SB827 Flopped — Could Mean Height Regulation (MHR) Be the Middle Way?

Scott Wiener made waves last year when he proposed SB827 — what if there was a better solution for all sides?

The State Bill 827 (SB827) proposed to allow buildings on all transit corridors to reach ~88 feet or about 6–8 stories. But is that the solution political possible and is it even the right solution to grow cities while protecting them from overdevelopment?

The answer could be using Mean Height Regulation where any new building can be built within 50% below or above the mean height of the buildings around it. Mean Heigh Regulation allows a city to gently swell higher as demand rises, and gently fall lower as a city shrinks.

SB287 Criticism #1 — Glass Towers Overnight

People are scared by the idea of tall buildings leaping up overnight near their house or in their neighborhood. Any law that offers a discontinuous leap in building heights is therefore scary. SB827 does over this sort of “jacking up” of the height restriction.

Also by jacking up the height restriction, it incentivizes developers to hit that maximum as soon as possible to enjoy the highest possible profits as soon as possible. Paris is currently had a fight about building height and jacked up their restriction and immediately buildings are jumping to be built to that new limit.

SB287 Criticism #2 — Local Control (an Effective Red Herrings)

Critics claimed incorrectly that that SB827 got rid of important “local control”, but the law left in place demolition restrictions, non-displacement provisions, and local design control for every project. What it really did was legalize 8 story buildings around transit, and leave all local controls the same. It is just scary for a lot of people to think that all the 1–3 story buildings around transit could shoot up to 8 stories over night.

Nevertheless this red herring criticism was very politically successful and galvanizing anti-growth support.

SB287 Criticism #3— A Short Term Solution

No critic pointed out that SB827 is a short term solution. What happens 30 years from now when we need 12 or 16 story buildings around transit? Do we have to have this fight all over again?

In any case, it was stopped. But Weiner will re-release a new version of the bill next year. And what will it look like?

What if there was a more gradual solution, that also was long term?

A New Solution — Mean Height Regulation

Here is the proposed working for MHR:

Any new building can be between one-half above or below the the average height of the surrounding buildings.

Support for MHR #1— More Gradual Development

Setting a flat 80 foot height restriction invites as many developers as possible to hit that maximum as soon as possible. But setting a formula-driven height restriction with Mean Height Regulation will make development more gradual because some people will sell or develop their properties today, but others will wait until the mean height gets higher before selling or developing.

Support for MHR #2 — More Beautiful

MHR makes neighborhood and urban development more gradual and thoughtful and that makes it end up more beautiful and desirable.

Big glass towers that could be built anywhere might be efficient but they destroy the character of a city and the Jane Jacobs-style street life that citizens and visitors enjoy. The best cities in the world have a range of sizes of multi-use buildings next to each other. MHR supports this gradual, thoughtful, and beautiful development.

Support for MHR #3— More Consensus

MHR is a building height regulation that can build consensus between pro- and anti-growth citizens because it opens up gradually taller and taller buildings, but it removes the fear that tall buildings will “shoot up overnight” where smaller buildings were before.

Support for MHR #3 —Wider and More Long Term

The MHR policy could reasonably extend to the whole world, not just transit corridors in Californian cities. Anywhere there is more demand to live, it makes sense to allow buildings to swell to higher heights. As the buildings grow, the city can plan and deploy the development of services to those denser areas.

If we make MHR the standard for California, we won’t have to revisit the height of buildings in the future, since the formula will naturally accommodate more and less dense buildings as cities grow and shrink over time.