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How can California make better use of urban areas?

USC Price panel analyzes changes to the state’s Environmental Quality Act

Rick Cole, Ann Sewill, Raphael Bostic, Ethan Elkind and Mott Smith, from left (USC photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

For decades, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has encouraged sprawl and hindered development in high-density urban areas, while often not helping the environment.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 743, creating a process to change the way that transportation impacts are analyzed under CEQA. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released draft guidelines of proposed modifications in August for public review, which recently ended.

A panel of experts, advocates and local government officials considered the impact of changes to the CEQA at a recent event. The discussion was a joint collaboration between two areas of the USC Price School of Public Policy — the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise and the Lusk Center for Real Estate.

Raphael Bostic, director of the USC Bedrosian Center, led a panel featuring Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in the city of Los Angeles; Ethan Elkind, associate director of the Climate Change and Business Program with a joint appointment at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley; Ann Sewill of the California Community Foundation; and Mott Smith ’99 of Civic Enterprise Associates.

“When I first came to LA and USC, there were two things I heard as the big issues of the day — the first that it takes way too long to get anything built, and the second that we were developing in such a sprawling pattern that was unsustainable,” Bostic said. “Today’s panel is a response to both of those in terms of infill development as a strategy for using our urban spaces more intently, and the CEQA challenge, which has made an already difficult process extremely difficult.”

Draft guidelines

When proposing in its draft guidelines to switch the standard for measurement of transportation impacts from congestion to vehicle miles traveled, OPR cited work by USC Price Professor Marlon Boarnet along with Susan Handy of the University of California, Davis, that reviewed available evidence on 23 strategies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The paper, which Boarnet and Handy prepared for the California Air Resources Board, found that higher densities and a land-use mix in which housing, shopping and other activities are combined within a small area significantly reduced vehicle miles traveled. However, increasing the auto capacity of roads and highways, a method sometimes used by suburban projects to meet CEQA requirements, actually increases driving.

It’s important not only to produce new research, but to translate existing research for a policy audience.

Marlon Boarnet

“We were trying to canvass literature to summarize what we know and get it into the hands of policymakers,” Boarnet said. “It seems to have had some impact, which is gratifying. We were summarizing a lot of work, so other people should get credit as well … it’s important not only to produce new research, but to translate existing research for a policy audience.”

The old metrics discouraged infill development and construction of infrastructure for transit, cycling and walking due to an auto-centric congestion focus. Infill, or the redevelopment of vacant or underused parcels within already developed areas, might cause more traffic in the immediate area, but it leads to people walking, biking, using public transit or driving shorter distances. The OPR has proposed to give infill projects a pass if located within half a mile of a transit stop.

“We’ve actually aligned the law with common sense, that driving fewer miles is better for the environment,” said Smith, a graduate of the Dollinger Master of Real Estate Development program at USC Price.

Mitigating measures

Elkind explained that outlying projects will have to make up for the additional driving they cause, and that the list of suggested mitigating measures proposed by OPR includes some that could change the culture of sprawl in California. One is requiring mixed-use development for outlying projects.

“So no longer would we see a big subdivision of housing out in the hinterlands,” Elkind said. “Now you may need to work in some commercial and retail, almost a little mini-city where people within that area don’t have to drive for everything. At the end of the day, it may be a lot harder to build projects in outlying areas. I think the way the OPR guidelines are written is very friendly to infill.”

CEQA was enacted in the late 1960s to put a check on unfettered government actions. By the 1990s, people began realizing it was stopping a lot of development in the downtown core areas where such projects were needed to meet environmental goals and market demand.

Speaking as a developer, Smith mentioned the ease with which opponents can delay projects for years with CEQA challenges

“In some ways, it can be used to protect the public good and that’s what is positive about it,” Sewill said. “What’s bad about it is it can so easily be hijacked for private gain.”

Elkind pointed out that this reform won’t end all the challenges of CEQA. It’s just one aspect of the law, and CEQA is not the only impediment to infill development. Cole further noted that the stalemate between developers and environmentalists also play a role in the “gridlock on CEQA reform.”

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