There may yet be hope for a state-level authority to bypass NIMBY obstruction.
On Friday, the California State Senate passed a bill giving Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) a greater degree of authority over land use near its stations. The bill, A.B. 2923, stipulates that if local authorities do not meet state transit-oriented development goals within three years, BART is authorized to take control of zoning decisions for the majority of land near its stations. Citing “inadequate and unaffordable housing and excessive and increasing roadway congestion,” the legislation stands to inject fresh thinking into public policy around solving the housing crisis.
While a more limited move than the failed SB827, A.B. 2923 may well be California’s best hope for breaking the gridlock imposed by community opposition to seemingly any development. It would likely prevent outcomes such as those which occurred in Berkeley, where parking surrounds one urban BART station. In San Diego, planning officials and urbanists have attempted to allow increases in height limits near future light rail stations, only to back down amid opposition that brooks no compromises.
Perhaps there's something to be said for preventing state legislatures from overriding the concerns of residents and municipalities. Yet the status quo has utterly failed to deliver any meaningful increase in housing supply in California’s coastal cities. Opposition to this bill hits the usual notes. An editorial in the San Jose Mercury-News, on the eve of the bill’s victory, invoked non-sequiturs and irrelevant commentary about BART’s crime problems, while calling the move a “power grab.” The American Planning Association urged a no vote, primarily based on concerns over jurisdictional authority.
One has to wonder precisely what the critics are concerned about. The bill would merely enforce existing state-level standards for development near transit stations. Loss of parking is, of course, a common concern, but presumably the increase in housing supply in walking distance to transit would lead to a decrease in need for parking. In fact, the bill explicitly requires replacing removed spaces at “auto-dependent” stations. This would presumably add parking capacity at stations close to highways, where park-and-rides are most sensible.
In addition to its impacts on housing, the legislation could pave the way for increased “value capture” opportunities for transit systems. If BART is allowed to collect revenue from new development on its property, this money can be reinvested in state-of-good-repair and possibly system expansion. While best known today for its use in Hong Kong, tying transit financing to development is a tried-and-true method that was once dominant in the United States. Property owners would build streetcar lines to serve their developments, creating what came to be known as “streetcar suburbs.” While a return to this arrangement on a large scale is unlikely anytime soon, something more like the Hong Kong model could become the norm. Contra critics such as the Mercury-News editorial writers, who claim that BART’s involvement in land use policy would distract it from maintenance and operation, the potential for new revenue could shore up the system, and boost ridership.
If anything, A.B. 2923 doesn’t go far enough. This authority should be granted to California’s other major transit agencies. For its part, BART itself needs to commit to building on as many vacant lots as possible, not merely holding such authority, but exercising it. If the Golden State is going to invest in fixed-route transit, it needs to guarantee that those investments have an appropriate return, and can accomplish their goals of reducing congestion and pollution. Similarly, if the state wants to address its housing crisis, a balance needs to be struck between local authority and the need to increase supply. A.B. 2923 represents a modest, but important, step in the right direction.
Ethan Finlan is the content staffer for Market Urbanism Report, researching housing, transport, and public administration. He is originally from San Diego, and is now based outside of Boston.
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