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Linking Social Equity and Smart Growth

by Worldchanging SF local blogger, Holly Pearson:

Article Photo

Peter Cohen has witnessed the unnoticed darker side of the Smart Growth movement as much as anyone in the Bay Area has.

As Director of the Community Planning Program at the non-profit organization Asian Neighborhood Design (AND), which works with community groups, neighbors and residents of San Francisco in the development and revitalization of their communities, Peter is one of a handful of urban planning professionals in the Bay Area who are working to create mechanisms for linking new public benefits, such as affordable housing and community facilities, to urban infill development projects. The aim is to minimize and mitigate the unintended negative socio-economic impacts of the kind of development promoted by progressive models of urban planning like Smart Growth, New Urbanism, and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

Although the driving objectives of these movements are to curb sprawl and build compact, environmentally sustainable communities, promoting densification and encouraging a high concentration of new development in older city neighborhoods can unintentionally result in gentrification. Many neighborhoods that are located near city centers and have vacant or underutilized land that’s suitable for relatively dense new development have historically been home to lower-income, working-class populations. When policy frameworks and economic incentives are enacted to attract new development in these areas, they often have the inadvertent effect of driving up housing costs and changing the demographics of communities, sometimes to the point of pushing long-time working-class residents out of the neighborhood.

It’s a phenomenon that Peter Cohen has observed increasingly during the recent development boom years in San Francisco. AND’s Community Planning Program focuses its efforts on the city’s lower-income eastern neighborhoods, including Chinatown, the Tenderloin, South of Market, the Mission, Bayview Hunter’s Point, and Visitacion Valley. Each of these neighborhoods has experienced the pressures of new development to some extent -- some have already undergone widespread gentrification while others are just starting to deal with these issues.

According to Peter, most advocates of Smart Growth and other current models of sustainable urban development don’t pay much attention to the sociological impacts on existing neighborhoods. He explains, "There’s an attitude among a lot of the planning community in San Francisco that density is good for density’s sake -- that a denser city is inevitably a better urban environment. My response is that density is not necessarily inherently good. You also have to look at issues of diversity, accessibility, and livability." Even if new development patterns bring about positive physical changes to an urban landscape, like better access to public transportation and greater energy efficiency, if factors like ethnic diversity and affordability are sacrificed, then has sustainability really been achieved?

But the Smart Growth and TOD models and encouragement of new urban infill development don’t have to be at odds with social equity. A new approach that’s being tested in San Francisco is to create and codify mechanisms that redistribute wealth directly from development profits to those sectors of the community that have historically lived in central city neighborhoods and older city suburbs. It’s about meeting community needs. It’s about respecting and benefiting the existing residents of a community and maintaining diversity while accommodating growth, increasing density, and creating compact, transit-accessible neighborhoods.

So how can these more holistic objectives be achieved on the ground? What possible new approaches might allow new infill development while ensuring the continued socio-economic vitality of existing neighborhoods? That’s what Peter Cohen’s Community Planning Program and other like-minded groups in the Bay Area have been trying to answer.

Peter Cohen was instrumental in drafting the proposed "Better Neighborhoods Plus" legislation—an enhanced version of the City of San Francisco’s Better Neighborhoods program. One of the ideas that Better Neighborhoods Plus sought to accomplish was to link the impact of new development with mitigation measures which benefit the community, and ensure that these mitigations are financed as part of a neighborhood plan. The proposed legislation was designed to apply to six designated areas for which the City has already initiated neighborhood planning processes: Mission, Showplace/Lower Potrero Hill, East SoMa, Central Waterfront, Upper Market/Octavia, and Inner Geary Boulevard. But it was also intended to establish more general standards to be used for all long-range planning initiatives.

As part of the neighborhood planning and implementation process, Better Neighborhoods Plus called for:

  • Preparation of a Neighborhood Baseline Conditions and Needs Analysis, which would identify existing shortfalls in infrastructure and community amenities that are lacking in a neighborhood, such as transit, open space, housing, neighborhood-serving businesses, and community facilities and other key amenities.
  • Preparation of a New Development Impacts Analysis. The topics addressed through this analysis could include a much wider array than is conventionally done in planning studies which typically focus on urban design, transportation and public service infrastructure, thereby allowing for a more comprehensive assessment of the impacts of new development on a community.
  • Recommendation of a Public Improvements Plan and Funding Strategy, including proposed funding mechanisms. Examples of the types of public improvements that could be funded under Better Neighborhoods Plus include affordable housing, economic development and employment training, community facilities and services, open space, and historic and cultural resources protection. Suggested strategies for paying for and mitigating the impacts include new development impacts fees, utilization of existing funding sources, and other funding from special benefits districts.

Although the Better Neighborhoods Plus legislation did not pass, the important result of this initiative is that the ideas have been articulated and framed as a methodology, and the issue of integrating social equity and community development goals with new urban development projects has entered the local planning dialogue.

A related initiative with a successful outcome is a recently adopted City ordinance, which was a piece of that sweeping Better Neighborhoods Plus proposal, which requires closer interaction between agencies in implementing public improvements that are promised in new area plans for the City’s eastern neighborhoods. Peter Cohen and AND’s Community Planning Program were involved in the crafting of this relatively simple ordinance, the purpose of which is to enhance the participation of various City departments and agencies (e.g. the Municipal Transportation Agency, Department of Public Works, Redevelopment Agency, Mayor’s Office of Community Development, Department of Recreation and Parks, etc) in the preparation and implementation of community benefits plans. It’s also intended to provide a means by which the various parties interested in neighborhood improvement programs can stay informed and provide input and support. The ordinance provides a mechanism for coordination between the departments and for dialogue with the community, in the hopes that these relationships will streamline the delivery of community benefits for those areas of the city that are most in need of improvements.

This past fall the City also strengthened its inclusionary housing ordinance, now one of the most progressive in the state, and AND’s Community Planning Program was involved in the technical analysis behind drafting the ordinance and advocating for its passage. One of the studies being produced by an interdisciplinary working group brought together by the city was a Residential Nexus Analysis. A draft of that study shows that the development of market-rate housing does generate significant demand for affordable housing, a finding which supports the City’s inclusionary policies and provides a foundation for future actions towards affordable housing. So public benefits mechanisms to further increase affordable housing are still needed, and are in the works. One mechanism that is being explored as a part of various planning proposals is the recapture of benefits conferred by the private sector on properties, through rezoning or other City actions. The City is exploring strategies of securing a portion of that benefit so that it can be rededicated back into the community, in the form of needed low-cost housing, open space, or other amenities for the community.

Another victory for Peter and AND in the effort to promote more equitable development was a resolution recently passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors which articulates a public policy framework for preparing and evaluating new neighborhood plans for the city’s eastern neighborhoods. The policies outlined apply to the Mission, East SoMa, Potrero Hill and the Central Waterfront, though the policy sentiment is really applicable citywide, and they relate to objectives such as the development of new affordable housing, the retention and expansion of industrial and other working-class jobs, and the promotion of arts venues as well as work spaces and affordable housing for artists.

"All these initiatives are pieces of a puzzle that I think is moving the policy framework towards more of an equitable development outcome," says Peter.

In order to further advance these efforts, Peter and other planning experts who are concerned about social sustainability agree that urban and regional planning needs to become more proactive, addressing not only land use considerations from a regulatory standpoint, but also looking at the relationship between the physical form and socio-economic conditions of cities and actively seeking to promote sound community development principles. Understanding that new development, and specifically more compact forms of urban development, are necessary in order to accommodate future growth, reduce traffic and sprawl, protect open space and air and water quality, and preserve our high standard of living in the Bay Area, Peter would like to see developers become "enlightened capitalists." This means developers who fully consider and understand the range of impacts that arise when new development is introduced into existing neighborhoods, and who recognize the importance of preserving affordability, enhancing community assets, and protecting less tangible qualities like neighborhood character.

Photo credits: SOMA photo by Asian Neighborhood Design, Mission Condos photo by CNN.

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