Guest Opinion: The terrible choice between new homes and global warming | March 7, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 7, 2007

Guest Opinion: The terrible choice between new homes and global warming

by Steve Raney

On Jan. 26, the Weekly reported that "Unrealistic housing numbers worry city." That story emanated from the draft Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Regional Housing Needs Assessment that allocated 3,716 new housing units for Palo Alto by 2014.

The ABAG report resurfaces a decades-long struggle within Palo Alto relating to the kind and pace of growth for the community that values both its neighbohood environment and the broader global environment. But a deep dilemma underlies the surface give and take.

Palo Alto residents are very involved and vocal about ensuring that the best qualities of their neighborhoods remain in place. It is impossible to be elected to the City Council on a platform of adding 3,716 new housing units.

But, from a global warming standpoint, that's the right thing to do.

Compounding the problem, very few voters understand the direct, large link between housing and global warming.

Councilman Peter Drekmeier does, but that doesn't translate into Peter taking on the suicidal position of advocating for 3,716 new housing units.

"Proximity is more important than the efficiency of a vehicle. Our biggest impact on climate change is driving," Peter says in the Weekly's cover story on climate change last June 21. Hence while it is terrific to buy a Prius it is even more terrific to reduce the miles one drives.

It is only a slight oversimplification to envision that each of the 3,716 housing units that is NOT built in Palo Alto will be built in Tracy (or an equivalent community in terms of distance). Just check the Sunday real-estate section of the Mercury or Chronicle -- the bulk of new housing is being built beyond the first ring of Bay Area foothills, where you can buy a new 3,500-square-foot house on the cheap, relatively speaking.

Hence, each "avoided" Palo Alto home for two workers results in two Tracy-to-Palo Alto commutes, adding 30 tons of carbon dioxide per year (60,000 commute miles).

A recent study by Robert Cervero and Michael Duncan of the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that locating housing next to jobs is the most effective strategy in reducing vehicle mileage (and generation of carbon dioxide). Their conclusions are detailed in an article, "Which Reduces Vehicle Travel More: Jobs-Housing Balance or Retail-Housing Mixing?" in the Autumn 2006 Journal of the American Planning Association.

Palo Alto has arguably the largest mileage-increasing "jobs-housing imbalance" in the Bay Area, needing roughly 90,000 additional residents (added to the current 59,000 population) to "balance" Palo Alto's 87,000 jobs. (Source, City of Palo Alto Web site: .)

A "good" jobs/housing balance is about one job to every two residents, as many residents do not work (retired, stay-at-home, too young). A "large" jobs/housing imbalance occurs when you have one or more jobs for every one resident, such as in Palo Alto, Emeryville and other "edge cities." Palo Alto has had a jobs-housing ratio of more than two jobs per household (as high as 2.4 jobs per household) since the 1960s due to its explosion of high-tech jobs and constriction on housing development after the big subdivision surge of the 1950s ended.

Thus, Palo Alto faces two terrible choices: (1) adding 3,716 homes in Palo Alto, threatening neighborhood quality, or (2) "protecting" Palo Alto, forcing 3,716 homes out to Tracy, dramatically increasing global warming.

Thus far, council members have only acknowledged the difficulties with the first choice. This may seem puzzling, given the council's recently adopted climate protection policy, but it is no worse than council comments from other high-mileage suburbs. One can only hope that the Palo Alto council will undertake a more innovation-fostering discussion, considering how to make both choices less terrible before acting.

To help things along, here are some "less terrible" practices for adding 3,716 new homes in Palo Alto:

1) Identify the most promising parcels for new housing from the acres and acres of choices within Palo Alto.

2) Ensure that property taxes on new projects will increase sufficiently as well as use "gift agreements" to fully fund incremental city services and education.

3) To reduce carbon dioxide AND neighborhood traffic congestion, apply draconian auto-trip reduction. The 'no new net trips' restriction (imposed on Stanford University by the Palo Alto City Council in the Santa Clara County 2000 General Use Permit for 5 million new square feet of Stanford buildings could be applied.

By contrast, here are some "less terrible" practices for adding 3,716 new homes in Tracy:

1) Offset the negative carbon impact of each "avoided home" by purchasing "carbon credits." At $30 per year per carbon ton, each avoided home degrades the climate by $900 per year. This offset could be funded by a citywide tax on residents.

2) ABAG's process encourages neighboring cities to work together to meet housing assessments. Hence, Palo Alto could negotiate with Menlo Park, Mountain View and Los Altos Hills to have those cities help meet Palo Alto's 3,716 new-homes assessment, provided Palo Alto provided compensation.

3) To balance jobs and housing, subsidize the re-location of Palo Alto jobs out to Tracy. It is unclear whether 3,716 homes in Palo Alto or Tracy is worse.

4) Subsidize green programs undertaken by Tracy.

Well, I'm not holding my breath about any of the above actually being implemented. The main point is that there are serious trade-offs to decisions made in Palo Alto. Local politics may indeed have global implications, or at least be felt as far as Tracy.

Palo Alto native Steve Raney is lead researcher for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Bay Area suburban sustainability study entitled, "Transforming Office Parks into Transit Villages," He can be e-mailed at


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