Mid-Week Links: It’s Nuh-VAH-to

Marin

Novato From Mt. Burdell

Novato looks so peaceful in the valley

Novato is the news coverage winner this week, with the city inspiring a number of stories on its behavior and future.

  • There’s a study afoot to improve buses through Novato.  Marinscope’s Rachel Dovey took the 51 to Northgate Mall to see what it was like and found woefully inadequate service, including an inaccessible stop along the freeway and very long travel times.  The study was received happily, but Larry Rosen wonders what might be done to improve ridership.  If only there were a way to develop housing oriented to transit usage.
  • CalTrans has approved $70 million in highway construction around the Novato Narrows and the Redwood Landfill, including a bike path to the Petaluma River.  CalTrans also approved the contract for widening Highway 101 in the same area, worth another $50 million.  If you’re counting, that’s worth 13 miles of SMART rail, enough to hit all but the northernmost two stations.
  • Meanwhile, the IJ’s Rob Rogers wonders if Novato’s contentious debates on affordable housing, relocating city hall and other issues “are simply a symptom of a national malaise, a poisonous political atmosphere in which compromise — even over the most basic areas of national interest — seems impossible.
  • Speaking of City Hall, Novato’s city manager, under criticism for recommending that city offices move to Old Town Novato, felt compelled to outline his rationale.  He could have added that centralizing administration in Old Town helps make the neighborhood the city’s practical heart as well as emotional.

Elsewhere in Marin:

  • Marin City’s Transit Center is getting a half-million dollar facelift, including new lighting and safety improvements.
  • Larkspur is having trouble maintaining its infrastructure, so it’s turning to private companies to fill the gap.
  • Mill Valley is forgoing its election this year, as only incumbents had filed to run.  Instead, the incumbents were reappointed, and the city saved $19,000.
  • Although not quite in Marin, close-enough Rohnert Park wants to build a downtown with a SMART station at the center.

The Greater Marin

  • California’s SB 791 would allow certain tax hikes earmarked for transit to have a 50% threshold to pass.  The idea is to make it easier for transit projects to go forward despite reticence on the part of more conservative elements in a community.
  • California High Speed Rail is extending its environmental report’s public review period by 45 days.
  • While California debates all kinds of rail projects, it’s easy to lose track of the simplest thing: roadways.  Strong Towns argues that public highways should narrow to neighborhood streets once they enter towns and speed up again upon leaving.  Streetsblog thinks a good way to do this in California would be for CalTrans to relinquish control of state highways to local communities where appropriate.
  • The Tea Party has a target, and its name is smart growth.
  • On the other side of the globe, the Marin suburb of Istanbul is grappling with massive population increase coupled with auto-oriented planning.  A new documentary, Ecumenopolis, argues this is a bad way forward.

Larkspur’s Missing Village

Larkspur at Dawn. Photo by udpslp

Imagine living on San Francisco Bay.  You live with the sound of the sea and the smell of the Bay.  There are fabulous views of shoreline and bits of the City’s skyline peak over the hills.  Moonlight reflects off the water, and there are places to eat seafood very, very fresh.  You work in the city, but it doesn’t matter because you are near the best transit in the region: departures are every 30 minutes on the dot and provide a speedy but relaxing 30 minute ride downtown.

I’m writing about Oakland, yes?  Near BART?  Actually, no: I’m writing about Larkspur Landing.  It doesn’t have a train yet, but that ferry ride is very real, giving locals one of the best places in the County for transit to the City.  Buses regularly depart from nearby bus pads and from the Ferry Terminal, and the Marin Airporter office is in the middle of everything.  If a resident does own a car, Larkspur Landing is wedged between Highways 101 and 580, and located along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, giving easy access to Marin’s principal arteries and to Contra Costa.  This should be a transit paradise and a destination to rival Sausalito or Tiburon, but it’s not, and it’s a lost opportunity for Larkspur and the County.

Read more of this post

Mid-Week Links: And He Separated Water from Water

A beautiful video from Marin photographer Gary Yost shows everything I love and miss about my home: the nature, the towns, the Bay, the culture… I miss it all. On to the nitty-gritty of running all that.

Marin

SMART, once again, features prominently in local transit news this week.  Farhad Mansourian, interim General Manager of SMART, has been hired by the agency on a permanent basis.  Critics have addressed his pay – over $300,000 per year in compensation, comparable to other agency heads – and his credentials, although they’ve also stopped saying he duped the board prior to the MTC and TAM bailout hearings, as few boards would hire a man they felt had misled them.

The board also approved the new financial report, balancing the budget at about $360 million for the construction of the line which, at $9.7 million per mile, is by far the least expensive rail transit project in the country.  Local writer Steve Stein agrees, characterizing opponents as “nostalgic for a Marin County composed of mid-century ranch houses, suburban lawns and cul-de-sacs.”  In other news:

  • Cyclists and pedestrians got a major boost when the County allocated $8.8 million for pedestrian and bicycling improvements across Marin.  Among the projects: studying reopening the Alto Tunnel between Corte Madera and Mill Valley, improving sidewalk connections between the Canal and downtown San Rafael, and, in a major victory, constructing the Central Marin Ferry Connection.
  • In affordable housing news, Assemblyman and Congressional contender Jared Huffman’s bill to allow foreclosed housing to count against affordable housing mandates is on the Governor’s desk for signature.  The bill once allowed cities to appeal their density requirements, but it’s been pared down to just the foreclosed housing portion.  Meanwhile, Novato, which pushed most strenuously for reform, is following through on a 2008 development loan to expand Eden Housing, an affordable senior center home.  Critics contended that old folks will cause crime and join gangs.
  • Terrapin Crossroads, the Phil Lesh-led music venue, was discussed at length at a Fairfax Town Council meeting.  Critics were concerned about traffic and noise at the site, while supporters saw it as a fabulous opportunity for the town to improve nightlife and remove an abandoned, but prominently placed, gas station.  Lesh had put it on hold after signs opposing the project were placed along his walking route in Ross, spooking him and his wife.  Plans are available here (PDF).
  • The Marin Agricultural Land Trust purchased a large ranch outside Tomales recently, completing the greenbelt around the town and further ensuring that West Marin is off-limits to sprawl.
  • Speaking of sprawl, the proposed Hanna Ranch development in Novato passed the city’s Design Review Board, the first step towards project approval.
  • Some anti-sprawl might come to San Rafael, as local developer Monahan Parker is looking to build a four-story, 41-unit mixed-use building at 2nd & B Streets.  Two Victorian-era homes that have seen much better days would be demolished.  The project would also include a 57-space parking garage, which is one space above the minimum for a project of its size and totally out of whack with the overall setting.  It is currently before the Design Review Board, and you can watch preliminary comments here.

The Greater Marin

  • The debate over California High-Speed Rail is still a thing, and it’s making national news.  Ezra Klein of the Washington Post provides a good rundown of current thought on the subject, while CAHSR Blog looks to BART battles in Livermore for signs of things to come.
  • BART is still fighting protestors over police brutality and cell phone censorship.  It boiled over recently with multiple stations being shut down during rush-hour.
  • In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a battle brewing over transportation funding in Congress thanks to the soon-to-expire gas tax.  Mercury News wonders what it would do the Bay Area.
  • SMART isn’t the only transit agency facing problems: Vancouver’s TransLink has funding issues, Atlanta’s MARTA system is under fire from the car-dependent, and Washington, DC isn’t sure how it should align one end of its planned streetcar line.
  • Looking to the Old World for how to structure urban spaces.
  • Someone read the entire Seattle land use code and came away with some observations.  A braver man than I.

The Land Without Crosswalks

Courtesy of Google

Outside Marin, crosswalks can be extremely rare: a note from Raleigh, NC.

Last week I wrote about crosswalks.  To rehash, although crosswalks aren’t a panacea for pedestrian safety, they are a necessity, giving pedestrians access to the same mobility options as drivers.  At their best, crosswalks knit the streetscape into a seamless whole for the pedestrian.  Any driver can tell you how frustrating it is to see a destination on the frontage road but have absolutely no way to get there, and any pedestrian that can see their destination on the far side of a crosswalk-deprived road can tell you how harrowing that can be, too.

I just got back from a trip to Raleigh.  I stayed in the far-out suburbs, in a leapfrog development in the middle of farms and got to see how the ‘burbs look in that particular metro area.  I’m glad I had rented a car, because I saw only a tiny handful of crosswalks or sidewalks on our trips around the city.  After I got home, I decided to count how many crosswalks along the two primary roads I had driven on, Capital Boulevard and Buffaloe (that’s not a typo) Road.  The results were bad: between downtown’s last crosswalk and the 540 Beltline, over 8 miles of road, there are six crosswalked intersections, and they’re between Brentwood Road and New Hope Church Road.  In that 1.4-mile stretch, crosswalks are about 0.3 miles apart – a long walk, but at least it’s possible to cross the 9-lane arterial intact.  Buffaloe Road, meanwhile, has no crosswalks its entire 4-mile length.

I started to take a similar look at the rest of the major roadways in the Raleigh suburbs and found, among other things, that Lynn Road has 11 crosswalks in 10.5 miles.  I stopped when I realized that a good bet would be that there are far too few safe pedestrian crossings anywhere in the suburban crescent between the Beltlines, US-64 and US-70.

Raleigh’s suburbs also often lack sidewalks, which is especially difficult for pedestrians with strollers.  I saw a number of ruts in the grass along the road where people had walked, showing a desperate need for sidewalks, too.

Raleigh is a fast-growing city with a fabulous educational system and research campus, a reasonably strong downtown, and a solid sense of community.  The suburbs, both inner and outer, could embrace an opportunity for something more.  Their arterials are wide enough to be truly successful transit corridors and complete streets, and their parking lots are large enough for some fabulous infill projects.  They should look at the DC suburbs of Silver Spring and White Flint and imagine what could be done in their own neighborhoods.  If that’s too ambitious, at least they could install some crosswalks.

Value Capture and SMART

photo from Images_of_MoneyIf you follow the Marin IJ online, you’ve probably seen me posting a lot on SMART-themed articles.  Sometimes the comments from critics can be, to be kind, ill-informed, although it’s typically a fun and spirited debate on the subject.  One comment that falls into the latter category recently got me thinking about value capture for SMART.

I had just posted about Larkspur Landing’s owners.  The SMART train was originally slated to extend down to the Larkspur Landing area and connect with a ferry into the City but has been scaled back to extend only as far as Central San Rafael as a cost-saving measure.  This, I argued, was a loss for the Larkspur Landing neighborhood and that the owner might want to pay to extend that last couple of miles:

Something I’ve been wondering about has been whether the owner of Larkspur Landing would be willing to help finance the Larkspur station. Although whoever does own that area isn’t the most transit-oriented (to understate), being able to market your location as only 30 minutes to anywhere by bus, train, or ferry would significantly lift the value of that property.

Kevin Moore, who had seemed to be in opposition to the SMART project, replied:

In that line of thought… for every housing unit built near the new SMART stations, there should be a reasonable, but substantial “permit fee” for each bedroom and parking space. When Disney put in the monorail from his hotel to the theme park, he paid for it!

Although I was imagining a public-private partnership between SMART and Larkspur Landing, rather than a fee or tax levied across the whole system, Mr. Moore touched on an important concept.  When a station is built, it typically increases the value of the land around the station, boosting property tax receipts.  One method of value capture returns that extra boost to the transit agency, giving a consistent stream of income to the transit agency.

Mr. Moore’s idea is another type of value capture, allowing the agency to assess a one-time fee on new residential development that occurs around the stations.  To tweak it a bit, the fee would be levied on whole units rather than bedrooms, to discourage strictly studio apartment developments, and would apply to retail square footage or some other commercial metric.  This would allow the SMART development to capture some of the value created by their system, hopefully bringing the system into a better financial position in the process.  A fee on parking would discourage parking spaces, which would be good for the County’s traffic and for neighborhood walkability.  Ostensibly the developments would be exempt from parking minimums, allowing them to opt out of the spaces they felt they didn’t need.

I’m hesitant to fully endorse the concept, however.  This provides a one-time stimulus to the system but doesn’t have the staying power of a value-capture tax.  If SMART is really successful, it would eventually expand to a Phase 3, perhaps to Sausalito, Richmond, or even San Francisco itself, and slowly add a second track, and these expansions will need a stable funding mechanism.  Sales tax, as we now see, is not terribly stable, and is not terribly dependent upon whether the system works well or not.  As well, imposing a fee on any new development would disincentivize the new construction so desperately needed by the downtowns served by SMART.

The parking fee, though – that’s a marvelous idea.  Any new space within a half-mile of a station could be levied at one rate, and any new space above the local parking minimum (at time of construction) would be levied at a higher rate, discouraging developers from overbuilding their parking capacities.  Although there shouldn’t be a parking minimum in the first place, this would go some way to produce a less car-dependent corridor.

Mid-Week Links: Transportation Everywhere

Marcus McBride

Marin

  • SMART might get delayed yet again, with Interim Executive Director Farhad Mansourian saying, “I doubt we will be operational by 2014.”  It seems as though the two-year delay specified in their updated financial report, which saved $24 million in operating costs, isn’t due to cost-cutting but rather because getting approval to build on wetland takes far longer than the Board had expected.  You can hear about that and much more later today at SMART’s Board meeting, 1:30pm at San Rafael’s Council Chambers or tomorrow’s Citizens Oversight Committee meeting at 7:30am.
  • Highway 101 is getting a $24 million repaving.  A fix-it-first policy is always good – it saves money for government and for drivers – but I should hope that these monies would receive the same scrutiny as TAM’s $8 million SMART bailout.
  • Fairfax’s potential new music venue, Terrapin Crossing, got some support from the IJ editorial board, who said that the Phil Lesh idea would be “a golden opportunity for the town.”
  • Another town faces affordable housing in a cautionary tale from SoCal as to the results of blanket opposition.

Around the Bay

  • Transit use is dramatically up across the Bay Area over last year.  The article doesn’t mention Golden Gate Transit, but according to their site ridership on GGT buses increased by 1.3% while ridership in GGT ferries increased by 7.4% and is now higher than before the recession.  Driving took a hit, though, with Golden Gate Bridge traffic down 1.3%.
  • Regional integration of transit agencies would help to improve service across the region and further boost ridership.
  • Something happened to BART that dealt with cell phones.  It’s not getting much coverage, though.

 The Greater Marin

  • It looks like merchants tend to misjudge how people get to their stores, giving driving a far larger share of the pie than other modes.  This could lead to local merchants opposing bike lanes and pushing for more parking to boost customers, even if those policies don’t help.
  • Seattle is looking to cut car use in half in the city in a bid to become a carbon-neutral town.
  • The New York Times shines a light on the dangers of missing crosswalks and sidewalks.  Marin is blessed that it lacks the huge, 10-lane arterials that run through cities like Orlando or Raleigh.
  • The General Services Administration, landlord for the Federal government, is working with Washington, DC’s transit agency to build or rent its buildings near transit, especially the Metro system.  This is especially important given that government buildings can stress neighborhoods that aren’t designed to handle such commutes, and is a shift from previous policy that just looks at the cheapest options.
  • California’s High-Speed Rail is in court, as Peninsula governments have brought a lawsuit against them, saying they provided bad ridership information, bad cost information, performed a poor environmental review and failed to do a proper analysis of the vehicular impact of the system.
  • Proponents of CAHSR, meanwhile, counter cost arguments by saying that the cost of doing nothing is $100 billion in new airport and road infrastructure, and Harry Reid joined the chorus in favor.
  • And the San Francisco Chronicle goes all out with four pieces on the subject, calling it our generation’s Golden Gate Bridge, a necessity, and a potential new industry.  In dissent, Jerry Hill calls into question the fiscal viability of the project given the present climate of austerity in Sacramento and Washington.

A Short Break

I have been away from a computer for the past few days in Raleigh.  Today’s Monday Update will be on Tuesday.  So apparently that didn’t happen.  Back to our regularly scheduled program Wednesday.

Mid-Week Links: Building the Future

Photo from pumpkincat210

Marin County

  • Roadwork is coming to the County, which will lead to delays but also better roads.  Total cost is more than $1.1 million
  • Mill Valley took a giant step forward with its new plan for Miller Avenue, one of two arteries through town.  It’s not perfect, of course, but it will emphasize bus and bicycle access.  Hopefully the city will work with Golden Gate Transit to improve travel times and headways, too.
  • Want to join a planning board?  TAM and Fairfax are both looking for citizen volunteers.
  • Two amazing things, parks and beer, are coming together.  Lagunitas Brewing Company is looking to operate and maintain Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which is threatened with closure due to state budget cuts.

California

  • Napa County will receive some CalTrans money to study traffic flow for Highway 29, which runs from the city of Napa to American Canyon.
  • San Francisco’s cable car fleet has entered the digital age, as they now accept Clipper Cards for payment.  Won’t make them any cheaper, though.
  • Also in The City, Muni is trying to speed its abysmally slow transit fleet through all-door boarding, letting people pay at the back or front or middle of the vehicle.
  • California’s High-speed rail will be more expensive thanks to changes sought by Central Valley communities, including a 42-mile stretch of elevated rail, leading lawmakers to question whether the state can afford the project.  CA HSR Blog fires back at the criticism, saying, “If we want to build high speed rail and provide the basis of sustainable 21st century prosperity, we need to figure out how to get this built, and not make excuses for doing nothing.”  They also have a list of the new documents that detail the added costs.
  • The Central Valley is known for its Midwestern flair for sprawling communities, and UC Berkeley examined why in a working paper examined by Half-Mile Circles.  Its conclusion?  Despite a desire for high-end transit, “Unless considerably higher densities are embraced and politically accepted, high-end transit services will remain a pipedream in settings like Stockton.”  Reminds me of a streetcar project a few years back.

The Greater Marin

  • Lastly, we have a good example of how a building’s perceived size can be altered substatially by modifications to the façade.  DCMud, Washington, DC’s local real-estate blog, looked at an impending project in the popular and developing 14th Street Corridor.  The local community thought the original design was too over-bearing on local streets of rowhouses, so developer Eric Colbert reworked the design and, without losing much square footage, created a very different building.

Walkability, Thy Name Is Crosswalk

What now?

Walkability seems to be all the rage these days, and for good reason.  Any merchant will tell you that foot traffic is good for business, and any public health expert will tell you walking is good for your health.  It gets people out of cars for trips of less than a mile and puts people where they can see each other, generating the vibrant sort of street life where friends and acquaintances run into each.  It’s a win for residents, a win for businesses, and a win for the city’s health.

Crosswalks are key to ensuring good walkability.  A road system isn’t much of a road system if you need to drive 15 minutes out of your way to turn, and a sidewalk system isn’t much good if one needs to walk 15 minutes to cross the street.  A good crosswalk will enhance an entire streetscape, making it more inviting to pedestrians and more lively for all users.  In contrast, a streetscape without crosswalks can be dangerous.  If crosswalks are far enough apart, the two halves of the street will be cut off from each other, dramatically reducing the walkability of the area.

San Anselmo serves as a good example of good and bad crosswalk planning.  There are certain stretches where crosswalks are commonplace, mostly along San Anselmo Avenue downtown and Sir Francis Drake from Tamal Avenue to Fairfax.  Outside of these areas, walkability seems to be an afterthought, especially along Redhill and Center, where crosswalks can be almost half a mile apart.

Dense in the core, sparse on the periphery

The map at right shows the disconnect.  I’ve highlighted all crosswalks over or next to arterial roads in red.  The longest stretch without a crosswalk is on Center, where two crossings are nearly a half-mile apart from one another.  A sidewalk ends without a crossing, and cars tend to speed along that stretch of road.  On Redhill, there’s a commercial strip in the median that has no crosswalks except at the beginning and end.  For the 18 years I lived on Forbes, which forms a T intersection with that strip, I only saw a parade of rotating businesses occupying the buildings.

Especially within a half-mile of the Hub, San Anselmo’s principal bus terminal, pedestrian traffic should be encouraged as much as possible.  With its arterials forming barriers, businesses become isolated from one another, diminishing the appeal of downtown as a destination, and businesses cannot easily draw from its own population base.  San Anselmo, Fairfax and Ross should do a pedestrian traffic survey, identifying areas of possible improvement.  I suspect that adding crosswalks and calming traffic would be among the recommendations.

San Anselmo has the potential to become a walkable town with vibrant streetlife in its core and a healthy, walking population, but it needs to invest in the infrastructure to make it happen.

Mid-Week Links: Delay Delay

  • In SMART news, Farhad Mansourian released new numbers this last week showing an increase in costs, causing the MTC to delay and reevaluate the critical bailout that was contingent on costs remaining steady.  According to Mansourian’s analysis, the budget remains balanced, but overall construction costs increase.  The IJ keeps up its support, but it’s right that the system needs to get its act together.  Opponents say the numbers still aren’t right and begin gathering signatures for repeal while Mansourian blasted RepealSMART for arguing that the whole train project should be built at once or not at all, but made no comment on the numbers critique.  Also unknown is why the critical system continues to shoot itself in the foot.
  • In affordable housing, a new study out of the DC Office of Planning (for the municipality, not the feds) attempts to take transportation costs into account when analyzing housing affordability.  As intuition would have it, the further you travel from work the more expensive it is to get there, decreasing affordability.  Forbes’ Joel Kotkin declares that ABAG is conducting a war on the single-family home (nevermind the fact that rowhouses are single-family homes), saying people want to live in such homes but will pay a premium to live in urban areas, citing an old Chronicle article of how the middle class are priced out of San Francisco.  Nope, no contradiction there.  Oh, and he takes a few potshots at Marinites just for kicks.
  • By the way, Novato’s awesome.
  • Elsewhere in California, Jerry Brown vetoed a bill allowing local planning authorities to require businesses help cover transit costs of its employees’ commute; Larkspur will be timing its traffic signals to help car flow around, well, everywhere, although its pedestrian facilities could use some help; bike lanes are added to the Golden Gate Bridge’s Eastern walkway, although it’s still too crowded; the MTC’s impending move to San Francisco may not be so impending; San Diego gets a new growth plan; and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs wants to find new space near transit, causing East Bay councilmembers to salivate simultaneously.
  • In other news, Frank Gruber asks why Americans implemented policies that destroyed our cities, and Grist relays a grisly reminder of what happens when drivers don’t realize that bikers are vehicles, too.  San Francisco does its own cyclists well by prosecuting the alleged driver in a hit-and-run that killed a German tourist on a bicycle.
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