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Why do projects and plans diverge so far from community desires?

Having sat on the San Rafael General Plan Committee and watched the “public process” in action for some time now, it has struck me that how we go about creating plans for our cities leaves a lot to be desired.

I recently, posted a small survey on Nextdoor, in my neighborhood in San Rafael, and soon realized that the results were pertinent to all cities in California.

The pattern that emerged from the results showed a stark divergence between what the community wants and what the city council and city committees, such as the General Plan Committee, envision for our neighborhoods. The City’s plans are often highly misaligned with communities' actual desires and ideas about growth.

The results of my Nextdoor.com polling

The poll I ran on Nextdoor.com had 561 responses from households in San Rafael. It showed that there is a very strong community consensus against any more than 100 additional units, of which 20 percent would be affordable, at the local mall, which is being considered for rezoning from commercial and retail to mixed use incorporating residential multi-family.

The actual community vision runs in stark contrast to the development envisioned by the City and so-called “stakeholder” groups.

The plans proposed by San Rafael city planners and appointed General Plan Steering Committee members

The San Rafael General Plan Committee, which I sit on, consists of 23 members. In addition to city government liaison members from the City Council, Planning Commission, Design Review Board, and Parks & Recreation Commission, the remaining Committee members were appointed by the City Council and were selected from a variety of pedestrian, bike and transit advocacy groups, housing advocates, commercial realtors, architects, the Chamber of Commerce, real estate development interests, sustainability advocates and consultants, and a handful of neighborhood and HOA leaders.

The skew here is that most of the members of the Committee have a significant vested interest in accelerating growth. As a result the Committee’s majority consensus favors adding a lot more housing – meaning adding hundreds, perhaps even a thousand or more units -- than my informal polling would suggest the community will support at the local mall.

As a result, I am one of few voices on this committee who speaks up against a prevailing, single-minded narrative that "we need to provide lots more housing to address the housing crisis".

The housing crisis has been created by tech companies, many in San Francisco, that are bringing in thousands of new workers from out of state, and even from out of the country, but who have not been paying – or been required to pay – for the costs of infrastructure, roads, public transportation, housing or public services that those workers need.

Instead, the costs of the resulting "infrastructure gap" are being passed on to the general public through endless new tax proposals, fees, assessments, and bond measures (public debt), and by offering generous zoning bonuses and property rights give-a-ways to housing developers, in order to subsidize these multi-billion dollar tech companies so they can just go on making huge profits, without any consequences.

The City Council “bubble”

Most of the time, the City Council only hears from the same groups: bicycle advocates, housing development advocates, the influential Chamber of Commerce, and transportation consultants when they are formulating plans and zoning regulations. But, they typically only hear from impacted residents in the 11th hour, when the City announces that a major development project will be built near them.

As a result, we get into too many messy situations. This is exacerbated by the fact that unrepresentative committees, such as the San Rafael General Plan Committee, is comprised of too many special interests. The City Council ends up existing in an echo chamber of the same special interests lobbying groups over and over again. Then when a new project is announced, those who have been going about their lives, assuming that their local representatives have been doing the right thing, are surprised when hundreds of apartments and condominiums and retail stores suddenly are proposed in their neighborhoods. And if their 11th hour protests or other legal means to stop the project prevail, all the time and money spent on planning and committees and meetings has been wasted simply because the “plan” was for far more growth than the community would have told them they found acceptable, on day one.

The big question then is how do we close this gap? How do we make our city's plans and zoning better align with the community's wishes, when the community busy trying to live their own complicated lives and typically don't speak up until the 11th hour when project final approvals are imminent?

This is an issue not isolated to San Rafael, but widespread across the state and country.

Solutions

There are no simple answers to these questions. Cities have tried to improve their outreach and engage residents using social media. But that does not appear to be enough. So what else can cities do?

If the broader community and those most impacted by any particular planning or zoning proposal can be better engaged, the special interest bubbles around government committees and city agencies could be burst and provide more timely input to zoning and plans .I believe this would make the community a lot happier and planning and zoning initiatives much more effective.