Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sunnyvale politics

Perhaps now would be the time for the council to simply ban contributions from businesses that do business with the city. Then we could actually have debate on the real issues. However, for the the time being, corporate and developer contributions are allowed. So, we have to filter through this before getting to the meat of the campaign.

As for the donations, some candidates are making much ado about peanuts. In the current election, none of the candidates "need" developer contributions to run their campaign. If we exclude the "micro-financed" campaign of Gustavo Magana, all candidates are their top contributor. Excluding developers would not pose any significant hardship on the campaigns. Donations are a viable means for third parties to show support for candidates. Refusing the donations would not change the developer support for the candidate. Accepting the donation would, however, show a willingness to work with the developer for the good of the city.

Claims that these are "career politicians" that are out soliciting heavy donations could also fairly easily be debunked. Four of the candidates are middle-aged (around 50) engineers. There is also a middle-aged CEO and retirement-age investment manager. All six of these guys would likely be well past the prime age for entering a career in politics. They would also be taking a significant pay cut to do so. The only one that seems a likely candidate for a "lifer" is Magana. Alas, he has been fairly well ignored in this election.

It is not likely that developer donations play a strong role in the council decisions. But, lets suppose that they did. Suppose that city council members simply looked at their contributions and voted for the party that would benefit the most. Would this be a bad thing? We have a free market and donation information is publicly available. Opposing parties could make contributions to balance out any big developers. The mantra given by "anti-development" people is that candidates are favoring developers over "ordinary residents". Well, most candidates receive much more from individual residents than they do from developers (much less single developers.) The calculated politician would thus vote in the best interest of the "residents". However, this could very well be in line with the developer.

Pat Meyering raised another issue. Perhaps contributions influence the city to grant better contracts to companies doing business with the city. He suggested the contributions caused the Sunnyvale city council to approve some "pork" for the Smart Station operator. This case can easily be rebuffed by the facts. (Only two candidates received contributions. Even if they had recused themselves, the measure would have passed.) The nature of a "city-manager" type of government makes blatant favoritism more difficult to carry out. Most of the work is carried out by the apolitical city employees who work under the city manager. The primary role of the council is to approve these details. The garbage contract was placed on the "consent" agenda, meaning the council will typically approve it with a number of other items. Politicking only becomes involved when it is removed from this agenda. This is, in fact, exactly what Meyering did. He introduced politics into the discussion as an attempt to discredit the other councilmembers. (In the process, the city staff of Sunnyvale and neighboring cities were also assumed to be corrupt.) The details showed that the owner of the company that runs the Smart station contributed to one candidate in his most recent election, and another candidate in the previous election. Both candidates were terming out of office with no immediate intentions of seeking other office. The tie to receiving a donation is tenuous at best. (I'd saw the fact that one candidate did not receive a donation in the most recent cycle would make him likely to be prejudiced against the company.)

Once we subtract out the issue of "donations", we get to the other issue brought up by the anti-establishment candidates: "development." Development is bad. Developers are bad. City council constantly votes to violate city policy to support these evil developers. The council should stand up to developers and not let them "urbanize" our city and bring with it all the congestion and urbanization. We should try to be like Los Altos Hills or at least Los Altos. Or so the party line goes.

The comparisons can be misleading. Los Altos Hills has an idyllic, rural setting. Lot sizes are large. This limits the number of residents and requires lots of driving, but keeps traffic congestion low. It is located on the periphery of the urbanized area. While 280 passes through on a north-south axis, there is very little reason to travel east-west through the town. Housing prices there are very expensive. Most people in Sunnyvale could not afford to live there if they wanted. If Sunnyvale were to adopt similar policies, people would be priced out of Sunnyvale. There jobs would also leave the city, and overall driving distances and traffic congestion would likely increase. Sunnyvale is "in the middle", with three freeways passing through or near the city, with an additional two expressways passing and numerous major roads passing through.

Los Altos borders sections of Sunnyvale and may be a closer comparison. Los Altos has 28% of the area of Sunnyvale, but only 15% of the population. That leaves it at about half the population density of Sunnyvale. However, Los Altos is almost entirely residential, while Sunnyvale includes a large swath of industrial land. Sunnyvale is also much more diverse in land use than Los Altos. Perhaps a better comparison would be the 94087 zip code. It has a similar "mostly residential" makeup to Los Altos and about the same area, but more than 50,000 people (compared to under 30,000 in Los Altos.) Sunnyvale is just more dense than Los Altos. Los Altos home prices are higher than those in Sunnyvale. Los Altos also has higher taxes (both due to higher values and special measures for schools, libraries, etc.) Sunnyvale residents that prefer the area are more likely to be able to afford the move, however, it wouldn't be without cost. Not only does Los Altos cost more, it lacks some common amenities (like sidewalks and storm drains in most residential areas.) Los Altos has also made a decision to eschew overbuilding roads. (Just take a look at Fremont. From Foothill to expressway to the Sunnyvale border, it is a tree-lined, 2-lane 30 mph road. In Sunnyvale it expands to a 6 lane, 40 mph road. During evening rush hour, there can be a mile-long back-up in Los Altos, while the road moves freely in Sunnyvale.)

While Sunnyvale shares a short border with Los Altos, it primarily borders Cupertino, Mountain View and Santa Clara. All of those cities have approved large scale development. Santa Clara has a new 49ers football stadium. Mountain View has a giant mixed-use project at a former mall on El Camino and San Antonio. (Sunnyvale has tried to do something similar, but at a smaller scale downtown, but it has been eternally stalled.) Cupertino just approved a gigantic Apple spaceship campus right across the street from Sunnyvale. All of these cities get the tax revenue and development fees from these projects. They also have a significant say in how the projects proceed. Sunnyvale can attempt to grovel, but it has no authority in the decision process.

These developments will all produce significant traffic within Sunnyvale. Even if Sunnyvale ends development altogether, traffic will still continue to grow. Sunnyvale also has a large number of employers of its own. Simply cutting off residential development will mean people have to travel from further away to work there, also driving up city traffic congestion. There is high demand for development in the area. If it is not met in Sunnyvale, it will be met in Mountain View - or perhaps Gilroy. The further away the development, the greater the traffic.

Increasing density in a good manner can significantly reduce need for cars and driving. Density also helps to enable lower cost housing. (Simple math: house costs $1.3 million, with $1 million the cost of the land. Put 4 slightly smaller houses on the same land and now you have 4 $500,000 houses. I was disappointed to see one candidate attack density by saying that high density cities like New York have high some of the highest housing costs. This totally confuses cause and effect. New York is dense because of the high demand. Without the demand, costs would plummet. Density is a way to meet the demand. A million dollar Sunnyvale house would cost many times that in a similar-sized lot in Manhattan. People build dense to meet the demand. This makes housing more affordable.

Sunnyvale is lucky to be a core suburban area that remains in high demand. In many other metropolitan areas, cities similar to Sunnyvale are deteriorating. Development has focussed on the inner city and the new outer-ring suburbs, leaving the inner suburbs behind. Sunnyvale is lucky to still be in strong demand for employers and residents. If it were not for development, the city would simply fade in importance and be changing in the "wrong direction." If we force residents out to the central valley, eventually companies will start to locate there, and the allure of Sunnyvale will fade. Rather than fight development, the best reaction is to encourage it to be done right. The development should be coerced together to make a cohesive, walkable community (rather than a series of big box buildings.) There may be issues with development that can be resolved, but fighting development itself is nothing more than a naive sound-bite.

No comments:

Post a Comment