Guest Column: Central Valley Blueprint has major flaws

Jan 22, 2009

Dennis Beaver, Lemoore AdvanceOn Nov. 7, during the Blueprint Regional Advisory Committee in Fresno, information was provided regarding air quality, housing density and transportation. The information was provided in a presentation designed to lead the participants down a well-defined path and toward a desired outcome of increasing housing density.All of the Blueprint meetings I attended have been merely a discussion of the virtues of high-density housing. Clearly the entire Blueprint process is designed with the goal of increasing density. Higher density has its advantages, but the downside issues associated with high density have been glossed over, ignored and in some cases ridiculed.After reviewing the Blueprint documents from the BRAC and from Tulare and Kings counties, the HBA believes the following issues still must be addressed and incorporated into the Regional Blueprint in order for it to be successful:The air-quality benefits that will be brought about due to cars becoming cleaner with new technology incorporated into gasoline cars and more hybrid and all-electric cars on the road has been omitted. These need to be factored into the scenarios.The air-quality gains achieved in the higher density scenarios come as a result of more people using public transit. However, the source of the funding to create and maintain the required public transit to meet these goals has been omitted. This is a common problem with the higher-density scenarios. Phantom money is used to suggest that changes in land-use patterns will result in benefits that can only come from an increase in funding from unknown sources. Although there is mention that money will be transferred from spending on roads and highways to spending on public transit there is no analysis of how much money will be needed to create and maintain the required public transit, and no analysis has been done to show how much less will be spent on roads and highways. Real dollar estimates need to be applied to these models.The analysis on traffic suggests that it has taken into account the shifting of money from roadways to public transit; however it appears they are assuming a very large number of public transit riders, much higher than those found in existing urban centers. The analysis also seems to miss the exorbitant cost of starting a mass-transit system such as light rail in an existing urban center. Public transit should be analyzed using a realistic level of ridership and without the use of phantom money to create the system. Also the amount of annual subsidy necessary to operate a mass-transit system must be incorporated into the Blueprint.The use of water on residential property seems to be properly accounted for, however, under the higher density scenarios the extra water needed to water the amount of open space that will be left undeveloped or converted to parks has not been properly accounted for. When a city begins building more high density projects they also require more open space be included, the open space will require a significant amount of water. Furthermore, if the footprint of a city is confined to a smaller area there will be a more land available for farming and the water necessary to farm those crops must also be considered in the total water consumption calculations. The Blueprint scenarios imply that high density equates to less water being utilized; that is only true when you compare a low-density development to a medium-density development and both having similar acreage. When you compare a low-density development to a medium-density development based on population and include in the equation the amount of land left in active agriculture, the net water usage is very similar. Low-density development on farmland in the San Joaquin Valley on average, uses about the same amount of water that was being used to irrigate the crops before the land was developed.The suggested benefits from economic development under the highest density scenario appear to have been fabricated out of thin air with no justification and can just as easily occur under any of the scenarios listed. In the highest-density scenario it is declared by fiat that the San Joaquin Partnership Strategic Plan will be met, yet in the other scenarios it will not be met -- why? The Blueprint also states there will be more entrepreneurship and job creation under the higher-density scenarios than would occur under the low density scenarios -- how?The Blueprint correctly identifies that residential housing in the urban core is the most expensive form of residential development, yet it offers no explanation of how the extra cost will be paid. The Blueprint also correctly identifies that under the highest-density scenario single family detached housing will be more expensive, yet it fails to mention that the law of supply and demand will be the market force driving up the costs.The Blueprint claims that "40 percent of apartment residents choose to rent for lifestyle reasons -- not because they have to." Looking at this another way, 60 percent of apartment residents would rather live in a non-apartment setting. How many of them would choose to live in a single-family, detached home if they could? The Blueprint must consider the factor of free choice and allow people the opportunity to choose how they wish to live. Throughout the Blueprint the variation of housing choice is extolled as a great virtue, yet the possibility that many people who are currently living in medium-density situations might choose to live in low-density housing is never considered. The variation of housing type must be balanced with desires of residents.In Tulare and Kings counties, the current housing mix is 75 percent single-family, detached homes (Tulare County -- 80.6 percent) but over the last decade the mix of housing built was predominantly single-family, detached homes. This reinforces the notion that when people are free to choose how they wish to live, they choose a single family detached home. The freedom of choice for individuals to decide how they want to live musts be preserved within the Blueprint.The Blueprint also makes the following claim "If your definition of the 'American Dream' is a home on a medium size lot, it can be realized in any one of the Choices." A disclaimer should be added to this proclamation that with each scenario that gets progressively denser, the number of people who can afford the "American Dream" will become increasingly smaller.f the goal of the Blueprint is to get people to want to live in medium- or high-density housing there must be corresponding strategies to make that lifestyle more attractive than single-family, detached living. Many of the concepts in the Blueprint seem designed to make single-family living more expensive and thereby cause high-density housing to seem less expensive due to the increased cost of single-family living. Intentionally making one lifestyle more expensive in order to encourage another lifestyle is not a good public policy.With each successive scenario the Blueprint calls for more investment in the urban cores and downtowns. The investments will be needed in order to make urban living more attractive and change the attitudes of home buyers. But where will the money come from for these investments? People will pay more to live in a single-family home because that is the overwhelming choice. People will not pay as much if they have to live in medium and high density housing, therefore, the money will not come from higher sales values or higher rents. This increased investment is merely more phantom money.Although the HBA is a supporter of the Blueprint concept, there are several fatal flaws in the current approach. Without viable market choices in housing and without a large infusion of capital from an as-yet unknown source, many of the assumptions in the higher-density scenarios will never come to fruition. The total amount of money required and the source of that money must be identified before any of the alternate scenarios can be legitimately discussed further.Robert Keenan is the president/CEO of the Home Builders Association of Tulare/Kings Counties.  (Jan. 22, 2009)