Sunnyvale’s “Balanced Growth Profile”, AKA “Skippy”

Last night, we held a study session on the infamous “Balanced Growth Profile” (BGP), which has been widely misunderstood, and which is frequently used to say things about Sunnyvale that simply aren’t true.  This study session was triggered when the Planning Commission mistook the BGP as actual city policy and wanted to use it in evaluating projects, something that was never intended when it was created.  It was useful to have staff run through what the BGP does and doesn’t mean.  I can’t hope to duplicate the entire study session here, but I’ll call out some of the highlights.

The BGP displays information about the status of ten key community service indicators:

  • Population
  • Jobs
  • Housing Units
  • Office/Industrial Floor Area
  • Retail/Service Floor Area
  • Annual Tax Revenue
  • Public School Capacity
  • Transportation Capacity Improvements
  • Park Capacity Improvements

The BGP was created in 2007, using 2005 as a “baseline of a balanced community”, and it attempts to project out to 2025 to determine where we want to be and where we currently are, or where we think we will be shortly.  Unfortunately, almost immediately after being created, it has failed to do so.  There are several reasons for that.

The 2005 “Balanced Baseline” has no basis in reality

Here’s how we established the “balanced baseline”.  Every two years, we put out a resident satisfaction survey.  In establishing the baseline in 2007, the most recent survey, 2005, was examined.  And Sunnyvale received extremely high marks in virtually every category.  Based on this, the assumption was made that “everyone was happy in 2005, therefore things must have been properly balanced in 2005, so we should use 2005 as a ‘balanced baseline'”.

However, we conduct the same survey every two years.  And in every survey since 2005, Sunnyvale has consistently received extremely high marks in virtually every category.  Residents remain very happy with the city – even though various indicators have changed dramatically since 2005.  So even though population has grown and jobs and housing have grown, and even though the balance has changed in some way, the survey would seem to indicate that we’re still in balance.  And the city is clearly different in some ways from 2005.  Bottom line, we have no definition of balance, no baseline, and therefore no meaningful goals for 2025 levels, despite what the BGP implies.  The entire notion of the BGP representing “balance” is simply false, and as such, naming this indicator the “Balanced Growth Profile” is wrong and misleading.

Staff pointed out that people remain happy, despite significant shifts in office space over the past ten years.  This doesn’t necessarily represent a change in “balance” – it more likely represents more of a shift in Sunnyvale away from being the bedroom community of the 80’s and 90s and more towards the more fully integrated city it is becoming.  Regardless, given the way the BGP was built, anyone could equally say that 2007 or 2009 or 2011 or 2013 represented “balance”.

After Councilmember Martin-Milius called out the badness of its name, I agreed and pointed out that it needs to be changed – and that even calling the BGP “Skippy” would be better than its current name.  A couple of my colleagues have seized on this and clearly intend to refer to the BGP as “Skippy” from now on.  So be it.

Skippy is incomplete, and three of the indicators are known to be totally invalid

In looking at any instantiation of Skippy, the first point most people notice is that Utility Capacity Improvements and Park Capacity Improvements show zero progress, and Transportation Capacity Improvements show virtually no change since Skippy was created.  But naturally, we’ve actually spent a lot of money and effort in all three areas.  Sunnyvale Works! alone accounted for $110 million in infrastructure improvements, mostly in transportation, but also in utilities (water/sewer)., but none of that is represented in Skippy.  We simply aren’t measuring utility or park capacity, and we have no established baseline or goals for them.  And we aren’t measuring most transportation improvements.  In short, Skippy’s information regarding these three services have no basis in reality.

But that hasn’t stopped certain individuals from stating quite publicly “hey, we’re building massive amounts of housing and office space without working on transportation, and that’s wrong!”.  Well, NO, the premise of that statement is simply false.

Significant portions of Skippy are beyond Sunnyvale’s control

We do not control the public school capacity indicator, and we have virtually no influence on whether or not school capacity increases.  While we control portions of the transportation indicator, the most significant portions (public transit and highways) are mostly beyond our control.

Skippy is not policy by itself, and it has no basis in Sunnyvale policy

Sunnyvale created Skippy and we slapped it into the General Plan.  But having done so, we made zero changes to the General Plan to accomplish any goals that may be suggested by Skippy.  There are no policies that cause us to change behavior because of Skippy.  If we decide that Skippy indicates that there are too many jobs or not enough housing, our zoning and land use doesn’t change to try and enforce “balance”.  All of Sunnyvale’s growth, planning, and land use are governed by zoning and by the General Plan, which Skippy doesn’t influence in any way.

Skippy’s future projections aren’t actually accurate forecasts

There are two different versions of Skippy that are presented, with one showing present conditions (with all but two indicators below the 40% line) and a recent version showing present conditions plus planned/approved projects (with some indicators already approaching 100% only half-way through Skippy’s lifespan.  However, “planned/approved” doesn’t mean “will be built”, and it doesn’t even mean “may be built soon”.  It is worst-case given current approvals.  Projects are frequently planned and even approved, only to be cancelled.  Even the ones that are approved may not be completed for many years.  My own condo complex was planned and approved in 2005, but all phases weren’t completed until 2009 – and that’s a simple 277-unit housing complex.  Large projects such as Juniper’s 1 million square feet of office space expansion (expanding from 1 million to 2 million square feet) will likely span a decade before all approved phases are finished.

The scariness of the “planned/approved” version is somewhat unwarranted.  One conclusion of this discussion was that however useful Skippy may be as a planning indicator (which isn’t much), it is entirely deceptive, visually.

Skippy’s metrics are often incomplete or don’t integrate well with each other

We measure “Housing Units”.  But that doesn’t reflect the capacity for housing population, since a housing unit could be adequate for one person or ten.  The three “improvement” metrics have no real “metric” associated with them.  Either office or retail floor area can mean various things as well.

Skippy’s metrics are extremely coarse and often not useful as a result

Skippy measures “population”, but provides nothing about, say, number of children or number of seniors, both of which figure heavily into land use and planning.  Other indicators are also often useless in making more specific decisions, such as planning for different kinds of housing units.

In conclusion, staff made it obvious that Skippy is largely useless as a planning tool, in its current state.  The debate now becomes what to do going forward.  Do we scrap it?  Do we fix it? Do we replace it?  We’ve discussed returning to a visioning process next year, but we shouldn’t do so until we have a better understanding of what we want to measure and what we want to plan for, and what “balanced” really means.  In the meantime, we now know just how perilous it is to use Skippy as a planning tool.

I know that I’ve personally been looked at askance when people have raised Skippy to make some point about changes, only to have me dismiss their argument.  I’ve had extensive discussions with staff over the years to try and understand what significance Skippy does and doesn’t have, so I’ve been aware of just how useless it really is as a planning tool.  And when I’ve attempted to explain to people that Skippy doesn’t mean what they think it means, they seem to believe that I’ve just been trying to justify my own world view in opposition to theirs.  In reality, I try very hard to engage in fact-based decision-making, and my dismissal of Skippy reflects my understanding of its uselessness.  Hopefully, others see that now, too.


Sunnyvale’s “Balanced Growth Profile”, AKA “Skippy” — 14 Comments