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In The News

Big Developments Expose Green Divide
Large, mixed-use projects in the Bay Area, promoted as environmentally conscious, have run into considerable opposition

By JONATHAN WEBER
The Bay Citizen, 7/3/10

In his new book, Peter Calthorpe, the renowned Berkeley-based urban designer, sounds many a familiar environmentalist note. Paying explicit homage to Buckminster Fuller, he talks of “whole systems design” and “climate responsive buildings,” and issues dire warnings about global warming and peak oil and the dangers of our car-based lifestyle. He rejects “bigger is better” consumerism and advocates nothing less than a “new configuration for the American Dream.”

Yet while his message in “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” to be published in September by Island Press, might seem tailor-made for the environmentally conscious Bay Area, the real-world developments that Calthorpe has championed here have hardly met with a warm embrace.

That’s because his version of green development favors megaprojects that create the density needed for efficient mass transit. But these huge developments are anathema to many environmentalists and community activists — and the divisions reflect a growing split among people usually thought to be on the same side.

The most heated argument surrounds the Saltworks project in Redwood City, which involves building some 12,000 housing units on San Francisco Bay salt ponds owned by Cargill, the agribusiness company. For Calthorpe, who designed the project, it’s just the kind of high-density project we need — close to mass transit, jobs and major cities. The people living there would be driving less — and would enjoy more textured neighborhoods — than if they were in a distant subdivision in the East Bay or the Central Valley.

With the Bay Area expected to absorb millions of new households by 2050, a strong argument can be made that our choice is not whether tens of thousands of new homes will be built in the coming years, but where they will be built.

David Lewis, executive director of the Oakland-based group Save the Bay, declares it a false choice, arguing that there are plenty of smaller infill sites for close-in housing. He is flabbergasted that a wetlands that a) is not directly adjacent to mass transit and b) has never before been identified as a good place for housing could be viewed as a “smart growth” location.

“Are there dumber places to build? Possibly,” Lewis said. “But a project on this site can’t be considered smart growth or transit-oriented development.” He said that paving over a part of the bay that could otherwise be productive wetlands is at odds with Bay Area values and with previous planning efforts that represent those values.

Several other local megaprojects, while not posing quite the same issues as the Saltworks, nonetheless highlight the tensions.

Alameda Point, also designed by Calthorpe, would bring around 4,500 housing units to a decommissioned naval base on the island of Alameda. For Calthorpe, it’s a green, “transit-oriented” development. For local voters who rejected the plan overwhelmingly earlier this year, it is too big and too damaging to the existing community.

The Treasure Island project, which would place 8,000 housing units and other development on another former military base in the bay, and the Hunters Point development, which would transform the naval shipyard into a large mixed-use community, have also drawn fire.

Calthorpe questions the rigor of his critics’ thinking. These big projects “not only help balance housing with jobs but also are big enough to create complete mixed-use places,” he said in an e-mail message. “The regional and long view is critical to environmental health. Too often we take the short, local view.”

The debate has implications far beyond any specific development. A recent report from a study group called Vision California — prepared by Calthorpe’s firm and sponsored largely by the agency that’s spearheading the mother of all megaprojects, a $42 billion high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles — suggests that a broad shift in development patterns is crucial if global warming and other environmental problems are to be addressed adequately.

Calthorpe’s vision — of a new New Urbanism in which regional planning drives the proliferation of intimate, diverse, walkable and energy-efficient communities — is compelling in many ways. Yet it also suggests policy approaches (strict, mandatory state and regional planning) and lifestyle changes (less driving and smaller dwellings) that are anything but an easy sell, even in the Bay Area.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

 

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