Issue 568December 2018

Legalizing Better Land Use

By Kristy Wang
Urbanist Article January 24, 2019

Senate Bill 35 led to the eventual approval of Vallco Town Center, a 2,400-unit housing plan at the former Vallco shopping mall in Cupertino. Half of the units will be designated as affordable for low- and very low-income residents at a fraction of market rates.

This fall, outgoing Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2923, giving BART the authority to set minimum zoning standards for development on its own property near transit stations. If a locality does not update its zoning to match those standards within a certain timeframe, BART’s standards will become the law of the land.

The BART zoning bill is just the latest in a series of state efforts to push localities to make better land-use decisions. Senate Bill 35, a flagship bill of the 2017 state housing package, created a streamlined, ministerial process for multifamily, urban infill projects with affordable components in places that have not approved housing in compliance with their agreed-upon targets. SB 35 evolved out of the governor’s failed 2016 “by right” proposal that would have automatically approved some multifamily housing projects that comply with local zoning.

Since SB 35 was passed in 2017, there have been fewer than a half dozen SB 35 applications, but we are seeing the impact. The most high-profile proposal — the redevelopment of Cupertino’s Vallco shopping mall — had long been stalled in a controversial planning process and was the subject of two failed ballot measures in 2016. The project is slated to bring 1.81 million square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of retail and 2,402 additional housing units to Cupertino.

The Brisbane Baylands is another transit-oriented development proposal that has been through more than a dozen years of planning, debate and controversy. A major mixed-use development that would have doubled the population of Brisbane, the Brisbane Baylands sits on the San Francisco border and captured the interest of housing advocates around the region. In this case, the developer was not able to use SB 35, so a state legislator drafted a bill that would have created a streamlined process for approving the project. While not pursued, the threat of targeted state legislation forced the city of Brisbane to act: In July, the city council approved a scaled-back plan and in November sent it to the voters, who narrowly approved the general plan amendment.

Another state bill, SB 827, did not pass this year. Similar to the BART zoning bill, SB 827 focused on ensuring that transit-rich locations across the state would be developed at appropriate densities and scale. Under SB 827, localities would not have been able to set maximum heights below a certain threshold at sites within a short distance of major transit. While SB 827 didn’t pass, a revamped version — SB 50, known as the More HOMES Act of 2019 — was recently introduced when the new state legislature convened. Many core principles of SB 827 remain, but the author, State Senator Scott Wiener, has sought to address the concerns identified by tenant advocates.

The scale of the state’s housing shortage and the extent to which localities are to blame for not approving sufficient housing has pushed the state legislature to reconsider the balance of land-use authority. The region’s history of leaving that authority at the local level has created a “tragedy of the commons” where no city sees personal benefit in approving housing over local objections, but ultimately the whole region and state suffer the consequences. Though it’s likely we will continue to see tensions between local and state government over how these decisions get made, this slate of bills is pushing the region out of complacency and into action.

About the Authors: 

Kristy Wang is SPUR's community planning policy director.

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