Encouraging targeted development through Master EIRs

In my last post, I noted that the easiest way for us to increase our supply of affordable housing funds is to encourage market rate construction in redevelopment areas. In this post, I’m going to discuss one way to do so – Master EIRs.

Market-rate development, both large and small scale, adds to the vitality of existing neighborhoods by eliminating vacant lots and bringing new residents, as well as increasing the redevelopment area’s revenue base, and by extension, our supply of affordable housing funds. But community opposition represents a substantial barrier to the feasibility of even the smallest projects, and we are seeing far less development in most neighborhoods than is ideal. One of the biggest barriers to development is the burdensome cost of endless appeals to nearly every project.

Thereotically, minor conditional use permits and design review decisions by the Planning Commission should not be appealable to the full City Council. In practice, the Council has turned into the Planning Commission of last resort, since almost all in-fill developments, no matter how small, are granted a CEQA exemption, which waives the requirement to complete an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This makes virtually every project appealable to the City Council because they must uphold the validity of the CEQA exemption (PDF!). So we end up with very little small scale development because the approval process gets absurdly drawn out for months on end.

Take, for example, the recent appeal of a four unit condo project (PDF!) in San Antonio. The project was approved by the Planning Commission on March 7th, then was immediately appealed to the City Council. In October, five months after the Council was first scheduled to hear the appeal, they finally denied it. The decision came after months of delays and bickering, and after Councilwoman Pat Kernighan proposed a substitute motion reducing the project size from 4 units to 3 units and removing a stairwell from the garage. Kernighan and Nadel ultimately voted against denying the appeal. This sort of petty squabbling is silly, wastes time, and discourages development.

The purpose of a Master EIR is not restricted to limiting appeals. While the time and cost of completing an EIR for any individual project can render the development infeasible, particularly in the case of small-scale projects, a Master EIR, completed as part of a specific plans for individual neighborhoods, such as San Antonio or along MacArthur Boulevard, can ease the process and limit potential lawsuits (assisting both market-rate and affordable housing projects), while at the same time studying the cumulative impacts of development that are of such concern to neighborhood residents. A Master EIR for any particular neighborhood could be tailored to encourage desired development in that particular area, say for 4-story buildings in San Antonio with a handful of high-rises included. The limited number of approved high-rises would allow for a sort of “beauty contest” among developers.

This is not a new idea for Oakland. As part of the 10k project, we completed a Master EIR for downtown. We could prepare them for any of the grow and change areas envisioned in the 1998 General Plan. Master EIRs are a win-win for both developers and neighborhoods – they ease planning costs while at the same time allowing residents to participate in a conversation directing the long-term future development of their neighborhoods. The additional development resulting from the process will produce more revenue for the RDA affordable housing set-aside.

Today, dto510 discusses redirecting affordable housing spending towards those who are most in need.

4 thoughts on “Encouraging targeted development through Master EIRs

  1. chris k.

    “The limited number of approved high-rises would allow for a sort of “beauty contest” among developers.”

    …to me, taken too far, a one-upmanship contest of ‘beauty” in proposed architecture could lead to projects that might look catchy splashed across the cover of the Frisco Chronicle’s Real Estate tabloid. However, this could also lead to unaffordable, expensive projects that are out of reach of middle class Oaklanders.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Chris –

    What I referred to as a “beauty contest” need not be strictly related to physical appearance of a building. By committing to approving a limited number of structures of a certain height within a neighborhood, the City would be free to prioritize those proposals that are most in-line with the goals of their choice – whether that be aesthetic issues, community benefits, target price, or inclusion of affordable units. Creating a similarly competitive environment for developers has helped Livermore deliver an impressive per capita level of affordable housing production.

  3. len raphael

    if the city planning commission even occassionally supported community objections to major variances and use permits, there wouldn’t be the sense among community groups that the commission is just waste of time before you get to the real appeal. at least in north oakland, it seems that commission is more interested in creating construction jobs and transfer taxes above all other considerations.

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    Len – I will address the issues you raise in your comment very soon in a separate post (and, sadly, I’m guessing you won’t like what I have to say).

    Stay tuned for: Compromise is Overrated. Coming: as soon as I find time to write it.