Guest Opinion | March 20, 2009 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Opinion - March 20, 2009

Guest Opinion

Drop the housing cap now

by Jon Harvey

Here in the Bay Area, many of us realize that achieving true sustainability takes more than protecting our hills and open space. It also takes wise development within our cities and towns, so people of all incomes can live in walkable neighborhoods near jobs and services.

In Pleasanton, we made a good start toward sustainability in our 1996 General Plan, which included an urban growth boundary to preserve precious open space. But another policy adopted at the same time is now proving to have been a step backward: our housing cap.

Unique in all of California, Pleasanton's housing cap sets a limit of 29,000 homes, prohibiting even one additional new house or apartment from being built. In 1996, that seemed a long way off. But today, we're just 2,000 homes away from hitting that ceiling.

The city is about to adopt a new General Plan for the next 15 years. Still, the proposed new plan includes the housing cap.

This is a serious problem. Already, Pleasanton does not have enough homes for the people who work here. In 15 years, the new General Plan will add almost 45,000 more jobs. But the housing cap limits us to only 2,000 more homes.

If we don't fix this imbalance, we'll see a lot more driving as people commute here from far-off bedroom communities in the Central Valley and elsewhere. That means much worse traffic and more greenhouse gases.

California is leading a charge to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. In the Bay Area, almost half of that pollution comes from our tailpipes. To reduce our pollution, we need to drive less.

But Pleasanton's proposed General Plan goes in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of reducing driving, it anticipates a whopping 46 percent increase in driving over the next 15 years as people commute in from far away.

The proposed General Plan also misses the opportunity to build the homes we need close to transit. Studies have repeatedly shown that people living in neighborhoods close to transit drive less. But the proposed plan calls for building very few new homes around regional transit centers such as the BART and ACE stations.

This is attracting notice. In fact, California attorney general Jerry Brown is calling on Pleasanton to change the proposed General Plan. The state Attorney General recently wrote to Pleasanton's mayor to say that, if the housing cap is not changed, "the city will be in violation of state law." He also said the city's environmental analysis of the proposed General Plan "shirks its responsibility to fully analyze and address the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from its proposed development plans and is therefore legally inadequate."

Urban Habitat has already sued Pleasanton because the housing cap could prevent people with lower incomes from finding the homes they need. A court ruling against the city would take the power to plan out of our hands. A separate suit by the Attorney General would be even worse.

Let's not let it get to that point. It's time for our City Council to show leadership. It's time to drop the housing cap and plan for more new homes around transit.

Jon Harvey is a resident of Pleasanton and a board member of Greenbelt Alliance (, which protects open space and promotes vibrant urban places around the San Francisco Bay Area.


Posted by Dean, a resident of Downtown
on Mar 20, 2009 at 9:50 am

Couldn’t agree more. The housing cap really stands in the way of smart growth and efficient land use. The last thing we need to do is push low-density, auto dependent, suburban sprawl to some Central Valley outpost, which will only create more traffic and pollution. People in the suburbs need to wake up and realize that auto dependent neighborhoods, based on the assumption of cheap oil supply, will simply not be sustainable in future years. We import two-thirds of the oil we use and there is absolutely no chance that drill-drill-drilling (or any other scheme) will change that. The great wish for "alternative" liquid fuels (bio fuels, algae excreta) will never be anything more than a wish at the scales required, and the parallel wish to keep all our cars running by other means -- hydrogen fuel cells, electric motors -- is equally idle and foolish. We cannot face the mandate of reality, which is to do everything possible to make our living places walkable, and connect them with public transit.

Posted by Becky Dennis, a resident of Foxborough Estates
on Mar 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Thank you, Greenbelt Alliance and Jon Harvey for keeping the issue of Pleasanton’s housing cap before our community. Too few residents realize the serious consequences if the courts find that Pleasanton, because of the housing cap, is in willing violation of California's environmental and housing laws. Court supervision to ensure compliance could indeed become a new part of Pleasanton’s development planning process.

Environmental and affordable housing advocates would certainly welcome City Council leadership on eliminating the cap in favor of planning that reduces commuting and improves air quality. Unfortunately, the Council’s ability to lead has become more difficult since Pleasanton voters passed Measure PP. This initiative seemingly prevents the Council from leading Pleasanton anywhere but into expensive, lengthy and, dubious legal battles. It requires the Council to uphold the cap as defined by Measure PP, and prohibits them from granting waivers or exceptions. It provides that only the voters or the courts can change, reinterpret, or invalidate the cap. Now, whenever the legality of the housing cap is questioned, one can almost hear a chorus of “So Sue Me” ring out across Pleasanton.

Adding to the “Voters Gone Wild” impression, Measure PP passed months AFTER voters learned of the Court of Appeals' ruling against the legality of Pleasanton’s housing cap, in spite of opposition by a majority of the City Council, and following the decertification by the State of our General Plan Housing Element for missing an implementation deadline by almost five years and counting. When considering programs to bring Pleasanton into compliance with housing law, a judge could interpret this chain of events as evidence that the City Council is not strong enough to lead the community in implementation, and that court supervised remedies will be needed.

Will Pleasanton take control or be controlled? It’s up each one of us. Hopefully our community of character will rise to the challenge of providing adequate and affordable housing for our workforce, and cleaner air for us all to breathe. If not, the victims of our failure and their advocates will step in to do the job.

Posted by Jon Harvey, a resident of Kottinger Ranch
on Mar 30, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Here is an insightful article from the New York Times. Even a fine small city like ours can learn from the urban experience in other much larger cities. Vibrant and just cities invite a vibrant and just natural environment.

Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now
Published: March 25, 2009

THE country has fallen on hard times, but those of us who love cities know we have been living in the dark ages for a while now. We know that turning things around will take more than just pouring money into shovel-ready projects, regardless of how they might boost the economy. Windmills won’t do it either. We long for a bold urban vision.

With their crowded neighborhoods and web of public services, cities are not only invaluable cultural incubators; they are also vastly more efficient than suburbs. But for years they have been neglected, and in many cases forcibly harmed, by policies that favored sprawl over density and conformity over difference.

Such policies have caused many of our urban centers to devolve into generic theme parks and others, like Detroit, to decay into ghost towns. They have also sparked the rise of ecologically unsustainable gated communities and reinforced economic disparities by building walls between racial, ethnic and class groups.

Correcting this imbalance will require a radical adjustment in how we think of cities and government’s role in them. At times it will mean destruction rather than repair. And it demands listening to people who have spent the last decade imagining and in many cases planning for more sustainable, livable and socially just cities.

...continued online at Web Link