21 Aug 2014
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Google Buses: More Voices Offer More Opinions

Further discussion on the Google bus issues touches on the entitlement process, tax incentives, gentrification, and the value of curb space.

Google Buses: More Voices Offer More Opinions

I’ve previously written that the Google bus controversy, far from proving that urbanism is a flawed strategy, is instead an indictment of our tardiness in embracing urbanism. I’ve also begun sampling some of the other voices that are commenting on the issue. The further voices may not always agree with my thinking, but most put forth ideas that are complementary.

Today, I’ll dig more deeply into the other voices.

Writing in Slate, Matthew Yglesias argues that a land tax, in place of a property tax, wouldn’t help advance urbanism in San Francisco. He’s responding to a Quartz article by Noah Smith.  I referenced the Smith article in my previous post.

Yglesias argues that zoning, not tax incentives, is the constraint on San Francisco urbanism.

I agree with some of what Yglesias suggests, but differ in the details. For one, he conflates zoning and entitlement processes. But the two are very different.

I’m sure the following explanation is unnecessary for 95 percent of the readers, but please allow me to bring the other five percent up to speed. Zoning sets the general rules for land use, usually including the maximum project size that can be constructed without a variance. Entitlement is the process by which the zoning rules are applied to a particular site. During entitlement, the project size is often whittled down over concerns such as traffic capacity or building mass. (The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, is a key element of the entitlement process.)

In theory, using entitlement process to fine-tune zoning rules to a specific site seems reasonable. And it often results in appropriate compromises. But activist neighbors can also use the process as a cover for selfish ends.  Arguing that the building mass is out of scale for the neighborhood can be code for wanting to preserve a personal view. Contending that traffic impacts are excessive can be code for wanting to preserve street parking for guests.

Through use and abuse of the entitlement process, a site that was zoned for fifteen units might be reduced to six units or even result in the developer giving up. And for every unit that isn’t built, housing costs go up because of lack of supply and more households must find alternative accommodations, often in drivable suburban locations.

While I agree with Yglesias that zoning can sometimes be improved, it’s the entitlement process that’s the true weak link.

Also, Yglesias takes an either/or approach to zoning versus taxation system incentives. To me, the best solutions require multiple adjustments. For urban housing, I suggest that adjustments are required to the entitlement process, tax incentives, and zoning, in that order of decreasing importance.

In my first post on the Google bus issue, I wrote that the Google buses aren’t the true issue underlying the protests in San Francisco and Oakland. Instead, it’s the concern among existing residents that the push for residential development represented by the Google buses will result in increased residential costs, forcing current residents to relocate. To put a term to this concern, it’s gentrification.

Thus, it’s coincidental that several studies have recently come forth suggesting that gentrification isn’t nearly as detrimental as feared. Per the studies, it’s true that the elderly and disabled can be displaced if that impact isn’t mitigated, but the studies are finding that relocations among other residents are actually reduced. Furthermore, the financial health of the existing residents generally improves, presumably buoyed by the increased job opportunities in a gentrifying neighborhood.

The increased employment opportunities were intuitive, but the reduced displacement certainly wasn’t. Nor will the debate be modified by a handful of studies. But if the bogeyman of gentrification can be reduced, it’ll be a good thing for urbanism.

Lastly, Atlantic Cities suggests that the agreement reached between San Francisco and the Google buses for the use of public bus stops may set the value of public curb space, which could have implications for other urban activities such as parking and merchandise deliveries.

It’s an interesting suggestion. However, the author undermines his own argument by noting that California law prevents charging the fair value of the curb space and instead limits the fee to the cost of implementing the program.

As urbanism proceeds, it’s likely that we’ll need to place a value on curb space, but the Google bus agreement won’t provide that benchmark.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

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