jose.

What is the relationship between Plan Bay Area and the regional housing needs assessment? For the current regional assessment and Palo Alto housing allocations, there was no connection. The housing needs assessment was completed before Plan Bay Area regional growth projections were known. Both the state and ABAG agree that if the regional housing needs assessment had been based on Plan Bay Area, the regional housing targets would be higher than under the adopted housing needs assessment. The next assessment will be based on future Plan Bay Area growth projections.

Would it make any difference in Plan Bay Area if greenhouse-gas emissions magically disappeared? Probably not. One result would be that the region would be even more attractive as a place to live and work and growth would probably increase. But the trend toward locating jobs, housing and transportation to reduce the time and expense of travel is desired by residents and businesses apart from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and these plans would proceed because they meet the needs of residents and businesses.

For the current Plan Bay Area and the regional housing needs assessment, some residents in Palo Alto and other communities have argued that the regional growth projections are too high. As mentioned above, the current Palo Alto housing targets were not based on Plan Bay Area growth projections but the broader question deserves an answer.

I produced the regional growth projections and have told ABAG that if new projections were done this year, they would be higher than those in Plan Bay Area. Job growth has surged in the past two years averaging close to 100,000 jobs per year. Population growth is accelerating and last year Santa Clara County had the highest population growth rate among counties in California. Residents can see new plans for housing and job growth in our city, county and around the region even as demand pushes prices higher. Growth rates will slow as baby boomers age, retire and die and as birth rates decline. But the regional projection of 1 million more jobs and 2 million more residents by 2020 now seems conservative, particularly in light of immigration reform proposals that will increase expected regional growth.

Plan Bay Area is an attempt to plan for this anticipated growth in a way that supports economic prosperity and provides a range of housing, job location and transportation options to minimize the potential negative impacts of the coming growth on our lives.

Palo Alto resident Stephen Levy is director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.


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