SB-1 threatens local control of urban planning process in Concord

One of the first things I learned as an intern-trainee of American Democracy is the truth to the saying “Politics makes strange bed fellows.” This reality finally filtered down to me as I have tried to figure out winners and losers in the recent battles concerning the urban planning process in Contra Costa and on the State level.

My conclusion is that the victors all have enjoyed support from a coalition of (A) Liberal Democrats (B) Public Employee and Construction Trades Labor Unions (C) Environmentalist Groups.

Breaking this down on particular issues we first have passage of the One Plan Bay Area by the Executive Boards of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). The cornerstone of their program is the construction of publicly financed Project Development Areas (PDA’s) with accompanying transportation projects primarily on the 101 corridor between San Francisco and San Jose.

Looking at the trail of money that is planned to be spent we see project labor is stipulated thus construction unions will get all of the work. Additional government employees will be needed for administration and filling transit jobs. Environmental groups will be placated by meeting their stated goals of reducing greenhouse gasses and carbon foot prints by building stack and pack housing near mass transit. Lastly, the Democratic Party benefits by having a loyal entitlement oriented political base residing in the communities they create.

Despite a triumph of epic proportions, this apparently is not enough. Legislation is being crafted in Sacramento that would force these policies on local communities. SB-1 co-authored by Senators Darrel Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) brings back the redevelopment program done away with by Governor Brown for budgetary reasons in 2111. The bill features increased decision-making powers for the State that includes:

1. This legislation would authorize for creation of Sustainable Communities Investment Areas (SCIA) presided over by an appointed board (no direct election) by cities and counties with power of taxation and issuing bonds for developments in these special zones.

2. After receiving one million dollars to fund their operations, these agencies would be required to follow guidelines similar to Project Development Areas (PDA’s) in the One Bay Area Plan relating to design, planning, construction and operation of areas under their jurisdiction

3. The State department of Industrial Relations would ensure project union labor would be used for construction and living wages be in place for those workers who would be employed once projects are completed. Hiring preferences would be given to military veterans, the disadvantaged, single parent families, and those with a history with the criminal justice system.

4. Provides that the SCIA can secure property from owners without a finding of “blight” which will give them more leeway to appropriate land as they see fit.

5. Sustainable parking standards ordinance would be in place which restricts parking in project areas to encourage public transportation and discouraging driving.

6. Provides that for all tax revenues that SCIA’s collect, they must dedicate no less than 25% of net revenues for affordable housing purposes.

Were this legislation passed, we can expect more governmental regulations, higher taxes, and fewer jobs in the private sector, with less decision making authority under local control. At the same time the Democratic Party, labor unions and environmental groups would be able to consolidate their power on all levels.

The strength of this coalition first realized by Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez) has expanded to the State legislature in recent years epitomized by local representatives Mark DeSaulnier, and backbenchers Susan Bonilla and Joan Buchanan. Now with the probable passage of SB-1, these powerful forces will likely diminish the power of City Council’s to control their own destinies.

Historically local government have tended to be more non-partisan and conservative than the legislature because these elected officials have needed to be more accountable to their constituents. This has frustrated the ultra-liberal Super Majority in Sacramento who wish to exert more control in every aspect of government. A product of this thinking is SB-1 which virtually eliminates any dissent on what course is taken in the local urban planning process

A good example of this are the discussions going on with Concord’s Ad Hoc Steering Committee which is addressing how the downtown region will develop in the next thirty years. While the members of the committee, all of whom work or live in Concord concern themselves with improving the quality of life for future residents, others who have been addressing the group tend to be more fixated with meeting the guidelines of ABAG, the MTC, SB=375 and ultimately SB-1.

One such organization is The Greenbelt Alliance and the closely affiliated Coalition for a Sustainable Concord (CFASC). Both through their spokesman environmental activist Matt Vander Sluis of Berkeley, have advocated an aggressive plan to build a high concentration of low and moderate income housing in the area between the BART Station and Todos Santos Square. They believe “Affordable Housing will bring more residents and economic investment downtown and strengthen the community fabric.”

To accomplish this goal, the CFASC feels this activity “should be primarily developed by non-profit housing projects development organizations” With this scenario, the private sector is less qualified to handle such tasks. Such a conclusion appears to be in stark contrast with the views of many Ad Hoc Committee members whose experience as been in capitalistic enterprises.

With pressure mounting from outside forces including the CFASC and the recommendations made by the consultants Perkins & Will (whose services are paid by ABAG and the MTC) the Downtown Ad Hoc Steering Committee ponders their vision of what is to transpire in Concord in the years to come.

Unfortunately, it might not matter what they think if the legislature through SB-1 determines where, in what concentration, and the demographics of what people are to reside in SCIA areas. Furthermore, the State controls six parcels of empty property in the downtown area to further consolidate its power in the urban renewal process.

The big question is will higher taxes and tighter governmental regulations allow the private sector to produce enough high paying jobs to make these grandiose plans work? Good questions for the Demo-Labor-Environmentalist Coalition to ponder should their stranglehold on political power continue unabated.

~ The author is a member of the Concord Downtown Ad Hoc Steering Committee. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the City of Concord.

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