Blog: July, 2011
Weekly Snapshot: LA Puts a Halt to Red Light Cameras
In Los Angeles, the City Council voted unanimously to put an end to its traffic enforcement camera program. The program, which used cameras to identify drivers who ran red lights at city intersections, had cost Los Angeles 1.5 million dollars a year due to unpaid tickets. On top of the financial issues, studies raised doubt as to whether or not the program was effective in reducing the number of accidents on L.A. streets, further delegitimizing the traffic enforcement program.
Feathers Fly Over Backyard Farming Rules in Oakland
It’d be unthinkable to ban dogs, cats, and many other types of pets in cities. But if you want to raise other types of animals (like chickens, ducks and rabbits) for their eggs or meat, you might run into a lot more regulation.
How much more regulation was a hot topic at a recent community meeting about urban agriculture hosted by the Oakland Planning Department. Nearly 300 people turned out to debate the laws around backyard animal husbandry.
Currently in Oakland, gardeners who want to sell what they grow must get a relatively expensive conditional use permit. And, by the planning department’s own admission, rules about raising animals for personal consumption are vague and contradictory. Oakland is in the process of updating its code. The cost and regulations of cultivating plants is moving toward a simpler, less-expensive regulation. But on the issue of animals, there was little resolution.
Though San Francisco recently updated its urban agriculture zoning code, it did not change the existing rules regarding raising animals. Seattle, in contrast, had a lively debate over the proper place for roosters, ultimately banning them from backyards. At the hearing in Oakland, it was clear that the regulatory discussion had become, for some, a venue for debating the morality of raising animals for meat — whether in cities or elsewhere.
Where Oakland’s process ends up is to be seen, but the community meeting was another demonstration that Bay Area cities are beginning to grapple with urban agriculture at a policy level. Pushed by popular demand, local governments now face the question of how to reincorporate agriculture activities into municipal codes that pushed them out of the city decades ago.
Coastal Commission Slams Armoring at Ocean Beach
On July 13, the California Coastal Commission unanimously denied a permit application from the City and County of San Francisco for coastal armoring along the Great Highway South of Sloat Boulevard. The application was submitted by the City's Department of Public Works, which is responsible for the protection of city infrastructure, including the Lake Merced Tunnel, a 14-foot diameter sewer pipe under the Great Highway. DPW constructed rock revetments (i.e., linear piles of boulders) on the beach in 1997 and 2010 in response to erosion caused by severe winter storms. The permit would have 1.) retroactively approved the un-permitted 1997 revetment, 2.) made permanent the temporary emergency permit for the 2010 revetment, and 3.) added new armoring, extending revetments and adding tangent pile walls (made from reinforced concrete piles) behind the bluffs.
The surprise ruling, against the recommendation of commission staff, is a significant victory for surfers and environmentalists, who oppose coastal armoring for its impacts on the beach, including the loss of sand and impeded coastal access. After presentations from the DPW staff and project opponents, the commission protested the ad-hoc nature of the city's coastal management and insisted that they would not approve additional armoring until a long-range plan was in place. Members were explicit that they intended to send a message to city officials. The commission did not take up the substance of the city's application, which included an analysis of future risk in three locations, including one where there is an immediate risk of damage.
As the project leader of SPUR's work on Ocean Beach, I provided testimony on the status of the Ocean Beach Master Plan, due out in January. The ruling has significant implications for the plan, which is intended to provide the long-range framework the commission is demanding. By precluding further short-term armoring, the commission has increased pressure on the project to provide an answer, and on the participating agencies to quickly adopt its recommendations. But the short-term picture is left unresolved. The Master Plan is a non-regulatory package of recommendations, which will guide a host of federal, state, and local agencies, each with its own internal planning processes. The recommendations must be translated into distinct and fundable projects and subjected to review under state and federal environmental regulations CEQA, NEPA and the California Coastal Act. All of this will take several years, during which additional storms are likely to occur. Although they did send a clear message in favor of long-range planning, chances are that the commissioners will find themselves facing an emergency armoring permit before they see a long term fix come to fruition.
Take a Virtual Tour of SPUR's Climate Change Exhibition, "Adapt!"
Taking down a show at the SPUR Urban Center Gallery is always a sad moment. An exhibition is one of the best ways to de-nerdify our policy research and make it accessible to a wide audience. But once it comes down from our walls, we lose that public window into our work. So when we heard about Microsoft’s Photosynth technology, we got excited. Photosynth creates a virtual environment by collaging together hundreds of very high resolution photos. In short, it could allow anyone to visit our exhibitions from their computer any time — even days, weeks or years after the display panels have come down.
Our current exhibition, Adapt! Climate Change Hits Home, provides a great chance to test out this technology. We're proud of the research behind it, and we want as many people as possible to know about the coming affects of climate change and the adaptation strategies SPUR recommends for our region. Composed from 283 photographs taken in the Urban Center Gallery, the photosynth below lets you walk the exhibition floor and even zoom in close enough to read text and view graphs and images.
To visit the virtual gallery, first click the image below to download Microsoft Silverlight. (Yes, there's a download required. Is it worth the extra two minutes? That's your call — but SPUR staffers both young and not-so-young became converts after trying out the incredible zoom tool.)
After downloading, return to this post or visit the full-size version on the Photosynth site and hover your cursor over a portion of the image; the white outlines indicate photographs that you can pan or zoom towards. You can also use your keyboard’s arrow keys to pilot through the space, explore the nooks and crannies of the Urban Center’s ground floor, and learn all that Adapt! Climate Change Hits Home has to share.
Note: You will need Microsoft Silverlight to view the exhibition.
The Numbers: LA Cross-Town, 85% Longer for a Plane Than a Bike
L.A.’s highly hyped “carmageddon” — the two-day closure of the 405 freeway — was not the apocalypse many feared. But it did provide a great showdown of transit alternatives.
In the starting gates were: bikes, mass transit and a plane (chartered by gimmick-savvy Jet Blue).
The “track” itself: Los Angeles. Specifically, a 40ish mile north to south beeline from North Hollywood to the shore of Long Beach. Approximately: Twin Peaks to Petaluma, the Ferry Building to Palo Alto, or Oakland International Airport to SFO.
And, as Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt reported, the bikes and mass transit enthusiasts smoked the plane. By more than an hour! Based on times reported in Vanderbilt's article, the plane trips (including getting to and from the airports) took 85 percent longer than the bike ride.
Yes, the bikers were a good step above your run-of-the-mill commuter. And, no, this experiment does not actually reflect the calculations people make each day when deciding how to get around a city. But Vanderbilt sums up the value of the stunt:
“…cycling, often taken as a non-serious or marginal or even annoying (to some drivers) form of transportation in the United States, could seem eminently reasonable: not only the cheapest form of transportation, not merely the one with the smallest carbon footprint, not only the one most beneficial to the health of its user, but the fastest.”
For those not ready to hop on two wheels, the day also showed that mass transit could be faster than a plane over short distance. The plane trip took 67 percent longer than the subway and walking.
If policy-makers can take this to heart, L.A.’s experience may point the way for transit planning that provides a future with fewer carmageddons. And maybe fewer cars.
What Will 4th Street Look Like in Twenty Years?
The stretch of 4th Street between Market Street and the Caltrain station at 4th and King Street may not be one of San Francisco’s best-known neighborhoods (at least not yet), but it’s an important area for urbanists to be thinking about. Why? Because roughly $1.5 billion will be invested in transit infrastructure here, in the form of the Central Subway. This project will ultimately link the T-Third Street Muni line with Chinatown. Meanwhile, other significant plans in the area will extend Caltrain to downtown and further link the 4th and King Station to the Transbay Terminal using high-speed rail.
Some planner types (including us at SPUR) think that the intensity of development in a neighborhood should be proportional to the intensity of transit infrastructure. In other words, places that have good regional transit (like a BART station) should have more intense development than places that have good local service (like the bus stops along Geary Boulevard). And places that have little to no transit should be thinking about developing a good land-conservation strategy rather than planning for growth.
There’s also quite a lot of evidence to support the idea that regional transit should support job centers, while local transit should support housing. SPUR’s Future of Work report explored this concept in great detail. The upshot? The more jobs located next to good transit, the greater the reduction of vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions.
The San Francisco Planning Department has launched a new planning effort focused on the 4th Street corridor. This Central Corridor Study seeks to coordinate transportation and land uses in the area between 3rd and 5th streets from Townsend to Market. This study will make recommendations for the types of uses to be included in the area (housing? jobs? other?), as well as the intensity of those uses (i.e., how big the buildings will be and how many homes or jobs they will hold).
SPUR believes strongly that plans for 4th Street should take into consideration the substantial transit improvements in this area, as well as the need to extend San Francisco’s walkable downtown core. Downtown SF far exceeds other parts of the region in its share of commuters arriving to work using sustainable transportation modes. That’s a trend worth building on.
SF Planning has just launched its Central Corridor Study and completed several days of storefront charrettes, where members of the public were able to walk in to a retail space in the plan area and share their thoughts with planners. What a great way to get input from the public! We look forward to providing our own input, and we encourage you to share your input, too, as the process unfolds.
Read SPUR’s Future of Downtown Report >>
New SPUR Program: Food Systems and Urban Agriculture
We are what we eat. It’s true for people — but also for cities and regions. The food we consume and the system that produces, distributes and disposes of it are as vital to San Francisco and the Bay Area as our systems for housing, energy, water and governance. Like those other systems — staples of SPUR policy — food is a basic human need and provides a perspective for answering the question, “How do we make our city and region a more livable place?”
SPUR’s new Food Systems and Urban Agriculture program seeks to answer that question through policy that will strengthen both the food system within the city — where food is grown, how it’s sold and how accessible it is— as well as the region’s network of farms and distributors.
San Francisco has recently experienced a surge of interest in reforming its local food system. In just the past two years the mayor issued a groundbreaking Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food, the Board of Supervisors updated the zoning code to allow for more types of urban agriculture, and the city hosted the first Northern California “slow money” investment conference. SPUR’s program will be working among a strong base of organizations that are active on food issues in the Bay Area. This desire for innovation and change is driven by many factors, including an interest in reducing the ecological footprint of food; improving public health and eradicating “food deserts”; and strengthening communities by supporting local businesses. SPUR's priority will be on policy, especially where food issues intersect with questions of land use, regional planning and economic development.
In our first year, we will focus our attention on four main issues:
1) The use of public land for urban agriculture
2) Reducing regulatory barriers to urban agriculture
3) Farm-to-cafeteria programs and food literacy in schools
4) Creating metrics and baselines for local food consumption to help inform future policy
Along the way we will report back, both here and the Urbanist, on other developments in the field of food policy, ranging from federal incentives for grocery stores in food deserts to state pilot projects funding rooftop agriculture for its role in stormwater management. And we will also host forums (like our May panel on San Francisco’s recent food policy initiatives), walking tours and more.
As we develop our program, I’d like to hear your ideas and feedback. Please send suggestions for potential events, interesting models of food policy in other places or other ideas to email@example.com.
Redevelopment is Dead. Long Live Redevelopment!
This year has been a wild one for redevelopment agencies in in California. In November 2010, the voters of California passed Proposition 22, which effectively prevented the state from raiding redevelopment agency funds. Then, just a few months into his tenure, Governor Jerry Brown vowed to abolish redevelopment agencies and got fairly close to doing so, despite the extraordinary efforts of organizations like the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), to save the parts of redevelopment that work best. SPUR also chimed in with an editorial by Gabriel Metcalf arguing that redevelopment should be retained and reformed to promote affordable housing and reinforce California’s smart-growth goals.
As part of the new state budget, redevelopment agencies have once again headed to the chopping block, only this time it’s for real. When he signed the budget in late June, the governor also passed two trailer bills regarding redevelopment, ABx1 26 and ABx1 27. The first one eliminates redevelopment agencies, and the second allows them to continue to exist if they pay certain “voluntary” contributions to schools and special districts. These contributions would require each redevelopment agency to pay its proportional share of $1.7 billion for fiscal year 2011-2012. For every year thereafter, agencies would need to pay their proportional share of $400 million, plus an additional amount tied to the issuance of new debt, in order to keep their doors open.
What is the impact to San Francisco? Fred Blackwell, the head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, has explained that the SFRDA would continue to stay in business, but some of its projects would go forward on a slower timeline, and others may not happen at all. Mission Bay and the first phase of Hunter’s Shipyard will continue to move forward, but the timeline of other projects, such as Phase II of Hunter’s Shipyard and the Transbay Terminal, are more uncertain. Even more concerning is the potential hit to affordable housing funds for those areas.
Groups throughout the state are not taking the news sitting down. The California Redevelopment Association and the League of California Cities are taking a lawsuit directly to the California Supreme Court, asserting that the new laws are unconstitutional.
Until the lawsuit is resolved, the future of redevelopment in California remains uncertain.
Mapping the Parklet Craze: Where to See the Urban Design Trend of the Year
In the history of San Francisco city planning, 2011 may go down as the year of the parklet. The idea to make streets more livable by converting parking spaces into public places debuted in SF in 2010, thanks to the city’s Pavement to Parks project, but the concept really took off this year. SF has welcomed 10 new parklets in 2011, for a current total of 15, and will add as many as 12 more by the end of the year.
Why the explosion? Because parklets fill a real need for residents and businesses. An April 2011 Parklet Impact Study by the San Francisco Great Streets Project showed that 72 percent of respondents would visit the Tenderloin, North Beach and the Mission more often if there were more places to sit. The demand is there, and the city is responding by approving almost all of the new parklets proposed.
Streetsblog has been tracking new parklets as they crop up, and the Chronicle’s John King recently called them “the most intriguing urban design innovation in today's San Francisco.” But on the street, it can be hard to get a sense of the extent of the craze. Now you can track them on a parklets Google map, created by SF Great Streets, which shows all of the current parklets, as well as several of the approved sites.
To hear the inside scoop from those who are planning and designing local parklets, join SPUR for a walking tour of Valencia Street’s four parklets this Wednesday, July 13 at 12:30 p.m.