Opinion – TRPA’s High Density Dream

March 16, 2024

Dramatic zoning changes to “town centers” recently approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) will allow five-story buildings (with commercial space on the ground level, residential above) that reach up to 65 feet in height and cover 100 percent of lots. Since parking for inhabitants takes up valuable land in surface lots or require expensive underground structures, it’s not required.

On paper this is a magic solution for Tahoe.

TRPA argues such high-density mixed-use buildings constitute “environmental development” and create “walkable town centers.” The agency’s plan calls for new full-time residents of these buildings to walk or bike to shops and grocery stores, as well as to work, etc. Therefore, they will not require vehicles and will not need parking. In this way, the rationale goes, more people can live in the basin, fewer workers will commute into the basin, and TRPA will decrease a key
pollution metric: vehicle miles traveled (VMTs). In other words, high-density town center at just above Lake level, 6,350 ft. elevation development is the undisputed answer for housing without further harming or stressing Tahoe’s fragile basin environment.

But does that argument hold water? It may well make sense in a big city like a sunny San Diego. But, as a practical matter, it’s highly unlikely to work here in Tahoe. Why? For starters, Tahoe is a rural, not urban, area. And, like it or not, in rural and mountainous America, residents need cars and trucks. Unlike visitors, basin residents don’t merely arrive in Tahoe to recreate. Visitors may indeed elect to ride a shuttle bus to a ski resort or hiking trail during their stays, but residents routinely must leave Tahoe for essentials and appointments. While we are loyal, year-round customers to the nice selection of local restaurants, shops, hardware and grocery stores, we simply cannot get all goods and services within the basin.

Life without vehicles isn’t possible in the basin
We must travel outside of the basin to see medical specialists and dental providers who are covered by our finicky health insurance plans. Our kids compete in sports against school teams often many hours distant. We visit relatives in Elko or Sacramento or in the Bay Area. We also attend county meetings, access government services, or perform jury duty in Placerville, Auburn, Carson City or Reno. Full-time Tahoe folks make runs to Costco in Carson City and to other bigbox and specialty stores in Reno. We drive over Mt. Rose to the airport to catch flights or pick up visiting family and friends. The list of why we routinely require vehicles goes on and on.

Any new residents in the proposed five-story town center buildings will have the same transportation needs. Furthermore, as this new high-density housing is promoted as more affordable (or debatably defined as “achievable”), occupants are likely to work in the construction, landscaping or home maintenance trades prevalent here. To such workers a pickup
truck or car is necessary to bring their tools of trade to changing basin worksites. It’s a fair assumption that many new residents will also be working couples. What’s the chance that both partners will be employed within a stone’s throw or convenient to what is now spotty or unreliable public transport? Honestly, how many of us carry multiple loaded shopping bags home, up and down steep hills or onto a bus from a local store even on sunny clear days? And what about people not physically able to walk, bike and carry heavy stuff even over shorter distances? Are they excluded from this new housing?

Any future basin-wide proposed sales and real estate taxes to support transportation and sustainability initiatives, proposed in the TRPA’s stewardship plan would, ironically, further incentivize locals to drive out of the basin to shop, adding to VMTs (not to mention angering those who moved to Nevada for reduced taxes).

Snow, wildfire conditions require vehicles
A quick reality check on mountain weather is also necessary. Basin residents live from an approximately 6,300-foot elevation and up. Snow drops here by the foot. Counties justifiably struggle to keep roads here cleared of snow and ice. Often overlooked for snow removal are sidewalks and pathways (where they even exist). The likelihood of most people walking or riding a bike for errands, waiting outside for transit, etc. in colder seasons is unrealistic at worst
or highly inconvenient at best.

A serious public safety consideration is the open question of how non-vehicle-owning town center residents would be evacuated in the likely event of a wildfire? Will they walk or bike out? Or will there be reliable buses?

In response to questions like these, TRPA often states that 1,000 or so basin residents already
live without vehicles and many more, particularly younger people, aspire to be car-free. Conversely, that means some 54,000 of us have vehicles due to need.

I’ll bet many prospective residents of any new high-density building (without available parking)
in Tahoe town centers will still have vehicles. Therefore, they are more than likely to add to
VMTs and vehicle congestion in the basin. And their vehicles will be parked somewhere in
towns and neighborhoods — although most street parking in the winter is illegal due to snow
plowing — or will end up in other businesses’ parking lots. That won’t be popular.

In the real world, the foundation of the “walkable town center/high density housing” concept in
Tahoe, noble and aspirational as it may be, starts to crumble. The Mountain Area Preservation
organization recently filed a lawsuit against the TRPA, in part due to this high-density
development’s expected increases in VMTs. TRPA must now prove in court how this faulty
concept will work in Tahoe. I look forward to hearing their logic.

Alex Tsigdinos is a full-time Tahoe resident

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