An Interview with Joe Bodovitz

An interview with former SPUR deputy director Joe Bodovitz

Urbanist Article September 1, 1999

After having served as SPUR's first deputy director from 1962 to 1965, Joe Bodovitz became the first executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). Later, he directed the Bay Vision 2020 process, which attempted to establish better regional governance in the Bay Area. We decided to interview Joe, a major player in the movement for regional planning over the last forty years, about SPUR, BCDC, Bay Vision 2020, and the prospects for regional planning. The interview was conducted by Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR deputy director, on June 8, 1999, in the offices of the California Environmental Trust, where Mr. Bodovitz is President.

Metcalf: Joe, how did you come to be involved with SPUR?

Bodovitz: Before coming to SPUR I was a newspaper reporter for the Examiner, in the days when it was a morning newspaper and there were four dailies in San Francisco. As part of what I did for the Examiner, I wrote a lot about planning and redevelopment and covered other issues that were of interest to SPUR. I got to know Dorothy Erskine and John Hirten, and when SPUR had the funding for an assistant, John asked if I would be interested, and I was, so I went to SPUR as the first Deputy Director.

How would you describe the roles SPUR played in San Francisco at that time?

Well, I think that the clichés, which would be correct, are gadfly and spur. The idea of SPUR was the literal one of spurring things to happen that wouldn't otherwise have happened, and I think that was the reason it attracted support from business and from civic groups. Those were the days when there was great enthusiasm for what redevelopment could do in San Francisco. Justin Herman had come in as the executive director of the Redevelopment Agency, and there was much concern about city planning, redevelopment, Market Street, and the South of Market redevelopment. There was considerable impatience. Many things were seen as needed for the good of the city, but they weren't happening under the established regime. For better or worse, redevelopment was perceived as a way to shake things up and get on to better planning and development. We can talk later about whether that's what actually happened.

After SPUR, you went on to be the first Executive Director of BCDC. To people today, the Bay Plan and the creation of BCDC appear to be landmark, incredibly dramatic pieces of legislation. Would you talk about your role in that process and how BCDC was formed?

Well, let me go back to the role of SPUR in that process. I was at SPUR in 1964. The Berkeley women who had founded the Save San Francisco Bay Association had not succeeded in getting any legislation passed to stop or even slow filling in the Bay, but they did get Senator Eugene McAteer, who was then, in the era before reapportionment, the only senator from San Francisco, interested in bay fill issues.

So Senator McAteer, in the fashion of that time, got a bill through the Legislature for a study commission. When the Legislature did not have consensus on what to do, it was common in those days to set up a study commission that would meet between legislative sessions. Sen. McAteer 's bill set up a nine-member study commission, and then-Governor Pat Brown persuaded Senator McAteer to be chairman of the commission. As I recall, there were three Senate appointees, three Assembly appointees and three by the Governor. Senator McAteer needed a staff director for the study commission, became aware of me, and asked SPUR to lend me to the study commission. John Hirten, in an example of the reason John was so effective, without blinking, said "absolutely," even though my departure for four months meant a lot of extra work for him, and meant for me that I had a job to come home to, whatever the fate of the study commission. So in the sense of lending me at considerable sacrifice and inconvenience, John deserves some of the credit for helping BCDC get started.

So I became executive director of the study commission. We held a dozen public hearings in the space of four months, got some consultant work done, and the commission then arrived at proposals that became the basis for legislation in 1965. That's the legislation that created BCDC. The original 1965 McAteer-Petris Act provided the commission a limited time to prepare a plan for the bay. Not only was the commission to do this planning, it was to control bay filling while the planning was being done. The belief was that if you didn't control filling, people would simply rush out and fill to beat any requirements that the new plan might impose. It was exceedingly unusual to get a bill of this kind through the Legislature in those days, and but for the skill and toughness of Senator McAteer, it wouldn't have happened. Which takes nothing away from the tenacity and skill of Nick Petris, who was then the Assembly author of the bill, now former state senator, from Oakland.

At that point, a commission was set up. It was the Bay Area's good fortune that Pat Brown appointed Mel Lane, whose family owned Sunset Magazine and Sunset Books, to be chairman of BCDC. So I had the opportunity to work for a wonderful boss; he was as good a commission chairman as you could imagine, and much of BCDC's success was due to his willingness to devote much of his time and energy to the new commission.

As the commission began its work, it had a wonderful book on exactly the issues it was facing. Mel Scott, a researcher at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, wrote a factual, intellectual, and thoughtful analysis of bay fill issues. We had the good fortune to have not only a very big task, but also a textbook on what issues had to be dealt with, and how to proceed. So everybody on the commission could, in the space of reading a 75-page book, gain an enormous amount of knowledge, and it was Mel Scott who coined the name Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

I want to ask you to be evaluative about the BCDC's enabling legislation. You're looking back on it now-it has been 35 years almost. What has worked and what hasn't worked about the way BCDC was set up?

I think it has succeeded remarkably: bay filling was virtually stopped, and an enormous amount of new public access to the bay has been created. People now take for granted all the places you can go to the bay, walk along the shoreline, and fish in the bay. But in the early '60s, there was almost no public access. It's the difference between night and day in the public attitude toward filling the bay and having shoreline access. Where people were previously using the bay to dump garbage and fill for any purpose whatever, all of a sudden there was no more of that; the bay was treated as a valuable resource and public access to it was increased.

A lot of people deserve credit: the people who were on the study commission, the people who were on BCDC at various times, Gene McAteer, Nick Petris, and other legislators who made all of it possible. None of it would have happened, however, without Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick, the three women who founded the Save San Francisco Bay Association. If there have ever been citizen heroes whose perseverance prevailed, it's the three of them.

I think at the time a lot of people at SPUR hoped BCDC would be just a first step in a movement towards greater regional planning-a step towards establishing some agencies with regional planning powers. Why do you think that never happened?

In the original Bay Plan, the commission proposed that BCDC should either be a single-purpose agency-if that was necessary to carry out the plan and control bay filling, both of which were important-or, eventually, part of a multi-purpose agency for regional planning and regional issues in the Bay Area. It wasn't intended to stand all by itself, and be paramount over everybody else, forever. Why has that happy day of real regional governance never come? There are many reasons. One is that there was never an enormous constituency for something as abstract as regional planning. I don't think there is now. But there were constituencies for getting federal money for transportation, for dealing with air quality, for dealing with water quality, and certainly there was the citizen movement to control bay filling. In other words, there was public momentum behind single-issue things. People can understand that you don't want to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water, you don't want to see the bay disappear through filling, and you want to get all the transportation money you can for the region. So it's easy for people to focus on those things.

But this means that the bay region is governed like a city that has a parks department, a public works department, and a health department, but no city council. And I think it never happened partly because regional planning connotes land-use regulation. With all the explicit federal and state laws dealing with air and water, there are none dealing with land directly. Even the notion of land planning seems to spook people, at least now, with court decisions on property rights issues.

And now that the biggest housing resource for the new jobs being created in the Bay Area is in fact the Central Valley, the whole idea of regional planning is even farther from our grasp.

Right. In a way, the opportunities for this kind of regional planning pretty much disappeared, maybe sometime in the '60s or '70s, and it certainly is gone now, as far as I'm concerned. For just the reasons you said. The region is traditionally defined as the nine counties that touch San Francisco Bay, and our planning problems are no longer solvable within the boundaries of that region. If you go to Modesto or Turlock or Stockton or Northern Monterey County or Southern Mendocino County, and see people getting into their cars at five o'clock in the morning to commute to jobs in one or the other of those nine counties, it becomes apparent why. In terms of environment, air pollution, and automobile transportation, where people live and work makes the actual region much different from the nine traditional counties. It's not that the opportunity for regional planning is lost, but that the opportunity for defining region narrowly is lost.

In the early '90s, you managed the Bay Vision 2020 process. It appears to have been the closest the Bay Area ever came to setting up a structure for regional governance.


And it looks like Bay Vision 2020 did everything right. But it didn't work, ultimately. How do you understand that process?

Well, to give a bit of background and then speculate about what happened: This was a 32-member citizen commission, organized by some people in local government, some people in business (i.e., the Bay Area Council), some people with environmental concerns (i.e., the Green Belt Alliance), and the people selected for this commission were people supported by all three of those groups. The chairman was Ira Michael Heyman, who was in his final year as Chancellor at UC Berkeley. One of the Vice Chairmen was Tom Clausen, the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Bank of America, and the other was Pam Lloyd, a long-time member of the Regional Water Board and a leading environmentalist in the Bay Area. There were other people of similar ability and distinction, some well known, some not. The intention was to see if a group that diverse could arrive at some sort of consensus about what ought to be done on a regional level.

The Bay Vision Commission recommended, virtually unanimously, that three regional agencies ought to be combined: the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which had responsibility for regional land-use planning; the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, because of the importance of land-use planning in transportation; and the Air Quality Management District, because the use of land, and the resultant transportation requirements, have a big impact on air quality. There was some disagreement on the commission about whether other agencies ought to be added and a whole number of other things. There was not total agreement on everything. But there was agreement on that main idea of combining those three agencies.

The belief was not that we would achieve absolute heaven the minute the merger took place, but that by combining those agencies you would force the same governing board to deal with those issues rather than having three separate governmental agencies acting as though transportation, air quality and land planning were somehow distinct and different. I think the view of the Bay Vision 2020 Commission was not that this would do anything magic, but that it would offer an opportunity for the first time to integrate regional functions. And perhaps BCDC could have been added later. There was a question about the Regional Water Board, which is complicated because it's connected to the state system of water quality regulation and a state system of appeals. And there was the obvious point that if you merged these three agencies, you would quickly have to deal more formally and effectively with the contiguous counties, as we were just discussing. But the commission agreed on the first three agencies and the nine counties.

Senator Becky Morgan, from Santa Clara County, introduced a bill containing the core proposals in '92 and, thanks to then-Speaker Willie Brown, her bill passed the Assembly. It lost on the floor of the Senate on the last night in August of the '92 legislative session by five votes, which is ...


Heartbreaking, yes. So then the question is, why did that happen, again knowing that everybody who would look at it might have a slightly different view? Among the reasons are the fact that at least a couple of the single-purpose agencies that would have been merged-MTC and the Air Board-were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about the merger, and, secondly, that people in interest groups that had worked out ways to deal with one or another of those agencies were reluctant to start over with another agency.

We never argued that the merger would be painless, we conceded there might be a dip in productivity and everybody might have a few anxious moments as the merger took place. But the commission thought this was a price worth paying, because of the potential for greater benefits in the long run. The test was not whether things would be rocky for six months, which they well might have been, but whether, in two or three years, we would be glad we'd done it because of greater things that could be accomplished. But there was no denying, if you wanted to focus on the rocky part, you could have reasons for a less rosy view.

In the minds of people in some of the outlying areas, the agricultural areas, there was an enormous fear that they would be outvoted by the big cities. We thought that we had worked out a number of safeguards. We agreed that they had a real concern, and that safeguards were needed to give them a reasonable level of confidence that they would not be run roughshod over. But obviously, it was easy to stir people up into thinking that terrible things were going to happen to them. Finally, I think there was concern in other parts of the state that if this kind of broad regional land-use planning took hold, other regions of the state might be infected by the same virus, and therefore it was important not to let it happen anywhere.

The unknown question is, had the bill gotten through the Legislature, would then-Governor Pete Wilson have signed it.

Well, the work is still waiting to be done-the work of adding some rationality to regional planning. What are your thoughts about what we should do at this point?

Well (laughter), if I knew, I would be doing it. But a couple of thoughts: We are going to have to be open to some new ideas. I don't think running into the same brick wall over and over and over is going to prove totally satisfying. So I think if there are some new and ingenious ways to come at these same problems, they may be worth trying.

Just look at California as a state. At the time of Bay Vision 2020, there was a great focus on the bay region as a region, a feeling of, "It's a great big state and we're one part, Los Angeles is another part, and the Central Valley is still another part." As urban development gets closer and closer on all sides and there's spillover everywhere, I think there's more of a feeling of, "We're all growing into one big megalopolis in some way," so I think you have to start with the need for state leadership in managing California's enormous growth.

To me, the most important planning issue in California is not the Bay Area but the future of the Central Valley, where a doubling of population, from five or six million now to twelve million in a generation, is forecast-with whatever consequence to agriculture. Meanwhile, there's even less enthusiasm for what we might call regional planning there than here in the Bay Area.

Maybe SPUR should organize a field trip to nearby areas. I mean, go look at Tracy. Go watch the train that leaves Stockton at four or five in the morning for Silicon Valley, and look at all the people happy to be out of their cars, getting up at ungodly hours to sleep on the train on the way to work.

So in some ways, the next stage of regional planning is going to be moving beyond the region to the state.

There are lots of people writing and thinking and wringing their hands about what all this means. Is California too big to be governed? What does it mean to have a state with 36 million people grow to 45 or 50 million?

I can remember the day in the '60s, as I'm sure everyone who was around then does, that California surpassed New York in population. It was regarded as an enormous holiday of some sort, as though we had accomplished something just incredibly neat for which we needed to pat ourselves on the back. I remember when we were looking into this in Bay Vision 2020, almost ten years ago, and the numbers at that time, for instance, which I doubt are vastly different now, showed that more people were living in the Los Angeles Basin than the whole state of Florida. You become kind of a census junkie, and I suppose we'll all be looking at population numbers for the next few years, but California's population size is completely unprecedented in American history.

How should younger people of my generation be reacting to all this?

This is an enormously exciting time, I should think, to be young and in California, assuming you're able to afford the housing to stay. There are enormous opportunities. The places that are declining in population with weak economies have planning problems quite different from ours, and all things considered, you wouldn't want theirs.

No. There's a lot of work to be done here, but there's also the resources to do the work.

That's right. It becomes a matter of political will and political leadership. To go back where we were a little bit ago, it really was the political will of Senator McAteer and then Assemblyman Petris that got far-reaching legislation through in 1965. That kind of tough-minded, clear-eyed leadership is what's going to be needed now. You can certainly make the argument that California was a much more homogeneous state in those days and it was arguably easier to get things like that done than it would be today, and I don't think anybody would doubt that it's difficult right now, but

... it wasn't easy then.

Exactly, it certainly wasn't. But it was very worthwhile.Spur logo

About the Authors: Gabriel Metcalf is SPUR's program director.

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