Monday, January 23, 2012

Civil Dissent and Regional Planning, Concluded

In my last two posts, I talked about the civil protest that occurred at a January 9 regional planning meeting.  The meeting, which was cohosted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, was about a long range vision, the One Bay Area plan, of how the Bay Area should grow and how to best serve the Bay Area with transit.

In my posts, I’ve discussed my thoughts on the standards for evaluating civil dissent and on how the January 9 protests measured up to those standards.

Before leaving the subject, I’ll tackle one last subject, whether the protesters had a legitimate complaint about the regional planning effort.

I can sympathize with the protesters.  As a commenter to an earlier post in this series noted, it can seem nearly impossible for an average citizen to impact the course of a major planning effort.   The effort to understand the complexities of the effort can require more time than many folks can offer.  As a result, few folks try.  One of the organizers at the January 9 meeting was heard to express surprise that they had attracted a hundred attendees with many more on the waiting list.  He said that they normally had six or eight people in attendance for similar meetings.

To give some credit to the protesters, some claimed that they had read much of the One Bay Area material that was available on-line.  Given some of the questions, it seemed that few had made the educational effort and that fewer still had assimilated it well, but at least they implicitly acknowledged the need for homework.

But I can also sympathize with the regional planning groups.  Despite what some outsiders might think, regional planning involves a complicated calculus of jobs, economics, land availability, transit options, and many more factors.  It isn’t fair to assume that the complex calculations can be reduced to simple statements on which the general public can weigh in without doing much homework.

Although it seems a weak compromise, the best I can do is to call upon both sides to work toward the middle.  The regional planners need to find ways to present their work in a form that an average citizen can begin to grasp the alternatives after an evening of reading.   And the public needs to put forth that evening of reading and try to empathize with the complexities of regional planning before offering comments.  Plus, it would be helpful if the members of the public were to begin that evening of study without preconceived ideas.

Before closing, I also want to express a concern with regional planning from the perspective of a design consultant.  That concern is the lack of compulsion behind most regional plans.  It often seems the expectation that the issuance of a regional plan is the final task, when the real work is actually done after the plan is on the street.

As an example, a few years ago I was working in another metropolitan area that adopted a regional plan.  As is typical of most contemporary regional plans, the plan called for less encroachment into undeveloped land.  Instead, housing needs were to be met by incorporating more density into developed areas. 

I was working with a developer whose preference was to find fill unused land within the developed area.  His site plans generally included as many units as could be accommodated while still creating mid-market livable space.  His approach was in the sweet spot of the regional plan.

He was working on a vacant two-acre parcel that was surrounded by existing apartment complexes.  He was able to secure city entitlements for thirteen units of a zero-lot-line, common-wall townhomes.  The interior details were good, but the site plan was tight.

With the construction documents underway, we met with the local utility.  They rejected our plan for electric meter locations.  We weren’t violating the building code, but we weren’t consistent with the utility’s standards.  We offered several alternatives, all of which were rejected.  Eventually, we proposed that all the meters be mounted on a free-standing wall at the end of multi-unit building.  If the project had been condominiums, the alternative would have been fine.  But as zero-lot-line, common-wall townhomes, which can be physically identical to condominiums except in name, the meter wall wasn’t acceptable under the utility’s standards.

As other members of the design team and the utility staff continued to wrangle at one end of the table, I huddled with a utility manager at the other.  I noted that the project density was encouraged under the regional plan.  I also explained that if we couldn’t find a meter solution, we’d be forced to go back to the city to modify the entitlements to reduce the project to eleven units, an effort that would likely delay the project by a year.  The result would be contrary to regional planning.  Also, the precedent might discourage other developers who were considering similar developments.

The manager didn’t accept my argument during the meeting, but two days later one of his staff people advised me that we could proceed with the meter wall.  It was an acceptable solution for us.  However, as the project proceeded into construction and more departments of the utility saw to what the manager had agreed, more disapproval was offered.  Eventually, I was advised that our project could be completed, but that the utility would never again agree to a meter wall for a townhome project.  So the next development to try to accomplish what we had done would find their way blocked.

Nowhere in this process was either the regional planning entity or the city involved.  It fell to the civil engineer and a mid-level utility manager to implement the intent of the regional plan.  Nor did either of us have the feeling that anyone at either the city or the regional planning entity was available to assist us in our efforts. 
If we are to go through the effort and controversy of adopting a regional plan, it would seem that there should be more effort to implement the plan.

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

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