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New Partners Conference

YIMBYs, Smart Growth and unanswered questions: Developers love smart growth; here's why

On February 1 I flew to St. Louis for the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, the largest gathering dedicated to dense, transit-oriented/walkable/bikeable development in the United States.

For many years the event has been run by the Local Government Commission, a non-profit, i.e., private, organization headquartered in Sacramento. In 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded LGC a $208,000 grant to organize and plan the annual conference for five years (2014-2018). The 768 people listed on the 2017 roster of participants included public officials, consultants, developers, educators, health care professionals, and others. To my knowledge, I was the only member of the press in attendance.


What drew me to St. Louis, where the temperatures can (and did) drop below freezing in early February, was a desire to see how smart growth, the dominant paradigm in U.S. city and regional planning, would be presented on a national stage.

I had a particular interest in the session alliteratively entitled “Growing Grassroots ‘Good Growth’ Group.” Moderated by Greenbelt Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Madsen, the panel of three self-declared YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard) included BARFer and East Bay Forward founding member Gregory Magofña, who was a legislative aide to former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.

I sat in on that session and four others dealing with smart growth basics, inclusionary housing, urban manufacturing, and public-private partnerships for “shared mobility.” That was a tiny sample of the nearly 90 sessions convened during the three-day event (I was there for two of those days), but it left some strong impressions.

I was hoping that the conference format would allow me to raise forbidden questions—planning issues that are suppressed in public policymaking in the Bay Area and beyond—and to see how smart growth advocates would respond. It did, as I describe in the following accounts of the Good Growth and “shared mobility” sessions.

Three flavors of YIMBY

The description for the Good Growth session:

We’ve all seen proposals for high-quality smart growth projects, policies and plans downsized, delayed or defeated by a small group of well-organized detractors. Local elected officials who make decisions to approve or deny development projects, policies and plans are responsive to residents of their community. If elected officials see more constituents supporting smart growth, they will be more likely to approve good proposals. Recent years have seen a rise of grassroots “good growth” groups in communities across the country. This session will explore this phenomenon and the impact it is having on the smart-growth movement. How are these groups forming? Who are their members? How do they determine shared goals? How do equity considerations factor into their work? What’s working well and what remains challenging? What are the pros and cons of different models? How are they having an impact in their communities?

In the course of the 75-minute session, moderator Madsen posed each of those questions to Magofña and the other two panelists: Susan Somers, president of the Board of Directors of AURA, a non-profit in Austin whose website says its members “want anyone and everyone who wants to call themselves an Austinite should have an opportunity to do so”; and Will Toor, a member of the steering committee of Better Boulder, described on its website as “advocat[ing] for sustainable and smart development.”

It soon became apparent that while East Bay Forward, AURA, and Better Boulder share a smart growth agenda, they also differ in significant ways, starting with organization.

East Bay Forward, the youngest of the trio—Magofña said its first anniversary would be ten days hence—is also the most loosely organized. He used the term “do-ocracy” to emphasize the group’s voluntaristic character: people are encouraged to focus on whatever activity interests them. “We aren’t planners.” He also distinguished himself and his Millennial comrades from “older YIMBYs whose work precludes speaking out in public.” He and another member “do the design work for flyers. Someone else brings out people to city council meetings.”

Magofña explained that East Bay Forward grew out of SFBARF (the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation), splitting off to focus on the East Bay, where “we tried to not silo our efforts in different cities.” Originally unincorporated, East Bay Forward recently joined its parent organization in a new 501(c)4 non-profit, YIMBY Action. Unlike a 501(c)3, a 501(c)4 can engage in lobbying activity for causes that are consistent with its social welfare mission. For East Bay Forward and its fellow Bay Area YIMBYs, that mission is promoting housing at all income levels. “The housing shortage in the Bay Area is so dire,” Magofña said, that it’s even affecting the middle class. East Bay Forward supports rent control and “upzon[ing] the really rich areas around subway stations.”

It should be noted, however, that YIMBY Action does not have a smart growth agenda, as indicated by the lawsuit its affiliate, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, has brought against Lafayette regarding a project on a site that is far from any transit stop.

Like East Bay Forward, AURA is led by young people and uses social media to recruit members and publicize its work. The organization dates back to 2007. It began, Somers explained, as an urbanist pro-transit group that collaborates with neighborhood development corporations and other non-profits. She said it has more of a “wonky,” policy focus than other YIMBY groups. AURA doesn’t take positions on individual zoning cases. Nor does it do “a lot of public input,” which Somers called “a distraction—doing arts and crafts with people who are really angry at you.” Instead, it publishes at least one white paper a year. Its top priority is fostering housing more effectively than other “smart growth/urbanist organizations in our town….We’re more on the leading edge.”

Unlike East Bay Forward and AURA, Better Boulder has young and old members. NIMBY groups, said Toor, have “a lot of retired people” with “a lot of time on their hands.” Toor himself is a seasoned political activist and public official. From 1998 to 2004 he was mayor of Boulder and from 2005 to 2013, a county commissioner; he was termed out of both offices. After spending many years fighting urban sprawl, he discovered that his colleagues were fine with open space but “didn’t want any part of infill” development, “despite the youthfulness of the community.”

Better Boulder got started in 2013. Whereas Somers told how AURA members connected via social media, Toor said that Better Boulder spread its message by “going out to brewpubs.” His group represents “a broad, pro-housing constituency” that encompasses the tech sector, the Chamber of Commerce, Realtors, environmentalists, non-profit housing advocates, transportation and bike activists. For Toor, this venture meant working with some former enemies. It has no staff. The Boulder Chambers provides three-to-five hours of weekly administrative support. Another organization does the webpage. The Board of Realtors, he wryly noted, “used to sue me when I was mayor.” But, he added, “we’re not market fundamentalists.” Better Boulder supports inclusionary zoning, but not rent control, which is illegal in Colorado. Both policies, Somers had noted, are illegal in Texas.

Unsurprisingly, given its personnel and backers, of the three groups, Better Boulder has the most impressive track record. In 2015 it helped to defeat decisively (62-38%) two slow-growth measures, one that would have allowed neighborhoods to vote on developments, a second that would have substantially raised impact fees. “Every incumbent councilmember who supported these measures lost,” said Toor, leading to a new, pro-growth majority on the council.

Toor didn’t note that he and his allies received $32,000 from the National Board of Realtors. The NAR was one of the conference sponsors, along with the EPA and Smart Growth America. At the NAR table I picked up the 2017 issue of Realtors ® & Smart Growth’s publication “on common ground,” which features walkable neighborhoods.

Better Boulder also worked to pass a measure that legalized up to 15 unrelated people sharing a single residence. That fight, said Toor, was “incredibly contentious,” with opponents crying, “You are destroying our community!”

AURA can also claim a major success: after the group issued a report urging the legalization of granny flats and garage apartments, technically known as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), the city council followed suit. In 2016, Somers said, Austin had 251 ADU applications. AURA is hoping they ramp up to 500 a year. (Austin has a population of 931,800 and covers 271 square miles; for comparison: San Francisco measures 47 square miles.)

East Bay Forward has less to show for its efforts, but then, it’s barely a year old. According to Magofña, the group’s biggest success has been alerting Oakland planning commissioners to the perils of downzoning parts of the city. “A lot of elected officials know who we are,” and the do-ocracy approach has fostered East Bay Forward’s reputation for “being sane.” He also mentioned that they’d gotten “lots of people involved” in the repurposing of the Naval Weapons Station in Concord for new housing and parks (a Lennar project).

But Magofña also marked key reversals. One occurred on the municipal level. In 2014 voters approved Berkeley’s new Downtown Plan and its provisions for dense construction. In last November’s election, however, “Berkeley flipped in a very surprising way: it went completely NIMBY.”

The other setback was both political and personal. When Magofña was working as an aide to Tom Bates, his questionable backroom machinations were exposed by the editor of “a news rag”—he didn’t name the publication; clearly it was Becky O’Malley’s Berkeley Daily Planet—that, he said, “is supposed to be reputable” but “is now her opinion column.” The editor “associated me the mayor, so I had to step away” from East Bay Forward.

Where Berkeley really stands on smart growth and political ethics

When it came time for Q & A, I had my question—I knew I’d have a chance to ask only one—ready. I prefaced it with remarks to Magofña, stating that what he’d said about smart growth being popular in Berkeley (my town) was not true. The reason that all the candidates save one who’d been endorsed by Tom Bates, including incumbent Darrell Moore, lost badly last November was that voters opposed the new buildings going up in Downtown, notably the eighteen-story, luxury tower at Harold Way (off Shattuck) that had been waved on by the Bates council. Magofña did not contest my claim.

I didn’t have to comment on his run-in with O’Malley. As he said, she did go after him, in an April 2015 op-ed that opened with this memorable lede:

If it wasn’t such a cliché, I might say that you can’t make this stuff up. How could it be ethical for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who will eventually be reviewing variances sought by 2211 Harold Way in his quasi-judicial role, to lobby himself using the services of his taxpayer-funded aide, who seems to be organizing “a special Berkeley sub-group” of the now notorious SF BARF group which fronts for developers?

O’Malley continued:

It appears that the Berkeley activities of the pro-development San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation are being coordinated out of the office of Berkeley Mayor Bates, or at least by one of his city-paid staffers. A reader who lurks on the San Francisco BARF list-serv forwarded this communication to us:

From: Gregory Magofna
Subject: [sfbarentersfed] Berkeley Community Benefits/Housing Mitigation Fee
Date: April 7, 2015 PDT

I know a special Berkeley sub-group was created upon my request, I will get to that with specific projects in the coming weeks. I just wanted to let the group know about something on tonight’s city council agenda: Significant community benefits for developments over 75 ft in Downtown Berkeley.

The fight is over what else developers should be required to do and NIMBYs have been making outrageously impossible demands to meet to block the project. There is talk of another meeting coming up just on this so it’s not the end of the world if no one attends, but it does set the stage for the other 4 tall buildings in downtown. Please plan on coming to the special meeting in May.

There was no need to defend the planet against Magofna's insinuation of disreputability. That indictment was undercut by his admission that in the wake of O'Malley's piece, he'd had to temporarily abandon East Bay Forward.

YIMBYs: no limits on growth, as long as it’s “smart”

I then asked the panel whether the concept of good growth included carrying capacity—specifically with respect to water and fiscal impacts, noting that pension costs were a growing concern in California and elsewhere.

Magofña didn’t reply.

Toor alone responded to the pension question. Build more housing, he said, and younger workers will help us with pension issues. In response to my follow-up emailed query, Toor noted that “this was a general response, not specific to Boulder,” which does not have its own pension system but participates in a statewide plan, “so the age distribution in town doesn’t affect [the pension situation].”

Somers and Toor, joined by Madsen, simply dismissed the carrying capacity issue.

Somers said, “I disagree with the premises of some of your questions. Denser development can get more bang for our buck by lowering energy and water use,” a major concern in semi-arid Austin. “I think there’s a lot of research to support my position.”

Likewise, Toor said that “there are enormous opportunities in increasing the efficiency of water use. The more we grow in our existing footprint, the better we do in terms of sustainability.” In any case, “water supply is not a meaningful constraint on infill in our city.” The challenge, rather, is “to reduce the amount of land dedicated to Kentucky bluegrass”—presumably a swipe at the lush lawns fronting suburban single-family homes.

Madsen interjected, “32% less water is used in infill settings than in a similar house in a sprawl setting.”

Conference-style Q&A doesn’t allow for a debate at the sessions proper. After the panel broke up, I went up to Madsen and said: “You didn’t answer my question. Are there limits to growth?” “I think that’s the wrong question,” he replied. Me: “Why?” Madsen: “The state is going to grow.” I agreed, and asked, “But how?” Madsen: “Where else should people go?”

That diversionary response left me flabbergasted. I should have asked: Are you really saying that California is the only place for people to move? Instead, I cited former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt’s exhortation that job growth needs to be metered. Madsen disagreed.

I concluded that for Madsen, growth has no limits. That’s consistent with Greenbelt Alliance’s embrace of Yimbyism, as well as its fiscal sponsorship of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, and Madsen’s presence on the Bay Area Council Economic Institute Board of Trustees—all part of the Bay Area’s build, baby, build axis.

Why this position should be called smart beats me.

Using Uber is “like getting a book from the library”

The session on “shared mobility” showcased another troubling aspect of smart growth: its proponents’ enthusiasm for collaborations between public transit agencies and so-called transportation network companies, a.k.a. Uber and Lyft.

The session description:

Transit: The Backbone of Shared Mobility

A vital challenge facing the nation is the changes for expanded and affordable mobility. These changes affect every income and demographic level. Technology is a significant driving force. New terms like shared-use mobility and mobility on demand are forging new public and private transport. Public transit will remain the backbone, as it is strengthened by partnering with bikeshare, carshare and ridesource services. This trend has implications for enhancing smart growth and promoting equity. Some suggest the trend could reduce car ownership. Ironically, this means that mobility options are actually expanded. For transit, two principal benefits are increasing ridership and addressing the “first and last mile” components of transit trips. Hear how the public and private sectors are ramping up collaborative efforts. The session will highlight the trends and the diversity of impacts for community-building, new federal activities, expanding mobility options and partnerships to lower transportation costs to support equity.

“Shared mobility” is a generic term for forms of transport other than the private automobile: bikesharing, carsharing, and ridesourcing services provided by companies such as Uber and Lyft, taxis, microtransit shuttles, public transit, and mobility hubs.

Organized and moderated by longtime planning consultant David Taylor, the panel had four members:

Sharon Feigon spoke first. Formerly associated with the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology and IGO Car Sharing, which pioneered car-sharing in Chicago, Feigon is the founder and executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, described on its website as “a public-interest organization working to foster collaboration in shared mobility and help connect the growing industry with transit agencies, cities, and communities across the nation.”

In 2016 the Shared-Use Mobility Center prepared a report, “Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit,” for the American Public Transportation Association. The center offers an online toolkit that surveys more than 700 policies and includes a benefits calculator.

“All the big tech companies and auto manufacturers,” said Feigon, are getting into this market. She hailed the $70 billion in new transportation funding that was approved last year by U.S. cities and regions—most spectacularly, the passage of LA’s $120 billion Measure M. She also mentioned BART’s $3.5 billion bond Measure RR. Declaring that “ride-hailing companies and transit are complementary,” and that “mobility is the goal,” Feigon lauded apps that “incentivize mode shift [giving up the private auto for a shared form of transportation] in real time” and “fare deposit integration” as tools for “enabl[ing] transit agencies to participate in these partnerships.”

Next up was Auten. KCATA is the regional bus agency serving Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas City, Oklahoma, and most Missouri suburbs. The agency, said Jameson, “is going through a rebrand” under new leadership. Buses, with their “high-capacity, high-frequency” ability to “move masses” “are the backbone,” but “bus companies are now into mobility facilitation; we don’t have to operate these services; we can [just] manage them.” Facilitating mobility in Kansas City, Missouri is a tall order: the town encompasses over 300 square miles.

Jameson highlighted a new program called RideKC:BRIDJ, an on-demand microtransit, i.e., shuttle, service launched last March that relies on Boston-based BRIDJ’s app to connect riders with Ford Transit 14-passenger vans. This is not door-to-door service: each route is mapped out according to where the people on board want to go. You might have to walk to or from a “pop-up” station. The one-year pilot program’s introductory fare is $1.50. As I later read online, this was the first public-private partnership to link “a major transit system, an automaker, and a tech company” [in order] to enhance an existing mass transit system.”

“The private sector is driving innovation,” said Auten. The Federal Transit Administration needs to “tell us what rules we can relax to help you drive deeper into the on-demand area.” He informed us that Uber now belongs to the American Public Transportation Association, and that at the APTA annual meeting in LA last September, he found himself in a huddle with Uber Transportation and Mobility Policy Manager Andrew Salzberg and the CEOS of the largest transit agencies in the United States.

These remarks elicited an approving nod from Uber’s Paige Tsai, who then presented a handsome PowerPoint about “enhancing mobility” by linking Uber and public transit. Her company’s goal is “to provide everyone with a reliable ride at the push of a button.” Uber, she said,” also allows its drivers to “earn a flexible living.” The firm now operates in more than 400 cities and 70 countries. It benefits cities by “increas[ing] mobility, reduc[ing] congestion and pollution, and “extend[ing] the reach of public transportation.” Rather than “competing with or replacing taxis,” Uber is “filling the gaps that traditional transportation is not serving.” To monitor driver behavior, it uses a smart phone gyrometer.

Tsai offered examples of Uber’s impact. Without UberPOOL, which allows customers to share an UberX with other riders, “Van Ness Avenue would be congested.” Tsai also cited UberPOOL’s partnership with Caltrain during the Superbowl; the $100 monthly credit toward using Uber that the owner of the massive Parkmerced complex will make available to new tenants; and Massachusetts Bay Transit’s partnership with Uber to provide disabled customers with on-demand paratransit.

The final speaker was Gwo-Wei Torng of the Federal Transit Administration. After advising us to “think of Uber like getting books from the library,” Torng opined that the “sharing economy is not new; what’s new is the enabling technology….We are not very good at innovation; we are good at regulations” (appreciative laughter).

He described a new FTA program: the Mobility on Demand (MOD) Sandbox Demonstration Program. Why “Sandbox”? Because “there’s no one way to play.” To Torng and his colleagues, “that sound[ed] like a sandbox.” Eligible recipients of funding included providers of public transportation, state and local government Departments of Transportation, and federally recognized Indian tribes partnered with other state or local government entities, operators of transportation services (employee shuttles, airport connector services, university transportation systems, parking and tolling authorities), and private for-profit and not-profit organizations, including shared use mobility providers, among others.

Last October the FTA announced $8 million of awards to eleven mobility on demand projects. “Quite a few,” said Torng, “involved Uber.” For example, the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority got $1.35 million to create a two-region mobility on demand partnership with Lyft in LA and Seattle that will “explore the viability of first/last mile solutions for trips originating and ending at select transit stops.”

The session closed with Q & A.

Asked about ADA provisions, Tsai mentioned the on-demand paratransit pilot with the MBTA. That program, however, does not accommodate people with wheelchairs. The problem, she explained, is that “most people do not own a wheelchair-accessible vehicle,” meaning that it’d hard to find Uber drivers who can transport people who needed a wheelchair.

I got called on. I started by telling Torng that using Uber is not the same as getting a book from the public library. The book is free, because we’ve paid taxes to support the library.

I also challenged Paige’s contention that Uber is simply extending, not raiding, public transit, citing recent reports that Uber and Lyft have significantly siphoned off BART patrons going to and from the San Francisco and Oakland Airports.

But my main address was to the public officials:

You’re entrusted with protecting the general welfare and public safety. How do you justify partnering with secretive, unregulated transportation network companies, whose drivers don’t have to go through the training—I don’t care about gyrometers—or the background checks that taxi drivers do? Why are they cheap? Because of how they treat their workers—and as Sharon noted, Uber isn’t even profitable. It’s troubling to hear public officials promoting such a business.

To my surprise, Auten replied: “You’re exactly right.” “In Kansas City, we’ve given thought to everything you’ve mentioned. As TNCs evolve, they have to learn.”

Given Auten’s remarks about loosening regulations and his praise for private sector innovation, I didn’t expect that response. Back in Berkeley, I Googled KCATA’s BRIDJ program and then emailed Austen that it looked as if the drivers are public employees working for KCATA—is that correct? I also asked him if KCATA is currently partnering with Uber, LYFT or other TNCs or if it’s planning to do so.

He promptly emailed back that BRIDJ is staffed by KCATA employees who belong to the Amalgamated Transit Union, and that his agency “does not have any partnerships with TNCs nor do we have any plans in place at this time to do so. We do work with a local taxi provider and have for quite some time.” He added that KCTA does contract for some paratransit services with Transdev, a private taxi operator; and that it oversees contracts with First Transit, a private bus operator on behalf of two local governments.

Torng did not reply to me.

Feigon said that BART “is good for moving people who are near BART stations” and “not good for moving people who are far from those stations.” I didn’t and don’t understand how that relates to the decline in BART ridership to and from the airports.

Tsai also responded: “I appreciate your stating your concerns. We can’t emphasize enough about how concerned we are about the safety for our drivers….Uber is increasing accessibility for people who have been discriminated against by taxis.”

If this had been a debate, I would have said:

Why not crack down on taxis that won’t pick up disabled passengers? Or provide public transportation, including wheelchair accessible vehicles, that will pick them up? There’s been a lot of talk at this session and this conference about equity. How about equity for workers as well as customers and citizens? Why not apply the same rules to the TNCs as you apply to taxis? And if Uber is so concerned about the welfare of its workers, why is it suing Seattle for having authorize TNC drivers to unionize?

And to the room at large: what’s with the sneering at government’s regulatory role? I’ve seen it at other sessions at this conference. Is smart growth anti-regulation?

Auten seems to get it. Yet at the panel, his position was blurry. I wonder if that’s because one of his fellow panelists was the director of a federal agency to which his own agency might well be applying for a grant in the future. Indeed, the whole conference had the air of a trade show, with planning consultants galore displaying their wares to the representatives of public and private institutions.

Trade shows are not conducive to the forthright discussion of knotty problems. Smart growth is long overdue for such an exchange. It didn’t happen in St. Louis.