The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.

Finding housing in former strip malls and big box stores in California

In a state with a need for cheaper housing, some in California are looking to commercial properties along main roads:

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Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes…

Converting underutilized retail and office space into apartments is not a novel idea, but it’s gaining fresh attention from California lawmakers, especially as pandemic-fueled e-commerce and remote work trends continue to empty brick-and-mortar stores and business parks across the state. In December, California State Senator Anna Caballero, who represents the Central and Salinas valleys and cities such as Merced, helped introduce Senate Bill 6, which would fast-track the creation of walkable infill development and make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Another member of the state’s legislature, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, has a similar proposal to encourage commercial-to-residential conversions, Assembly Bill 115. (California has a bicameral legislature.) And Senator Anthony Portantino introduced AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box sites into workforce housing…

But more than 40% of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metros prohibit residential development, according to a recent report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley. “Residential Redevelopment of Commercially Zoned Land in California” highlights the growing potential of such rezoning proposals. “It’s a perfect infill option,” says David Garcia, a co-author and policy director at the Terner Center. While legislation like these proposed bills hasn’t been passed in other states, he believes they address a universal problem. “You’re really plugging in gaps left by shifts in the commercial marketplace, by Covid and the shift to e-commerce.”

There are three main types of projects ripe for this kind of reuse, Garcia says: commercial strips in more urban areas, often along existing transit lines; former big box retailers in more suburban areas; and vacant land in the exurban landscape that’s been reserved for future development. Researchers found there was actually more acreage of available commercial space per person in more suburban/outlier areas, an opportunity that, if paired with increased investment in transit, could quickly bring more density and valuable walkable development to fast-growing and diversifying suburban centers, some of which have already done a relatively good job of building new housing. “Instead of thinking about a bill like this as another state mandate cities need to adhere to, it should be looked at as a tool for doing the good planning they need to do anyways,” Garcia says. 

This might be hard sell before COVID-19 but the severe issues for retailers and businesses may make a lot of properties available.

Even with these issues, I wonder how many communities would quickly give up commercial properties to be rezoned for residential use. Many communities rely on commercial properties along major roads for sales tax revenue. If commercial property disappears from the local zoning map, how would a community make up those revenues?

Of course, providing possibly cheaper housing could be desirable to residents, even if it comes at the expense of commercial properties. And new residential units might even revive some local commercial activity.

If this is enabled at the state level, it would be interesting to see how quickly communities and developers would move. Vacant property is not desirable for any municipality. Would this move more quickly in certain kinds of communities compared to others?

The two best pools I have seen in California

I have made a number of trips to California, usually visiting family or for vacation. And while I do not typically seek out pools on my vacation, with the end of summer I was reminded of two pools I really enjoyed seeing.

The first is at Hearst Castle. The house is fun to tour with its unique features and location up on a hill that offers great views all around. The indoor pool is impressive but the outside pool is even better:

Columns, large pool, a sunny day. Although it was the first thing on the property we saw on our tour, I could stopped there.

The second pool is further south at The Getty Villa. In what looks like a Roman villa filled with art, there is a long courtyard with this:

While this pool is only a few feet deep, I could still imagine floating around in this great setting surrounded by palm trees and art.

It may not be a coincidence that both pools are surrounded by classical columns. This is not just swimming, this is fun in the water surrounded by the aura of history (even if these buildings are relatively recent constructions that evoke tradition and opulence). The contrast here would be some of the ultra-modern skyscrapers topped with infinity pools; they sell a pool at the top of the urban world amid steel and glass.

Or, perhaps the lure of the pool knowing that visitors cannot swim in them helps make them attractive. They are part of the scenery – even as they likely cost quite a bit to maintain – that cannot be touched. And with visitors coming on a number of hot days, these pools look refreshing.

In the end, I would be happy to go back and sit by these pools. And if there is ever an event that allows people to use them, I would be interested.

Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.

California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

Zoning for single-family homes contributes to California’s housing issues

If a lot of individual communities zone largely for single-family homes, it can add up to larger housing problems:

At its heart, California’s housing problem is one of scarcity: According to one analysis, the state has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs to house all the people who live there. That gap was created over decades — largely as a result of the zoning policies of individual communities, under pressure from local residents. Randy Shaw, a longtime Bay Area housing advocate and author of the book Generation Priced Out, says the best way to describe the dynamics at play is to look at the city of Atherton. Thirty minutes from San Jose, Atherton is the most expensive city in the country: The median price of a home there is $8.1 million.

“You can’t build an apartment building in Atherton,” Shaw says. City code prohibits anything other than a single-unit building with a footprint that cannot exceed 18 percent of the land. In other words, everything but a single, detached home with a yard is verboten. “You have all of these cities in California where you can’t build anything but a luxury home,” Shaw says. “When you have zoning restrictions that prevent you from building the housing you need, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in the situation we have.”

It’s a problem lawmakers across the state are grappling with, including in San Jose, where 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. “You got lots of family housing, and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments,” Liccardo said at a meeting of the state’s mayors in July. “At least, not if you don’t want [homeowners] to burn down City Hall.”…

At the start of the legislative session this past January, the housing committee introduced a slate of bills focused on streamlining approvals for new construction, protecting renters, funding affordable housing, and, most controversially, reforming zoning laws. Wiener’s top priority was SB50, an ambitious proposal that would prohibit cities from having zoning laws like Atherton’s. Residential neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes would be opened up to multi-unit housing like triplexes and fourplexes. And even higher-density construction would be allowed around transit corridors and “job-rich” enclaves.

With suburban preferences for single-family homes, exclusion, and local control, providing cheaper housing at a state level is going to be a tough sell. As I have asked before, what incentive do wealthier homeowners have to change the rules that let them live with people like them? But, if California can find some path through this all that actually makes an impact – and it will likely take quite a while before significant change could be noted – then it could provide a helpful template for other American locations that suffer from similar problems.

Filming the world around Hollywood and California

In working on some recent research, I ran into the classic 1927 map from Paramount Studios showing filming locations in California (reproduced in numerous works):

ParamountStudioMapCalifornia1927

Add this to the capabilities of shooting on backlots and the world may be relatively easy to access from Hollywood. There are likely other reasons the film and television industry chose to locate together in and around Hollywood but having such varied nearby locations likely helps.

One thing that is missing from this map: urban locations. This map certainly reflects an interest in more natural settings. Los Angeles in 1927 was still under development. Even later Los Angeles can be fairly distinctive – just look at all the car ads filmed in and around the city. San Francisco offers some spectacular scenery but its uniqueness means it could be hard for the location to double for other places.

The suburban way of life is not the result of free markets

Even as Americans have exercised some agency in choosing to live in suburbs, the whole system cannot truly be described as being the result of free market activity:

I get the concern and rarely disagree with Shelley, but there’s nothing free market about current single-family zoning rules. The suburban landscape largely is a creation of subsidies and zoning rules, which mandate only one house per certain size of lot and require umpteen parking spaces for every new shopping center, restaurant, office and church. Everything is micromanaged in the planning department.

I’m on the building committee of our church and have closely examined many proposed construction projects. It is so hard to build, expand or try any new development ideas because these planning edicts—designed mainly to protect our suburban way of life, and backed by residents trying to bolster their property values—are costly and inflexible…

But the underlying debate is about two visions of our California landscape. One side wants to protect our suburban model and the other side wants to urbanize. It’s a false choice driven by their own personal preferences. We need more apartments and condos. We need more single-family neighborhoods. We need to allow builders to provide the housing products people want, and different people want different things. The same people want different things at different stages of their lives. I live on an acreage, but now that we’re empty nesters, my wife and I plan to move into the city. That’s why I’m squarely on neither side.

After my housing column last week, I’ve heard from readers who oppose the legislation. Frankly, I’m frustrated by some of their arguments. To summarize some comments: If you can’t afford to live around here, then maybe move someplace else. There are too many people here already and too much traffic congestion. If your kids can’t afford California, they should consider less-costly states. Such views transcend political affiliation.

Zoning is a good example of how regulations can dictate what communities can construct and then who can reside or work in such locations.

Add two other other less-than-free-market aspects of suburbia:

1. A legacy of racial and class discrimination in suburbs.

2. Government subsidies for highways and other local services as well as propping up suburban housing in the form of single-family homes.

Americans might not acknowledge the ways suburbs developed and may even resist seeing them as social products. But, addressing tough suburban issues such as affordable housing probably requires thinking and acting at more collective levels than letting the beloved local governments dictate what they want (which can often deliberately lead to exclusion).

Building celebrity mansions that can stave off wildfires

The Woolsey Fire in southern California has claimed the large homes of numerous celebrities:

Early Monday morning, Cyrus tweeted that her Malibu home — a $2.5 million mansion she purchased with her fiance, Liam Hemsworth, in 2016 — had been destroyed. The Woolsey Fire, which has been burning swaths of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in Southern California since Thursday, has forced evacuations and threatened thousands of homes from Thousand Oaks to Malibu…

Butler focused the camera on the charred frame of his former house, surrounded by ash and the blackened shell of a truck…

In a post on his website, Young stated that he had just lost “another” house to a California fire, referring to the Malibu home he shared with Daryl Hannah…

As The Post’s Sonia Rao reported, the historic Paramount Ranch production set in Agoura Hills burned on Friday, while wildfire threatened the nearby homes of a slew of celebrities, including Guillermo del Toro, Alyssa Milano, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye West, James Woods, Orlando Bloom, Melissa Etheridge, Rainn Wilson, Cher and Pink.

Given the amount of money wealthy people put into their homes, what features could help a home avoid wildfires? A few options:

  1. An exterior sprinkler/hose system to help keep the home wet and not burst into flames.
  2. A protective shell that could arise around the exterior of the home.
  3. Construction out of certain materials that would be more fire-resistant.
  4. Building homes within communities that have permanent fire breaks around them or other devices to help slow fires before they arrive at individual homes.

None of these options would be cheap but there could be an opportunity here. And if these options could be had at a reasonable price, perhaps they could make their way to the general market.

(Side note: see an earlier related post about creating a McMansion that could withstand other natural disasters.)