Friday, April 22, 2005

Bay Area less in love with long commutes

Poll finds 50% want new homes built closer to job centers

Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005

Chalk it up to commute fatigue.

About 50 percent of Bay Area residents say new homes should be built near job centers instead of in far-flung suburbs, according to a new survey by the Bay Area Council, a business-oriented public policy group.

The annual study's results on housing, to be released today, also found that residents support a regional growth plan for the nine counties, with extra transportation funds provided to those cities that adhere to the plan.

The poll results on so-called infill development reflect growing regional demand, particularly among first-time buyers, for smaller, multifamily homes in established cities replete with nearby shopping, public transit and other services. And developers in recent years have been moving in that direction with infill housing developments surfacing from Richmond to Daly City, not to mention San Francisco's huge Mission Bay project.

"Clearly there are people who still want a larger house and lot," said John Coleman, director of government affairs for home builder KB Home. "But the Bay Area market is changing. People are looking at attached (homes), and they want to live close to where they work."
Coleman said about one-third of KB's new home developments in the Bay Area, including a Union City community on the site of an abandoned steel mill, are considered infill projects. A decade ago, the firm concentrated mainly on suburban locations.

Nevertheless, the dream of owning a detached home is still strong. Take a trip to towns like Vacaville or Tracy and it is clear many local buyers remain wedded to a detached 3,000-square-foot-home and a three-hour-plus round-trip daily commute.

Indeed, 43 percent of respondents to the survey said it would be better to build new housing outside of existing areas, even if it extends the urbanized portion of the region. Forty-nine percent said homes, whether multi- or single-family, should be built near urban job centers.

Jim Wunderman, president of the council, said the 43 percent figure shows the potent force of the "not-in-my-backyard" crowd, often called NIMBYs. "They're not a majority, but they're a large number of people," he said. "And they're very good at using the legal and political system to stop or scale down (development)."

The annual survey of 600 residents of the Bay Area was conducted in late November and attempts to take the public's temperature on a range of issues. Respondents said housing is one of the top three issues facing the region, behind transportation and the economy.

Wunderman hopes the survey results will bolster infill development as a way to fight sprawl, trim commute times, curb pollution and boost the quality of life for area residents.
But even if the public is in favor of developing more underutilized urban land, the projects face many other challenges.

Many infill developments make use of former industrial sites, which can take years and millions of dollars to restore. In addition, builders of multifamily units have seen insurance costs skyrocket in the face of increasing construction-defect litigation -- a hefty incentive to stick to larger, single-family homes on former farmland. What's more, the financial fallout from Proposition 13 encourages cities to approve commercial, rather than residential, development.
Finally, there is the complicated web of Bay Area agencies involved in the most ambitious of infill projects. For instance, plans for Oakland and BART's mixed-use Fruitvale Village took shape over 10 years and spanned numerous local agencies, not to mention 30 different funding sources.

Bay Area residents appear cognizant of that complexity -- with 52 percent supporting a regional growth plan that ostensibly would encourage cooperation among the many planning groups and take a broader view of the area's future.

On that front, however, developers like Coleman are less optimistic.

"Would (a regional planning effort) make development easier and more effective?" Coleman said. "It would. But I wouldn't count on it. There are too many jurisdictions that say they support housing, but when you get down to it, it's a political issue and their constituents don't want it."

For instance, many cities in western Contra Costa County, including Hercules, have ratified a smart-growth initiative that is intended to rein in sprawl and balance jobs, housing and transportation, said Vice Mayor Frank Batara. Towns in the eastern part of the county, where space is not as tight, have balked at the measure, which would reduce transportation funds to areas that permit building housing at the fringes.

"This issue goes to the heart of cities' rights and land use," Batara said. "It's been very divisive."

E-mail Kelly Zito at

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