Tuesday Talk… with Eric Phillips

Teachers aren’t supposed to play favorites, but it’s impossible for me to not think of 1998 HHS alumnus Eric Phillips as one of my all-time favorite students. We hit it off first based on a love of films, then music, then history and politics. Eric was one of the most naturally gifted speakers and leaders I’ve encountered and I continue to be impressed by all that he’s accomplished in his work.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is eric_phillips_headshot_19n2689_web.jpg

Did you grow up in Hillsborough?

I spent my entire childhood in Hillsborough. I was born in the area, and didn’t leave Hillsborough until freshman year of college.

What did (or do) your parents do for a living?

My mom stayed home with me and my brother during our younger childhoods, but when we were both in grade school she started as a bookkeeper for a local landscaping business. She stayed with that company through retirement, eventually become the office manager and running most of the day-to-day business.

My dad was a statistician for Johnson and Johnson, working in consumer products research most of his career. When I was in college, the position was eliminated and he started helping my mom with the business, managing logistics and office technology.

They are both retired and moved to Phoenix to be closer to my brother and me, since we both live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What did you think of social studies generally in high school, specifically how it was taught as a subject? Did you find it engaging? Did you think it prepared you for later course work and — gasp — citizenship?

I definitely was engaged by social studies throughout high school. Freshman year world history didn’t do much for me at the time (though I returned to more “ancient” history in college and very much enjoyed it). Starting in 10th grade though, I loved learning about American history and specifically how our government operates. Certain activities from that year stick with me still, such as being assigned states to represent during a constitutional convention simulation – learning how to negotiate, balance group interests, and implement responsible governance principles was engaging, and I think it did a good job of creating skills with “real world” application. 

In AP history, I enjoyed being given long form books focused on single subjects – I read a biography of Woodrow Wilson for some reason – that felt like good college prep.

I also took US History since 1945 and Political and Legal Education (a semester elective that evolved into AP Government), both of which I think did more to foster citizenship than the “older” history classes. They focused on (relatively) recent events with direct influence on contemporary social events and the mechanics of how contemporary government operates, respectively, which I felt very engaged by.

Of course, it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation – I started talking about wanting to be a lawyer as early as second grade, so I was predisposed to want to learn about our political and legal system. But the system worked very well for me – it built upon my existing interests, drew me in, and added lots of new skills that I could continue building on for the next 20 plus years (and counting).

How did your experiences with Model Congress and Mock Trial impact you?

Participating in Model Congress and Mock Trial directly shaped my whole life, from where I went to college to what I do for a living, which indirectly set me up for the rest of my adult life living, working, and having a family in the Bay Area.

Both activities helped me develop analytical skills and speaking skills, which I rely on daily. They also filled the role for me that sports do for many other people – they helped me feel like part of a team, pushed me to develop leadership skills to support others, and connected me to my peers.

More specifically, Model Congress solidified my interest in politics and government, which led to me working for the Hillsborough Planning Department for two summers in high school. Even though it was local government rather than federal government, I felt like it was an initial step towards working for the public. It was there I learned how much local government matters – most people’s day to day lives are much more directly influenced by decisions made by their local planning department than by their senator. Wanting to get more involved in this area, I only applied to colleges with undergrad planning programs, which led me to Cornell. A professor there connected me with a planning firm in Berkeley specializing in land use planning driven by community outreach and engagement, which brought me to California 17 years ago. Since then, I met my future wife, went to law school, had a child, bought a house here, and my personal and professional life are both grounded here in California with roots that trace directly back to my participation in Model Congress.

Tell me a little bit more about your work at the planning department.

As I started to say above, I worked there for two summers. Obviously I liked it well enough, since I went to planning school and worked in the field for years afterwards! I was so fortunate to be exposed to the planning field at an early age, because it gave me a frame to approach my education and working life going forward. Part of why the experience was so positive for me was because I developed a relationship with a great mentor there: Shirley Yannich. Shirley was the head planner for the Township at the time, and she was very generous with her time, making sure that I was learning about the planning field while I was there (as opposed to just filing and copying, or whatever interns sometimes get stuck doing). Shirley brought me to meetings, introduced me to other professionals, and let me take on real projects – I even got to testify before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in support of a resident’s variance application, which felt like a big deal for a 16 year old. A big part of my job today is getting development projects approved, but because of that internship, I’ve had over 20 years of practice!

What, if anything, do you recall about a conversation we had at Rutgers about dealing with difficult people? 

Nothing, unfortunately.

I’m not surprised, but let me take you back. You were a senior at your final Model Congress conference. Other than one trip where you had laryngitis, you had dominated previous debate conferences, and had earned a spot as a team leader. We had a really annoying freshman member of the team who was getting under your skin, and I had an epiphany. I pulled you aside and said, “I was starting to think I didn’t have anything left to teach you, but how you deal with the most irritating people is the true measure of leadership.” You looked at me, sighed, and said in the most resigned tone possible… “I know.” 

That is funny – I do remember you sharing that particular bit of advice, but I didn’t remember it in that exact context. I also remember you telling me that I would need to learn to suffer fools more gladly (or something to that effect). I still struggle with both of those lessons, but as I have gotten older, I have gotten better at being more empathetic and trying to see things from perspectives other than my own. That helps me be more patient and appreciate people with different strengths and weaknesses better than I used to, but I still can’t pretend that I’m good at it. But I am trying!

What attracted you to Cornell?

The biggest draw was the undergrad planning program – I also liked that the planning school had its own building with the architecture college, so it felt like we had a small school community within the context of a huge university. I also really liked the idea of going somewhere cold and snowy – that seemed romantic to me at the time. In retrospect that should not have been a selling point, and the day I moved to California and took the snow shovel out the trunk of my car was one of the best days of my life.

That’s awesome. I am bitterly (cold) jealous. What did you major in? Did you have to write a thesis or do some kind of similar capstone project? If so, what was it on?

I majored in urban and regional studies, which is an undergrad planning degree. I did write a thesis my senior year on solar energy and designing zoning codes to promote on-site energy generation in buildings. This was in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, so I did a deep dive on the feasibility of energy independence and framed it as a national security issue, arguing that if we could guy down on fossil fuel use sourced in the Middle East, the US could have a less hawkish presence in that region. I think the underlying concept is still relevant, but if I were writing it today, I think I would frame the work as a way of addressing climate change via reduced GHG emissions.

What did you do upon graduation? What brought you out to the west coast?

I had job offers in Philadelphia, New York, and Berkeley upon graduating, all doing different types of planning work. Many of my planning professors had their graduate degrees from UC Berkeley, and the job opportunity there seemed to have the most potential for long-term growth. Plus, at that point in my life, I had never been to California! Trying something new and unknown was very appealing. I flew into SFO and took BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit train] for my in-person interview at the job I ended up taking, and spent the afternoon in North Beach before flying back to Ithaca for graduation. That was all it took – I moved to San Francisco a week later (my first apartment was on Union Street, just up the hill from the heart of North Beach, and all of my initial paychecks went to buying cappuccinos and buying books at City Lights, hoping I would accidentally bump into Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

Tell me about your initial career in planning. 

I moved to California to work at a consulting company called MIG – they are a land use planning firm, which means they get hired by cities and counties to write development codes and plans for future growth, economic development, etc. The thing I liked best about MIG was that all of their work was very influenced by the community – they were great at engaging residents and other stakeholders in the planning process and incorporating the public’s vision for their communities into the local plans and codes. In some places, this could lead to NIMBYism or repeating the exclusionary views of entrenched residents, but luckily those weren’t the types of communities that would hire us. We worked a lot in the Central Valley and other “forgotten” urban parts of the state, and helped bring residents there into the planning process with the goal of increasing participation in community development decisions, especially from community members that aren’t well represented through traditional municipal decision making processes.

What challenges did you face in your work?

There were two. The first is the time it would take to implement a plan – I wanted to make a difference in the communities where I worked, but a long range plan might not come to fruition for 15 years, if ever. I also felt challenged when working in communities that were anti-growth; one jurisdiction was having trouble retaining doctors, teachers, and other workers that provide essential community services because of the lack of housing, but a significant segment of the population didn’t care (or worse, liked that it was next to impossible for anyone to move there). I found (and continue to find) that view selfish and shortsighted, but enough people feel that way that developing enough housing in California continues to be a major challenge.

Ironically, the most rewarding work I did as planner was also the inspiration to finally go to law school. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, I joined several of my colleagues from MIG in volunteering in a small community in Mississippi. Generations of segregationist development policies had concentrated a large segment of the African American population of Gulfport in a floodplain, and the Turkey Creek neighborhood was almost entirely destroyed.  The City wanted to rezone the area for commercial development: buy flooded land cheap, rezone build a walmart superstore, collect sales tax revenue, displace generations of poor, black residents. We worked with local residents to develop a new residential zoning code to develop on existing land but outside of areas most prone to flooding, using modern construction techniques and design influenced by the local, historical architecture. But none of that would have mattered if it hadn’t been for a team of attorneys from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights who helped residents form a land trust and had the area designated as a historic preservation zone, reducing the economic pressure for displacement and helping stabilize land values so residents could rebuild, return, and remain.

Our contributions as planners were important, but the lawyers brought the project together and made it able to be implemented – that was the type of job I wanted! Off to law school for me.

Where did you go to law school? What was your focus?

I stayed in the area for law school and attended UC Berkeley School of Law. I focused on land use, real estate, and environmental law. I’m now a real estate partner in a firm in San Francisco, where I split my time between representing cities and counties (helping them comply with state land use and housing laws) and private developers, getting project approvals for large scale urban developments.

What has been the most interesting work you’ve done in the second phase of your career?

Housing is the issue of the day in California. I’ve written dozens of “inclusionary housing” ordinances for cities and counties throughout the state, which require that new residential development include a fixed percentage (often 15%, but some higher or lower depending on the local economics) of below market rate housing. Because housing is so expensive in California, policies like this are some of the only opportunities for lower income households to obtain housing, and I firmly believe that economically diverse communities have strong social benefits for everyone. I’ve also become something of a rent control expert, and have helped several cities and counties create new tenant protection programs to keep people housed and mitigate displacement as market forces push housing costs ever higher. These types of projects combine politics, economics, housing policy, and have immediate, tangible effects on communities – it is a privilege to be involved in this type of work.

If you had the ability to pass a new law, amend an existing law, or change some facet of public policy in California (related to your work, that is) with the stroke of a pen… what would it be? 

One of the many negative effects of California’s housing crisis is that high costs near cities are pushing people into previously undeveloped exurbs in search of housing they can afford, which increases commute times, pushes up fossil fuel use (and associated greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts), and puts more houses in areas prone to wildfires (which adds to fuel for said fires, and exacerbates the damage they cause). But it doesn’t have to be like that!

I’d love to make it easier to build housing (in the right places). I’m in favor of a Minneapolis style zoning approach for California cities, which gets rid of single-family only zoning and lets property owners build duplexes or other multi-family units if they want. I also think we should boost housing density near transit and employment centers. The catch is that any changes to increase development potential should capture that increased value for the public to pay for affordable housing, transit expansion, and economic development in the parts of our state where we have urban infrastructure but not enough job demand to attract population growth.  While we increase density in our urban centers, we need to limit growth in wildfire areas and preserve agricultural land for food production and job opportunities.

Let’s get philosophical and introspective for a second. How different will your young son Xander’s life be from your own? Obviously the time is different, but so is the geography, particular choices you may be making as a parent…

In many ways, Xander’s world is already bigger than mine ever was growing up. The Bay Area is a pretty transient place, so the Berkeley public schools are filled with kids from different backgrounds, with families from different parts of the country/world, people that speak different languages, etc. My hope is that will  broaden his perspective and understanding in ways that make him kinder and more empathetic than me. 

His experiences also support the idea that you don’t have to stay in one place, and there is no one path to finding your community of people and your calling. I hope that he will feel empowered to explore and find those for himself.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? And will you visit me in the senior center?

With any luck, I’ll still be developing projects here in California. I’m on the Board of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association, and through that role I have been heavily involved in working on recent land use and housing legislation in Sacramento. Calling back to my Model Congress days, maybe my work will push me to get more involved in state government or find other ways to broaden my reach and make what I consider a positive contribution to my community.

I will come visit, but you’re always welcome out here. We have better weather, great burritos, and sea lions, so I think it is worth the effort!

Sigh. You know me so well.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: