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David Mark Pixabay

Freeing America from its Zoning Straightjacket?

The following was written to the Editor of the NY Times in response to recently published article entitled, "How Biden Can Free America From Its Zoning Straitjacket," by Edward L. Glaeser.


I take serious umbrage with Mr. Glaeser's opinion letter of April 12th because of its generally anthropocentric attitude, which promotes development at all costs and ignores all of the other species we share our planet with. As an architect, I have spent most of my adult life trying to help create well-designed, higher-density housing that affords a good quality of life, and I know for a fact that California's zoning and environmental regulations are not the evil culprit that is getting so much bad press as of late.

Higher density is great - when it does not cause destruction to natural habitat.

The article states:

“Between 1950 and 1970, the housing stock [in California] grew by 40 percent per decade. After 1970, the growth rate dropped in half, not because California lacks land but because the state imposed growth controls, environmental impact reviews and various land-use regulations.”

And why were those land-use regulations imposed? Because of the tremendous amount of unregulated environmental devastation that occurred from all of that construction he praises. By building everywhere, rather than in targeted, vetted locations (or brownfield sites) both cultural and natural landscapes were destroyed, native species decimated, environmental hazards (like buildings in wildfire and flood zones) were created. The environmental protections were necessary to counter the free-for-all of unfettered development.

Higher density is great - but when it occurs in the proper locations, near transit.

The article states:

“Linking infrastructure spending to permitting new construction makes sense, because the benefits of infrastructure are higher when more people can locate near enough to use that infrastructure.”

It takes much longer to build the infrastructure than it does to build housing, so that infrastructure needs to hurry up and get built. But where will those transit points be?

To build all of the density without knowledge of where exactly that infrastructure will end up is an unwise guessing game that will only result in greater automobile dependence. Locations that already have transit are already target locations for infill, higher density development, and Planning departments are doing everything to promote development there, most of which are excused from the environmental review process. Also, the environmental footprint of these infrastructure projects can be decreased with consideration of light rail, water taxis and aerial trams - think outside the box!

Higher density is great when it is actually sustainable.

The article states:

“And regulations that limit new construction keep Americans living in older structures that typically use more energy.”

It is ridiculous to claim that the rehabilitation of an existing structure yields a higher carbon footprint than a tear-down and rebuild. Yes, overall, new construction will run more efficiently in the long run, but to throw away the already embodied energy of the existing structure is just wasteful and short sighted. The carbon footprint of new construction is tremendous - concrete, steel wood, transportation of the materials, there is no comparison to the low impact of rehabilitating an existing structure.

Higher density is great when it is not in a wildfire or flood hazard zone.

There are literally dozens of state-wide housing bills that are presently being circulated for review and approval in Sacramento. Some are an attempt at a one-size-fits-all densification of every single parcel in the entire state, regardless of environmental setting or sensitivity (Senator Scott Wiener's bills are the worst.)

Almost none of the bills take into account the proximity of sensitive species, open flowing creeks, or the dangers of wildfire or flooding. There is no qualification for adequate water supply to support the increased population. There is no requirement for the roads to be wide enough to support the traffic that would occur in a natural disaster, such as wildfire or the unheard-of earthquake, or even for adequate street width to support a fire truck - just build wherever and whatever you want!

Let’s come to our senses - there are other options! How about putting a two-year moratorium on short-term rentals (yes Air BnB - I’m coming for you!) It would free up tens of thousands of already existing housing units, it would have an immediate, overnight impact on our housing crisis, and it would provide us with time for the state’s expanded housing supply to be built, in the right way, in the right locations.

Another idea - one outcome of the pandemic is the realization that so much dedicated office space is less than a necessity. How about retrofitting the millions of square feet of existing and future empty office space (not to mention the already built, dying retail centers) and convert it into housing?

Another idea - how about, rather than allowing increased density everywhere, establish a system of transferred development rights that would allow a builder to purchase a property in a wildfire prone area and restore it to its natural state, in exchange for a density bonus that can be applied to a more appropriate location? These are not new ideas!

Let's not sacrifice an already stressed natural environment for a short-term solution in lieu of other, more reasonable, lower impact ideas. If we fail to foresee all the future impacts of these desperate actions that favor unfettered development, we all know what will happen. We will all regret it.

Act now - think long term!

Andrea Montalbano, Mill Valley, CA

Member of the Tamalpais Area Design Review Board