The American Dream – 3/20/15

We pride ourselves in the idea that the United States of America is the land of opportunity.  Our most admired cultural stories are stories of rags to riches, of individuals who succeed in America despite starting with nothing, or less than nothing, and making their lives a success based on their own abilities and hard work. It is what we call “The American Dream” and we call America, the land or opportunity.

Two recent events in my life have caused me to realize the reaching the American Dream in the land or opportunity is not what it used to be. I was at the recent groundbreaking of the Foster Square project and saw the beginning of constructon of the first phase which will be sixty six affordable housing units. Many of us all worked hard to bring these units to reality despite numerous roadblocks, but we partnered and we looked outside the box and we made it happen.  All great things. But what I also thought about was the fact that in order to give people of more modest income an “opportunity” to live in Foster City and enjoy its benefits that we had to help, financially and otherwise, to make that happen.

I also read an article in the March 16 issue of New Yorker Magazine that deals with the growing gap between the rich and the poor in our Country.  No, I am not going to make arguments about the one-percent, I am only saying that there is no denying that wealth is more concentrated in a smaller number of people in America than anywhere else and at any other point in our history.

Now I am a capitalist at heart and I do not believe that we need to redistribute wealth, but what I do believe is that we need to reopen opportunity to all. Opportunity is not a hand out, it is simply a chance given to the individual to use her or his talents and succeed based on those talents and the individual’s hard work. One only need look as far as the cost of college these days as evidence that opportunity is less open to people of more modest means than it was in the past.  My parents went to public college for free. I went to public undergraduate school for almost free and law school for free. My son went to the same public university for a tuition that totalled significantly more than what it cost for both my wife and I to go to college, even correcting for inflation.  If we did not have the means to pay for our son’s college, it is likely he would have been denied that opportunity. When you extrapolate the lost opportunity to attend college to the fact that the job market then gets smaller and the pay for those jobs lower, you can see what the lost opportunity really costs.

Now as a member of a city council for a small city there is little I can do to open up significant opportunity on any sort of meaningful scale, but simply because I cannot fix the problem does not mean that I should, that we as a Council should not help those we can. I believe, in fact, that we have an obligation to do so.

To me it is the concept that comes from the old saying “Give a man a  fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” I do not believe in the redistribution of wealth nor in giving handouts, but I do believe in creating opportunities for people to help themselves, opportunities to allow the individual to reach the American Dream.

So, at the small city level, how do we do that? Well, my fellow residents, this is the part that many of your are going to hate – affordable housing. Yes, I get that housing has impacts, I have written extensively on how I hate sitting in traffic, how I have worked to increase our school class space and how I have been working for years on water conservation, energy conservation and the like. So I am not suggesting that we start building affordable housing willy-nilly everywhere we can, but I am suggesting that we look at what may come before us in the coming years and readjust our focus to balance between impacts and the chance to create opportunity.

Other than those Native Americans, all the rest of us descend from someone born elsewhere.  Many of us are here because our ancestors saw the opportunity of America. If we can open up more such opportunities to future generations, don’t we have an obligation to do so? Don’t we have an obligation to make our great schools, great parks, safe streets, family culture available to people who are working hard to get ahead but simply cannot afford the million plus dollar homes that our market rates demand? I think we do and I think that most of you think that if we can find a way to open up such opportunities without significantly impacting ourselves, that you would do it too.

I have some ideas on how this can be done, on how we can start now and how we can build in the future. Unfortunately this small column limits the amount I can discuss these issues, so I will do that on my blog The good news about that is that you can make comments and send questions in ways that are not possible with a newspaper article.

Come be part of this discussion. Bring your ideas, bring your criticism, but, as I have been saying a lot this year, get involved. Here is another way to do just that.

Another Council Corner That Misses The Point – 2015-03-03

This week’s Council Corner again goes over the housing element and again misstates my position in order to criticize it. Let me say it as simply as I can:  

The vote to increase the zoning denisity for existing apartment projects puts the right to build to that density in the hands of the owners of those projects with little discretion by the City to stop the building.  Rezoning the golf course leaves the discretion of if, when and how to build anything entirely in the hands of the City and the City Council because the City owns the land. The plan I proposed does NOT contemplate building housing on the golf course!  

My plan simply uses the golf course as a placeholder to satisfy State requirements while we do a long term study of housing, economics and impacts for Foster City. Statements by other Council Members to the contrary are incorrect and I am willing to debate and discuss the issue with any of them in a public forum.

Turning to the Council Corner’s coverage of schools, other than telling us things that we already know, for example that the schools are overcrowded, that we share a district with San Mateo, that the governing board is the school district and that they are working on the issue, the Council Corner offers no insight or suggestions on how the City can help.

When the Council met during my year as mayor, I proposed that the City treat the school distict as a partner and look into ways that we can help with the overcrowding problem.  I suggested that if we as a City were serious about the issue, the City could acquire land and lease it to the school district as a way to help reduce the financial burden of additional classrooms. I stand by that suggestion and continue to be willing to do what I can to help.  

I have been working on school overcrowding for about six years, actively involved in Measure P and I continue to attend some of the Next Steps meetings to offer assistance as requested. I have met with Council Members from San Mateo, other community leaders and other community members trying to address this important issue and to find a solution that works for our entire District. I only wish that other leaders could also say that they have been as proactive in trying to find a solution.

Foster City is at a crossroads and we need active leaders that think out of the box, not ones that simply report on issues and follow recommendations blindly. Once again, this is an election year and you can bring in leaders if you get involved.  So please, get involved.

The Marina Project – Tomorrow!!

It has been a busy week for me so it was just this morning that I read the article in the Islander about the hearing tomorrow on the Marina Project. I was familiar with the factual issues but frankly what surprised me was that only Herb Perez and I were willing to comment and tell our residents our thoughts on the issue.

Now I understand that the point of the public hearing process is to keep an open mind and be willing to listen, which I always do, but that does not mean that you can not have concerns about what is being proposed at a public hearing or have concerns about an issue effecting your City. When one Council Member does not respond at all and two others say they want to wait to hear what everyone has to say before they are willing to say anything, I get very concerned.

Steve Okamoto is technically correct that the hearing is not about the Housing Element of the General Plan. However, the point made by the two of us that voted not to approve the Housing Element, is that it clears hurdles for more housing in a way that we believe is not in the best interest of Foster City right now because it fails to address the impacts from such growth.  The same concerns are presented by the proposed Marina Project and so the same issue is presented: do we clear more hurdles for more housing now, or do we study the issue and find ways to diversify the City’s revenue and ameliorate the impacts from additional development.

Thus, when Council Members who have I have heard to say privately that they want to wait on housing until we can see the impacts from what we have currently in development are not willing to say that on the record, I worry and I think that maybe what happened with the Housing Element happened only because very few residents showed up to express their opinion. So, unless we have lots of people showing up tomorrow, who knows what might happen!

So again Foster City, this is another call to action from me.  I have challenged you this year to take action and this is another time to do that. I also challenge you to take broader action as this is an election year when a majority of the Council is up for election. Art is termed out but both Herb and Steve can be reelected. This is a critical year to make sure that someone is elected that believes that it is their responsiblity to be answerable to the residents that elected them. Those are my challenges to you.

The Marina Project

As many of you already know, the proposal to build housing and a marina across from Bowditch Middle School (the “Marina Project”) is coming back to the Council for another public hearing on Monday, February 23, 2015 starting at 6:30. I am expecting (and hoping) to see a large turnout again.

I have received a lot of emails but at this point there are too many to respond to all of them, so if you emailed me and did not get an individual response, I apologize. What I have been saying is that it is not the City’s plan to build this housing. It is the owner of the land coming to the City Council to get some advice and feedback on whether the Council would approve a zoning change to allow the property owner to build housing.  Right now it is not zoned for housing.

Last year we changed the law and began having these kinds of hearings as the very first step in the development process. The point was to allow the public and the Council to weigh in on new projects before the process went far down the road and the property owner spent a lot of money. Charter Square was one such hearing, Edgewater Shopping Center was another. A prior version of the development plan for the Marina Project was a third. The Marina Project has been changed by the property owner and so now it has come back to another hearing.

Under California law I cannot decide on a matter before the public hearing but I have told everyone, including the property owner’s representative, that I have serious concerns about moving forward on any housing development before we have had the chance to study all of the impacts and looked at ways to diversify the City’s income portfolio away from the current concentration on revenue from property tax. That has been my consistent position for some time and I see no reason it will not continue.

If you support that position, I encourage you to come to the hearing on the 23rd.

Housing and Traffic and Schools, Oh My…

This is a preview of my Council Corner for this coming Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

We all remember Dorothy Gale walking down the yellow brick road with the Tin Man and Scarecrow and as they entered the dark woods they started to talk about the things troubling them the most and it ended up in a chant – Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My. Well, in Foster City today the issues of greatest importance to us seem to be housing, traffic and school overcrowding. Well, what the trio on the yellow brick road found out as they became a quartet, is that when you face your problems head on, they turn out to not be as scary as you thought.

Housing is today’s front-page issue. So how are we dealing with it? There are some who want a moratorium and others, including some elected officials, who believe “higher density is going to happen – it’s just a matter of when.” Well, I believe in neither. I believe that we need to take time, study the issue, look at the impacts of additional housing, how they can be ameliorated and how we can best preserve our quality of life. Once all that is done, the problem will be much more manageable. I call that smart growth. I also believe that we, Foster City, rely too much on housing and the property tax revenue it generates. We therefore need to take that into account as we move into the future and try to have greater financial diversity in the City’s revenue stream.

Traffic is a nightmare. I know, I sit in it too often. The problem however, is not that our City streets are inadequate, the problem is that everyone is leaving at our around the same time and going to or coming from the same place. We are all trying to get to 92 or 101 and those roads are already well past their designed use. They are inadequately designed for today’s workload and we have no real public transportation. Traffic will be better when we build the type of flyover at 92 and 101 as was built at 92 and 880. It will also better when we build a BART extension from Hayward to San Mateo. I grew up in New York City and I can tell you that nobody drives to work in Manhattan. Everyone commutes, mostly by train. If we could provide a BART system that made that possible, traffic would be much lighter. They are doing this type of thing right now in Los Angeles, why aren’t we doing it here?

I have been working with the School District on class overcrowding since before I was elected to the Council in 2009. What is needed now is for the two cities, Foster City and San Mateo to come together for the benefit of our children and their education. Yes, each City has different problems, but we can fight with one another or we can find middle ground and compromise for the betterment of all. The Next Steps committee is trying to do the latter and I applaud that. Our Council has stayed involved and I know that the San Mateo Council is also getting involved. That is great news.

So what can you do? In earlier articles I wrote and challenged you to make 2015 the year to get involved. On housing, you can email, call and meet with members of our Council and tell them how you feel about housing, economics and the like. For traffic, I urge you to contact our state representatives and ask them to fix the freeways and find a way to fund real mass transit for our City and County. For the Schools, go to a Next Steps meeting, keep up with it on the District website, understand that you and we will need to compromise and be prepared to do that for the greater good.

Housing and Traffic and Schools are big issues for us right now. There are plenty of ways to get involved, just pick one and do it. This is an election year in Foster City, consider running for office, volunteer for a committee, just come to a Council meeting and share your opinion. If you get involved with solutions, you will see that these problems are not quite as scary as you thought.

City Council Paves The Way For Hundreds Of Additional Housing Units

At yesterday’s City Council meeting by a vote of 3-2 (with Council Member Perez and me opposing) the City Council voted to approve the Housing Element Update of our General Plan.  The effect of this is that we will have to rezone two apartment projects in town from 20 units per acre to 35 units per acre, paving the way for the owners of those projects to add hundreds of additional housing units to our City. Moreover, this will significantly limit the ability of the City to stop such high density growth at those projects and its resulting negative impact on our quality of life.

While I commended staff for looking outside the box, I suggested an alternative, which was to rezone the City owned golf course on 3rd avenue. Now it is important to understand when considering this alternative that the Housing Element does not require us to build any housing, it only requires us to show the State that we have the ability to meet our allocated housing needs.  Thus, when I asked the staff if we could satisfy our obligations by rezoning the golf course to residential without actually building any housing, they said we could. They said that the only drawback was that they could not get that done in time for us to meet the State’s May 31 deadline to submit our Housing Element because of the necessary environmental impact study.  Missing that deadline would mean nothing more than that we would have to update our housing element one additional time, four years from now.  No other impact!

The upside of that option would have been that the City would retain complete control of any new housing anywhere in the City! Something I viewed as a win-win in that we could meet the State’s requirements yet retain the power to build or not build as we saw fit.  Apparently the majority of the Council disagreed and instead simply wanted to placate the State regardless of its impact on our City.  Wow!

I was especially troubled by the comments of our mayor and I urge you to look at the videotape of the meeting.  The mayor’s comments come towards the very end.  He started out by saying that no growth will reduce property values. Then, without skipping a beat, he claimed that low inventory is driving up home prices. I, for one, do not see how those two could possibly both be true.

He then went on to talk about possible litigation and the effect of that on our bond rating. The fact is that rezoning of the golf course would put us in compliance with State law and thus there would be no litigation. Moreover, while we might be seeking bond financing sometime in the future to deal with our levees and wastewater treatment plant, none of that has even been discussed let alone decided.

He then talked about where Gilead and Illumina employees would live and suggested that some members of the Council were being hypocritical by approving those companies’ growth plans without planning for housing for their employees. My answer to that is simple. They can live where they live now (I’ve moved my office many times and never moved my residence because of that), or if the want to move into Foster City, they can move into the hundreds of units under construction as I write this. There simply is no need for more housing to fill those needs.

The mayor then said, and this is a quote: “Higher density is going to happen – it’s just a matter of when.” Quite frankly, that offended me, not only as a member of the Council but as a resident of Foster City. Is that really what Foster City is destined to become? Do we really have no choice?  I don’t believe it.

He then went on to say “we grow or we die.” While under Prop 13 economics that is basically true and I have said as much myself, it is also true that we can have economic growth in areas other than housing development.  As I have written about before, perhaps to the point of obsession, we are much too dependant on property tax and need to diversify. The Housing Element approved by the Council only serves to make that dependence worse, not better.

Finally, the mayor concluded that he could not support the golf course idea because anyone living at the golf course would not be connected to Foster City because they are physically isolated from the other residential areas. The point in rezoning the golf course is not to build houses there, but to show the State that we have the potential to build if needed. We can then address real growth and real housing needs at our leasure without any pressure from the State and without giving up our right to control growth in our City.

This is an election year folks. The mayor is termed out but two of those that agreed with him are not and one of those is up for re-election in November. Do you agree that “higher density is going to happen – it’s just a matter of when”? If not, now is the time for action. I am not a no-growth advocate, I am a smart growth, diversify the economic base of the City advocate. We can get that done if a majority of the Council agrees to do just that. The choice will be coming in November and the choice will be yours.

Economic Development Moves to the Front Burner

Yesterday we had our first budget study session and as part of our discussion, we unanimously decided to hold the first detailed study session to flesh out our long term vision by holding a public hearing on economic development. I was greatly encouraged to see that all the members of the Council believe this to be one of the most important long term issues for our City.  The public study session will be held on Monday, March 9 April 13 starting at 6:30 p.m. at Council Chambers. Hope to see many of you there.

Upcoming Issues

This afternoon we will be having a closed session as we commence the process to look for a replacement for our City Manager, Jim Hardy. This is a bittersweet process for us all as Jim has been running the City for a long time. What is most important is that we do this right, not quickly, and I am pretty confident that we will come to the correct result.

The regular meeting, which starts as 6:30, has some significant issues for our future. One item on the agenda is the approval of the letter of intent between the City and Illumina, Inc. for a new campus at the far end of Third. I am hopeful that this will be a win-win for us and for Illumina.

Also on the agenda is the hiring of CH2M Hill to act as the project manager for the upcoming 20 year wastewater treatment plant modifications and improvements.  We are partners in our wastewater treatment plant with San Mateo and we will, in the coming years, be updating the plant and hopefully generating some recycled water that we can use in the City for irrigation.  I have also talked to some folks in Redwood City in the hope that we could use some of their recycled water on the other side of the City for similar use.  It is something we will be exploring further this year.

Next Monday, starting at 4:00, we will be holding our first Budget Study Session. The review, modification and approval of the budget is probably the most important thing we do every year.  If you want to learn more about it, come meet with us next week.

On the 2nd of February we will be looking at the Housing Element of the City’s General Plan.  I know that many of you are concerned about continued housing growth, so this would be a good meeting to come to and learn more about the process and give us your feedback.

On the 23rd of February we will see a return of the Marina Project.  I hope you will all come out for that as well.

If you haven’t made a new year’s resolution yet, make one to get more involved.  This will be an election year for Foster City, with a majority of the seats on the Council open for election, including one open seat vacated by Art Kiesel who will be termed out. In addition, there may be a school bond on the ballot and I am sure that the state will have other issues of interest for us to decide.

A Shining Example

Yesterday at the meeting of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission made a presentation about the current state of the drought. I was extremely pleased to see that Foster City (Estero Municipal Improvement District) was tied for second best for water conservation on a per capita basis for the entire 9 County Bay Area Region this past November.  Thank you all for helping to make this happen and for being leaders in this area.  We are still in a drought and every drop you save today will be available for us tomorrow.  Great job Foster City!!

Another Quick Note on the Marina Project

Yesterday, the Foster City City Counsel held its annual Team Building meeting.  Among the things accomplished was a decision by the Council to bring the Marina project back for a second public hearing to get further public and Council comments.  The date has not yet been set, but that should happen soon.  UPDATE – The meeting on the marina project will be on February 23, 6:30 p.m. at Council Chambers.