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NIMBY initiatives lose across California

Before the clock runs out on election interest, this is the first of two blogs noting electoral trends.

Real estate development is a political football in many cities in California, with some battles reaching the ballot box. This November, NIMBY initiatives across the state were defeated. The three most radical anti-growth measures in California were Measure KK in Berkeley (anti-Bus Rapid Transit), Measures V and W in Redwood City (wetlands preservation), and Measure T in Santa Monica (cap on commercial construction). All lost, by substantial margins.

Regular readers of this and other blogs know that Bus Rapid Transit’s showdown in Berkeley was followed closely by transit activists. I was part of the No on KK campaign, which won with 77% of residents voting No. Measure KK received more attention than anything else on the Berkeley or even East Bay ballot. The media, from the blogs to the Daily Planet to the Chronicle, devoted far more space over the course of the year to Measure KK than to Berkeley mayor’s race, the wide-open City Council seat, or Oakland and regional measures. Now BRT opponents are arguing that people voted based on No on KK’s excellent mailer and not because they support BRT on Telegraph Avenue, but the overwhelming margin of defeat and the great deal of substantive public discussion shows that voters support changing car lanes to other uses.

Several years ago, Cargill Inc sold their pink-hued, salt-producing wetlands to the state in a large and complicated deal, while reserving two profitable portions to offset the cost of the land. In Redwood City, influential Oakland-based nonprofit Save The Bay placed a measure on the ballot to upend this deal and prevent development on a newly-created parcel by requiring a two-thirds vote to change its General Plan designation to open space. In response, the City Council placed a measure requiring only a simple majority vote. In the end, voters rejected both measures, Save the Bay’s W by 63%.

Arguably the most radically anti-growth local ballot measure was in Santa Monica. City Councilmember Bobby Shriver, working with a local NIMBY group, sponsored an initiative to cap commercial construction at 75,000 square feet. Not only would that entirely preclude office development, it would also prevent retail and urban mixed-use (housing over retail) projects. Much like Smart Growth links transportation and growth, so did Mr. Shriver and other supporters of Measure T attempt to convince voters that ending growth would somehow “fight traffic.” Also like KK, Measure T enjoyed a sympathetic media. Yet just as KK supporters failed to convince Berkeleyans that next-generation bus service would worsen traffic, Santa Monicans rejected T’s traffic argument by 56%.

There are other examples: Beverly Hills voters narrowly approved construction of three hotel / residential skyscrapers on the ugly white concrete high-rise Beverly Hilton, referended by NIMBYs; and Moraga’s restrictive Measure K was voted down by 56%. On the other hand, San Francisco voters approved NIMBY-in-chief Aaron Peskin’s powerful Landmarks Preservation Commission (Measure J), but there was no argument filed against it and it was lost in the confusing morass of San Francisco’s ballot questions, A-V. Without opposition, it earned only 57% of votes. The failure of anti-growth measures across California show that Smart Growth proponents can craft winning messages, and that electoral sympathy for NIMBYs and anti-transit activists is low.

Posted in actransit, berkeley, blogoaksphere, brt, california, development, elections, housing, san francisco, transportation, zoning.

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5 Responses

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  1. Max Allstadt says

    KK passed, so damn the polar bears? Nice argument. Let’s hope that the anti-BRT people continue the brilliant tactic of calling 77% of Berkeleyans stupid and gullible. Way to win friends guys.

  2. Chris Kidd says

    The wishful thinking/willful dellusions of pro KK people bear an eerie resemblence to the excuse making of the post-election RNC. KK suporters were *so* sure beforehand that they had their finger on the pulse of Berkeley voters and that all the anti-KK arguments were just so much special-interest meddling and media tricks. Then, of course, the election happened.

    But the results don’t mean what you think! It doesn’t mean that Berkeley wants responsible transit options, it means voters mere misled by pretty pictures(duh!). The results of the vote really means that BRT “demands greater public discussion”.

    Just like we’re still a “center-right” country…

  3. bikerider says

    The big hole in your theory is the failure to pass Measure LL (Landmark Reform, to bring Berkeley in compliance with State law). Granted, part of the reason may have some of the confusion over what a ‘yes’ vote actually meant, but nonetheless, this was a victory for the hysterical preservationists.

  4. Becks says

    The folks over at California Planning & Development Report actually reached the opposite conclusion, arguing that more slow-growth measures passed than pro-growth. I haven’t read their full report yet, but this short blog post explains their reasoning.

    I have no idea who’s right in this case, but it’s interesting that you both looked at the same initiative results and drew different conclusions.

  5. dto510 says

    Becks – That’s interesting. I might buy their report. They separate transit measures from growth measures, which I didn’t. I didn’t go through every county like I think they did, but the highest-profile battles were the ones I highlighted, and the pro-growth side won.

    bikerider – It’s true the preservationists got Berkeley’s new ordinance rejected (though they failed to pass their own ordinance two years ago), but I don’t know much about that campaign. KK was definitely an informed campaign, with a great deal of public attention, issue-oriented mailers (the Polar Bear mailer specifically addresses improved transit and street closures in the inside text), and media coverage. LL didn’t get anything near that. I think that SF’s completely one-sided election for a preservation commission was telling: it only got 57% with no opposition. Certainly there’s room to move public opinion with more information.