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The search for “green unicorns” – they do exist!

Creating communities that are both sustainable and affordable in California’s Bay Area is tough – but not impossible

By Trevor Macenski, Principal (Walnut Creek, CA)

The San Francisco Bay Area – home to the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and unicorns.

Yes, unicorns!

At least the start-up company version of the unicorn – companies valued at more than $1 billion.

Living and working in the Bay Area, I am amazed at the constant discussion of these unicorns and their somewhat legendary status. Why is it such a hot topic? Simply put, it’s hard to do.

Part of why it’s so hard is the increasingly astronomical cost of living in the Bay Area. The rebounding economic market, coupled with the strong investment culture of the Bay Area, has resulted in one of our nation’s booming local economies – without the affordable housing needed to support it.

California also has some of the most stringent environmental laws in the country. When you combine a need for housing with strict limits on development, tensions can rise, as this recent New York Times story describes. But compromise can be found – you might call it the “Green Unicorn.”

Recently, I had the privilege of presenting at the Association of Environmental Professionals annual conference in San Diego. The topic of my presentation was a piece of legislation known as Senate Bill 375, which was passed in California more than eight years ago to help “streamline” the state level environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The intent of this legislation was to coordinate regional infrastructure planning with local community development goals in an attempt to align the two to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through this process, regional governments and metropolitan planning organizations were to develop a planning document called a Sustainable Communities Strategy. The document would outline the regional infrastructure planning exercise and identify how a local community’s growth goals within the region would dovetail into this regional planning process. Through this planning framework, the local communities could utilize the CEQA streamlining identified in SB375. 

And that’s where the Green Unicorn comes in.

The New York Times story reports that the median home price in San Francisco is $1.1 million; the region’s rent, at $3,500 for an average apartment, is the nation’s highest. In an attempt to combat the affordable housing challenges the Bay Area is facing – especially with the ever-increasing number of baby boomers reaching retirement age – there is a large demand for affordable senior living communities. One of the goals of the SB375 legislation was to try and streamline permitting for these kinds of dense urban-centric based projects.

In 2015, Daly City, the largest city in San Mateo County and directly adjacent to San Francisco, approved a Green Unicorn of a project. Not only was Daly City brave enough to be the first municipality in the Bay Area to utilize the new CEQA document, but both the city and the applicant wanted to capitalize on the increased level of legal defensibility offered with the Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), which is a new type of CEQA document. So at the end of the day, both the City and the applicant benefited from a legally defensible document, at a reduced cost, with a shorter entitlement process – and the community supported the project.

Just as tech companies are seeking their billion-dollar unicorn, CEQA practitioners too are searching for our Green Unicorns. We are trying to facilitate community engagement in the local planning processes, save our clients money, and increase the legal defensibility of the environmental documentation process. In this case, we were able to prepare the first SCEA in the Bay Area to offer a solution to one of our local communities attempting to tackle affordable senior living head on. 

And that’s just magical!

Trevor Macenski is a principal and environmental compliance specialist based in the Bay Area. In addition to his client work, Trevor teaches environmental impact assessment methodologies at the University of California, Davis.

This map shows the groundwater basins surrounding the project in Daly City.

Just as tech companies are seeking their billion-dollar unicorn, CEQA practitioners too are searching for our Green Unicorns.

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