Cities around California are beginning to feel tremendous pressure from the state to accommodate new housing rather than just plan for it. And there’s a growing feeling among planners around California than the cities they work for had better be more pro-active on the housing issue so that the state doesn’t step in with even more onerous requirements.

Among other things, one speaker said planners shouldn’t be “clamshells” during public hearing and should be proactive and forthright with the facts

At the California Chapter, American Planning Association, conference in Santa Barbara yesterday, planner and developers from around the state provided a few tips on how cities can be more pro-active on housing – and how planners themselves can help. The conference panel was the annual leadership program put on by the California Planning Roundtable.

Here are a few highlights:

Do heavy lifting at the Specific Plan and EIR stage

Several speakers – including Santa Monica planner Liz Bar-El and former Berkeley planning director Mark Rhoades – said one of the best things a city can do is create a realistic Specific Plan and do the environmental impact report for it. That way, developers know what will fly and can usually do it with truncated environmental review.

Use the Housing Element better

Everybody hates the housing element. But especially in combination with the approach above, the Housing Element can identify real opportunity sites on which the city wants housing built and can identify the constraints that the city itself places on the housing development.

Accept the Era of the Ministerial

“We are making a transition from a discretion-based society to a ministerial-based society,” Rhoades said. Cities are fighting this idea on the legislative level, but on the ground you have to make sure the ministerial projects are the ones you want.

“If ministerial is the direction, then the thinking has to be up-front on the policy side,” said former San Diego Planning Director Bill Anderson. “So how do planners engage the public on that level?”

Play the gatekeeper role carefully

Brad Wiblin of BRIDGE Housing – who’s also a Berkeley planning commissioner – said developers value the way the city manager and the planning director understand their elected officials – but also sometimes see those folks playing too much of a “gatekeeper” role.”

“Our first interaction is always with senior staff and they’re all expert watchers of their elected officials,” Wilpin said. “They then become gatekeeper, they believe they understand the council. But sometimes we get fended off for months before I can even meet with the council.” It’s understandable, he said, that bureaucrats want to control access, but developers also need first-hand knowledge of what will fly in front of the council.

Allow experimentation

One audience member asked how cities can encourage experimentation on such novel ideas as tiny units. Santa Monica’s Bar-El acknowledged that rigid zoning codes and lists of allowable uses discourage such experimentation. But she said the move toward ministerial approval might open things up. For example, she said 100% affordable projects in Santa Monica are approved ministerially, and so that might open the door to experimentation.

Give developers a heads-up on possible roadblocks

It’s not unusual, Wiblin said, for a developer to get pretty far down the line, only to learn that the staff planners have not pointed out an important constraint. He recalled one instance in which BRIDGE had a project all lined up with city support, only to learn that an aviation easement would cut the allowable density in half.

“Always ask, ‘Is there anything else you want to tell me?’,” he said. And planners, he emphasized, actually have to answer the question.

Don’t be clamshells

Longtime Mountain View Community Development Director Elaine Costello pointed out that when they are in the midst of a contentious public hearing, planners often become “clamshells,” completely closing up, saying nothing, and looking down at their notes. But planners shouldn’t be clamshells, she said.

“One way we can be the leaders is to get the facts out there,” she said. “One, do advance work about what the issues are going to be. The other thing is, at the hearing, have some process for where you can come back and give the facts. That does not mean stand up in the middle of during some angry person’s comments. But no clamshells.”