A ‘Sustainable Metropolis’

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • August 13, 1989
  • Bradley Inman

What’s possible when developer, consumer activist see similar future

Meet maverick real estate deal maker David Martin. A smooth-talking, risk-taking entrepreneur, he gets turned on by complex financing schemes, leased-up office buildings and rapid appreciation in his extensive land holdings. Realty people recognize Martin as one f the brightest stars in Bay Area land development.

Meet missionary environmentalist Larry Orman. A dedicated conservationist, he lights up when the talk turns to issues such as open spaces, lush greenbelts and urban limit lines. Environmentalists consider Orman a guru and look to him to save the region from unbridled growth.

These two innovators would appear to have nothing in common. Martin has a business degree; Orman earned his degree in city planning. Martin lives in the Piedmont hills and drives a Mercedes; Orman lives in the Berkeley flatlands and rides public transit or in his Honda.

Opposites, right? Look again. While Orman and Martin have never met, each has a similar vision of how the Bay Area should grow in the next 10 years. For altogether different reasons, they believe the region should develop inward.

To Martin, building up the urban core makes good economic sense. He is developing office buildings, research centers, retail malls and apartments in the “industrial backwashes” of Emeryville and Richmond. He feels like the “Lone Ranger” among his real estate peers who are racing to industrialize the lily white burbs.

“In the late 1970s, we rationalized growth in the suburbs by following a logical demographic shift,” Martin says. In virgin places like Pleasanton and San Ramon, “there was cheap land, no traffic and inexpensive housing, and we concluded that’s where the labor force lived that would fill the new office parks.”

But today “the same suburban freeways are clogged, the housing is expensive and the most skilled workers aren’t necessarily attracted to those communities.”

As life erodes in the suburbs and improves in many parts of our cities, Martin says, “there’s a higher concentration of PhDs and MBAs along the I-80 corridor in Berkeley and Oakland than in the I-680 suburbs. In the future you won’t be able to relocate these people to Vacaville (in Solano County) very easily.”

That’s why “we began to look at areas that were in the middle of the table instead of the end of the map.”

Jobs are directed inward

There’s also a more compelling self-interest for Martin’s vision: “While (commercial) land values aren’t any higher today in Pleasanton than there five years ago, they have doubles in Emeryville.”

Orman generally agrees. He says we should steer growth so that “jobs are concentrated in the metropolitan centers and directed inward, reinforcing the urban core and making outward growth unnecessary.”

Orman is executive director of the nonprofit environmental group, the Greenbelt Alliance (it used to be called People for Open Space). His vision is detailed in his organization’s slick new publication, “Reviving the Sustainable Metropolis.”

“Unlike sprawling business parks on the edge of the region, major metropolitan business districts (such as Oakland/Berkeley, San Jose and San Francisco) are diverse, accessible, enjoyable and stimulating,” his report says.

Although urban sprawl has gone unchecked in the last couple of years, the reports says the Bay Area historically has maintained a “metropolitan identity – a necklace of diverse and interdependent urban centers around the Bay, framed by open space – which ordered and unified the complex metropolis.”

Orman’s prescription for spawning more dense and “compact city-centered” development: Create a government-regulated greenbelt that would force developers tout of the burbs and back into urban environments like those where Martin is building.

Everybody sees it differently

Some will say the sustainable metropolis theory is nothing more than a blue-sky dream. Urban activists will say it causes gentrification. Business leaders will argue its bad for them. Landowners will fear it infringes on private property rights. And suburban cities will see it depleting tax revenue. Some will even fret it forces more growth into places like San Francisco and so is contrary to the Proposition M growth initiative.

When I first read Orman’s report I had trouble digesting the findings. There’s nothing new about urban renaissance schemes and the Greenbelt report seems idealistic and a contrast to the trend of urban sprawl.

But just when I was prepared to criticize the strategy, I interviewed Martin for another story. During that interview and in a different language, he offered a practical set of reasons why parts of the sustainable metropolis theory makes sense, even though he was unfamiliar with Orman’s plan.

His market-driven views on skilled labor, traffic congestion and high-cost housing in the burbs made sense. And keep in mind that I didn’t mention the report until we had finished talking.

Of course these two don’t agree on everything. Martin doesn’t favor a regulated greenbelt. “Let’s look at incentives for infill development instead of putting handcuffs around the suburbs,” He said.

Powerful coalition in the making

But what’s intriguing is that a leading environmental organization and a major real estate developer agree on so much, without even talking to each other.

Together, this is a powerful coalition that could begin to take up problems like traffic, leap-frog development and high housing costs.

This isn’t a complete vision for the region. A suburban greenbelt plan that calls for accelerated growth in our cities must take a more penetrating look at our urban quagmire.

Even a fundamental change in land-use patterns is no cure for educational failures, a lack of job training and public health problems associated with AIDs and crack. Unlike the East Coast, social problems in Bay Area cities can’t be pinned to disinvestment or corrected by a spurt of economic growth.

Wouldn’t it be great to see an affluent crowd of real estate developers and middle and upper-class environmentalists really looking inward and begin to work on drug addiction, poor school test scores and urban training needs?

That’s a compact city-centered development strategy that I could really get behind.