New York Times Bay Area Edition Skims the Surface

by Zelda Bronstein on January 5, 2010

Last year the San Francisco Chronicle’s daily readership shrank by 25%, the largest percentage loss suffered by any of the 25 nation’s largest newspapers. Not coincidentally, in mid-October the New York Times inaugurated a two-page Bay Area section on Fridays and Sundays. Like a hawk circling dying prey, the Times hopes to capitalize on the Chronicle’s declining fortunes and, some say, at the same time boost its own standing vis-à-vis its rival for nationwide circulation, the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, in early November the Journal began to publish a Bay Area edition on Thursdays.

The Times promises readers “the most insightful journalism in the world” plus “special coverage of the Bay Area. From journalism’s most trusted source.” I’d settle for journalism with enough insight to produce fresh, in-depth local coverage that eschews spin and hype – in other words, the kind of journalism that’s rarely found in the Chronicle. So far, it’s also rarely found in the Times’ Bay Area edition, whose coverage – a mix of lifestyle and political reportage – has generally been short and shallow.

Case in point: Daniel Weintraub’s December 27 “Politics” column on the storm of protest that greeted the greenhouse gas emission guidelines drafted last year by the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board (familiarly known as the air board or BAAQMD – sounds like B-A-A-Q-M-D). The air board is seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of new housing and commercial development in the region. To that end, Weintraub reported, BAAQMD proposed that projects that appeared to exceed their allotment of greenhouse gas emissions “would trigger an environmental impact report [EIR]” that aimed to cut down the excess. Two such projects would be “a typical condominium development with over 77 units” and a single-family housing project with 56 homes.

“And that,” Weintraub wrote, “caused an uproar throughout the region,” because it meant that high-density projects located in built-up areas, a.k.a. infill projects, could not be exempted from costly and time-consuming EIRs. An EIR exemption, City of Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks told Weintraub, amounts to “a ‘get out of jail free’ card” for builders – one that, in the interest of “’encourag[ing] appropriate patterns of development,’” Marks wants to have at his disposal.

In Weintraub’s view, what makes this situation newsworthy is that environmentalists are squabbling over the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions “in a region known for its environmental advocacy and hostility to growth … Berkeley is opposing the new guidelines, as is San Francisco, Oakland, Emeryville and several other cities.” His piece ran under the headline “Air Quality Guidelines Face Unexpected Critics.”

Yet his account may well have left readers wondering whether the “uproar” isn’t simply the result of a misunderstanding. Certainly that’s the impression conveyed by BAAQMD environmental planner Greg Tholen, who assured the Times’ man that “projects near public transit or grocery stores and those that charge for parking will get a break in the analysis because their residents are less likely to use cars,” and that cities can use their “comprehensive plans to fight global warming” to facilitate project approval, provided that those plans “meet the air board’s standards.” Weintraub comments: “But those changes have yet to satisfy the critics in what amount to a family fight among people who are normally on the same side of the global warming issue.”

This is lazy journalism. Diligent reporters try to assess the validity of claims made to them, especially when their sources are at odds. In this case, that would at least involve checking out the draft guidelines, the responses they elicited and the air board’s responses to the responses (they’re all on BAAQMD’s website).

If Weintraub had delved into his material – say, if he’d read Dan Marks’ October 26 letter to BAAQMD – he might have realized, for starters, that these days “environmental advocacy” is hardly correlated with “hostility to growth.” Indeed, the most vigorous movement in American city planning calls for “smart growth.” Absent from Weintraub’s story, the term repeatedly appears in Marks’ letter: The first of the Berkeley planning director’s “three most significant concerns” about the air board’s guidelines is that the proposed standards “would not promote regional smart growth.”

If you didn’t know better, you might think that by “smart” growth, planners mean growth that’s limited in ways that “dumb” growth is not. And so they do, but the limits have to do with location, not extent. As far as smart growthers are concerned, the bigger a project, the better – as long as the larger magnitude reflects greater density, especially in an area served by public transit, whose financial feasibility in turn requires high density population. Given these priorities, what would have been truly “unexpected” is for smart growthers, who dominate Bay Area city and regional planning offices, to have applauded a proposal that made it more difficult to build big infill.

And while BAAQMD staff insist that the proposed guidelines do not “essentially eliminate” EIR exemptions for infill projects – at least not for those that are demonstrably greenhouse gas-efficient – they readily acknowledge that those guidelines may slow down or even block approval of some, i.e., inefficient, development. Those who disagree received a tart rebuke in the air board staff’s November 9 “Master Responses” to comments on the draft guidelines: “Administrative convenience is not an appropriate basis for BAAQMD to adopt a less stringent threshold of significance.”

Marks’ letter reveals another telling objection to the guidelines that went unremarked by Weintraub: the proposed standards, wrote the Berkeley planning director, “will increase the public’s ability to stop high-density projects.”

For Marks, this is no idle threat. Last July the Berkeley City Council approved a new Downtown Area Plan that authorized high-rise buildings (up to 180 feet or approximately 16 stories) and made the provision of affordable housing and other trade-offs for height contingent on their financial feasibility – effectively guaranteeing that no such trade-offs would ever occur. The following month Berkeley citizens gathered enough signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on the plan to qualify for the ballot at the next general election. (I helped circulate that petition.)

Berkeley politics aside, the controversy over the air board’s guidelines exposes smart growthers’ general discounting of locality, their homage to “livable communities” notwithstanding. In an unusually candid exposition of smart growth priorities, Marks wrote: “the most important benefit of smart growth is not localized or even limited to a few jurisdictions; it is regional … Each project and plan, no matter how transit friendly and no matter how ‘green,’ will have localized impacts” that “may be significant on a local level, while providing significant regional benefits by efficiently accommodating growth with minimum air quality impacts.” According to Marks, the air board’s draft guidelines “do not yet account for such regional benefit,” instead indicating only “how each project and plan can reduce its [greenhouse gas] impacts with specific measures.”

The controversy over regulating greenhouse gas emissions is a rich story. It reveals a fundamental split in Bay Area environmentalism over growth. It brings to the fore the anti-democratic character of the smart growth movement. It raises the stakes in a big fight currently taking place over the future of development in Berkeley. In-depth coverage of this controversy would address all these matters; the Times’ story missed every one.

If the Times is serious about providing the Bay Area with genuinely insightful local journalism, it needs to eschew “A said, but B disagrees” reportage based on a few interviews. Its writers need to dig deep into the local scene, to educate themselves about the broader contexts within which local affairs unfold and to evaluate claims made by their sources accordingly. Otherwise, we might as well read the Chronicle.

Also unmentioned in the Times’ December 27 story: On January 6 the BAAQMD board will consider adopting revised greenhouse gas emission guidelines at a public hearing to be held in the 7th floor Boardroom at the air district’s headquarters, 939 Ellis, San Francisco. The meeting starts at 9:45 a.m.

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