A Fork Worth Taking

"If you hit a fork in the road, take it" is one of the late Yogi Berra's greatest lines, and, for me, it really captures the dilemma -- and the opportunity -- facing the Bay Area as we move deeper into the 21st Century. As our legions of tech entrepreneurs would have us believe, we're sitting in the center of where the future is being created, yet the Bay Area is beset with a seemingly intractable affordability and homelessness crisis, creaking infrastructure and a stunning lack of vision and entrenched dogma about what kind of place the region should be. Will we use this moment of unprecedented prosperity to chart a bold, new course or will we keep traveling down our current pot-holed, litter-strewn 1950s freeways?

If we go one way, we can continue to wring our hands about the perceived loss of San Francisco's -- and now Oakland's -- souls to the hands of gentrification. We can organize ourselves to put various ballot-measure moratoria on development. No high density housing over BART stations! No arena across from the hospital! No wall on the waterfront! We could also spend lots of time debating the "is Oakland the new Brooklyn" question (answer: If it's measured by beer gardens per capita, then yes). And I, for one, would like to understand the big difference between Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose and why they can't just merge into one large city?

But too much time is spent on individual, myopic debates and not enough time on the uniqueness and potential of the Oakland-San Francisco-Silicon Valley triumvirate. This is a region like no other in this country -- a network of population and job centers with no singular geographic or economic center. The Bay Area is similar in both geographical and population to the Netherlands' Randstad (the urbanized population center of Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam), yet without any of the regional cooperation, thoughtful urban planning, or friendly bikers.

The fork in front of us offers not just one right path or one solution at the expense of another. There is no mutual exclusivity here. We have a real, tangible opportunity to design one of humanity's most advanced regional settlements. Or we can simply continue down our current path, with our current ways of thinking, as San Francisco's neighbors wash their hands of responsibility for the region's housing crisis, and neighboring cities compete with each other for jobs and residents.

Consider for a moment that our smug urbanity may blind us to the opportunities right in front of us. Get ready for it: The Bay Area is actually less dense overall than sprawling Los Angeles. One might think the Bay Area is completely full, but burned-out vacant lots sit in West Oakland, one BART stop away from both Downtown Oakland and the heart of San Francisco's job centers. Similarly, several thousand acres of vacant military land in Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco has been sitting fallow for nearly 30 years while already-outdated development plans wind their way through the regulatory process. Meanwhile, Amsterdam has built nearly 20,000 residences on reclaimed land since 1996.

Taking the other fork offers a truly regional way of thinking, where our municipalities cooperate rather than compete. It means we work as a region to solve our big problems, develop an economically diverse housing stock, integrate neighborhoods, and create unique and livable cities ringing the Bay we share. Uber's recent purchase of Oakland's former Sears Building has been seen as either the sign of Oakland's apocalypse or of San Francisco's imminent demise. Yet it might offer a new way of looking at our region as a linked network of prosperous, livable, dense nodes connected by clean, efficient transportation and broader access to housing. Major employers might one day be invested in the entire Bay Area, not just their corner of SoMa or Mid-Market. And the Bay Area population might return to enjoying the natural beauty, diversity, and forward-thinking ideas that drew us all here in the first place.