Kathleen Cha’s brief explanation of ABAG’s (Association of Bay Area Governments) proposal to Bay Area cities, that they must develop new multilevel and multifamily housing (for 634,000 new residents regionally, 4,200 in Berkeley by 2015) [BDP, 1/5/07], is responding to concerns in the pages of the Planet initiated by an earlier article on that subject [12/5/06]. Cha’s growth estimates remain unattributed; she does not suggest what plans for the future they represent. Indeed, ABAG’s webpage projects population increases of a million in the next 20 years, and a Chronicle article [12/15/06] puts it at 2 million. The Chronicle advises us to simply reconcile ourselves to becoming “high density cities.”
Where the Planet article had characterized ABAG as “a powerful but little-known regional government,” a “layer of government between Bay Area city and county governments and the state,” Cha states that ABAG works with the state government to plot housing needs for the region, but with no authority to impose its proposals on cities. She is being less than candid in saying so.
The problem is precisely the authority for the given total, as well as for how “allocations” of “housing needs” will be distributed to cities and counties. After all, “allocation” is a topdown concept. Though the plan was presented two months ago for “public review and comment,” no public ability to modify, participate, or refuse was offered. Also, state Housing Element Law, according to Cha, requires each city and county to revise its own laws to “accommodate the housing allocations they receive.” This is quite topdown in structure. Let me suggest what I think it means for us. ABAG’s webpage explains that it is a council of governments that addresses issues transcending local borders. It is governed by a General Assembly composed of delegates from each of the nine Bay Area counties and their 99 cities. Though the webpage states, “As an advisory organization, ABAG has limited statutory authority,” Cha admits that state law requires compliance with ABAG’s allocations. One way this is enforced is by withholding state and federal funds for city projects and needs. ABAG is then an intermediary power, able to interfere with state and federal funding if its development policies are not followed—like a trade embargo on another country or the withdrawal of federal education funds for an “underperforming” school under “No Child Left Behind.” To comply, cities must change their regulations, their fiscal incentives, their tax systems, and their regulations for land use.
However, ABAG recognizes that there is a hard sell ahead: “Altering decades of fiscal and regulatory tradition will require a major shift in thinking and the creation of new inducements for smarter development patterns.” “Smart growth strategy” is their logo.
But what is ABAG’s plan, the gist of its projections? I won’t go into the way education funds and housing development get played against each other between state and county; it is too complex and too projective to discuss intelligibly here. ABAG’s primary focus seems to be housing, but its subtext, its underlying meaning, is to “reduce the need for long commutes.” Cha confirms this; ABAG’s focus, she says, is reducing urban sprawl and freeway congestion.
As Gene Poschman had said, in the earlier article, ABAG’s Housing Methodology Committee, “is totally dominated by the outer rim” of communities outside the region’s urban core. And we know that the urban rim suffers from the traffic glut of those passing through on their long commutes. ABAG’s plan begins to look like a callback from the suburbs to a certain percentage of those who had relocated out there in the past to get away from “in here.” If ABAG’s housing allocations are to correct the adverse effects of road glut, they do not represent growth but an economic shrinkage into high-density urban concentration.
In addition, ABAG projects growth that is greater than that of current trends. The earlier Planet article quotes data that Berkeley’s population has actually dropped since the early 70s. Indeed, to project growth of a million new inhabitants in the next 20 years is counter-intuitive, given the deflation of the housing bubble and the decline of the dollar. In other words, ABAG’s projections are based on something other than extant trends.
In an economy like ours, large-scale growth occurs through investment. For a governmental agency like ABAG to project growth, it must be projecting investment. That is, they know something is on the boards in that category. And today, any such long-range plan of corporate investment would probably be in terms of its relation to global corporate development. The Pacific Rim economy is a factor that has not been in the news as much as before the invasion of Iraq. But the Pacific is shaping up as a theater of intense economic and political conflict. If this is the context for ABAG’s “smart growth scenario,” then it is projecting shoehorning a million new inhabitants into the Bay Area in the next 20 years to make it a hub for Pacific Rim economic and political purposes.
If we are not willing to surrender our quality of life, there is a participatory question to be addressed. ABAG represents a topdown shift in political structure, abducting decision-making to another more distant political stratum. City and county governments are hard enough to influence or participate in as it is. But ABAG shifts policymaking away from anything that might count as our political space. So the question for us is not simply that of dealing with imposed plans, but of our own construction of alternative political structures for ourselves in response.
Steve Martinot is a Berkeley resident and author of The Rule of Racialization.