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The Rent Kept a-Rollin'

D.C. rail conference provides sobering perspective on SMART and affordable housing in North Bay

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Schlicting discussed his research into the economic impact of reliable passenger rail on economically depressed and underdeveloped areas. The findings are clear, he said: when a city has access to fast and dependable rail transportation, rents and real estate prices go through the roof. Poorer residents are pushed out, replaced by urban professionals. How far through the roof do prices skyrocket? He exclaimed that the prices of commercial and residential real estate rose "from $5 a square foot, to $20 or $30 dollars a square foot."

As he spoke, any idea of owning a home in the North Bay devolved from dim hope to cruel joke. And he just kept talking. Schlicting showed attendees before-and-after photos of western Washington, D.C., that illustrated the effects of what happened when the Metro line was extended. This was a part of town where you never wanted to get caught after dark, he reported, which now boasts high-density, high-rent apartment clusters over each station. The buildings are typically 15 to 20 stories, and the clusters looked like their own mini cities.

Schlicting's presentation evoked the regional mantra about high-density development in urban areas: the model could support the continuance of the regionally accepted wisdom of urban-growth boundaries—if North Bay residents are willing to accept a SMART corridor that's dotted with tall apartment buildings at every train stop and that abandons any pretext that those buildings will be set aside for local workforce housing.

When it comes to passenger rail systems, Schlicting stressed that they are not built for the people who live in the region; they are built for people who are going to move their to pursue new economic opportunities. Without attendant population growth, systems such as SMART can't sustain themselves and risk becoming another Napa Wine Train.

Schlicting wasn't alone with the words of warning. Every speaker's message clashed with the current reality in Sonoma and Marin counties: new rail lines only make sense as long as local communities along the route invest heavily in affordable housing. Until that day happens, SMART will remain a niche product.

Santa Rosa's Press Democrat has already been reporting that one of SMART's most significant challenges is that it appeals mainly to the "white and well-off." Many of today's riders choose to use SMART even though they could drive.

The conference broke up and we headed to the St. Regis' James Monroe Room, where JR Central hosted a swanky shindig. I approached general manager Nakayama, and we talked a bit about the company's rolling stock, its cars. How would the company deal with domestic orders for new cars now that Nippon Sharyo no longer operates a factory in the United States? He said the company would try to honor its previous price structure for open contracts. His answer implied that prices had nowhere to go but up, but what else is new?

I assured Nakayama that Sonoma and Marin county residents appreciated that they had an alternative to the jam-packed highway, high gas prices and road rage. We happily chatted about the beautiful Northern California scenery and how he or another JR Central manager travels here once or twice a year to check up on SMART.

Keep on checking. New SMART train cars might be added to accommodate demand, and train tickets may get pricier in coming years. And if the conference experts are right, the northern Sonoma County real estate market should boom when the train line is expanded north—for better and worse.

I asked SMART to weigh in on this irony: Even as the railroad struggles to retain its workforce—because of the high cost of living in the North Bay—rail experts maintain that the commuter system is itself driving up the cost of living here. The SMART response was to send links to its fare schedule and to note that the railroad does provide steep discounts to senior and student riders.

I'd suggest readers of lesser means start saving up for that $400,000 chicken-shack in affordable-for-now Cloverdale. And I'll join with fellow millennials as we keep our fingers crossed for some SMART-adjacent affordable housing to emerge, somewhere along the gentrified line. Who knows, maybe it will. Petaluma? Novato? Santa Rosa?

Here's hoping—but I'll believe it when I see it.

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