September 23, 2020 - From the September, 2020 issue

Silicon Valley’s Urbanist Future: A City Age Digital Roundtable on Housing & Design

In part 2 of this excerpt from the City Age: Silicon Valley Digital Roundtable moderated by Rick ColeShelly Doran, VP of Webcor Builders, Gary Dillabough Co-founder & CEO of Urban Community, Peter Wijsman City Executive VP of Arcadis, and Dale Bonner, Executive Chairman of Plenary Commissions discuss the status of urbanism, housing, infrastructure, and design in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Panelists comment on the appropriate role for the state legislature in addressing the region’s housing challenges and point to the public sector’s rapid digital transition during COVID as an example of the possible pace of innovation to come. Click here to watch this City Age: Silicon Valley panel online.


“If the state is not in a position to reverse course and start massively investing in infrastructure systems—if they continue to rely on local and regional government to do that— then they should complete that transition to becoming simply an enabler of investment by streamlining processes and procedures, facilitating planning, and things of that nature.” —Dale Bonner

Rick Cole: One common theme throughout this roundtable has been housing. Shelly, where can greater consensus on housing emerge? What's the process for breaking some of this deadlock?

Shelly Doran: The past couple months have been very pivotal for the Bay Area. Years ago, in the 40s and 50s, we had a lot of de facto segregation along the East Bay corridor. Over the last few months because of SB 35 and SB 330, we've been able to break some of those deadlocks. We see from San Bruno, the projects that have been rethought from Lafayette and Alameda County, that projects that were stalled in 2011/12. Now moving forward because of this legislation. I do see some breakthrough there, because we need to have equitable housing, near the centers of workplace.

At Webcor, we're the largest employer of carpenters in the state, and most of our workers commute from Merced or out in the Central Valley, so we have to address housing. One way to do that is through the SBs that have just passed. But as Mayor Liccardo and Mayor Schaaf know, you have to have consensus within your own city to fast track those development and building permits.

We have to look at modular housing, but we have to look at these things on larger scales. We have to talk about acres, not just lots, for those to be more equitable for our workforce, so they’re actually nearer to where the work is, and especially in Silicon Valley as we experience this hopefully next wave of construction and innovation.

Cole: Building consensus in communities on general plans and the zoning codes, enabling the kind of housing that we want or need in the right places in the right form will help facilitate rapid development of housing. It's sometimes important to  ‘go slow to go fast.’ Gary, you're on the other side of this continuum of where people live and where people work in the office space. Regardless of how this all shakes out, how do we build consensus around the importance of better work-life balance and better housing-jobs balance? 

Gary Dillabough: I don't look at ‘office’ as a silo; I look at is as user experience. To me, one of the reasons that a lot of us have gotten comfortable working from home, is that when we're home, we have control, and we're in an environment that’s relatively comfortable. A lot of office environments—especially if you're an office park out in the middle of Santa Clara or Sunnyvale—are just boxes to work in; and whether it's your environmental situation or your commuting situation, it's just not very productive and not very inspiring. We’re hearing at all times now, “wow, I didn’t know my life could be different.”

When we look at a downtown core, our belief is that it really is an ecosystem. You need to be able to live there. You need to be able to walk or take an electric bike to work. We need to look to the essential workforce, and if we're going to build 7 to 8 million square feet in the next five or six years, how do we take those thousands of construction workers and allow them to live in the city that they're going to build? Once you start to do that, you start to create this groundswell of pride.

Then, one of the fundamental things that is really challenging right now is how we do something as quickly as possible to help retail, which was on a fragile footing to begin with, but is now completely cracked.  There's some great innovation that's taking place in that sector when you look at what Amazon or Walmart are doing. But we're starting to lose connection with the fabric that really makes our cities special and unique.

One of my frustrations is that we’ve been talking about some of these regional issues forever, and it's hard to get momentum around them. So, our approach to downtown has been about building this ecosystem that tries to balance office, residential, and retail by taking little, but taking tiny steps to demonstrate to people that we can create a better environment; we don't have to wait 10 or 15 years. This unfortunate pandemic is opening up some opportunity because I've seen local government do some pretty, pretty inspiring things to start to move forward more quickly recognizing some of the pain on the ground,

The last thing I'll say is that we live in the middle of the greatest companies in the world, and there's no two ways about it. We have not been able to deliver them an experience that's worthy of what they have done. So, they're great technologists, but we've got to become better urban planners, and we've got to deliver better experiences for them because they deserve it. We don't want them to leave, and I think is imperative to maintain our leadership in the world, to create that kind of experience for them. 

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Cole: Gary talks about creating spaces and places worthy of the greatest companies in the world. But we’ve also been talking about equity. We don't want to create a first class environment and experience for the tech world, and then a second, third, or fourth class world for everyone else. So, Peter, how do we create great places that are inclusive and equitable? 

Peter Wijsman: As a leader within an architecture and engineering company, who was born and raised in the Netherlands, but has called the San Francisco Bay Area home for the last 10 years, it’s been fascinating to see the tremendous amount of wealth that has come into the area. But at the same time, so many people are missing out on the opportunity to participate in the economy and to benefit from the system that has been created.

What I see in terms of the projects that we’re involved in—like designing the new waterfront in San Francisco or working for the City of San Jose on the design of Diridon station or helping with remediation of contaminated sites in Oakland, all of those projects ultimately build on the resilience of the area.

We cannot know what our future looks like. We will have to continue to deal with uncertainty. It’s not that after this pandemic, we can just plan things out to a perfect world. But what we do know is that we need strong healthcare systems, strong education systems, and strong transportation systems. We’re collectively working towards that, but the region, obviously, is suffering from some fundamental challenges as it relates to the institutional setup. The 101 cities that make up the Bay Area is one example.

As you earlier pointed out, is there time for a pause or what can we do during this pause? The acceleration of digital transformation in government services during COVID, what took 5 months would have otherwise taken 5 years. So, that’s very positive. Engineering, construction, and power and water utilities are one of the least disrupted industries in the world. Building on what Mayor Schaaf said about the Bay area being a test lab for new construction techniques and innovations  for where technology meets the built world is a real opportunity. It’s also a real opportunity to create new jobs for people who had been missing out on the digital transformation previously. So that’s what I’m looking forward to accomplishing over the next few years.

Cole: Dale, conspicuous by its absence has been any discussion of the State's role. And last I looked on the map, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are in California. So, given your background in State government, how can the State facilitate the success of these challenges? What is its role in infrastructure, and how does the State play a positive role to support the Bay Area and Silicon Valley in rebuilding modern infrastructure on both physical and social side?

Dale Bonner: It's important to complete the process of becoming more of an enabler of investment. What I’m referring to there is that it’s been over some decades that the level of federal investment has been in decline. The Federal Government invests very little in infrastructure these days. And a similar thing has also continued to happen at the state level.

In the case of transportation and transit, we’ve got this unique self-help county structure where the counties working together generate more and more revenue to invest. I think there’s an important role for the state to invest in planning and help to connect regional systems together for planning and collaboration. If the state is not in a position to reverse course and start massively investing in infrastructure systems—if they continue to rely on local and regional government to do that— then they should complete that transition to becoming simply an enabler of investment by streamlining processes and procedures, facilitating planning, and things of that nature.

I think that’s another opportunity in this environment. Starting from where we are now, how do we rebuild? Now might be the time for the state to unleash some of the innovation and enable that.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.