We Paved Over Farmland to Build the Suburbs; Now Those Neighborhoods Are Off-Limits to Any More Development

Palo Alto, now and forevermore.

Last week, Palo Alto resident and planning commission member Kate Vershov Downing made waves when she posted her public resignation, citing the insane cost of housing in her community and the unwillingness of the Palo Alto City Council to take meaningful steps to address the issue of housing affordability. 

The letter was powerful in and of itself, and I strongly suggest you check it out.

What really drew me in, though, was a quote from Vershov Downing in a CityLab interview published this morning. It really captures the hypocrisy of the anti-growth movement, and the entitlement of those who would knowingly condemn future generations to a poorer quality of life than they themselves enjoyed.

Here it is:

I come from a family where we always wanted and expected to see future generations do better than us. What you see in Palo Alto is the opposite. You hear people saying, “My kids can’t afford to live here, and I’m OK with that.” Or, “If you can’t afford to live here, it means you’re not working hard enough. You don’t deserve to be here.” Or they say, “Why don’t you just keep renting forever? You’re not entitled to own a home.”
The reason for the history lesson is: We paved over the orchards to make way for the Baby Boomers, and now the Boomers are fighting with Millennials who want to turn one-story strip malls into four-story apartments.
It’s so jarring. When the Boomers were in their 20s and 30s, the government made it a priority for the middle class to be able to own a home. We created all these incentives to help make the American Dream come true. It’s such a core part of the Boomer generation. Now, these same people say, even though you’re highly educated professionals, you should be OK with renting for the rest of your lives.

This is what we're up against. And clearly, this doesn't describe all baby boomers (hashtag NotAllBoomers), nor are boomers the only ones holding up the redevelopment and growth of our neighborhoods. But I hope that the more open-minded members of the Boomer generation will align themselves with a sensibly pro-growth agenda, because they still hold most of the political power in our communities—and because it's the right thing to do for the environment, the disadvantaged, and the next generation. I hope that voices like Vershov Downing's make it clear what it's costing younger generations to have our cities frozen in time, clinging to a flawed past rather than striving for a more equitable future.

There are legitimate reasons to oppose development in certain cases, but that's not what's happening in places like Palo Alto. Or, frequently, in LA, San Francisco, and many other cities around the country. This is about a group of entitled, self-interested homeowners who mostly lucked into incredible wealth who now knowingly deny that opportunity to future generations.

Worse, these are people whose wealth was only possible through the radical transformation of the built environment, from orchards into suburbs. They've got theirs, so the next step in the city's evolution is off the table. Paving over the orchards was fine, but strip malls are precious, you see. The rest of us can go live in the desert or on formerly agricultural land, destroying wilderness and living more carbon intensive lifestyles without access to quality transit or a reliable source of water. And who really cares? The Boomers won't be around to see the worst impacts of climate change anyway. And it's all about them, after all.