Infill development is hard. Even in California, one of the few states to have given local officials guidance on how to plan for growth, building smart, sustainable projects close to transit is a challenge, a panel of experts told a Climate One audience on May 25.
“People say, ‘We can’t do enough infill.’ There are too many obstacles to doing it right,” said Stuart Cohen, Executive Director, TransForm. “But those are obstacles we have control of. I am hopeful for the future, but we need to create a vision for the future that people can believe in. Infill development, if done right – and it’s a big if – can actually enhance our communities.”
Mike Ghielmetti, President, Signature Development Group, a Bay Area developer, described a process riddled with uncertainty and risk. Will city council members be in office and planning officials their jobs over the five to 10 years it may take to build a project? Who will pay for schools and parks? Does the project site contain historic buildings? Is the site contaminated? Despite the challenges, “We have to push this vision forward,” Ghielmetti said. “We have to figure out a way to accommodate growth, so that we can provide housing for all levels of society. We can provide for new jobs and economic vitality.”
Realizing that California could not meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals under AB32 without tackling emissions from cars, lawmakers, in 2008, passed Senate Bill 375 (SB375). Cars, not buildings, are the largest source of planet-warming pollution in California. SB375 directly confronts emissions from transportation by forcing cities to plan for growth that reduces miles driven and clusters new development near existing transit and services.
Ezra Rapport, Executive Director, Association of Bay Area Governments, said the process outlined in SB375 should help reduce uncertainty and insulate planning decisions from local political considerations. Under the law, 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) will set regional 2020 and 2035 GHG reductions targets for cars. Each MPO will then prepare a Sustainable Communities Strategy that demonstrates how the region will meet its GHG reduction target.
Rapport said those plans will remove some of the project-by-project uncertainty. “The election cycle is obviously paramount in all politicians’ minds. But when they’re sitting on the city council, talking about the plan for growth that will take place over the next 10 to 20 years, they’re not really challenged in their election cycles by those decisions.”
“But in many cases, in my point of view, if a project is properly planned, and it has community buy-in, and it’s continually refreshed, you will get support,” he said.
– Justin Gerdes
May 25, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California