Google Buses: More Voices Offer More Opinions

Further discussion on the Google bus issues touches on the entitlement process, tax incentives, gentrification, and the value of curb space.

I’ve previously written that the Google bus controversy, far from proving that urbanism is a flawed strategy, is instead an indictment of our tardiness in embracing urbanism. I’ve also begun sampling some of the other voices that are commenting on the issue. The further voices may not always agree with my thinking, but most put forth ideas that are complementary.

Today, I’ll dig more deeply into the other voices.

Writing in Slate, Matthew Yglesias argues that a land tax, in place of a property tax, wouldn’t help advance urbanism in San Francisco. He’s responding to a Quartz article by Noah Smith.  I referenced the Smith article in my previous post.

Yglesias argues that zoning, not tax incentives, is the constraint on San Francisco urbanism.

I agree with some of what Yglesias suggests, but differ in the details. For one, he conflates zoning and entitlement processes. But the two are very different.

I’m sure the following explanation is unnecessary for 95 percent of the readers, but please allow me to bring the other five percent up to speed. Zoning sets the general rules for land use, usually including the maximum project size that can be constructed without a variance. Entitlement is the process by which the zoning rules are applied to a particular site. During entitlement, the project size is often whittled down over concerns such as traffic capacity or building mass. (The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, is a key element of the entitlement process.)

In theory, using entitlement process to fine-tune zoning rules to a specific site seems reasonable. And it often results in appropriate compromises. But activist neighbors can also use the process as a cover for selfish ends.  Arguing that the building mass is out of scale for the neighborhood can be code for wanting to preserve a personal view. Contending that traffic impacts are excessive can be code for wanting to preserve street parking for guests.

Through use and abuse of the entitlement process, a site that was zoned for fifteen units might be reduced to six units or even result in the developer giving up. And for every unit that isn’t built, housing costs go up because of lack of supply and more households must find alternative accommodations, often in drivable suburban locations.

While I agree with Yglesias that zoning can sometimes be improved, it’s the entitlement process that’s the true weak link.

Also, Yglesias takes an either/or approach to zoning versus taxation system incentives. To me, the best solutions require multiple adjustments. For urban housing, I suggest that adjustments are required to the entitlement process, tax incentives, and zoning, in that order of decreasing importance.

In my first post on the Google bus issue, I wrote that the Google buses aren’t the true issue underlying the protests in San Francisco and Oakland. Instead, it’s the concern among existing residents that the push for residential development represented by the Google buses will result in increased residential costs, forcing current residents to relocate. To put a term to this concern, it’s gentrification.

Thus, it’s coincidental that several studies have recently come forth suggesting that gentrification isn’t nearly as detrimental as feared. Per the studies, it’s true that the elderly and disabled can be displaced if that impact isn’t mitigated, but the studies are finding that relocations among other residents are actually reduced. Furthermore, the financial health of the existing residents generally improves, presumably buoyed by the increased job opportunities in a gentrifying neighborhood.

The increased employment opportunities were intuitive, but the reduced displacement certainly wasn’t. Nor will the debate be modified by a handful of studies. But if the bogeyman of gentrification can be reduced, it’ll be a good thing for urbanism.

Lastly, Atlantic Cities suggests that the agreement reached between San Francisco and the Google buses for the use of public bus stops may set the value of public curb space, which could have implications for other urban activities such as parking and merchandise deliveries.

It’s an interesting suggestion. However, the author undermines his own argument by noting that California law prevents charging the fair value of the curb space and instead limits the fee to the cost of implementing the program.

As urbanism proceeds, it’s likely that we’ll need to place a value on curb space, but the Google bus agreement won’t provide that benchmark.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

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Wire February 01, 2014 at 09:41 PM
Despite our applause at its It Gets Better videos, today there is some news about Google that is less applause worthy. Using legal and accounting maneuvering, Google has effectively kept some $3.1 billion dollars in potential tax revenue from the government. The corporate tax rate in America is 35 percent, but Google pays an effective tax rate of 2.4 percent. It manages this by routing its money through its Dublin, Netherlands, and Bermuda offices, in moves that are called "the Double Irish" and the "Dutch Sandwich" (check out an interactive graphic about how it works). It's the lowest tax rate paid by any of the five largest U.S. tech companies. According to Bloomberg, Facebook is preparing a similar tax strategy. Google Doesn't Pay Taxes | Bermuda on GOOD www.good.is/posts/google-doesn-t-pay-taxes - Proxy - Highlight Just to be clear, I do not think that Google dodging tax is 'good'. The fact that we as a world are talking about it IS good, but even better is seeing ...
Wire February 03, 2014 at 12:31 PM
Last month Google launched a similar service from San Francisco's ferry terminal to defuse a growing controversy over the private buses that tech companies use to transport workers from the city to Silicon Valley. The buses have for some become a symbol of economic inequality and rising housing costs and evictions in San Francisco. Google tries ferry service for workers in East Bay USA TODAY ‎- 1 hour ago Google will provide a private ferry service for its employees
Wire February 11, 2014 at 12:59 AM
Dave, the audit found out that seven jets and two helicopters owned by Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt had received improper discounts on fuel that saved the three billionaires up to $5.3 million on flights dating back to 2009. The Google executives own the aircraft through a company called H211, which has been paying $1.4 million annually since 2007 to lease hangar space at Moffett.++++http://news.yahoo.com/google-subsidiary-run-nearby-federal-airfield-003610841.html
Wire April 06, 2014 at 11:22 PM
Dave, the Urban protesters stood with signs and handed out flyers outside of a Google Ventures partner and entrepreneur’s home in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood Sunday, calling him a “parasite” and a “leech.” Flyers passed out at the protest said that Kevin Rose, 37, who founded Digg and several other web companies before joining Google Ventures, accelerates the growth of tech wealth in the city by investing in startups. “As a partner venture capitalist at Google Ventures, Kevin directs the flow of capital from Google into the tech startup bubble that is destroying San Francisco,” the flyer said. “The start-ups that he funds bring the swarms of young entrepreneurs that have ravaged the landscapes of San Francisco and Oakland.”***** http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2014/04/06/anti-tech-protesters-target-google-ventures-partner-kevin-rose/


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