Monday, September 2, 2013

Is Urbanism Legal in the North Bay?

In “The Smart Growth Manual” by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon, Point 1.13 is “Legalizing Smart Growth”.  The authors write “Suburban sprawl must be recognized as the default development pattern. … the principal cause is that in most places smart growth is technically illegal.”  They go on to argue that urbanism* must be made legal.

Which poses the question for North Bay readers, is urbanism legal in the North Bay?

The answer seems obvious.  We occupy one of the more progressive corners of one of the more progressive regions of one of the most progressive states in the union.  How could urbanism not be legal?

Except that it might not be quite that easy.

Because I live in Petaluma, I’ll write about that city’s regulatory approach to urbanism.  To my knowledge, most North Bay cities have regulatory approaches to urbanism that are similar.  But I encourage others to comment below on their own cities.  

The key element of urbanism in Petaluma is the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP).  The CPSP and its accompanying form-based SmartCode set the land-use rules for a 400-acre area in the heart of the city.  The land-use approach is formulated around urbanist concepts.  However, the total area of Petaluma is over 9,000 acres, so the area in which urbanism is strongly encouraged is less than five percent.  Yes, it’s five percent that is centrally located with the city, but five percent remains a small amount.

Outside of the CPSP, urbanist projects can certainly be proposed, but the path to entitlement would be difficult.  As a thought exercise, consider a small urbanist project, perhaps a moderately-sized two-story structure with a small neighborhood grocery downstairs, a pair of apartments upstairs, and no parking lot.  And let’s put it on a residentially-zoned corner lot where it would be surrounded by the single-family homes that it would serve.

Now, name a neighborhood in Petaluma in which that structure could be proposed without raising strong neighborhood opposition.  Personally, I’d love to have the building in my neighborhood, even on the corner lot next door to mine, but suspect that I’m atypical.

Even if the neighborhood could be mollified, the City would likely deem the project so inconsistent with the zoning code that an application couldn’t be submitted.  Even a passel of variance applications wouldn’t be enough.  The project would probably require a text amendment to modify the zoning code before it could proceed.  So in 95 percent of the city, the hypothetical project is currently illegal.

But at least we have the five percent in the CPSP, right?  Well, sort of.

Like all California land use, the CPSP is subject to the environmental standards of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  And CEQA, not surprisingly given its roots in the 1970s, was written as if drivable suburban was the only expected land use.

The CEQA process requires assessing the environmental impacts in various areas and proposing mitigations if the impacts exceed acceptable thresholds.  Which seems a reasonable approach.  But what if a project achieves significant positive environmental impacts, such as the reduction of greenhouse gases, while failing another standard, such as traffic?  There are few provisions in CEQA for weighing positive versus negative environmental impacts.  But those kinds of trade-offs are often what urbanism is about.

Also, CEQA measures the expected impacts on the day the land use is completed.  But urbanism is about creating a setting in which impacts such as traffic can be reduced over time as further urbanist projects are added to the mix.  CEQA isn’t written to measure that possibility.

CEQA doesn’t bar urbanism.  Indeed, the CPSP plan has already been subject to CEQA review and approval.  But CEQA forces urbanism to pass through a sieve that was constructed with sprawl in mind, altering the concept of urbanism in myriad ways.

Nor is CEQA the only set of land-use rules that were written with drivable suburbia in mind.  Impact fees, the charges that cities collect to cover the cost of providing infrastructure to new development, have a strong suburban cast.

Let’s consider that an urban developer has 3,000 square feet of space that can be used for residences.  He could create either a single 3,000 square-foot super-apartment or three 1,000 square-foot regular-sized apartments.

There is room for reasonable debate of the relative infrastructure impacts of the two options.  The three smaller apartments would likely use more water and more road miles than the larger apartment.  But they’re not likely to use three times as much of either.

And to the extent that the smaller apartments lead to a critical mass that supports a walkable neighborhood, it’s even possible that the road miles of the smaller apartments wouldn’t be much larger than those of the larger apartment.

However, there is no debate on the city impact fee chart.  The three smaller apartments are each charged the same impact fee as the single larger apartment.  The financial motivation to the developer is for the larger apartment, which is the anti-urban direction.

Impact fees join CEQA, even in the CPSP, in a strong lean toward drivable suburban development.

So, if Petaluma can be used as an example, is urbanism legal in the North Bay?  Yes, it is.  But it’s not nearly as legal as sprawl.  Which is unfortunate.  It’s also a large part of the reason this blog exists.

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

* - Usage note: Regular readers know that I prefer not to use the term “smart growth”, but instead use “urbanism”.  Both refer to the same type of development.  But I believe that describing one’s position as “smart” comes across as condescending.  It’s also a poor way to begin an attempt to convince others of the failings of sprawl.

The authors of “The Smart Growth Manual” express the same concern about the term “smart growth” in their introduction.  However, they judge that the battle between “urbanism” and “smart growth” has been lost, so they surrender and use the latter.  I haven’t yet surrendered, so always use “urbanism” except when I quote others.

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