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Media Coverage
Sprawl Gives High-Density Housing Appeal
November 28, 2000
San Francisco Chronicle

After decades of sprawl, Bay Area residents seem willing to concede that maybe there's a better way to create housing in an overcrowded and overpriced region, according to a new Chronicle Poll.

The concept of coming up with a comprehensive regional plan to regulate housing development has gained in popularity during the past three years and has majority support today, especially in the East Bay and the Peninsula, according to the poll.

Three years ago, most residents thought each city should set its own housing policy, according to a 1997 Chronicle Poll.

But now, the survey indicates, more and more people are open to solutions they might not have considered just a few years ago.

While not abandoning suburban housing, those solutions tilt toward a balance between new housing at the urban edge and redevelopment in the inner cities.

Recent voter willingness to support tax initiatives for mass transit while seeking limits on unfettered suburban sprawl offers further evidence that people all over the region are seeking growth balance between the cities and the suburbs.

Half of residents today oppose building new housing on the outer edges of the Bay Area, while 44 percent favor such development.

Gender Gap on Growth

The poll results put a face on the two sides. Women strongly oppose pushing the urban fringe further into open space and farmland, while men are split on the issue. And a majority in the housing-stressed South Bay and Peninsula actually favor building on the areas' borders.

Most people, 64 percent, are reluctant to build in environmentally sensitive areas to create more affordable housing. Yet, a bare majority, 51 percent, are willing to see lower-income residents uprooted from the urban core to make room to develop middle-class housing.

Demand continues for high-density communities from San Jose to Richmond. To the north, some people want to create housing and a new transit stop on the site of San Quentin State Prison.

But Cheryl Katz, of Baldassare Associates, who conducted the Chronicle Poll,

said development anywhere has become a tough call. "There aren't any clear choices," she said. "People see that every choice has a down side."

In cities as varied as San Jose, Emeryville and Richmond, the idea of building high-density housing - which once conjured images of poorly designed apartment buildings - is now emerging as an alternative to sprawl and a source of housing for a variety of income levels. It is seen as a partial solution to the region's lack of housing, as a no-commute alternative for tech workers and as a lifestyle choice.

"I heard a Realtor say, ŒEverybody wants to walk to cappuccino,' " said Stuart Cohen, who chairs the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Ties to Transit

Murali Penubothu, a Silicon Valley technology consultant, and his wife, Radhika Naidu, a San Jose software engineer, last year bought a two-story Craftsman-style house in a high-density development just off the Whisman light- rail station near downtown Mountain View.

Whisman Park is home to young professional families who push baby buggies around green commons dotted with playgrounds. It's part of a big city boom along eight miles of rail line between Mountain View and North San Jose, where more than 4,500 residential units and 9 million square feet of offices have shot up in the past four years.

But the secret's out. Prices for houses like Penubothu's three-bedroom, two- bath, which originally sold for $400,000 three and a half years ago, have nearly doubled to $792,000.

Nonetheless, the Peninsula, which has the bulk of the region's jobs and some of the steepest housing prices, will only meet housing expectations with more of the same.

"Now, literally thousands and thousands of high-density units are being put on the market," Cohen said. "For the first time, more high-density was permitted in San Jose than low-density sprawl development."

Voters More Open to Change

The trend is spreading to the East Bay, where voters in Alameda County passed a ballot measure on Nov. 7 that effectively limits growth in the outlying areas, particularly north of Livermore. One of the goals of Measure D is to shift growth from the countryside beyond the suburban edge to the urban bay shoreline.

In Richmond, officials are busily taking stock of the many vacant parcels in their city and getting ready to put them on display for investors and developers shopping for bankable deals in Bay Area real estate.

"Hundreds, if not thousands, of lots," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt. "We want people who would have bought a house in North Livermore. We want them to take another look at Richmond and say, ŒHey, this is a viable alternative.' "

A smart-growth pattern is emerging along the East Bay shoreline, where plans exist for transit villages combining residential, office and retail development around a string of BART stations.

New housing, resulting from partnerships between the cities of Oakland and Emeryville and private developers, has sprung up on East MacArthur Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue - pre-freeway thoroughfares that fell into decay and vice as the suburbs grew. The developer of the East MacArthur projects wants to lure people such as single moms back from the suburbs, offering them a chance to own a home of their own close to their jobs.

"They're doing what we're doing," Ron Gerber, projects coordinator for Emeryville's Department of Economic Development and Housing, said of neighboring Oakland. "Density, and going vertical."

Victim of Its Own Success

The backdrop to the new-found sympathy for regional solutions, for growth limits and for reclaiming the cities is the fear that the Bay Area could choke on its own prosperity.

It is a fear shared by powerful Silicon Valley organizations that must recruit and hold tens of thousands of workers and by young couples trying to find a place to raise a child or two in one of the priciest places on the planet. Both have the option of solving their dilemma by packing up and leaving.

"This happened once before, (in the 1980s,) when a lot of California firms opened up their offices and factories in Arizona, Salt Lake City, Portland or Washington," said Ashok Bardhan, a research associate at the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

"Now," he said, "the differential is even greater, so there's greater incentive to move out."