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July 30, 2013 > Editorial: A basket of eggs

Editorial: A basket of eggs

A folk wisdom phrase I have heard throughout my life that has turned out to be a guiding principle in many disciplines is, "don't put all your eggs in one basket." This idiomatic piece of wisdom is interpreted to mean that it is unwise to concentrate all efforts and resources in one single possibility or hope.

Planning for a life of economic leisure based on winning millions from the Lottery is a fervent hope of many, but reality for very few. Diversity spreads risk and many such as financial planners rely on a spread of growth and income options to create a wise portfolio. In the same way, regional and city planning must be careful of too much emphasis on uniformity.

One could use a literal argument that when buying a dozen eggs, uniformity is desired, not diversity. So, in that case, the opposite of variety is preferable; perspective and circumstances dictate standardization. However, with this approach, regularity, conformity and consistency, although reliable, may exclude visionary dynamics necessary for long term applications. Is there a better way to produce eggs?

Which way is best? It depends on the type and timeframe of planning involved. In many disciplines, what was considered modern and "cutting edge" even a few years ago, may be obsolete and rudimentary today. In the computer world for instance, paradigm shifts can be measured in months! However, waiting too long for the right moment to commit to a course of action can be counterproductive, leading to interminable delays and little accomplishment.

In the realm of city and regional planning, many trends and designs previously considered contemporary, even advanced, now appear dated and shabby. Some ideas lost ground almost before they were realized. Reviewing local residential construction, offices and shopping centers, some can often be easily categorized and dated by appearance and utility, falling short of modern requirements. In those cases, designers and builders put all their eggs in a particular basket, slavishly following the dictates of the newest philosophy or money trail.

A case in point is the move toward massive structures in Fremont's proposed "downtown" and "City Center" areas. The new Paragon Apartments construction on Walnut Avenue presents a high-rise collection of massive towers with small but expensive apartments and a satellite dish arrangement of art. As an introduction to the "downtown," it doesn't provide much excitement or imagination. Hopefully, this is not the forerunner of a "dynamic" downtown. In this case, function and floor area ratio - how much can be crammed into whatever space is available - have trumped innovation. A lot of uniform eggs in this basket!

Politicians reward such uniformity through the use of land use doctrine and money. The mantra of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) has taken hold of almost all decisions in government and, combined with the magic word "sustainability," has become the driving force of development. Absent oodles of money from Redevelopment, area transit funds are king of the hill, subjugating all to their demands. Internet commuting has its limits - just ask Yahoo's Marissa Mayer - and as we approach another negotiation deadline of BART, let's remember that when all eggs are put in that transportation/lifestyle basket, alternatives can be slim indeed.

The Valhalla of mass transit can be illusionary. It has its place but transition to near total reliance on mass transit can be wobbly. As cautioned when an advisory panel of Urban Land Institute experts visited Fremont in June 2012, opportunities presented do not guarantee success unless accompanied by a broad and vibrant vision, without the shackles of bureaucratic "wisdom."

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