Jonathan Collier: To build or not to build: Introducing walkable towns
Are we prepared to handle a new wave of migration in Nevada County?
It seems that COVID’s urban exodus is a real thing, as reported by The Union (Nevada County Housing Market sees increased demand, limited inventory). Property sales are hot and a lot of buyers are escaping from the cities. Anecdotally, more new folk are walking the streets, many of them curious and under 40.
Being a local or a newcomer has always been a point of contention in our community. There’s a subtle social expectation that the longer you’ve lived here, the more privilege you should have. Right or wrong, it happens. The rationale being: established community members who have invested in the community — whether it’s time, resources, or life experience, ie: blood, sweat and tears — believe they’ve made valuable contributions and therefore are worth more than those who haven’t.
It’s also very threatening when new people who may not understand the existing cultural values and dynamics come in and want to change things. It’s played out over and over again with each wave of migration, and it’s about to hit hard again.
The majority of people fear change. Uncertainty is not comfortable, and we like our comforts. The problem is change is the only constant. 2020 has only emphasized the magnitude of this truth. Each wave of migration has left its mark of both devastation and prosperity. We lose things and we gain things. The question is, “How are we going to navigate it?” Or as an old Chinese proverb says, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls, others build windmills.”
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In regards to housing and population control, historically, we’ve built walls not homes. Year after year we talk about our housing crisis and homeless problems. It’s cemented into the top tier of strategic priorities for the County Supervisors and City Council members. It’s reflected in the Housing Elements that claim the need for thousands of homes, and the rental forums and their unending streams of requests. The total result is demand continues to far exceed supply and families are left on streets and couches.
As another migration wave crashes, it seems likely it will only escalate our housing issues. We are not going to solve the problem by building a wall around Nevada County. We need to build more homes. The question is doing so in a way that preserves our rural culture, historic legacy, and our precious quality of life, while accommodating the very serious needs of the immediate moment.
As much as no growth isn’t an option, neither is unbridled growth. We enjoy the rural character of our county and wish to preserve our open spaces, agricultural lands, and sense of living in nature. One solution is to build more density in the population centers where density already exists. Build up and not out.
This is a movement called New Urbanism that promotes a historic perspective when cities were designed around people and not automobiles. Stop sprawl and create walkable, diverse neighborhoods where we can live, work, shop, pray, and play, all in one place. It’s proven to be more ecologically sound, healthier, and economically vibrant (Built to Last).
Cashin’s Field is an affordable housing project just approved in Nevada City that could become an example of this. It’s 56 units of long term apartment rentals with 116 rooms that can house at least that many people. It’s meant to serve our local workforce: the restaurant workers who put food on our plates, the friendly cashiers behind the counter, musicians and artists, our health and wellness community, and the single mothers who struggle to put a roof over their family’s head.
Although the project is meant to help existing community members who struggle the most with housing, it faced opposition. There were concerns around its size, visibility, aesthetics and traffic. The aesthetics are a work in progress and can be shifted to meet Mother Lode standards. The design team has worked hard to preserve as many trees as possible, but yes, buildings will be visible. But this is also the 7 Hills District where businesses and higher density housing is zoned by Nevada City; not to mention there are only two residences in sight. It is a large development for Nevada City, but it barely puts a dent in our local housing needs. And the traffic impact will be less than when the Grass Valley Group’s former tech center was booming decades ago.
The tension around housing has been simmering for a long time and will only escalate as we see more people move here. We don’t want to see rampant growth, but we do need to support smart growth through well thought out projects that preserve the character and quality of our communities.
How do we guide change while keeping to our essential values? This is a conversation that we will need to continue as a community in these turbulent times.
Jonathan Collier, co-founder of Live Work Thrive Nevada County, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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