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Making San Leandro more beautiful, affordable, and livable - what does it actually look like?

Making San Leandro climate-friendly and affordable for this and future generations means adding a lot more housing here in years to come–at all income levels. Few people disagree that we need to increase housing supply, in theory. However, there is concern among current residents that the only way to achieve higher density and new housing units is to turn San Leandro into a densely built-up, ultra-urban place like San Francisco, Manhattan or Hong Kong, and losing the kind of suburban place we are all familiar with.

Fortunately, the status-quo suburb and skyscraper-city are not our only two options. Suburbs have been around for a long time. They don't have to be the current, car-centric model that arose in the mid-20th century. A much better city model to look for San Leandro is the streetcar suburb from around the 1920s and 1930s, before cars took over. These built-up areas achieved density not by a lot of huge buildings, but by having a wide mix of single-family homes, fourplexes, townhouses, cottage courtyards, small apartment buildings, and so on. Streetcar suburbs are full of leafy, quiet streets and are family-friendly, while at the same time having a level of density that supports corner stores and other neighborhood businesses. As a result, housing is more affordable, and with people closer, neighborhoods are more walkable and public transportation much more usable–and feasible to expand. Surviving American examples on this model are highly desirable, sought-after places, such as Somerville, MA, Evanston, IL and parts of North Berkeley.

(For more on the streetcar-suburb model, see the excellent video "Suburbs That Don't Suck")

So why isn’t San Leandro going in this direction? In addition to some long standing hostility to new housing, another key barrier is this drive for uniformity that seems to be baked into all of our city codes. We have this belief that to "protect neighborhoods," we must protect a monoculture of single-family homes in most residential areas, with everything else pushed into limited mixed-use corridors between those neighborhoods, or faraway shopping centers. But what do these laws really protect against? A diverse, eclectic mix of homes, stores, institutions, apartments, etc. is better than a monoculture, is more pleasant, and brings with it more community and more walkable streets. I urge our City leaders to take concrete steps to bring the city closer to this vision.

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