Last week in down zoning

Walnut Creek Planning Commission delivers the slap down.

Wow, what an exciting hearing. I really had no idea how it was going to turn out.

The story begins in 2005. Walnut Creek citizens and planners actively wanted a bustling, busy, fun downtown. I imagine the campaign being like Randy Marsh’s campaign to get a Whole Foods in South Park. To achieve this end, the City Council amended the planning code to allow multi-family housing, via a conditional use permit, in areas that were previously zoned only commercial.

It worked! Developers wanted to build apartment buildings downtown, the Planning Commission granted 10 conditional use permits, and hundreds of apartments were built near the Walnut Creek BART station. Main Street, Walnut Creek, is lined with bars, restaurants, and retail, all in use well into the night. Demand to live in downtown Walnut Creek is still strong. Land owners and builders are still trying to satisfy the demand.

Ten years on, some residents are ready to shut down residential development downtown. They started a club called Walnut Creek for Controlled Growth.

Let’s take a break to look at a map:

For those readers who think the water expands infinitely North, East and West of San Francisco, I give you the East Bay. San Francisco would be to the left of this map. Walnut Creek is at the intersection of two highways: 680 and 24.

Electric Blue line is the BART. Link to Map

In this map, the light and dark orange both indicate urbanized areas. The East Bay is a giant H-shaped urbanized area stretching along the Bay from Richmond to Fremont on the west side, and from Martinez to Dublin on the east side. Oakland and Walnut Creek are the settlements at the western and eastern intersections, respectively, of the big H. I’m telling you this to give you a sense of the role Walnut Creek plays in the East Bay. It’s no small town. It is, itself, a downtown for the eastern leg of the H.

Walnut Creek is home to the headquarters of both BIA Bay Area and the Greenbelt Alliance. The Greenbelt Alliance are serious, high achieving NIMBYs. From their website, “Greenbelt Alliance became the first Bay Area environmental group to shift the focus to not just preventing bad development, but also encouraging the right development in the right places” (emphasis mine). Somehow, they got it: If you’re serious about keeping development away from one place, you have to direct it to another place. One of Greenbelt Alliance’s projects is the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. Greenbelt Alliance is SFHAC’s fiscal sponsor.

The Building Industry Association (BIA Bay Area) is an industry group representing the interests of residential builders in the Bay Area. They don’t operate in San Francisco, however. No San Francisco developers are members of the BIA Bay Area, apparently preferring to join SFHAC.

Like most of the towns east of the Berkeley Hills, Walnut Creek is a white flight town. It had two decades of 300% growth, from 1950 to 1970, followed by organized efforts to suppress new development. In 1974, Walnut Creek passed a bond to buy 1,800 acres of open space, giving it the most open space per capita of any California community. In 1985, Walnut Creek residents passed a moratorium on all new development in an attempt to reduce traffic.

Towns all over California followed this pattern. Our current body of land use and planning law was developed during this time, in particular, in Walnut Creek. Daniel J. Curtin, Walnut Creek’s City Attorney from 1965 to 1982, wrote the book on California land use and planning law:

The first edition came out in 1980. To this day, Curtin’s remains the land use bible for practising attorneys and litigators. Dan Curtin is responsible for our current understanding of the general plan’s role in land use decision making, and he established that cities can use police power to require developers to dedicate land or pay fees for park and recreation purposes.

On March 17, 2015, Citizens for Controlled Growth got the City Council to consider a moratorium on building new housing in Walnut Creek. This hearing is where I realized that moratoriums are only political theatre. A month before, Emeryville considered and defeated a moratorium, and Walnut Creek did the same. Both times the BIA read letters reminding both cities that their proposed moratoriums would earn them sanctions from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and both times at least one council person mocked the idea that housing could threaten public safety and health (a necessary condition for passing a moratorium).

The Walnut Creek City Council did direct the Planning Department to write an ordinance removing the possibility of being allowed to build residential in a commercial district with a conditional use permit.

And now you have the context for the December 17 hearing. On Thursday, the Planning Department dutifully prepared the “Commercial Land Preservation Ordinance” and presented it to the Planning Commission. At this hearing, the commission’s task was to decide to send the proposed ordinance to the City Council with a recommendation: yes, or no.

At stake are approximately 1,000 potential units, according to developers. Removing the option to build residential in commercial areas would therefore represent a significant downzoning:

East Bay Leadership Council, representing several hundred employers in Alameda County, came out to testify against the ordinance, as did the Greenbelt Alliance, a local landowner, and two citizens. The only testimony in favor was from Walnut Creek for Controlled Growth.

After some discussion it became clear that three of the four commissioners were opposed to the ordinance (Pickett, Novin, and Harrison). Currently, the commission has the option of hearing and turning down residential projects, at their discretion. Why would they vote for a measure that would take away that discretion? All four voted against it, delivering a rare feeling victory for future residents and a satisfying smack down to Controlled Growth.

Thank you Walnut Creek Planning Commission!

Next (date TBA) the ordinance will be heard by City Council. Let them know what you think!