High Barriers for Low-Rise Affordable Housing

Don't think about adding another story here

I’ve sometimes wondered why towns often lack mixed-use, low-rise development.  San Anselmo, in its draft housing element update (PDF, p. 47), found that adding a second story of housing on top of its downtown retail district would add 45 units.  Other cities in Marin could do the same.  Such plans would bolster tottering downtown economies, place low-income residents near transit and amenities, and help defuse some of the painful debates over affordable housing we’ve seen lately, all while maintaining the “village character” of our towns.  It should be a win-win, but the federal agencies charged with enforcing affordable housing policy are making it harder.  From Streetsblog:

[Department of Housing and Urban Development] lending standards dictate that the total value of mixed-use development projects can’t be more than 15 to 20 percent retail. Fannie [Mae] caps retail share at 20; Freddie [Mac] at 25 percent. And these standards set the tone for the private market — a tone that is consequently skewed toward single-family housing, and away from the pent-up demand for urban development with walkable amenities.

In other words, the loans that go to support affordable housing cannot go towards the kind of mixed-use development that would most help the poor and the cities they live in.  Second-story units in downtown San Anselmo would be ineligible for these loans under current law, rendering any plans for such units moot.

Congress for the New Urbanism is leading a campaign to change these rules.  San Anselmo and the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers should lend their full support and join CNU.

Mid-Week Links: Empty Inside

© Nathan Kensinger Photography

  • Nathan Kensinger took a fantastic photo essay of one of the Bay Area’s ghost towns: Drawbridge, Santa Clara County.
  • Density doesn’t have to be bad.  Here in Washington, DC, there have been a few particularly beautiful examples of rowhouses hitting the local blogosphere. (DCMud, DCMetrocentric)
  • Well, my Washington ties finally pay off.  The debt debate is all the town can talk about, and at least one outlet asks, What happens to transportation if we can’t borrow?  It turns out, not much.  In the mean time, the FAA still isn’t reauthorized. (Transportation Issues, Washington Post)
  • It looks like the Marin County Planning Commission is going to look at some zoning changes.  On the table: density and mixed use, among other things. (MCPC)
  • Some neighbors are filing suit against a planned expansion of Edna Maguire Elementary in Mill Valley over slightly more traffic and slightly more height. (IJ)
  • Fairfax could get some more night life, although a bit off the beaten track.  South downtown’s abandoned gas station might become a music venue.  Rockin’. (Patch)
  • For once, the IJ was full of constructive examination of SMART this week.  A veteran transportation planner takes a look at the SMART train and asks naysayers, “Can’t we now get on with this project?” while Dick Spotswood thinks it will be too successful for its rolling stock, which have a maximum capacity of 498 seats.  Personally I think his analysis is oversimplistic, as SMART’s corridor is hardly similar to CalTrain’s.
  • Just when you thought it was over, ABAG’s affordable housing saga rolls on, this time to Sausalito.  They’re just getting started, but so far the debate sounds rather more civil than Novato’s contentious debate.
  • Speaking of Novato, opinion on the new affordable housing plan keeps rolling in.  SUNN panned the site selections for being insufficient, the IJ editorial board congratulated the city for how far it has come since the start of the debate, Brad Breithaupt decryed the whole process, and the city itself, in an uncharacteristic bout of practicality, started to look at how to make  better use of the market to meet its affordable housing needs through second units. (Pacific Sun, IJ, Patch)
  • Late Edition: It’s been a long time coming, but the San Francisco bike share project marches forward by announcing next year’s pilot plans.  Other cities along the CalTrain corridor will also be part of the system which, in the Bay Area’s Balkanized transit system, is most welcome. (San Francycle, HuffPo)

Marin’s Roads as Transit

Major Roads as Metro

Click to enlarge

If there is one thing that gets a transit advocate’s heart racing, it’s a transit fantasy map.  It speaks to our not-so-hidden desire that method by which we get around – trains, buses, cars, bikes and feet – should each occupy a niche in the urban landscape, hopefully without too much spillover into another mode’s bailiwick.  A fantasy map means that a given area is no longer strictly the domain of the car but is accessible to all travelers.

Sometimes, however, a fantasy map is really not a fantasy at all, but a reimagining of what is already there.  Cameron Booth, for example, created a map of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System as though it were a subway system.  Complutense has a fair number of fantastic maps of Bay Area transit.  (Marin sure looks lonely with its one little track.)  With that, I submit my own – East Marin’s roads as metro.

Why?  When my eyes drifted from DC’s transit network and back to my home, I realized that Marin is laid out in lines thanks to its geography.  Not only does this lend itself to diagramming, but it lends itself to frequent buses: the population is forced to travel along these routes, and they already live close enough to them that bus improvements help the whole corridor, not just a few near the stops.

The map will be updated as time goes on.  It needs some work, but it has helped me visualize Marin’s potential.

Mid-Week Links: Baby Steps

County Proper

aja_2005_1210_010

photo from archibald jude

  • The never-ending news of rail in Marin continues with Novato’s final approval of the mighty and efficient freight train, which will now run through the city as far as Eureka.  Santa Rosa got its first new freight train this week, too.  (IJ, Patch, Press-Democrat)
  • In a mishmash of acronyms, MTC considers SMART’s pedestrian facilities for TIGER funds. (IJ, Fast Lane)
  • Work is starting to add HOV lanes to the Novato Narrows, an area of Highway 101 north of the Atherton Avenue exit.  Freeway widening is never a good answer to traffic, especially with a train on the way, but at least it’s HOV. (Patch, IJ)
  • Meanwhile, Novato declares sprawl to be the way forward, approving zoning for affordable housing at 20 units per acre instead of the State-mandated 30 units per acre.  Although 20 units per acre could do some good, as the form matters more than the density, the downgrade is a loss to the city. (IJ, Transit in Utah)

Read more of this post

Making Sense of Our Governmental Mishmash

Marin is governed by a huge number of overlapping governments, commissions, committees, agencies, authorities, departments and boards.  No wonder the Bay Area is so difficult to govern.

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a new page at the top of The Greater Marin, with links to every official entity with some power over Marin County development issues, from the White House to the Bolinas Public Utilities District.

At the Federal level, things are pretty clear.  Congress has oversight over the Executive Branch, which has issue-specific Departments and Agencies to deal with whatever regulations need to be enforced or enacted.  Laws get passed, but are typically implemented by the existing structure.

Lower down the chain, the situation becomes significantly murkier.  The Bay shoreline is managed by the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission, while the Pacific shoreline is managed by the California Coastal Commission.  Housing and urban development is even more touchy, with involvement from the Association of Bay Area Governments, the BCDC, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Joint Policy Committee, the County government, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, State regulations, and the affected city and county governments.  Transit further complicates affairs, as one or more of the Bay Area’s dozens of transit agencies gets involved, as well as the County transportation authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, State agencies and the US Department of Transportation.

At current count, for Marin alone I count seven unincorporated areas with governments, twelve incorporated cities and towns, four transit agencies, the Board of Supervisors and nine other regional entities with specific issue areas.

The good news is that most of the unelected bodies draw from Marin’s body of elected officials, so there is consistency of policy between them.  The SMART Board, for example, requires that some of its members sit on the TAM Board, to ensure that their policies have continuity, and that members are kept abreast of local transportation issues.

This agglomerated structure, though, leads to weakness and a sense that the unelected bodies are sent by Sacramento to intrude upon local sovereignty.  When the Clipper Card rolled out, it took a very long time for it to filter into the various member transit districts of the MTC, and even now not all transit agencies accept the card.  In the interim, local transit agencies spent millions of dollars to roll out similar cards, duplicating efforts, wasting money, and further prolonging the wait for a standardized smart card.

When Novato debated affordable housing mandates from ABAG, a continual complaint was that Sacramento was imposing its will upon the town.  When the city eventually finalized its rather modest housing plans, the chatter was that Novato had told off the State, not an Association on which its own councilmembers sit.

So what can be done?

On the one hand, Bay Area residents are fiercely independent and notoriously headstrong.  San Francisco has its own style, and it would just as soon not be lumped in with Fremont if it can be helped, Berkeley would blanche at being dictated to by Oakley, and the New York Times once called Bolinas the “Howard Hughes of towns.”  On the other hand, the Bay Area functions as a region and faces regional problems, from the Bay itself to the freeways and bridges.

One idea is to create a new office, a Bay Area Lieutenant Governor directly elected by the residents.  The official would act as advocate for Bay Area policy in Sacramento and coordinate policy between each of the disparate bodies that has authority over the region.  The election campaign of a Lieutenant Governor would unite the region in a way that is impossible under the current governmental mélange, while having someone at the top would mean greater legitimacy for the bureaucracy.

A less ambitious idea would be to simply consolidate the various bodies into a single unified hierarchy, perhaps under ABAG, and reduce overlapping mandates.  Any permitting would go through this unified structure.  The bodies would share staff, standardize forms and processes, and proximity would allow policies to rub off from one agency to another in a way that’s currently impossible.  A merger between ABAG and MTC was proposed in 2001 but eventually died due to internal opposition; the two agencies established the Joint Policy Committee instead.

But no politician or bureaucrat wants to cede power, and few people have the stomach to create government, even if it means streamlining what already exists.  There are so many sacred cows, so many little fiefdoms, in the current system that Bay Area residents will most likely be stuck with what they have for some time.  At the very least, now there’s an index to reference.

Midweek Links: Get SMART

SMART was making news this week, what with TAM voting not to rescind last month’s approval of an $8 million bailout for the transit project.  MTC then voted to approve its own transfer of $33 million.  Sonoma had already contributed $3 million.  Larkspur officially approved of the project, votes raised my eyebrows.  When the original vote deadlocked at 7-7 on whether to approve the bailout, it was Larkspur Councilwoman Joan Lundstrom who switched her vote.  She was not at the second meeting, allowing her alternate, Larkspur Mayor Larry Chu, to sit in her place.  Despite his city’s official approval of the project, he voted to rescind.  In any case, RepealSMART would have none of it, suing the organization for violating open meeting laws and general nefariousness.  All the while, the SMART board reported that they were “fundamentally sound and on track” and continued its search for a new executive director.

Meanwhile, Corte Madera and San Rafael passed their budgets.  Turns out the San Rafael gas tax doesn’t always go to transportation.

Not all budgets are in yet, with a number of cities contemplating sales taxes to close gaps that keep coming up.

Novato gets a new bicycle lane to bypass a stretch where bikers shared 101 with vehicular traffic.

Not all vehicular safety news is good.  A boy was hit by a driver outside of a crosswalk in a Mill Valley shopping area.  Police blame the kid for crossing outside of a crosswalk, but there’s a problem: there aren’t any crosswalks there.

In other local drama, Novato has revised their list of sites to zone for affordable housing.  Looks like the churches are off the hook, but I still wonder why the city insists on building single-purpose affordable units.

From here on, the only thing shocking about San Rafael’s Pizza Orgasmica is going to be the name.  Its owner has given up a fight to keep its bright yellow, Brazil-inspired hue.  SFist calls San Rafael’s objections an “Orange County-mentality“.

TAM is considering high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes on 101.  Despite research that congestion pricing is the only way to keep down traffic, I can’t help but think the $66-120 million required to install might go to a better use like, say, transit.  At least it makes the $8 million SMART bailout look like the chump change it is.

Lastly, and as an offering for being a day late, I bring you meaty theory.  Free parking, that ubiquitous scourge of the suburbs and thing that exists all over Marin, is really a huge drain on our local, regional, and national economies.

SMART Moves Forward

If you haven’t already seen it, the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) approved an $8 million bailout of the SMART rail project.  The rail project’s phase one will extend from downtown Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael, with operations aimed to begin in 2014.

Not everyone is so pleased with the result.  RepealSMART, an anti-transit organization formed exclusively to fight the project, is suing in Marin Superior Court, saying TAM meetings violated open meetings laws and election promises in providing the bailout.  The organization also alleges that SMART has an undisclosed $35 million deficit, a number group lead John Parnell says comes from an anonymous source.  Although he claims he’d have no issue if the train were being built at once, he calls the first segment “useless.”  Those that live and work along the segment will doubtless disagree.

Mid-Week Links: On Tenterhooks

NETWORK_LA transit has a wonderful video about moving LA from cars to transit.

Unlike LA, Marin might be stepping back towards the car if the Transportation Authority of Marin reverses last week’s vote to transfer $8 million to the SMART project at today’s meeting. (Marin IJ, Press Democrat)

The San Rafael mayoral race is already under way.  We’ll be watching this. (San Rafael Patch)

Limiting a parking lot to just the store’s customers is hugely inefficient.  Not only does it encourage people to drive fractions of a mile from lot to lot, but it creates redundant parking spaces, wasting land. (Reinventing Parking)

SMART will be a boon to downtown San Rafael, and that’s good for everyone in Marin. (San Rafael Patch)

Greater Greater Washington found that sometimes, people just don’t realize that bicycles are used for things other than recreation. (Greater Greater Washington)

Novato’s Affordable Housing Opportunity

Hopefully not Novato's future

New housing mandates for the City of Novato present a huge opportunity for the city, if only residents can bring themselves to seize the moment.

The big story in Novato this past month has been affordable housing.  The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is mandating new housing the city for the next five years under the “fair share” policy, under which each Bay Area government takes its fair share of the projected regional growth.  There has been a tremendous outpouring against the proposed sites as well as the process in general, leaving affordable housing advocates hopelessly outgunned.

Although ABAG shouldn’t be mandating housing to Novato at all (not to say that Novato’s government is terribly wise about its zoning policies to begin with), the situation does present an opportunity for the city to address some underlying issues that might otherwise get lost in the debate.  What kind of town ought Novato be?  How can it serve its residents better?  Neither side has been particularly effective in conveying their overall vision for the city, I think the answers can be broken down into three parts: density, transportation, and character.

Read more of this post

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 993 other followers