Housing plans uprooted by fearBy Michelle Durand
The backlash against high-density and affordable housing is predicated on genuine fears about quality of life which might be alleviated by proactively culling community input and developing a clear design plan, according to local experts.
Housing, the economy and the environment must work collaboratively to create a sense of community rather than being at loggerheads, said Orson Aguilar, executive director of the think tank Greenlining Group, during a county housing forum held at Oracle Friday.
The fourth annual conference, sponsored by the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, tackled community building, particularly through the 25-mile El Camino Real that connects nearly every Peninsula city.
The problem, many experts concurred, is that residents aren't alerted to housing and mixed-use developments until the proposals are up for a vote.
"By then, it's too late," said Supervisor Jerry Hill, whose own development battle as head of a San Mateo neighborhood association sparked his foray into politics.
As residents have children and businesses expand, land is less available and high-density housing is suggested. At that point, worries about altering the community kick in, said HLC President Mark Moulton.
"Then you start to talk about cities and they get scared," Moulton said.
Although the county and its cities have made strides in affordable housing -- including a Belmont facility for those with mental illnesses and a Daly City senior complex funded by the Housing Endowment and Trust -- fear continues to color debates over ongoing projects like Bay Meadows, Moultan said.
While worries like gangs, traffic, schools and congestion are legitimate, Hill and the others said the answer is to educate rather than deny growth.
"Whatever it is, it is real for those people at that time," he said.
Each project, too, is looked at individually rather than as a greater plan, creating disparate pockets rather than a cohesive neighborhood, said housing consultant Dena Belzer of Strategic Economics.
"El Camino hardly feels like a neighborhood now," Belzer said.
Yet, the road and the stretch between it and Caltrain are land opportunities waiting to happen, said Duane Bay, director of the county's new Department of Housing.
Even building only two-story structures in that path along the length of the road would provide enough volume for garages of all the houses in the county, Bay said.
"There's a lot of room to work with," he said.
Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, is also working on legislation for the upcoming session that would allow in-fill housing construction on sites now used for surface parking at businesses and retail centers.
Belzer also suggests recognition that 60 percent of housing needed is for people who aren't necessarily looking for houses in which to raise kids. Rather, they would prefer higher-density options like those that could fill El Camino Real and the transit corridor, she said.
Tying housing into other complex issues like transportation is key to making the county hospitable for homeowners who might otherwise be priced out, said former supervisor and Caltrain board member Mike Nevin.
"We've got to face the fact ... we're gonna have to do something," he said.
Otherwise, he said, the county will be left without new generations of residents as they move out to the Central Valley and other states.
Those migrations, Aguilar said, may also be bad for the environment. While development and the environment often butt heads, Aguilar believes keeping people in the Bay Area will help prevent more dangerous construction in desert and flood areas. Those locales often have less environmental protections, too, he added.
Copyright ©2005 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 10/22/2005.