I think I have been guilty of NIMBYism;
in fact, I know I have. I am not a New Yorker who grew up talking
about “my building.” I grew up in single family houses with
little back yards, and from 9th grade on in Lower Merion
outside Philadelphia, I walked to school past trees and bushes to my
beloved suburban high school. Since 1979 I have lived in the same
single family house on a one block long street in Berkeley with trees
and a back yard and we know our neighbors. It's a nice neighborhood.
I like it.
So why should our area, and areas like
it, change? People say that other people need places to live. They
say that working people – teachers, police, others – are being
priced out of living where they work in the Bay Area by tech wealth.
They say that what we need is more vertical housing, higher density
housing with some affordable units, so that people can live near
their work. Scott Weiner proposed a bill to the state senate whereby
local authorities would be divested of their power to forbid high
density housing around transit hubs, like BART stations, and five
story buildings would be automatically approved.
While I understand what people have
been saying, I've rejected it. Why destroy what we have? Are trees
and nature and a human-scaled life going to disappear into apartment
buildings, where single family homes and in-law units will become
home to 8 or 10 families on the same footprint? Will renters replace
owners? Will the nearby hotel cum health club add hundreds of condo
units to provide luxury housing and benefit of the husband of Dianne
Feinstein, who refuses to retire, and add to the congestion? Is high
density inevitable? I hate the prospect.
I haven't had much to offer as an
alternative, though. I've said, well, let alternative development
occur on the periphery, why does everyone need to be in San Francisco
or Sunnyvale? Give it time, I've said. But that's been a pretty
Then I got a call from out of state
from a young man named Dr.
. He has been a scientist at the Harvard School
of Public Health and is now moving back to his original home near
Harrisburg, PA, where he is running for Congress, hoping to take
advantage of Pennsylvania redistricting and an anticipated Blue Wave.
Why did he call me? I am a repetitive small donor to Democrats
running for congress. I started with scientist Jerry McNerney from
Pleasanton who beat worst congressman in the House, Richard Pombo,
who distinguished himself by opposing the Endangered Species Act.
Since then my name has been shared and I have gotten personal calls
from California candidates to whom I have contributed from $100 to
$500 at a shot, depending on how much I have liked their schpiel.
Eric's schpiel was that he is
scientist, and only Jerry McNerney and one other in Congress are
scientists. Fair enough. But when I pressed him about electability
and local issues, the conversation took an interesting turn. He said
that jobs were hard to come by outside of Harrisburg – which lies
in the middle of the state and although it is the state capitol and
there are governmental jobs available, it's mostly just central
Pennsylvania rust belt depressed area. “So what are you going to
do?” I asked.
He said that the area was a nice place
to live and people wanted to live there. The jobs, however, were
mostly in Philadelphia and Baltimore, which were too far away to
commute to. And here is wheremy ears perked up – he said that his
solution is high speed rail. With high speed rail the commute would
be rather easy; you could work where the jobs are and live where the
costs were lower and where the living was nice, and the commute
wouldn't be a killer.
I thought – BINGO! My wife Ann and I
have been down on Jerry Brown's high-speed rail project as somehow
irrelevant and perhaps boondoggle-ish. What's the big deal about
connecting LA and SF in a couple of hours? Who will be taking that
route, and why? So far, we've thought, the project will mostly
connect Bakersfield with Fresno, guffaw. BUT, Harrisburg to Philly
in less than an hour, maybe 45 minutes? Hey, that makes a lot of
sense! Live in lush hills with neighbors you have known forever,
telecommute a day a week maybe, and take the high-speed train four
days a week and work on the train and voila! No high-density housing
with no trees and no back yards and renters going in and out all the
So I thought, the real payoff of Jerry
Brown's high-speed rail solution would be in its contribution to the
housing crisis. Don't think LA to SF, think regional networks tying
together house and work. Now it all made sense to me. Put the money
into transportation, not into housing; let the housing take care of
itself in the far periphery of what are now commute timed out areas.
It's housing, dummy, not transportation.
Getting from here to there is, of
course, always very hazardous. When you are talking about trains and
transportation, you are talking about public investment. When you
are talking about zoning, you are talking about private investment.
Both paths to the future need constituencies. Weiner's bill failed,
for now. NIMBYism? Environmentalism? I don't know what was
decisive. Jerry's high-speed train path has been partially funded.
Will Brown's leaving the governorship weaken that movement
sufficiently to kill it? I don't know. But to my mind, advocates of
that path would do well to emphasize how this regional strategy is an
alternative to high-density housing. Make it a housing issue! And
while you're at it, try to nurture a high speed rail industry here at
home, making things, industry. Now I'm really dreaming, I know.
As for our smart friend Eric running
for the house from Pennsylvania, how will he do? Good ideas,
certainly a high-minded fellow, smart – but a rookie. When he
talked to me, he kept referring back to how many papers he had
written and how scientifically qualified he was. Maybe that's
because he got my name as a Jerry McNerney supporter. Maybe. But
it's also possible that he was violating the first law of
salesmanship. Which is: let the product sell itself, don't try to
impress the buyer with how great the product is. Instead, try to
impress the buyer on how the product could help him or her, how it
would fit into their life, how useful it would be to him or her. He
was trying to tell me how qualified he was. Unfortunately,
tellingly, that's pretty much what people objected to about Hillary.
They thought that when she told them about all her qualifications,
and about how smart she was, she was telling them that it was her
turn, that she was due it. She didn't ask for their votes, she told
them she deserved their votes. My fear is that Eric is going down
that path. But who knows, maybe that was just his pitch to me.
Well, we'll see. In the meantime,
without his trying to do it, Eric turned me into a supporter of
Brown's high-speed train. You just never know where conversations
will lead you!
Remember, high speed rail is a housing
issue, not just a transportation issue. Selling the issue that way
could be the key to its success. You have a decent commute on a
train where you can read, and you don't have to live in some ant