If California’s gubernatorial candidates are to fulfill their ambituous goal of adding up to 3.5 million new housing units across the state over the next eight years, new efforts will need to be undertaken to streamline and reform the state’s sagging construction industry—Could this effort create an opening for mass timber construction to take hold in the Golden State? It might, and here are a few reasons why. For one, there’s a growing push for new urban housing in California that could soon make the mid-rise apartment the state’s quintessential dwelling type. There’s strong reason to believe that if proposed regulatory changes go as planned, cities in the state could see a flowering of the kinds of four- to eight-story multi-family structures mass timber excels at delivering. With construction times running 15 to 20 percent faster than conventional building, there’s a potential mass timber technologies could help bring new units online very quickly, especially if minimum dwelling standards are set and municipalities streamline permitting and approval. Secondly, mass timber is becoming more widely-accepted as a building approach, reflecting a growing awareness of its inherent structural and fire-safety benefits. The nascent industry is cheering recent changes to the 2021 version of the International Building Code that will allow mass timber construction for structures up to 18-stories high. The shift could bring down the cost of building dense housing in the medium-sized city centers—downtown Long Beach, Glendale, San Diego, San Jose, and Oakland, for example—where lots of growth could happen but has so far been lacking. At these heights, it’s possible mass timber buildings could be more affordable to build than conventional structures while still delivering the height and structural resilience formerly only possible through concrete and steel frame construction. With San Francisco and L.A. building out larger transit systems and the state’s high-speed trail line on the way, it will be important to add high density nodes throughout the state to meet climate and housing goals. Cory Scrivner, a mass timber specialist with Structurlam, explained via email that with the coming changes to IBC and looming reforms to local zoning, “The market for mass timber will be growing significantly over the next few years.” With disruptive and new tariffs on foreign-grown softwood and imported steel and aluminum, its possible there could be further financial incentives to build structures made from regionally-grown timber, as well. Katerra, a Menlo Park, California-based construction technology and services start-up, is busy constructing a 250,000-square-foot factory in Spokane, Washington where it will produce mass timber products including cross laminated timber (CLT) panels. The company, which seeks to bring many aspects of the construction process—design, engineering, materials, manufacturing, and assembly—under one name while also modernizing the construction trades, is well-poised to play a role in California’s housing recovery. The company—which already has a functioning factory in Arizona—is growing, having just received a boost of $865 million in investment capital as it seeks to build out its network of regional manufacturing facilities Furthermore, because mass timber manufacturing is typically performed indoors with fewer workers and in advance of job site installation, mass timber construction also potentially holds the promise of side-stepping the state’s vexing shortage of skilled construction workers, one of the many unsolved structural repercussions of the Great Recession. According to Craig Curtis, president of Katerra’s architecture unit, the company’s factory-focused business model means that fewer—and differently-trained—workers are required on site. Instead of hammering nail to wood on a desolate job site, Katerra’s equipment operators and workers produce interior and exterior wall panels, roof truss assemblies, floor systems and countertops, among other building components in a factory. On-site, a crane and a well-trained team of workers assemble each new building in a fraction of the time compared to normative building practices. Curtis said over telephone, “[Addressing California’s housing crisis] is exactly the type of problem we are trying to solve—everyone deserves to live in a well-designed home delivered at an affordable price point.” And lastly, because each mass timber assembly is made to order, the so-called “mass-customization” potential of mass timber construction could also be a boon for the urban character of cities and residents alike, potentially resulting in a rich variety of building approaches and unit types. Might this variable approach even do away with the dreaded “stucco box?” Only time will tell. California’s housing shortage is a watershed event several generations in the making that will require proportional measures if it is to be adequately addressed. Given current understanding of what the mass timber industry is capable of producing, a rising wave of zoning reform, and growing funding sources for affordable housing construction, it might be time for municipalities and developers alike to take a look at this new building technology.
Posts tagged with "California":
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is catching heat this week for making comments that expose his continued embrace of unproductive, NIMBY-fueled, anti-housing rhetoric. At issue is a reversal in Garcetti’s support for a controversial state housing reform bill known as SB-827, a measure that would lift arbitrary restrictions on building heights and abolish costly minimum parking requirements for development sites located up to ½ of a mile from rapid transit stops across the state. Although rough estimates indicate the bill could add millions of new units to California’s anemic housing stock, the bill has elicited widespread concern over the potential displacement and erasure that communities of color could see as a result. Opposition is most fierce in Los Angeles, where fears run high that hard-fought economic protections for working class neighborhoods could be wiped away by the bill. A coalition of 37 community groups called ACT LA recently stated its opposition to the measure in a letter, saying, “The antidote to segregationist low-density zoning imposed upon and against communities of color is not an ‘open the floodgates’ approach.” In response to these concerns, State Senator Scott Weiner—one of the politicians behind SB-827—has proposed a series of pro-tenant amendments that would keep local demolition controls in place, allowing cities to forbid the destruction of rent-controlled housing or historic structures, for example. The bill will now also allow local inclusionary zoning plans to remain in place, ensuring that developers will continue to meet prescribed affordability requirements. The biggest addition will require developers to guarantee the so-called “right-to-remain” for existing residents, where developers pay people to stay in their neighborhoods despite new market-rate developement. While it is yet to be known if these amendments will assuage displacement fears within the state’s economically-vulnerable communities, the changes seem to be immaterial to Garcetti. After initially supporting the bill with the condition that tenant protections be included, the mayor has flip-flipped and is now seeking protections for single-family zones, as well. Describing the bill’s potential impacts on L.A.’s urban fabric, a spokesperson for Garcetti emphasized that the bill “is still too blunt for our single-family home areas.” Parroting a common—and classist—NIMBY talking point, Garcetti explained at a luncheon on Wednesday that dense housing in single-family neighborhoods would look out of place and that “we have plenty of space and land” to continue suburban-style development. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Garcetti said, “Can you imagine, three blocks in, in a single-family neighborhood, you could go 10 stories automatically. It wouldn’t look right.” Garcetti has long-supported single-family zoning, but his expectation that measures like SB-827 preserve this type of housing struck some activists as a new and unwarranted position. Mark Vallianatos of Abundant Housing LA said, “I don't know why [Garcetti] decided to move the goalposts and insist that SB-827 not change single-family only zoning, even after his concerns about rent-stabilized apartments had been largely addressed by amendments.” Aside from seeking to keep L.A. locked into its suburban past, the mayor’s view that major housing legislation focus on preserving single-family zoning is seemingly at odds with the commonly-accepted solutions to California’s persistent and worsening housing affordability crisis. Experts agree broadly that the crisis is chiefly one of under-building resulting from the type NIMBY-fueled sentiment Garcetti expressed at the luncheon. Across the state, an overabundance of single-family zoned land and a resulting deficit in construction of new multi-family units, especially near high-capacity transit routes, is pushing housing out of reach of millions, burdening households with high rents, and forcing thousands into homelessness. Schools are closing in the Bay Area because families can’t afford to live there. Critical personnel—school teachers, medics, firefighters—face excruciating commutes because the only affordable communities are far-flung. 58% of Angelenos are rent-burdened, nearly 56,000 people in Los Angeles are experiencing homelessness, and California was recently ranked last in terms of quality of life in a recent U.S News and World Reports survey. The list of negative impacts resulting from the housing crisis goes on and on. And yet, to Garcetti, dense housing still doesn’t quite fit. The human cost of the crisis aside, Garcetti’s views miss the mark environmentally-speaking as well because single-family zoning bakes in auto-oriented lifestyles, fuels traffic congestion, and drives transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Today, transportation emissions make up the bulk of California’s contribution to climate change. As has been said repeatedly, without greater investment in mass transit and density, the state will be unable to meet its ambitious climate goals. Garcetti’s comments also fail from an investment value-capture point of view—How can the state benefit from billions in new transit investments when only a select few have access to new metro lines? Given that the mayor strongly championed the multibillion dollar Measure M transit initiative in 2016, it would seem prudent to invest in—or at least allow—density near those lines. But instead, with the insistence that single-family zones be preserved, Mayor Garcetti risks undermining these new transit improvements in addition to extending the negative effects of the housing crisis even further. And for what? Whether the mayor is willing to accept it or not, if California is to truly embody the progressive ideals so many of its state and local leaders espouse, it must drastically reduce the amount of urban land dedicated to single-family housing. There is simply no other way around it. If he wanted to deflect development energy from single-family areas, the mayor could issue any number of constructive reforms, like lifting the prohibition on housing in L.A.’s commercial corridors, for example. Given Garcetti’s comments and track record so far, however, this seems unlikely. Instead, the conversation will continue to focus on the specious claims of housing-secure residents unwilling to make room for others.
Come April 2, California will see fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) hit the streets after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ruled that the cars don’t need a human in the driver’s seat. First proposed in October, the change means that the 50 companies registered to test self-driving cars in the state could start to ramp up the scale of their projects. The changes come as other states, like Arizona, have seen tech companies ramp up their investments in self-driving cars thanks to a lack regulations. Once the rule takes effect, these vehicles will only need an operator to monitor the car remotely, similar to flying a drone, just in case. Uber, Google’s self-driving car initiative Waymo, General Motors and other big-name players in the industry hailed the move as a major step forward in rolling out AVs on a mass scale. "This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles," Uber spokesperson, Sarah Abboud told The Sacramento Bee. "With this effort complete, we look forward to working with California as it develops regulations applicable to autonomous trucks." Even though it seems as if California is easing off the gas, companies will still be required to report their "disengagements," or human takeovers. While the self-driving cars being tested for mass market production use an array of cameras, radar sensors and satellite data to navigate, the technology isn’t perfect, and most AVs are tested in flat, open landscapes without pedestrians. After April we might see self-driving cars expand their reach onto busy streets or highways, but a full-on integration with manned traffic still seems unlikely. The industry leader in disengagements, Waymo, still reports needing a human takeover about every 5,600 miles, even as the company has announced that it would be launching a driverless ride sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona later this year. Despite the promised safety and environmental benefits that fully autonomous cars would bring (not to mention self-delivering pizzas), consumer advocacy groups have complained that rushing to bring AVs to real streets could endanger lives. Nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog railed against the decision, releasing a statement accusing the DMV of prioritizing speed over safety. Although advancements in self-driving technology have been promising, the group wrote, “Even if the robot cars were to reach the highest level of perfection (which they are nowhere near, despite what clever marketing might have you believe!), robot cars will co-exist in a world with other humans, who will continue to act in unpredictable, non-robotic ways. Put simply: the robot car world will not be perfect, despite what the technocrats may have you believe.” With more autonomous vehicles set to take up space on public streets, it remains to be seen how well they’ll integrate with our messy, irrational transit system.
In recent months, legislators in California have begun a concerted effort to use state law to address the state’s ongoing housing crisis. The moves come amid worsening regional inequality that has pushed housing affordability outside the reach of many populations. Facing mounting pressure from a growing cohort of pro-housing YIMBY activists and increasingly grim economic and social impacts—including a sharp increase in the number of rent-burdened households and the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness—state-level legislators have begun to take action where municipal leaders have thus far stopped short. Late last year, the California State Legislature approved a bundle of housing-focused bills in what amounted to the first key win for state-led housing reform efforts. The legislature passed a total of seven bills aimed at streamlining permitting, enforcing regional housing production benchmarks, and preventing municipalities from down-zoning parcels or rejecting by-right projects. Several of the bills also aimed to stimulate new housing spending for affordable units, including a measure that will allow for a low-income housing–focused $3 billion bond to go onto the November 2018 statewide ballot and a measure that institutes a modest levy on certain real estate transactions in the state in order to raise up to $250 million each year for low income housing construction. The two combined measures could make over $8 billion in new funding available for affordable housing production over the next decade. These bills followed the adoption in late 2016 of a streamlined Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance that legalizes backyard homes across the state while also providing minimum zoning standards for ADUs that homeowners and developers can follow when local rules do not exist. The shift has led to a surge in ADU applications across California’s big and small cities alike, as homeowners move to build new ADUs while also legalizing existing bootlegged units. In a blow to NIMBY activists, the move also essentially doubled the residential density of the state’s single-family zoned lots overnight, with the added benefit that ADUs developed in certain areas—historic districts, ½-mile from transit—could be built without added parking. A recent report from the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation concluded that “ADUs are poised to play a significant role in alleviating California’s housing crisis and state, regional, and local leaders should continue to examine ways in which barriers to this type of development can be removed.” The report cited an explosion in building permits for ADUs following their legalization, with 1,980 units pending in Los Angeles for 2017 compared with just 90 the year prior. Efforts are currently underway to continue to streamline ADU development at the state level. Hopes of using state law to right California’s housing market were boosted further this year by the introduction of SB 827, a transformative new state law that would, among other things, override local planning code to raise height limits and boost density while abolishing parking requirements for lots located near mass transit. The bill is authored by State Senator Scott Wiener—one of the authors of several of the 2017 housing bills—and has the backing of many of the state’s increasingly influential pro-housing activists. Specifically, for properties located within ¼ mile of a transit corridor or one block from a major transit stop, the bill would disallow height limits lower than 85 feet, except for when a particular parcel fronts a street 45 feet or less in width, in which case the minimum height limit would drop to 55 feet. The bill would also forbid height limits below 55 feet for all areas ½ mile from transit routes. The law, if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, would also forbid the imposition of minimum parking requirements for parcels within a ½-mile radius of a transit stop or within a ¼-mile radius from a transit corridor. One of the bill’s strengths is that these provisions lump high-performing bus routes in with light and heavy rail infrastructure, making their potential effects across the state quite vast, as many of its major cities have extensive bus networks. Wiener’s bill is seen widely as a potentially earth-shattering piece of legislation that would upend decades’ worth of ever-tightening local control—often at the expense of density and new construction. The abolition of parking minimums in particular would represent a sea-change in car-loving California, where parking takes up a lot of space and significantly adds to the cost of building new housing. Policy Club, a collective of digitally-savvy professionals who aim to utilize data to help politicians craft “smarter public policies that will move the needle on some of California’s most pressing challenges” has generated a visualization that postulates what some of the changes in density, parking, and maximum height might look like for the City of Los Angeles. Hunter Owens, a Policy Club contributor, explained that, at least in L.A., parking reductions associated with the bill will do the most to change the way the city builds in response to the bill. Owens said, "We were surprised to find that it's the parking requirements that are keeping building heights and density down," adding that many potentially affected areas in L.A. already benefit from lenient height limits. Doing away with parking requirements would allow housing developers to build more of the units they are entitled to build and make for a more efficient use of land, the maps show. The group is currently working to digitize city planning codes from across the state in an effort to create more visualizations. Another potential benefit from the bill would be the dramatic increase in the number of new sites where deed-restricted affordable housing units could potentially be built if SB 827 and the affordable housing bond pass later this year, according to Brian Hanlon of California YIMBY. SB 827 would permit nonprofit developers to build affordable housing in many so-called "high-opportunity" areas throughout the state that currently prohibit dense development. The bill would also dramatically expand the production of deed-restricted affordable housing in cities with inclusionary zoning policies, since building market-rate homes also requires providing homes for low-income Californians, Hanlon explained. These changes could make deed-restricted affordable housing an additional major force in resolving the crisis by incentivizing—rather than requiring—inclusionary development along transit routes. That component as well as the other provisions of the law could generate “millions” of potential new units, according to Hanlon’s early projections. Though official estimates are still pending, the prospect for lots of new housing construction are good if SB 827 passes later this year.
Gehry Partners has released a new batch of renderings of their mixed-use tower on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, California, nearly five years after initially announcing the project. What was once a 22-story tower has now been cut down to 12, after the Santa Monica City Council imposed wide-ranging height restrictions on new construction in the city’s downtown in April of 2017. When AN last wrote about the Ocean Avenue project in 2013, Gehry’s tower-on-a-base was still 22 stories and 244 feet tall, and destined to sit in a major 1.9-acre redevelopment at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. The $72 million mixed-use tower would have housed 22 condos, 125 hotel rooms, two stories of restaurants and retail, and a 36,000-square foot art museum with a glassy facade nearby. After years of legal battles stalled out development at the site over the tower’s height, Gehry’s rippling building could finally be on the rise following a City Council meeting on January 11th. While the overall massing and white-paneled, rippling façade of the revised tower still resembles the original plan, Gehry’s team has implemented sweeping changes. The project will now top out at 130 feet at its peak, with an average height of 44 feet across the tiered building. According to the Ocean Avenue Project website, the floor area ratio (FAR) has been reduced from 3.2 to 2.6, all condo units have been removed, the number of residential and affordable units has been increased, and Gehry has tried to improve integration with the street. A more concrete timeline for the project’s construction will likely become available following the upcoming City Council meeting.
2017 Best of Design Award for Civic – Administrative: Boston Emergency Medical Services Architect: The Galante Architecture Studio Location: Boston, Massachusets This new Emergency Medical Services facility replaced a dilapidated garage located on the historic grounds of the old Boston Sanatorium. Working in concert with the City of Boston Public Facilities department, the firm built a modest yet elegant building that provides security and stature through its solid shell and minimalist form. The approximately 10,500-square-foot structure comprises 11 bays—each capable of double loading and outfitted with a vehicle exhaust system—to house emergency vehicles already in Boston EMS’s fleet, plus additional equipment provided by Homeland Security in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack. A robust thermal envelope, efficient LED lights and daylighting units, and low-flow plumbing fixtures help make the building energy efficient. Its inherent flexibility supports Boston’s first responders in their efforts to protect the public and manage emergencies in both the short term and foreseeable future. "This project is a wonderful use of quotidian materials in a sharp, sophisticated way. Robert Venturi would be proud." —Matt Shaw, senior editor, The Architect's Newspaper (juror) Contractor: Gianluca Morle, WCI Corporation Project director: Scott Dupre with Boston Public Facilities Department Metal Wall Panels: Morin Daylighting Units: Firestone Building Products Site Lighting: RAB Lighting Honorable Mention New United States Courthouse – Los Angeles Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Location: Los Angeles, California Modern in spirit and rooted in classic principles of federal architecture, the New United States Courthouse contains 24 courtrooms and 32 judicial chambers within 633,000 (energy efficient) square feet. Envisioned as a “floating” cube, the building’s innovative structural engineering concept elevates the glass volume above its stone base, mitigating blast threats while appearing as a single hovering form. Honorable Mention San Diego Central Courthouse Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Location: San Diego, California This project consolidates San Diego County’s Criminal Trial, Family, and Civil Courts into a 22-story, 704,000-square-foot tower in the city’s downtown—a catalyst for the emerging government district. A three-story public lobby serves as the heart of the courthouse, while the traditional courthouse pediment has been reinterpreted as a shade-giving soffit.
2017 Best of Design Award for Civic - Cultural: Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art Architect: SO-IL with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Location: Davis, California Defining the museum as a landscape of cultivation, the design of the recently established Manetti Shrem Museum at the University of California, Davis, captures the Central Valley’s spirit of optimism, imagination, and invention. “Cultivation” has a divergent etymology, on one hand rural, on the other, urban-bourgeois. The overarching “Grand Canopy” seeks to embrace both contexts, extending a rolling form patchworked with aluminum beams over both site and building. An environmental silhouette, the design provides identity and awareness to multiple constituencies. "The project makes me optimistic for architecture in the U.S. —intelligent and rigorous architecture that is also delightful and humanist at the same time. I love how the building connects an intimate experience to the scale of the landscape around it." —Eric Bunge, principal, nARCHITECTS (juror) Contractor: Whiting-Turner Structural Engineer: Rutherford & Chekene Mechanical Engineer: WSP Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone Canopy Engineer: Front Honorable Mention Name: Chrysalis Designer: MARC FORNES / THEVERYMANY Place: Columbia, Maryland Chrysalis is an amphitheater, but it is first a pavilion in a park, a tree house, and a placemaking public artwork, ready to be activated at any moment. Here, temporary occupations are staged under a series of cascading arches that vary in size and function: a structural system that gives form to play.
Several bills aimed at alleviating California’s persistent and worsening housing affordability crisis advanced through the state legislature late last night, re-igniting the state’s housing activists and raising hopes that housing relief is on the way. The six initiatives address different facets of the crisis, but have been seen as a collective success and an initial step toward more full-fledged efforts by the state to rein in skyrocketing rents and reverse the housing shortage. The California State Assembly passed Senate Bill 2 (SB 2)—the most controversial of the batch—a proposal that adds $75 to a $225 fee to mortgage refinances and other real estate transactions, excluding home and commercial property sales. The fee is projected to raise $250 million per year for low-income affordable housing, and provide a permanent and consistent funding source to rehabilitate and expand that market, the Los Angeles Times reported. When matched with federal, local, and private funds, it is estimated that the fee could raise over $5 billion for such housing over the next five years, according to The Mercury News. Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), also passed Thursday night, paves the way for a $4 billion bond designed to finance low-income housing development and provide mortgages to military veterans to go onto the 2018 statewide ballot. Providing housing for formerly-homeless veterans has been a particular focus of ongoing housing efforts across the state. Senate Bill 35 (SB 35) would streamline the approval of housing development, requiring cities and counties to develop land use plans that include a housing element and hold municipalities accountable to those figures. Senate Bill 166 would also pressure municipalities to meet their housing goals while also forbidding them from lowering residential density in their respective zoning codes to reduce the overall number of required units. Senate Bill 167 would strengthen the state's Housing Accountability Act—which compels municipalities to approve low-income housing projects, among other types of housing—by fining municipalities automatic fines of $10,000 per unit of unbuilt housing resulting from their violation of the act. Various municipalities around the Bay Area have caused controversy in recent years for violating the act, which in turn, has resulted in lawsuits from housing activists. Senate Bill 540 incentivizes “workforce housing opportunity zones” by allowing municipalities to adopt specific plans for local areas that are particularly in need of housing. The bill would streamline redevelopment efforts, especially in relation to California Environmental Quality Act approvals. Both SB 2 and SB 3 cleared the California State Senate earlier this year; those bills and the four additional measures will head back to that chamber for final approval today before being sent to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. Brown has until October 15th to veto or sign the bills.
American Green, Inc., a publicly-traded, technology-focused medical cannabis company, recently purchased the entire town of Nipton, California for $5 million with the intention of modernizing the locale into a cannabis-friendly and sustainable recreational destination. The historic mining town has a current population of about 20 inhabitants and is located roughly an hour south of Las Vegas, Nevada in the far northeastern corner of California’s San Bernardino County. The town, a short distance from Interstate-15, is also roughly three hours east of Los Angeles and on a major route connecting regional centers like San Diego and Salt Lake City, Utah. The company hopes that with increasing legalization, the booming recreational cannabis trade will be an economic boon to the region. Under American Green’s stewardship, the 120-acre town will become a hub for recreational cannabis use and cannabis normalization at the municipal level. American Green plans to use the town as a testing site for cannabis-friendly regulation and has plans for opening a slew of bed and breakfasts, hotels, and production facilities for edible cannabis products with the intent of creating a complete “small town experience,” according to a press release. An artist-in-residence program is even in the works, as are plans for extensive eco-tourism initiatives. The company will also pay to expand a nearby solar farm with the intent of making Nipton energy independent while also upgrading the town’s water aquifer and water delivery systems. David Gwyther, chairman and president of American Green, said in a statement, "We are excited to lead the charge for a true 'Green Rush.' The cannabis revolution that's going on here in the US, has the power to completely revitalize communities in the same way gold did during the 19th century.” The company is currently in the planning stages of the project and is soliciting input and public comment via its website.
The San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) is suing the Berkeley, California City Council over allegations that the body has repeatedly violated California’s Housing Accountability Act (HAA), a 1982 piece of legislation that compels municipalities to “not reject or make infeasible” housing developments that help meeting housing needs. As is well-documented, the San Francisco Bay area—and not to mention, pretty much the entire state of California—is suffering from a prolonged and detrimental housing affordability crisis, a phenomenon that has been compounded by the heavy-handed influence that single family homeowners wield over the approval of new housing projects in low-density neighborhoods. In a civil court filing with Alameda County, SFBARF—and the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education fund (CaRLA), a statewide nonprofit founded to ensure compliance with HAA that has joined SFBARF in the suit—alleges that the Berkeley City Council has violated HAA by rejecting the application for a new three-family development at 1310 Haskell Street. The development aims to replace a dilapidated single family home with three new single family units. The R-2A zoned parcel, the suit alleges, was being developed in compliance with “all applicable, objective general plan and zoning standards and criteria, including design review standards” and even had a use permit issued for the new development. Problems arose when unhappy neighbors appealed the project to the City Council, which then voted to scuttle the project’s previous approvals. According to the suit,
Under the HAA, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s general plan and zoning standards, the city may not disapprove or condition the project at a lower density unless it provides written findings supported by substantial evidence that the project would have a specific, adverse impact upon the ‘public health or safety’ that cannot be mitigated.A later City Council meeting rescinded approvals for the project for good, as City Council members argued that because the project required a demolition permit to remove the existing residence, HAA did not apply. The demolition permit, the City Council argued, constituted a discretionary approval that voided the HAA “general plan and zoning standards” requirement mentioned above. The City Council then, the suit alleges, continued to pursue this course of action despite the Berkeley City Attorney's opinion that approvals like demolition permits were in fact covered by HAA’s broad scope and authority. The suit alleges further that rather than enforce HAA legislation, the Berkeley City Council instead changed course on the project due to Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) outcry, a course of action HAA was explicitly designed to prevent. The suit is the second attempt by SFBARF to “sue the suburbs” to comply with HAA legislation. A previous suit against the community of Lafayette was settled in May 2017. For now, the case will continue to make it’s way through the court system unless the City Council changes course.
After several months of blustering and delays, the Federal Transit Administration has finally signed off on the full $647 million in federal funding needed to electrify California’s Caltrain commuter rail system. The move comes several anxious months after the new administration indicated it would scuttle previous funding agreements for public transportation projects across the country as a way to punish cities that have so thoroughly rejected the new president. The funding was originally completely left out of the earliest budget proposals announced by the White House, but hope returned two weeks ago when a preliminary congressional plan seemed to walk back the de-funding talk. That budget contained partial funding commitments for urban transportation initiatives, including $100 million for Caltrain electrification. After weeks of outspoken criticism from California’s political leadership and pleas from transportation activists, news this week of full funding for the project was widely seen as a welcome political victory. In a statement celebrating the new funding agreement, Jim Hartnett, CEO of Caltrain touted the economic development potential for the project, Mass Transit reports, saying that Caltrain Electrification will ease congestion in “one of the country’s most economically productive regions” while also “creating almost 10,000 American jobs in the process.” Caltrain, a regional commuter rail network that serves the Bay Area and its environs, is in the midst of converting its diesel-powered train fleet into an electrically-powered one. Train electrification produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel power—especially when the energy used to power the trains is generated through renewable means—and has also been recently touted as a vehicle for so-called solutionary rail reforms. Solutionary rail approaches combine sustainable electrical grid modernization initiatives with high-speed rail expansion to multiply the environmental benefit of train networks. Although electrified railways are the norm in countries with advanced train networks, only about 1% of rails in the US are electrified. In California, the move is a necessary precursor to the state’s forthcoming High Speed Rail network. Electrification will require that Caltrain purchase new locomotives and the organization is currently soliciting input on forthcoming train graphics. Caltrain is currently working on the designs for the electrification improvements and is expected to begin construction sometime this year, with a project completion deadline of 2020 or 2021. For more information on the Peninsula Corridor Electrification project, see the Caltrain website.
If it seems like legalized recreational marijuana’s potential to instigate positive social change at the urban scale is little more than a pipe dream, think again. Several states and municipalities are already experimenting with innovative uses for legal marijuana revenues that hint at a possible urban dimension to the notion of so-called “marijuana reparations,” but these efforts do not go far enough. One approach comes from the state of Colorado, where lawmakers are working to change state law to allow municipalities to spend tax revenues raised via recreational marijuana sales to build new units of affordable housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. Officials there see a recent rise in homelessness as being related to the legal marijuana trade and are looking to utilize revenues from booming marijuana sales to fund re-housing and recovery efforts. The plan, if enacted, would seek to redirect $12.3 million in revenue—legal weed sales brought in $199 million in tax revenue in 2016—to build roughly 1,500 affordable housing units over the next five years. Oakland, California, on the other hand, is aiming to increase access to marijuana sales licenses via its equity permit program. That program aims to streamline the process by which formerly-incarcerated individuals who were jailed for marijuana-related crimes can apply for licenses to sell recreational marijuana. City Lab reports that by Oakland’s official estimates, African Americans made up 77 percent of marijuana-related arrests in the city during 2015. With such skewed figures, whites made up only seven percent of arrests for marijuana-related crimes that year while Latinos made up 15% of arrestees. The city is banking that by earmarking legal marijuana permits for formerly incarcerated individuals, some of those who suffered the most under the war on drugs will be some of the first to benefit from changing laws. These types of changes are a positive first step, but they do not go far enough in addressing the inequality engendered by the discriminatory racial paradigm that launched the war on drugs in the first place. Simply put, state and local municipalities have a moral, social, and financial obligation to rectify the impacts of the decades-long war on drugs that has unnecessarily criminalized African American and Latino communities across the country. The majority of people in prison are currently incarcerated at the state level, often due to local policing efforts. In the United States, the effects of racism on housing discrimination and incarceration rates are ongoing and well-documented. The intimately-related nature of post-World War II redlining practices, coupled with the facilitation of concentrated urban poverty by the interstate highway system, are directly responsible for the ease with which hostile policing and drug enforcement practices have been able to tear into communities of color left behind by suburbanization. Recent episodes of police brutality against people of color—and African Americans, in particular—point directly to the historical legacies that racist land use and policing policies have left on many communities to this very day. The historical legacy of these initiatives has also set up the parameters through which contemporary gentrification has been allowed to take hold in American cities. States and local municipalities are on the hook for limiting housing production over the last several decades. States like California have done an abysmal job facilitating housing production for years, a phenomenon that has created the rampant unaffordability crisis that is choking working class populations—the same groups suffering under draconian criminal policies—in major cities and small towns alike. Given these connections, it’s clear to see that the time to lay the groundwork for bold action is now; municipalities can no longer treat unaffordability and mass-incarceration as separate issues to be addressed piecemeal because they are a product of the same system of oppression. Here’s an idea for a holistic approach: What if states were to combine social justice–minded marijuana reparations efforts with housing market reform, as well? First, states like California should expand Oakland’s equity permit program to as many municipalities as possible, enabling at least the sales of legalized marijuana to economically benefit marginalized communities. The state should then administer revenues generated from recreational marijuana sales to directly incentivize the development of affordable and market rate housing within a certain proximity—say, one-quarter of a mile—of recreational and medical marijuana dispensaries or production facilities. This effort, if coupled with thoughtful increases in density around these facilities, would double- and triple-up the positive effects of the marijuana trade on marginalized communities by ensuring that new jobs and new housing are brought directly to communities besieged by the drug war. With this proximity-based approach, both urban areas and the rural communities across the state now responsible for growing and processing many cannabis products can benefit, as well. The state should also facilitate the development of community-based banks—again, located near dispensaries—tasked with providing private financing to individuals, families, business, and housing developers aiming to develop workforce housing within these communities. Formerly incarcerated individuals and their families should be given priority access to these funds, as well, an element could begin to facilitating paths to self-directed home ownership while also embedding more equitable access to financing within these communities. The potential impact of these policies could be high. In California, for example, recent legalization included levying a 15 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana sales as well as a wholesale tax of $9.25 and $2.75 per ounce on marijuana flowers and leaves, respectively. Recreational and medical marijuana sales are expected to reach $6.46 billion per year by 2020, potentially generating roughly $1 billion in tax revenues for the state. A rough calculation of the figures given earlier for Colorado’s affordable housing program indicates that state is aiming to spend roughly seven percent of marijuana revenue on supportive housing. Scaled to California’s marijuana economy, that would translate to roughly $70 million for housing reform. That’s a good start and, of course, the seven percent percent figure could go much higher. Additional funding could potentially be leveraged against funding from federal agencies for a larger effect, also. Either way, $70 million would certainly go far in communities that have seen economic disinvestment and marginalization for decades. Given the monumental shifts in marijuana policy and public opinion and the potential the booming industry has to generate vast amounts of wealth, it is essential that the spoils of legalized marijuana trade not only go to those who have access to capital and privilege necessary to start a marijuana-related business. It is also essential, given the ongoing housing crisis—and that phenomenon’s ties to other aspects of institutionalized racial inequality—that municipalities move to make housing reform a central component of any marijuana reparations program. These funds should be harnessed directly toward increasing business opportunities for individuals caught up by the war on drugs and be put toward the equitable redevelopment of the very communities torn apart by those policies.