Maybe there is reason to hope we can get development right in the future.
That's the conclusion I draw after looking over the list of projects that the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) recently named "catalyst projects." It's largely rhetoric, the state has put its seal of approval on -- and given valuable publicity to -- some promising, progressive projects. In general, projects are mixed-use, mixed-income infill projects that attempt – to varying degrees – to de-emphasize the automobile and improve the public realm. It's nice to see the state recognize the planning behind such projects, even if the state isn't willing to attach much money to that recognition.
A little background: Early this year, HCD, Caltrans and the Department of Conservation sought applications from cities and counties for the pilot project. The application stated: "Approximately six development projects will be selected as Catalyst Projects in communities throughout California to incentivize sustainable communities and test innovative strategies designed to increase housing supply and affordability; improve jobs and housing relationships; stimulate job creation and retention; enhance transportation modal choices that reflect community values, preserve open space and agricultural resources; promote public health; eliminate toxic threats; address blighted properties; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy conservation and independence."
After a review process that seemed to drag, HCD on August 24 named not just six catalyst projects, but instead selected 13 projects. A pleasant surprise. The projects are divided up at three different levels:
• City of Emeryville, Emeryville Marketplace
• City of San Francisco, Mission Bay
• City of Sacramento, Township Nine
• City of San Diego, Village at Market Creek
• City of Fullerton, Fullerton Transportation Center
• City of National City, Paradise Creek Revitalization
• City of Chico, Meriam Park
• Town of Truckee, Truckee Railyard
• City of Marina, The Dunes on Monterey Bay
• City of Ontario, Downtown Core Catalyst Project
• City of Oxnard, North Oxnard Communities
• City of San Diego, Quarry Falls
• City of Hercules, Bay Front Transit Village
Each gold project is eligible for a $1.35 million Proposition 1C affordable housing grant, while the silver projects may receive $500,000 each, according to HCD spokeswoman Panorea Avdis.
A source who works in the administration told me that she had been skeptical of the program, but she came away with a positive feeling because of the projects themselves. By demonstrating that some cities and developers are willing to depart from California's tired suburban growth pattern, the projects should serve as models for meeting the state's sustainable growth goals, she told me.
In a written statement, HCD Director Lynn Jacobs said as much: "This pilot program will provide valuable insights to allow the State to implement best practices and strategies as we move forward with our sustainable development goals in California. Walkable communities, improved air quality, reduced emissions, less time spent in a car and a strong economy can all become reality through sustainable development, and I look forward to seeing how these projects develop."
I, too, am interested in how these projects develop, so I checked in on one of them – Meriam Park in Chico. Planned for about 270 acres on the southeastern edge of town, the project would have about 2,300 housing units, at least 1 million square feet of civic and institutional uses, and about 250,000 square feet of commercial space. The project appears to have just about every new urbanist bell and whistle – a walkable grid, alley-loaded housing, minimal setbacks, neighborhood parks and greens, a wide mix of uses and housing types. Meriam Park is intended to replicate Chico's excellent downtown and delightful older neighborhoods – and to depart from Chico's more recent suburban blandness.
Although a full three years has passed since the Chico City Council approved the project, and local developer New Urban Builders has a reputation for completing first-rate projects, the project hasn't gone far because of the economy. Construction is under way on 90 units of affordable housing, and ground should break soon for a new north Butte County courthouse.
"We're bullish long-term, but we're not going to put more infrastructure in the ground that we think is prudent," said John Anderson, of Anderson/Kim Architecture + Urban Design and Meriam Park's chief designer.
The $500,000 for affordable housing is nice, but it's not going to make much difference. Still, the HCD recognition could open other state funding doors, according to Avdis.
"What we were looking for was the designation," explained Chico Assistant City Manager John Rucker. "We see it as a pretty innovative, sustainable project, and we're looking for a number of ways to make it work. We want to position ourselves so that we can take advantage of funding when it does become available."
Anderson said the project could be well-positioned to receive federal grants from the interagency partnership of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Let's hope government funding and incentives for Meriam Park and the other catalyst projects emerge quickly. It's one thing for state and federal officials to tell cities and counties they should grow in a more sustainable fashion. It's quite another to provide the money that makes such growth actually happen.
– Paul Shigley