Saturday, October 27, 2012

Where do we start?

“For the times they are a-changin.” These words and the complete lyrics from Bob Dylan’s 1964 anthem about the need for and inevitability of change have proved to be prophetic as they are even more relevant today...almost 50 years later:

“Come senators, congressmen please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall for he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.....for the times they are a-changin.”

Stalled is perhaps the best way to describe the past decades of slow creep towards sustainability here in the Lake Tahoe Basin. While many resort destinations have been moving forward in great leaps to transition to a future that absolutely must be based on the principles of sustainability, Lake Tahoe is still wobbling along unsteadily taking only baby steps. As one of the worlds’ heritage places and a designated Outstanding  Natural Resource Water under the Federal Clean Water Act,  Lake Tahoe should rightfully be on the leading edge of the movement toward environmental and economic sustainability.....but it’s not.

 The history of development in the Lake Tahoe Basin set the stage for todays challenges. Unregulated and poorly planned development and transportation infrastructure during the 1950‘s and 60‘s led to much more stringent regulation from the 70’s forward.  However, in such a heavily regulated environment, the myriad of entities involved in the crucial role of restoring,  protecting and managing Lake Tahoe’s physical environment have frequently been at odds with one another. This has resulted in cumbersome, conflicting and even illogical regulations.....and lawsuits. Decades of these often counterproductive rules, regs and litigation have stifled investment and actually hampered some recent efforts to improve the built environment and lessen it’s impact on the lake. (Current research suggests that upwards of 70% of the sediment that impacts water clarity comes from urban runoff). This has left communities like South Lake Tahoe stuck in a time warp of sorts with a built environment that is largely dated, deteriorating and severely out of sync with its’ stunning setting.

 BUT WAIT!!......To be fair, positive developments are taking place on many fronts because --in fact--‘the times they are a-chaingin’!  After years of endless, repetitive, planning with little to show for it, a tipping point has at last been reached.  It’s FINALLY become clear to all the players (agencies, governments, business and environmental interests) that we have arrived at a critical juncture where cooperation, collaboration and CHANGE are the only reasonable options left.  The challenge now is to find consensus on what shape that change takes and at what pace it will occur. Some advocate for small, incremental steps while others believe, as I do, that in order to move our infrastructure and economy into the 21st Century before we fall further behind, a major transformation must take place-----especially (but certainly not exclusively) in the Tahoe Basin’s largest community and only incorporated city-----South Lake Tahoe (SLT).

In 2007,  a coalition of  Chambers of  Commerce and  all six of the Tahoe Basin’s local governments collaborated in securing a grant that ultimately produced the Prosperity Plan document in Fall 2010. Authors of the Prosperity Plan translated community input into a vision of the region that states, “The Lake Tahoe Basin is a world class center of innovation and green tourism, green building and sustainable design, scientific research and applications for environmental resource renewal and management, renewable energies, and health and wellness.” Emphasis of the Plan is on transforming Tahoe into “a sustainability powerhouse”. This is a great vision but it my humble opinion...take a massive effort and  major transformation to achieve that vision in time to save the lake and its’ economy to create a sustainable, world-class destination resort

There have been some recent on-the-ground developments that are inching us closer to becoming a resort destination worthy of Tahoe’s stunning physical environment. In SLT, the Lakeview Commons project is a good example, as is the passage by voters of Measure R which updated the way money can be spent on bike paths and ball fields. New multi-use paths will soon improve non-motorized connectivity, older ones will be repaired and ball sports tournaments will bring economic benefit.  Sustainable Tahoe, a non-profit formed to promote geotourism in the region recently held it’s second Tahoe Expo, a geotourism showcase. The Sustainability Collaborative is also working basin-wide to help implement the Basin Prosperity Plan. Compost Tahoe is a collaboration between several South Shore restaurants, South Tahoe Refuse and Full Circle Compost to collect food scraps for composting for later use in community gardens. These positive developments came about after much public outreach and input from the community and thus garnered wide support. This trend must be continued and greatly accelerated.

That brings me to the purpose of this blog. This blog is intended to be a magnet, repository and resource for community sourced ideas for finding solutions to the challenges facing the Lake Tahoe Basin. I envision this blog as a place where any project, proposal or challenge that exists anywhere in the Tahoe Basin can be discussed and civilly debated by those most familiar with the specific issues.* From Loop Road proposals to Homewood Ski Area expansion to proposed bans on plastic shopping bags, all issues relating to change (or lack thereof) in the Tahoe Basin can and should be exposed, discussed and solutions suggested. Here you have a forum where your ideas can be shared, debated and honed until they find consensus within the community. Any plan, large or small MUST  have public input and support to move forward. Solidarity amongst those who live, work, play and pay taxes here is not’s essential. I believe that this is a far more democratic and cost-effective method of visioning and planning than relying on agency dictates and paying for outside consultants...a practice that has cost us taxpayers far too much money for far too little return on investment. It’s also easier, not to mention more environmentally  friendly, than driving to endless meetings. A massive brain trust exists in the form of those who live in and visit the Tahoe Basin, are familiar with the issues and concerned about Tahoe’s future. Let’s tap into this wealth of knowledge, experience, expertise and passion to find solutions that are crafted and endorsed by WE THE PEOPLE!

    *    Any  applicable topic can be populated with ideas, suggestions and critique by those who wish to contribute their knowledge and experience in a CIVIL and SOLUTION ORIENTED manner. As administrator, I will not tolerate personal attacks or foul language on this site. The demeanor of this blog is to have civil, fact based, data-driven discussions that are solution oriented. We can disagree with one another without being disagreeable. If you want to rage and spew....please go elsewhere.

To start the discussion, I’d like to begin with two large, separate but inexorably linked and potentially transformative ‘projects’.  I’m talking about South Lake Tahoe’s Loop Road proposal and “the Hole”. For background on these projects, please visit the following media sites and type those topics into the search box:

The Loop Road and hole debacles actually represent an opportunity to massively transform our town----and ourselves----from a has-been resort town with extremely polarized politics to an example of green, high-tech resort living with a consensus driven citizenry. In order to move forward, we must have community solidarity on how we view our future before any entity will consider the massive investments needed to bring us into the 21st century.  From my perspective, any Loop Road project MUST include a solid, funded plan for the hole. Since both are located in the core of our bed base and are currently adversely affecting our economy and quality of life, both need to be addressed simultaneously. Additionally, the the 12 acre hole area is integral to to the loop road as a place to relocate the few viable businesses that may be sacrificed to make room for the Loop Road.

First, the Loop Road proposal. I have long suggested an east-bound west- bound split of Hwy. 50 around a newly configured walkable, bikeable, transit served core zone on both sides of the state line. That means utilizing the current Loop Road  / Lake Parkway S. to the south and Lake Parkway N. and Pine Blvd. to the north. The road width for such a split largely exists both north and south of the core although some deviation from their current alignments would be necessary  to properly intersect with “old” Hwy. 50.

 No matter which Hwy. 50 re-alignment option (if any) is chosen, some current businesses would have to be retired or relocated to accommodate reconfigured intersections, snow removal, runoff treatment infrastructure and landscaping. Many (if not most) of the aging lodging properties surrounding Stateline are running well below occupancy rates necessary to make them financially sustainable. Also, recent data presented by Carl Ribaudo through SMG demonstrates that South Lake Tahoe has excess low-end lodging capacity which is driving down occupancy and room rates. Even if they had or could borrow the money, owners of these struggling properties are rightfully hesitant to upgrade due to the many uncertainties in the general and local economy, a complicated permitting system and a lack of a clear plan for the area. It would be easy to identify the poorest performing properties and offer the owners fair compensation. I would suggest that a percentage of those owners would like to retire or move on and would welcome a buy-out. Properties that are financially viable that need to be relocated could be offered space in the 12 acre hole area where they would become part of a new, green built center for lodging, food, entertainment, education, recreation and conventions.

To create an alignment that is purely data driven and free of any political considerations or NIMBYism, I have suggested using a CAD program which uses an aerial photo of the core area along with all the current traffic data to create a preliminary alignment. Then to refine that rough draft, we further factor in the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) data as well as data on service calls to law enforcement, emergency responders, building dept., and any other entity that provides service to those core zone properties.  This will give a more complete picture of how a realignment of Hwy.50 through the core zone would achieve the objective of freeing up space for a more walkable / bikeable / transit served center while eliminating financially underperforming and problem properties.

For the hole, I envision a mixed-use, food & lodging, entertainment, convention and educational center. Imagine a place where not only new businesses and those relocated for Hwy 50 realignment can thrive, but also a HUGE, green constructed, high-tech multi-purpose building that could be configured for everything from conventions to large music, entertainment or educational events. I envision this building to built mostly below ground level with a ‘living roof’  above creating a park-like setting and perhaps even a geodesic dome greenhouse providing fresh produce year-round to surrounding restaurants. Inside, the walls would be hi-tech screens that could project any scene from real-time outside conditions, to the Grand Canyon to the moon. That would give us a one-of-a-kind venue that would attract conventions, concerts, seminars, etc. If we ever hope to reinvent our economy while protecting our environment, we have THINK BIG to have any chance of catching up with and surpassing other destination resorts that are currently out-competing us in attracting the 21st Century visitor.

Getting people around the area efficiently is a major problem here. Limited transportation options are a serious roadblock to sustainability and are FINALLY being seriously addressed. Everything from water taxies to expanded walking / biking infrastructure to coordinated traffic signals are at long last getting more serious attention. Along with the deplorable state of such a large number of our structures, our entire 60’s vintage transit system is keeping us mired in the mediocrity of being a second rate resort destination located in a world class environment. A properly done loop road  / hole project would improve traffic flow and greatly enhance walk/bike-ability in our bed-base.  The debate about how we go about changing that is both necessary and fruitful.
 I look forward to hearing YOUR ideas!