Rumor Control: Future Sunnyvale Development and Traffic

A recent rumor has been circulated that Sunnyvale’s government proposes projects enormous changes housing, industry, and traffic, and the rumor quotes significant, scary numbers in its claims.  Unfortunately, the author made major factual errors in his claims, and the result isn’t at all correct.  In some cases, there’s no basis in reality for the numbers, and in others city documentation was misread or misunderstood.  It bears clarifying what is under discussion and providing accurate facts.  The City Manager has heard these rumors herself, and she will be addressing them too in an upcoming bi-weekly blog.  [Update: staff’s analysis was just published].

First, some background.  We’re talking about Sunnyvale’s General Plan, specifically one element called the Land Use and Transportation Element (LUTE).  The General Plan’s current version of the LUTE examines existing zoning and conditions as they apply to changes in Sunnyvale through the year 2025.  The draft LUTE looks to update those conditions and extend them through 2035.  So in effect, we are looking at how we support an additional 10 years of changes in Sunnyvale, going forward.  And every ten years or so, we update the LUTE and do this again.

It’s important to note that when the LUTE or city planning documents talk about potential capacity numbers or increases, we consider the worst possible case given zoning.  So if a parcel is in an R-5 zoning, we plan for the greatest possible R-5 capacity at that site, no matter what the current conditions, and no matter the likelihood of the site ever being redeveloped.  As a result, everyone with any experience in urban planning understands that these numbers have limited bearing on real life land usage.  They represent “capacity to expand”, but the maximum numbers will never actually happen, not even close.  Most single-story homes will remain single-story and not build additions, most strip malls will remain strip malls and not be redeveloped to 3-story mixed-use projects, most offices don’t get redeveloped to their maximum, and so on.  So right off the bat, claims that “population will increase by 30,000” or “employees will increase by 80,000” are clearly false, because the maximum just won’t happen, economically, if not practically.  Urban planners build a tolerance into their expectations, such as “we’ll only realize 70% of zoning” or whatever.

The reason why we do this is because we don’t know where or when redevelopment might happen, if at all.  The city doesn’t build this stuff, after all.  We don’t know which particular property owner will have the money or interest in improving his property, and we can’t say “these three spots are the only three spots that will be redeveloped in the next 20 years” because there’s no possible way to predict that.  So we have to over-plan, to an extent, so that the growth that we need to support can actually happen somewhere, some time.  So figuratively speaking, we rezone ten parcels from R-2 to R-3 in the hopes that over the next 20 years, maybe three of them will get redeveloped.  That sort of thing.

OK, so on to specifics.  Where did the author go wrong?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  In making claims about the draft LUTE, the author failed to take into account existing zoning and capacity, and he instead added numbers that exist in the General Plan and LUTE today into his inflated claims about the draft LUTE that hasn’t been approved yet.  Additionally, he just got some numbers wrong.

  • He claims a 24% increase in housing units, when only a 9% increase over 10 years is proposed.  That additional 9% proposed in the draft LUTE basically supports the historical population growth of about 0.8% per year that staff anticipates needing to accommodate.
  • He claims an additional 12.3 million square feet of office space “beyond what is already authorized”.  This one’s quite false, since 8.2 million of that 12.3 million square feet already exists in Sunnyvale’s General Plan zoning and LUTE today, having already been authorized by councils over the past couple of decades.  Only 4.1 million additional square feet over the next 20 years is actually proposed.
  • He claims “over 80,000 additional [mostly computer company] employees”.  There is zero basis for these claims anywhere, and it appears he confused the existing Sunnyvale workforce of 82,000 existing employees with “new employees”.  The draft LUTE predicts an additional 14,100 Sunnyvale employees from 2025 to 2035, or about 1.4% workforce growth per year. The General Plan and draft LUTE predict a worst case of around 124,000 Sunnyvale jobs by 2035.  How “over 80,000 new jobs” can be derived from going from 82,000 to 124,000 is beyond me.  But it’s a good example of the validity of the claims in this latest rumor (or lack thereof).
  • He claims a “tripling” of level of service (LOS) E or F intersections, from 7 to 25, and he additionally claims that vehicles travel only 9-14 mph on LOS E-F intersections.  Staff has found no basis for his speed claims.  LOS isn’t measured in MPH – it’s measured in additional seconds a driver is delayed at the intersection.  Additionally, the draft LUTE only projects an additional 7 LOS E-F intersections, not even close to a tripling.  Finally, the intersections most susceptible to downgrades are the higher-speed routes and not residential 25 MPH intersections.  The draft LUTE also makes it clear that many of these intersections will degrade to E-F simply from regional growth occurring outside of the City of Sunnyvale.

The claims go on, invoking hysteria about public safety response time (we’ve observed no noticeable change in response time), increased pollution (infill development tends to minimize commute times and resulting emissions), “hundreds of thousands of new sinks” (the draft LUTE doesn’t propose any such thing), “high-density condo towers” (we haven’t approved any such things), and so on.

The old chestnut about “we’re in a drought, so stop making things worse with development!” is even invoked, even though water experts know that development generally doesn’t impact drought.  That’s because development doesn’t increase overall water demand – it just moves small pieces of demand from one place to another.  The reason is quite obvious.  Whether a guy is sitting unemployed in his San Mateo home or employed in a Sunnyvale office, he consumes the same amount of water from the same water district.  Since the drought is statewide, and since there is no such thing as a “Sunnyvale water supply” (we’re part of two very large water systems that serve tens of millions of people), development doesn’t increase the regional water demand.  In fact, the replacement of older offices with more modern facilities and the emphasis on higher density housing (which has modern utilities and far less landscaping) tend to aid in water conservation.

This is not to say that we can build whatever we want without an impact.  Water usage does increase through several specific mechanisms:

  • Construction of new heavy manufacturing (Sunnyvale doesn’t do this)
  • Construction of new agriculture (ditto)
  • People having babies (pretty much beyond our control)
  • Encouraging mass migrations from out of state (not currently occurring – housing development isn’t even sufficient to meet existing regional needs).

Finally comes the most egregious of the claims – the implication that city government is deliberately trying to grow all of these demographics.  One only needs to look at the regional housing situation, the regional jobs situation, and the regional transportation situation to see that those changes are going to come to Sunnyvale no matter what we do.  Obviously,  the intent of planning documents like the draft LUTE is to prepare us, so that we can better understand the changes that are headed our way and work to minimize their impacts.  Knowing that intersections will degrade to E-F is the first step towards fixing those intersections.  Knowing that people will be moving here is the first step in addressing the housing crisis that we’re already dealing with.  And the alternative, burying our head in the sand and denying that those changes will ever come, can only make Sunnyvale much, much worse in years to come.

The draft LUTE is just that – a draft.  It isn’t final, we haven’t voted on it, and we’re still actively soliciting input on what it says and what it anticipates.  This is a city-wide effort, and we’ve been working on this for several years, guided by a citizen panel called the Horizon 2035 Committee, to make sure it reflects the needs and wants of Sunnyvale’s residents.  But we’re not done with it.  This is one of the most significant plans that Sunnyvale will develop, and it is important that it be developed through honest and fact-based decision-making, and that residents get involved in the process.  Rumors like the ones addressed above do wonders to inspire fear in residents, but they utterly fail to educate and inform.  Hopefully I’ve done some of that now.

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