SAN FRANCISCO, April 15--As UCLA and UC-Berkeley planning professor Michael Storper contends in his book The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies, the cities of the Bay Area enjoy an unexpected sense of unity. Rather than be divided by the San Francisco Bay, retreating to their own peninsulas, dells, and tidal marshes, the Bay Area cities find common ground – or, rather, common water – in the bay. They can literally see each other, and they all have to cooperate to navigate over, under, around, and through it.

Of course, the Bay Area extends far beyond the bay itself. But at this morning’s session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference, held this weekend in San Francisco, the unity of the greater Bay Area was on display. Eight directors of planning (and/or community development) came together on a panel, following a daylong session Friday, convened by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in which they met to discuss, confer, and commiserate with each other. 

They hailed from a representative set of cities, from the region’s heavyweights – San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland – to suburbs and even a semi-rural exurb. Midsize cities like Concord and San Carlos are figuring out how to become more urban without enraging their longstanding residents while traditionally slow-growth cities like Palo Alto and San Rafael are trying to figure out how to be conservative while, at the same time, projecting a progressive image. (The major absence was that of an industrial city, such as Martinez or Fremont, and that of an exclusive suburb, such as Woodside or Orinda.)

The discussion centered on some of the region’s agreed-upon challenges, like housing, as well as discussions of cities’ unique situations. Participants included Oakland Planning Director William Gilchrist; former Palo Alto Planning Director Hillary Gitelman (now with Environmental Science Associates); San Jose Planning Director Rosalyn Hughey; San Rafael Community Development Director Paul Jensen; Concord Community and Economic Development Director Andrea Ouse; San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim; San Carlos Community and Economic Development Director Al Savay; and Dixon Community Development Director Dina Tasini. 

Here are a few excerpts: 

Local Conditions and Local Character

Gilchrist, Oakland: Oakland has been going through a discovery, an epiphany of sorts around real estate for workplace, commercial, retail, and housing. Oakland is a fascinating city in terms of its culture and its history. We have about an even distribution across demographic groups of white, black, Asian, and Latino. Displacement is a concern for communities of color and for the very place-based nature of the culture. 

It’s amazing moment of transformation in Oakland. The jury is clearly out on what the city will look like 5-10 years down the road. 

Jensen, San Rafael: Marin County is the least populated county in the Bay Area, except for Napa County. It spans about 500 square miles, but the population is about 260,000. I don’t want to offend anybody, but Marin County is very old and very white. It’s not very diverse. It’s very affluent, and very well educated.

It’s also very liberal, except when it comes to land development. The county is notorious for anti-growth, no growth policies. So it’s always a challenge to get housing development approved. The one exception is San Rafael. It's the true county seat. 60,000 in population. We do have some level of diversity. Twenty percent of the city is Latino.

Gitelman, Palo Alto: It’s a beautiful leafy suburb, and I would characterize the political environment as being conflicted about change, very suspicious of regionalism, and very troubled by the state of California’s efforts to impose solutions to our housing crisis from above. 

Hughey, San Jose: We are the biggest city in the Bay Area, I like to remind my colleagues of that. We are over 1 million people and growing every day. Our general plan population projections call for an additional 470,000 new residents by 2040. Last I checked, we are right on track. We are adding about 1,000 new residents each month. 

San Jose has, over the years, been the bedroom community for the Bay Area. We had historically built housing for people working up and down the Peninsula and throughout the Bay Area. We built a lot of single-family development. Our land use map is a sea of yellow: low-density development. 

Ouse, Concord: There is a transformation going on from '50s postwar suburb with low-density residential to more a urban context. We’re experiencing sort of a conflict between old-time residents who want more of a suburban feel and urban folks who might have been priced out of cities close to SF coming in and looking at the community from a different lens. 

Rahaim, San Francisco: The issue that for me overrides all (else) is, how do we grow without displacement? The city is extraordinarily challenged by the displacement crisis. The Mission District is probably ground zero for these issues. It has lost 8,000 Latinos. This is not normal, organic neighborhood change. This is way beyond that.

Savay, San Carlos: Many cities in Silicon Valley are going through cathartic and rapid transformation. Twenty years ago, downtown was dead. Everything closed at five o’clock. And there were no kids. It was a graying community. As Silicon Valley’s fortunes rose, so did San Carlos’s. All these young, high tech workers started to figure out San Carlos. These young people started to move to San Carlos and have kids. 

We’ll be able to make our housing supply numbers by 2030, but we’re seeing displacement of manufacturing jobs and skilled labor and restaurant workers. With all this pressure, how do we keep our character and our soul? That’s the big question right now, and it’s the big question for the Bay Area. How do we respond to this rapid growth and success and keep our character and soul? 

Tasini, Dixon: I thought to myself, how do I fit in with these big, dynamic, sexy cities? Then there’s me, little Dixon, with 19,000 people. Forty percent are white, and 60 percent are Latino. Our zoning map is 75 percent yellow. The other part is a mix of other things that haven’t really driven us to lots of success.


Gitelman, Palo Alto: The housing crisis in the region has gotten so severe, even Palo Alto wants to pitch in and do their part. But we want to do it our way: not the way ABAG / MTC says and not the way the state says.

Jensen, San Rafael: We have housing stock that is primarily single-family. We have a very progressive, pro-housing city council. We had a retreat to discuss what to do to promote housing. We identified obstacles: we found out that the process was antiquated and difficult. So we made a switch in how we handle our housing review. Now they go to Planning Commission at the front end of a project review to sign off on basic things like density, building height, and environmental clearance.

Hughey, San Jose: While we are still trying to attract jobs, we are in the middle of a housing crisis. We committed to building the housing to serve our residents and the whole Bay Area.

Rahaim, San Francisco: To give you an indication of why we have the housing crisis we have in the city: the city has grown by 80,000 people since 2010 and 170,000 jobs since 2010. We have built less than 25,000 housing units. This can be replicated across the region and across the state, this imbalance between job creation, population growth, and housing production. 

The jobs-housing balance issue has become more acute throughout the region. In the city, we have about 800,000 jobs and 400,000 housing units. It creates this incredible imbalance. 

The challenge we all have is the opposition to housing growth and the change of “neighborhood character.” There's this belief that if you don't build housing, people won’t come. That’s just not true. It’s never been true. 

Tasini, Dixon: We have one thing that other people don’t have, which is a large swath of affordable housing. You can still buy a home for under $400,000. We have about 1,300 homes proposed for the next 10 years.

Commuting, Transit, and TOD 

Gilchrist, Oakland: We are a hub for the transit system. All the BART lines converge in Oakland. We’re looking at that as an untapped resource that we haven’t taken full advantage of. 

Gitelman, Palo Alto: Palo Alto has about 65,000 residents. That triples during the daytime. We’re very job-intensive, about three jobs for every employed resident in Palo Alto. That’s an issue. A lot of traffic, and the community feels that in terms of their quality of life. 

Hughey, San Jose: We have a great opportunity to address the imbalance of housing and jobs: Diridon Station is a commuter hub. BART is being extended to Diridon Station. We hope to have HSR one day. This area will be the largest multimodal transit hub west of the Mississippi River. This is obviously a game-changer or the city to have all of this transit investment coming into Diridon and downtown. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Ouse, Concord: We have a Downtown Specific Plan. The keystone of downtown is Todos Santos Plaza, which is a lovely town square in walking distance of the Downtown Concord BART. The specific plan contemplates enhancing that downtown vis-a-vis additional housing units, in some areas up to 200 per acre, with high rise, high-density.

Tasini, Dixon: Sacramento is only 25 miles away and is a wonderful place. Davis is 8 miles away. We haven’t really used our region and the fact that we are in the dumbbell. A Large portion of my population is driving to the Bay Area. They sit in their cars for two hours because we don’t have jobs. I’m trying to address that jobs-housing balance.


Gilchrist, Oakland: The economics are amazing, just the amount of dollars that are coming in now and the interest the development community has in terms of providing supply of residential. We want to do that in a way that still addresses the elasticity of the development community on the supply side.

Jensen, San Rafael: Marin County is notorious for using CEQA to stop or delay projects. I’ve been involved with many lawsuits where people have challenged EIRs for this purpose. We took a chance on two large projects around train station. We brought forward a categorical exemption for both projects: we shocked some of our environmental friends, but our planning commission fully embraced it. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Hughey, San Jose: We have targeted growth areas primarily in downtown and the Diridon Station area. We have about 68 urban villages throughout the city we’re looking to revitalize, and transform commercial corridors to target growth. 

Google will be adding 20,000 jobs at Diridon Station. We are excited that they are placing a number of jobs right at a transit center where the jobs should be. This will be a brand-new urban districts, mixed use, with a host of amenities that will make it an 18- if not 24-hour living environment. We have recently updated our design guidelines for the downtown area. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Ouse, Concord: Concord is approaching a huge transformation. One of the main drivers is our 5000-acre Naval Weapons Station, which is going to be conveyed to the city and immediately to the master developer within a year or two. 2500 acres for open space. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

Tasini, Dixon: We have a quaint old downtown. But it has not developed in any commercial manner. We created a priority development area around downtown….to create more density there, to allow people to build second-story residential. Many residents want to age in place. We are looking at a senior community with different levels of income. 


Gilchrist, Oakland: We had to put the brakes on the Downtown Specific Plan about halfway through the process because the outcomes were getting seemed to be agnostic about equity. 

We are kicking off environmental review for the draft Downtown Specific Plan. It’s been an awakening for how we see the city moving forward and how we can engage communities. This plan has called on us to rethink how we reach out to communities. 

Gitelman, Palo Alto: The council did an experiment: In early 2018 they drafted a work plan for housing that gave them a laundry list of activities they could undertake to increase the rate of housing production.

It was everything from retooling how we think of 100 percent affordable projects, a little work on our zoning ordinance, an affordable housing overlay. We had a developer interested in developing a housing project that was a mix of affordable, market rate, and housing targeted at the “missing middle." That got entitled. 

Hughey, San Jose: Our general plan was last updated in 2011. At that time, it was built around the need for attracting more jobs. Our mayor and council recently approved a Housing Crisis Plan. Coordinating with a host of city departments to develop a work plan to come up with a variety of different tools to preserve affordable housing that we currently have and importantly to produce additional housing units. 

We have a goal to build 25,000 new units in the next five years. We’re using a variety of tools: we already have inclusionary housing; we’ve established further protections for renters; an anti-displacement strategy that we’re working on; loosening regulations around ADUs. 

Jensen, San Rafael: We’re looking to change inclusionary housing provisions. We had inclusionary housing ordinance in place since 1986. We have gone from an initial 10 percent requirement for below market-rate to 20 percent in the last 10 years. Our developer folks say they can’t pencil. We are going to be bringing forward a recommendation to scale back those percentages.

We are working on a Downtown Precise Plan: large projects around transit have difficulty getting through process. We are going to a form-based code, Replacing density with floor-to-area ratio. We are also doing an EIR to support that effort so these projects can tier off that EIR in the Precise Plan.

We are the poster child for fire hazard and sea level rise. We’re adding an overlay into our general plan map that we’re going to use not only as a zoning and construction tool but also as a financing tool and an area for adaptation. 

Rahaim, San Francisco: San Francisco has this unique provision called Proposition M, which caps the amount of office space approved in a given year at 950,000 square feet. Right now we have 3 million square feet of space in the ‘bank’ but 7 million in the application pipeline. 

We are facing this interesting situation about how we allocate this space. Who gets it? Who doesn’t get it? It’s created an interesting, challenging dynamic about how we approve development and who gives us the most goodies as a result of development. 

Savay, San Carlos: Ten years ago, we were at a tipping point. We had a financial crisis. The city was ready to turn off street lights and close the library. We integrated Planning, Economic Development, Housing, and Building. We redid the general plan and zoning quickly. We did TOD around the train station. We lowered parking ratios. We increased density a bit. We aimed for 9,000 new jobs by 2030 but only build 1500 units. Everybody said that was OK.

Tasini, Dixon: We are in the process of finishing off the general plan. I have decided that we shouldn’t be designating area to the northeast as solely industry. It should include mixed-use and we should look at more dense housing. That’s a bad word in my community, but the council has been supportive. 

We have a very interesting problem: a state highway runs right through downtown. It’s almost like a truck route. I want to change the truck route to another street further to the east of the city so we can do some urban design downtown: expand sidewalks, have sidewalk dining, make something happen that people will go to.

We are trying to discuss linkage to transportation. We cannot keep driving two hours to go to work. Members of council want to secede from the Bay Area and become part of Yolo and Sacramento counties.


Gilchrist, Oakland: I’ve been hearing a lot of analogies between what Brooklyn and Manhattan faced over the last couple of decades, where capital and investing hopping the East River and Brooklyn became more of an investment choice around real estate with all the attendant pressures and changes. 

We have a common destiny. It’s going to take regional thinking to find the best path forward. 

Gitelman, Palo Alto: The city was a leader in housing solutions 10-12 years ago. It was one of the first cities to have inclusionary zoning. In the past 10 years, the pipeline has slowed down. There’s controversy associated with almost every planning proposal. Voters overturned the approval of a 60-unit, affordable senior housing project. It ushered in a whole new wave of folks who didn’t really want to do anything. 

Rahaim, San Francisco: I was thinking about the fact that Los Angele County was able to pass a ballot measure for $120 billion for transportation. It happens to be the largest county in the country population-wise. It has 10 million people. So L.A. County alone has more people than all nine Bay Area counties. It really points to the importance of us working together and doing exactly what we’re doing in having this conversation. None of these issues can be solved within the boundaries of our cities.

As a region, we don’t spend enough time talking to each other, so it was great to spend a whole day together.

Some quotations have beed edited for clarity. Quotations are not necessarily presented in the order in which they were uttered.