Housing for the future

We’re having a spirited conversation in Burlingame that will take place in every city in the Bay Area sooner or later. It’s about how much height and density to allow in areas near major transit corridors.

This discussion isn’t just about what you and I want. It’s about trying to anticipate what residents and businesses in our cities will need 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

When a city revises its downtown-specific plan, as Burlingame is now doing, or updates the Housing Element of its General Plan, as all cities in the Bay Area are required to do by next June, it’s a rare opportunity to look at changing demographics and incorporate incentives that will shape cities to address unmet needs.

A number of factors are converging that will make the Peninsula a very different place soon. For starters, San Mateo County’s population is naturally growing as people live longer and more babies are born.

At the same time, the average household is shrinking. As of the 2000 census, only one-third of households in San Mateo County had any children under 18, and one-fourth were single-person households. Households with children are projected to decrease and solo households to increase as baby boomers grow older.

At the same time, global warming and rising gas prices are sending us the message that we’d better figure out ways to get people out of cars, which contribute about 50 percent of carbon emissions in the Bay Area.

Because housing in our county is so expensive, major businesses such as Genentech and Oracle are finding that — no surprise — many of their younger workers are choosing to live farther away, in areas where homes are more affordable. There’s something wrong when the next generation, including teachers, firefighters, police officers and even our own children, can’t afford to live in our cities.

If we ignore the changes ahead, think of the consequences: Older residents marooned in neighborhoods far from transportation and dependent on others to take them places; housing and gas prices so high that cities and businesses have trouble recruiting workers; big firms moving to areas closer to homes their employees can afford; and city revenues plunging, so that local jurisdictions must raise taxes to provide basic services.

There is another solution. The land around our transit corridors is so valuable that developers are standing in line, waiting to create housing. But it’s absurd to think that they will take two-story buildings and replace them with two- or even three-story buildings.

If cities allow developers to build taller buildings, they can make a profit and the public will benefit, too. In return for allowing greater height, these projects can be required to include reasonably priced housing, senior residence complexes, mixed use (stores and offices) and underground parking. By freeing up land with below-grade parking, we will open up another world of possibilities: public parks, plazas, gardens, community theaters, fountains and playgrounds.

Will five- or six-story structures ruin our downtown areas? Not if they are designed well, with emphasis on creating an appealing experience for pedestrians strolling at street level and incentives for tucking back the mass and bulk of upper floors.

A new book called “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change” reports that Americans living in compact urban neighborhoods where cars are not the only form of transportation drive one-third fewer miles than those in car-oriented suburbs.

Change is scary for people who fear that their way of life will be impacted. But we’re not talking about altering single-family neighborhoods, only distinct transit corridors where more density makes sense. Inviting more housing options in downtown areas near mass transit offers the opportunity to create vibrant new areas where people want to live.

Higher-density housing near transit corridors has proven successful in cities such as Portland, Ore., Seattle and Santa Barbara. It’s a model that has worked well in European cities for centuries. It’s time to begin embracing it here.

Terry Nagel is a member of the Burlingame City Council. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. She can be reached at terry@terrynagel.com.

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