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March 8, 2005 > Editorial: The Impact of High Density Housing

Editorial: The Impact of High Density Housing

At a recent meeting of the Fremont City Council, a small item to correct a rezoning oversight was placed on the consent agenda. It was pulled from consent for discussion by councilmember Dominic Dutra. Removing an item from the consent agenda (items grouped together and voted for approval without discussion) happens when a member of the public or a councilmember wants to clarify, comment on or oppose a staff recommendation.

In this case, Mr. Dutra, a land developer who should be knowledgeable about such things, explained to his fellow councilmembers that Fremont was rushing to rezone parcels in accordance with state housing mandates without reasonable due diligence. Fremont citizens have witnessed a parade of rezoning requests from Fremont city staff presented with the same litany each time, citing the need to solve the state housing mandate with high density development wherever possible.

Finally someone on the council has started to ask the right questions. What does it cost in additional city services to rezone property to higher densities? What are the ramifications of rezoning commercial property to high density residential? Does the city reap enough reward from this conversion to pay for services required by additional residents? Is it reasonable to expect an increase of sales tax revenues to offset the loss of commercial development? Since the state has consistently raided city coffers, how will the city support more residences? Newark, to its credit, has wisely decided to retain the commercial zoning of the K-Mart property.

The specter of more children crowding schools with little additional capacity has been raised by citizens at several city council meetings when rezoning requests have been presented. However, the question of impact on city services has been muted. Mr. Dutra says that he intends to continue to bring this question to the council at every opportunity. I agree with him. To focus on one end of an equation without recognizing its effect on the other is unsound. So far, it appears that the words "high density" are seen as magic bullets that will solve city problems.

Unfortunately, without adequate planning for the additional people that will occupy these residences, Fremont and other cities, trying to solve a housing (especially affordable housing) shortfall, may find themselves trying to provide more services with less revenue. In these times of fiscal stress, when the state is searching desperately for additional revenues and has no problem "borrowing" from other public entities, careful growth management is of paramount importance.

Union City plans call for over 1,200 new residences, some at very high density near the intermodal station in the Decoto area. Housing construction is to be accompanied by retail and commercial ventures. Hopefully this expansion is part of a coherent plan that takes additional pressure on city services and neighboring cities into account. Traffic impact on neighboring Fremont will be substantial. A small portion of Highway 84, from Mission Boulevard to Alvarado-Niles Road, will be built no matter what final decision is made about extending Highway 84 through Fremont. This is a clear example of the impact neighboring cities can have upon each other. Regional squabbles simply exacerbate the problems.

A blind rush to build housing has been the ruin of many cities now plagued with traffic gridlock, pollution and intense pressure on public services. Cities can manage growth in a rational and sensible manner as long as all interests are balanced in the equation. Have current governments taken lessons from past mistakes? Sometimes even seemingly inconsequential agenda items can have large impacts. It is up to our public representatives and concerned citizens to watch each request for zoning change carefully and try to understand where it may lead.

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