Saturday, September 17, 2016

Silicon Valley's ambivalence towards growth

Last month, the latest mayor of Palo Alto explained his slow growth philosophy against both economic and housing growth. An interview with Curbed San Francisco began

Curbed SF: Everybody agrees that too many people can’t afford Palo Alto. So why is it like this?

Mayor Patrick Burt: There are a number of factors. First, we’re in a region that’s had extremely high job growth at a rate that is just not sustainable if we’re going to keep [Palo Alto] similar to what it’s been historically. Of course we know that the community is going to evolve. But we don’t want it to be a radical departure. We don’t want to turn into Manhattan.

Curbed: But there’s a pretty big margin between Palo Alto and Manhattan. What are you comfortable changing?

Burt: We're looking to increase the rate of housing growth, but decrease the rate of job growth.

Curbed: You want fewer jobs?

Burt: I know, it’s a strange idea to contend with. But this doesn’t mean we want no job growth. And it doesn’t mean we want reckless job growth. We want metered job growth and metered housing growth, in places where it will have the least impact on things like our transit infrastructure. …
The interview seemed in response to the resignation of a city planning commissioner who resigned two weeks earlier because her family could no longer afford to live in Palo Alto. It’s hard to disagree with part of Park’s argument that economic growth requires housing growth — but Burt (a medical device CEO) seems ambivalent about the latter as well.

In today's Wall Street Journal, former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler notes that the cheapest house in Palo Alto has 959 square feet, backs to the train tracks, and costs $1.35 million. (That's roughly double what a comparable house cost when we looked at moving to Palo Alto in 2002).

Kessler continued:
I wanted to ask Mayor Burt: Is stifling job creation really going to help? Or would that only boost surrounding towns? Palo Alto has already capped the annual growth of office space. It took years to approve a new $5 billion Stanford Hospital extension, which the area desperately needed. Even worse, there is a funny quirk in the zoning laws that limits what’s allowed in so-called Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development areas (downtown). This includes restrictions on research and development, a catchall for limited manufacturing, “storage or use of hazardous materials,” and “computer software and hardware firms.”

I can tell you outright that the only hazardous materials in an office of software coders are their high-test caffeine concoctions. But the software firms are many. Amazon has its search team in Palo Alto. The big-data firm Palantir has been gobbling up buildings for its engineers. Facebook had several before moving to neighboring Menlo Park. SurveyMonkey has a huge site near the train station.

Even Palo Alto’s residential areas are filled with startups, real-life versions of Erlich Bachman’s house from HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They’re easy to spot, having more cars parked during the day than at night. These companies offer high-paying and productive jobs that are great for society.
In the 1970s and 1980s, San Francisco was decrying “Manhattanization” but today that is a fait accompli. Meanwhile, most of the Bay Area (particularly the City and the Peninsula) is emulating the trends of excessive living costs that drove large companies and jobs out of New York City during that same period.

The explosion of housing prices in the Bay Area over the past five years is pricing ordinary workers out of the market. Yes, it is possible to commute from New Jersey (which here is called "Contra Costa County"), but such commutes strain highway and mass transit infrastructure (and push suburban and exurban housing prices up too).

Kessler notes that the solution to high housing costs is (surprise!) building more housing. I understand the importance of making available single family homes, and I think it is a strength of both California and the U.S. more broadly. Still, anyone driving along I-280 knows there are large swaths of undeveloped land in the Bay Area — that in LA would be houses but in the Bay Area are called “open space.” According to Wikipedia, the housing density of Palo Alto (2,500 residents/acre) is half that of nearby Cupertino, and less than one-fourth that of Santa Monica — another upscale, highly desirable community. (Burt’s hyperbole is demonstrated by noting that the actual housing density of Manhattan is nearly 30 times that of Palo Alto).

So will Silicon Valley voters (let alone politicians) embrace the full implications of economic growth by developing undeveloped land or increasing housing density? Or will it continue down this path of being available to well-paid tech elites, while ordinary (non VC-funded) entrepreneurs and businesses have to move elsewhere?

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