A friend and I recently explored an old military base in the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay near Vallejo. The industrial facility which once built submarines during World War II has transitioned to civilian manufacturing – in this case high quality modular Blu Homes. We took the tour and were impressed. The houses are amazing.
Along the way I became distracted by the way the rest of the military base was being redeveloped. Mare Island is both physically beautiful and close to the superheated employment centers of the greater Bay Area. It seemed like a good idea to build desperately needed housing on some of this fallow grayfield industrial land.
And that’s precisely what’s happening near the factory complex. Old military buildings are being scraped to make way for single family homes arranged on neat cul-de-sacs in secluded subdivisions.
This same friend later sent me a link that described the political battle at a similar site in the town of Richmond that’s even closer to San Francisco. Ferry service is scheduled to begin between Richmond and the financial district in an attempt to provide transit alternatives to ease traffic congestion. There are two competing visions for how to develop the territory near the new terminal.
The man who owns the land wants to build a small number of luxury homes in a waterfront enclave. Municipal authorities want many more housing units to be constructed in a more intensive manner in a mixed use walkable neighborhood close to the ferry building. This kind of battle is typical. I call it, “I Hate When Mommy and Daddy Fight.”
Here’s the short version: Building suburban homes is fine. They won’t do anything to ease the housing crisis because there are too few units being built and the price will be too high for the working class. The car dependent arrangement will make traffic worse because everyone will need to drive for everything a dozen times a day… blah, blah, blah… “Whatever.” That’s life. And it’s what many locals prefer for cultural reasons. So be it.
But it makes zero financial sense for public money to be spent on extending transit service to this kind of dispersed land use pattern. Let the suburbanites suck up the endless freeway traffic as part of the complete package of living as they wish. It makes no economic sense to provide a publicly subsidized park-and-ride ferry. And no one should be surprised when highway funding can’t keep up with road maintenance and endless expansion projects.
Or… The public investment in ferry service needs to be complimented by a highly productive land use pattern that looks more like the older neighborhoods in the city. If most people live in compact walkable neighborhoods where shops, schools, parks, and offices are all integrated with transit everything works to support a vibrant town center. There’s no need to resort to communist high rise tower blocks as is so often assumed. Two, three, and four story buildings work just fine and can be mixed in with single family homes around the corner. The greatly increased tax base of this sort of urbanism and higher ridership can justify the public investment associated with transit.
Unfortunately the traditional compromise in these situations is too thin to be jelly and too thick to be jam. The money is spent on transit to satisfy the larger political goal of reducing traffic and improving air quality, etc. But the land use is watered down into cul-de-sacs, strip malls, and isolated garden apartments. The critics then announce that transit is a boondoggle, “New Urbanism” is a failure, and the people who might have preferred a bustling neighborhood end up paying a premium to live in a sad little plywood box next to surface parking lots and a Jiffy Lube. Meh.
Mommy and Daddy need to stop this nonsense because the kids are moving out of state and aren’t even coming back for Thanksgiving.