Regional planners want to put 280,000 more people into San Francisco — and they admit that many current residents will have to leave
Levy runs the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, and he's been watching trends in this state for years. He agrees that some of his science is, by nature, dismal: "Nobody projects deep recessions," much less natural disasters. But overall, he told me, it's possible to get a grip on what planners need to prepare for as they write the next chapter of the Bay Area's future.
And what they have to plan for is a lot more people.
Levy said he started with the federal government's projections for population growth in the United States, which include births and deaths, immigration, and out-migration, using historic trends to allocate some of that growth to the Bay Area. There's what appears at first to be circular logic involved: The feds (and most economists) project that job growth nationally will be driven by population — that is, the more people live in the US, the more jobs there will be.
Population growth in a specific region, on the other hand, is driven by jobs — that is, the more jobs you have in the Bay Area, the more people will move here.
"Jobs in the US depend on how many people are in the labor force," he said. "Jobs in the Bay Area depend on our share of US jobs and population depends on relative job growth."
Make sense? No matter — over the years it's generally worked. And once you project the number of people and jobs expected in the Bay Area, you can start looking at how much housing it's going to take to keep them all under a roof.
Levy projects that the Bay Area's share of jobs will be higher than most of the rest of the country. "This is the home of the knowledge industry," he told me. So he's concluded that population in the Bay Area will grow from 7.1 million to 9.2 million — an additional 2.14 million people. They'll be chasing some 1.1 million new jobs, and will need 660,000 new housing units.
Levy stopped there, and left it to the planners at ABAG to allocate that growth to individual cities — and that's where smart growth comes in.
For decades in the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco, activists have waged wars against developers, trying to slow down the growth of office buildings, and later, luxury housing units. At the same time, environmentalists argued that spreading the growth around creates serious problems, including sprawl and the destruction of farmland and open space.
Smart growth is supposed to be an alternative: the idea is to direct new growth to already-established urban areas, not by bulldozing over communities (as redevelopment agencies once did) but by the use of "infill" — directing development to areas where there's usable space, or by building up and not out.
ABAG "focused housing and jobs growth around transit areas, particularly within locally identified Priority Development Areas," the draft environmental impact report on the plan notes.
The draft EIR is more than 1,300 pages long, and it looks at the ABAG plan and several alternatives. One alternative, proposed by business groups, would lead to more development and higher population gains. Another, proposed by community activist groups including Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and TransForm, is aimed at reducing displacement and creating affordable housing; that one, it turns out, is the "environmentally preferred alternative." (See sidebar).
But no matter which alternative you look at, two things leap out: There is nothing effective that ABAG has put forward to prevent large-scale displacement of vulnerable communities. And despite directing growth to transit corridors, the DEIR still envisions a disaster of traffic congestion, parking problems, and car-driven environmental wreckage.