Sustainable Development: Economic Driver and Bulwark against Climate Change

Coastal cities and regions should view private development of waterfront areas as a tool to combat the effects of climate change while also creating jobs, providing much-needed housing, and spurring economic growth, said the chief executive officer of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group in the San Francisco Bay area.

In a closing keynote address to ULI members at ULI’s Building the Resilient City: Risks and Opportunitiesconference held September 4–5 in San Francisco, Jim Wunderman noted that flooding, wildfires, and sea-level rise are as inevitable as earthquakes in the Bay Area and that urban development can actually mitigate their impacts through sustainable design and infrastructure.

“It wouldn’t make sense to stop building,” he said. “The solution to those issues is not just to retreat and run away from these [impacts], but to actually run at them [and] invest in . . . solutions that are consistent with proper urban planning and design and with economic growth so that we can all keep succeeding.”

The Bay Area Council has a long history of promoting a progrowth agenda in a region where environmental groups have exerted strong influence and political leaders have approached development with caution. ULI Foundation Governor Michael Covarrubias is the vice chair and secretary of the council’s executive committee.

Private developers also have the capital to provide vital shoreline protection—through a combination of natural and manmade infrastructure—and wetlands restoration that local government desperately needs but cannot pay for, Wunderman said. To illustrate his point, he cited two, new mixed-use developments—Brooklyn Basin, south of Jack London Square in Oakland, and a Wilson Meany/Lennar Urban project on Treasure Island—that include measures that account for future sea-level rise.

Urban development projects near transportation hubs and other amenities also address the housing shortage plaguing the Bay Area, where population and employment growth outpaces available housing.

Wunderman displayed a photo of a sprawling suburban development to illustrate the current mismatch between where the jobs are and where people live. It’s not uncommon for high-tech and service workers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley to commute two to three hours to their jobs each morning, he said.

“The reason these houses are here is because we’re not able to build houses in the areas where we want,” he said.

One project intended to correct the jobs/housing imbalance in the Bay Area and reduce commuting times to Silicon Valley was held up by Wunderman as an example of a missed opportunity.

In 2012, DMB Pacific Ventures withdrew its application to develop the Redwood City Saltworks, a mixed-use development on a 1,400-acre, former salt-harvesting site owned by Cargill. ULI Foundation Governor Mark Kehke is president and chief operations officer of DMB Pacific Ventures.

The Saltworks project was shelved largely due to a campaign waged against it by Save the Bay, an Oakland-based environmental advocacy group that opposes all infill development along the bay, and citizen groups, both of which pressured the local city council.

Wunderman suggested that all-or-nothing approaches don’t help communities reconcile the competing pressures they face—to remain economically attractive and vibrant while addressing current housing and transportation needs and planning for future natural disasters. “We need to come together to recognize that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good,” he said.[UR]

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