Public process at work (Part 1)

(This is such a long post that I’ve broken it up into 2 parts.)

The past couple of weekends have seen a cosmic alignment of family gatherings, which gives rise to the “What are you doing with your time?” inquisition. The answer: “Lately? Writing letters to the editor.”

Yes I’ve become one of those foamers with too much time on my hands, but my erstwhile colleagues in the public sector should be relieved that I’ve not yet gotten to the point of attending public meetings. Save one: my City Council’s approval of a rowhouse development last week. I have a personal interest in it, since it will be adjacent to my development.

When the issue surfaced last spring, I wrote a general comment letter in support of it. These units will be priced at the $650,000-$700,000, which is not exactly affordable housing. But I figure that anything that increases the housing stock in the core Bay Area will save more people from having to move out to the new suburbs to endure 3 hour commutes, annihilating their social life, and minimize the need to expand the highways to accommodate the long-haul traffic.

Of course most of the residents in my development who emerged out of the woodwork to comment on the project HATED it, but since it’s un-PC to be a NIMBY, the neighbors who wanted the project halted organized themselves to nitpick every little technicality.

My neighbourhood has a combination of rowhomes and single family homes adjacent to each other, originally built by three developers, each with distinctive looks. The new development of row homes would be closer to the single-family homes, whose residents were more vociferous against the project. What would the reaction have been if the new development would have been next to existing rowhomes (both are of similar design, size, heights, and setbacks.)

People are so fixated against density. For the life of me, I can’t really understand why people have such an intensely, from-the-gut fear and loathing of medium-to-high density. (I used to work in planning department, and even though my colleagues kindly tried to explain it to me, I just can’t get it anymore than I can get quantum physics). Why, why, why do people fight against density with such paranoia? At the onset of the Industrial Revolution era, high mortality rates from communicable diseases and poor sanitation in crowded factory-worker tenements gave rise to a legitimate fear of density; but that is no longer the case in 21st century Silicon Valley.

Density is one issue that otherwise-indifferent neighbors will quickly rally against when new developments are proposed. “More traffic, more noise, loss of privacy, parking woes.” The anti-development faction doth protest too much, methinks.

The increased traffic added is not really noticeable on streets that are already designed for more capacity than needed. In our case, an increase of 106 housing units will add 621 cars on a street network that see 2,345 cars a day in the current neighborhood of 336 units. That sounds like a lot, but averages out to a flow of 2 cars per minute, instead of 1.6.

The actual project study projected an additional 47 trips to the existing 235 AM peak hour trips, and an additional 57 trips to the existing 295 PM peak hour trips. If you have to wait an additional 3 seconds at the stop sign to at the edge of the housing complex while going and coming from work, is that really a ball-breaker on your quality of life?

Noise: It’s pretty quiet in my all-residential neighbourhood. The new development would add more of the same quiet.

Privacy: How many people spend time sun-bathing au naturel in their backyards that they’d worry about neighbors’ prying eyes? I think it’s like phantom fat; you think people are constantly nosy about you and what you’re doing in your house and yard, but in reality, they’re too busy with their own life to notice you, much less keep tabs on you. (Even a stay-at-home loafer like me could care less.)

We have a neighbor whose garage is opposite ours. If we happen to hanging out in our garage with the door open, i.e. repotting plants or mending bicycle tire punctures, and he happens to come home in his car, he will close the garage door while still inside his car. After several years of living here, I still don’t know what he looks like.

Sad truth is, I’ve never spoken to any of my immediate neighbors, I don’t know what their names are, or even exactly how many people live in their households. If anything lurid ever happened to any of them, and the police or a TV reporter came to interview me, I would not be able to tell them anything.

Parking: Most housing developments are required to include guest parking spaces. Most residents will complain about the lack of parking (again something I fail to comprehend.) Everyone has a two-car garage, but I guess what happens is they use their garage for storage, and park their cars in the guest parking. Or they have more than two cars, and park the extra at guest parking. I find this complaint as valid as cell-phone users who . . . well, never mind.

Maybe there should be a system where folks who have a two car-garage but only one car could rent their extra parking space to neighbours who have extra cars. It’s a concept that’s practiced in older, denser areas like SF and Berkeley, maybe it’s time it also took root in the no-longer-so-expansive suburbs. (I’ve actually observed that several of my neighbors, including Mr. Shy, only have one car parked in their garage, and they don’t have much else stored in there.)

I empathize with the passion of the anti-project neighbors in their battle; we are each entitled to our opinions to the nth degree, and to grasp every last straw in our disposal in making a stand. The tendency to magnify the facts that help our cause and blind ourselves to those that don’t, is pure human nature. But when you feel emotionally charged about something, it’s really hard to remain objective and detached, and sometimes it leads us astray to serious folly and backfiring.

To be continued…

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One thought on “Public process at work (Part 1)

  1. Change is scary – and anything you can do to avoid change, it seems, is better for many people than embracing change; even when that change offers potential benefits (such as increased property value or a better overall community). Maybe it’s some innate fear of the unknown that defies reason, or maybe in a similar vein it’s the “I have mine and I’ll be damned if I’ll allow you to have yours” line of thinking. Whatever. In the end methinks (great Middle English word BTW) the density argument (along with the traffic argument) is a ruse – avoiding change is the real goal; and even then, I think the core fear has more to do with the look of a development than it’s actual density. Has anyone studied community perceptions before and after higher density development projects?

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