Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Old-guard environmentalists believe a housing bill could induce disaster. A newer guard touts it as a savior. On the front lines of a generational civil war"


Kathryn Phillips did not mince words when she visited the Sacramento office of San Francisco state senator Scott Wiener one day this winter. The director of Sierra Club California and a decades-long combatant in the state’s environmental battles, Phillips wanted Wiener to know that her group would vehemently oppose his Senate Bill 827—which both its supporters and its opponents believe could introduce the most radical changes to California’s land-use policy in a generation. “I gave him a warning,” she says later. There would be no suggested amendments from her organization. No negotiation. No compromise. “The thing we oppose is the heart of the bill.”


SB 827, however, forces these environmentalists to say no to a different question concerning technology. To oppose the bill on environmental grounds is to reject the broadly accepted scientific conclusion that a primary cause of climate change is the car commutes of people who live far away from their jobs. “Climate change splits the movement,” says bill supporter Ethan Elkind, the director of the climate program at UC Berkeley School of Law, because “the most important way to address it, unless we deindustrialize, is to build things. The environmental movement was started to stop building things.”


Although Phillips says she supports infill development around mass transit, it’s hard for her to locate an actual place in California where she supports new buildings. This is also true of the Bay Area chapter, which in recent years has opposed the 8 Washington condo tower near the Embarcadero, the redevelopment of Treasure Island and the Hunters Point Shipyard, the expansion of Park Merced, and the new Golden State Warriors stadium. Recently, the chapter opposed a 66-unit development in the Western Addition because it would replace an auto repair shop it deemed historic.

With regard to upzoning near transit, Phillips rules out Sacramento, where some neighborhoods, she thinks, would use upzoning as an excuse to block new transit, concealing what she calls “racist” reasons under a civilized veneer. Nor does she think it’s appropriate in more outlying areas like Folsom, where a transit stop under the bill would lead to an upzoning too near wilderness areas. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea in San Diego, where taller buildings would block views of the ocean, nor does she support it in major cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where “people who live in rent-controlled buildings worry about bigger and bigger buildings coming toward them.”