Mid-Week Links: Build to the Boom


If you have 45 minutes, listen to Chris Leinberger’s presentation in Kansas City about walkable housing development. He makes a strong argument for building more walkable centers for those that want it – exactly the sort of thing Marin and Sonoma are planning around their SMART stations and exactly the way our towns were built a century ago. (SGA)

Marin County

Golden Gate 75th Anniversary Fireworks

Apparently I missed the best fireworks show ever. Happy 75th, GGB.

  • Caltrans has allocated another $112 million to widening Highway 101 between Sonoma and Marin, not quite enough to bridge the $177 million gap in its billion-dollar widening project, duplicating much of SMART’s future service. (NBBJ)
  • Golden Gate Ferry workers went on a surprise strike last Saturday to draw attention to stalled contract negotiations. Terminal attendants want a raise as compensation for new duties they took on after ticket takers were laid off, while sailors and captains want private quarters aboard the ferries, among other complaints. (IJ)
  • The Board of Supervisors spent $75,000 in discretionary funds this quarter on items ranging from high schools to the opera. Where did your Supervisor invest discretionary funds this quarter? (IJ)
  • As expected, Novato will move ahead with its downtown office plan, voting 3-1 to proceed with construction. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Drake’s Bay Oyster Company has been farming oysters in Drake’s Bay for over a century, but the National Park Service may not renew their lease. Though the arguments for and against renewal have revolved around science, the basic question is philosophical – whether a wilderness area should have commerce. (Pacific Sun)
  • A nifty tool developed by the Greenbelt Alliance shows the various greenfield developments on open space. Though it doesn’t seem comprehensive, for what it has it’s quite useful. (Greenbelt Alliance)
  • If your bike was stolen recently, it may be in police custody. Hundreds of bikes were found after SFPD busted up a ring of thieves, and they’ve released pictures of the merchandise. (SFist)

The Greater Marin

  • As it turns out, Marinites aren’t the only ones who value their walkable town centers. Homes in walkable neighborhoods command significantly higher prices than places that are not. Even Des Moines, IA, is getting in on the action. (NYT, Des Moines Register)
  • The explosive growth and new-found prosperity of Washington, DC, is based on childless singles and couples, who each net the District about $6,000 more per year than those with children. (These are the same folks Marin excludes due to density policies.) Now that these singles are getting married, can Washington adapt? (Atlantic Cities)
  • About 25,000 San Franciscans were forced off the road when a handful of people driving private automobiles, with police escort, pushed their way into a street fair on Sunday. The action ended the celebration and opened the way for through traffic. (Examiner.com)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge was never in danger of collapsing on its 50th Anniversary, despite the spooky sight of a bridge flattened by the massive crowd in the middle. (Mercury News)
  • How hard would it be to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge were it done today? Given environmental review, agency oversight, and a more contentious political environment, it’s safe to say it would be tough. (IJ)
  • The tallest building in the West will redefine San Francisco’s skyline and serve as the centerpiece of the new Transbay Terminal. The building was approved over objections from people concerned about shadows. (Chronicle)
  • The sector plan for Santa Rosa’s northern SMART station is coming together nicely, with a great deal of effort to move people away from cars, reconnect the street grid, and apply the kind of density this sort of project can support. Not everyone is happy, however, with Coddington Mall managers especially concerned over new rights-of-way called for in the plan. (Press-Democrat)

Make Town Center a Town Center

Central to the discussion of Corte Madera’s housing concerns is that it is built-out. There is no more developable land, and its commercial areas are productive and full. Where will more people go? The answer lies in Corte Madera Town Center’s parking lot.

The Situation

Corte Madera Town Center, block 024-163. Click to enlarge.

Over the next 28 years, Corte Madera is projected to grow by 204 units, most of which will be enforced by the state through its RHNA process. The town wants to rid itself of RHNA by quitting ABAG, saying that the assignment of so many units is simply too high given the fact that there is no unused land to develop.

Enter Block 024-163, occupied by the four story Town Center mall, two gas stations, and a buffer along the Tamalpais Drive exit ramp. Of the 31.7 acres, only 7.5 acres are used by buildings, leaving the other 24.2 used by parking or parking access.

Town Center prides itself on imitating a vaguely Mediterranean village, with narrow brick walkways and arches. Transit access is provided by no fewer than eight all-day bus routes and two commute routes. By bus, it’s 45 minutes to San Francisco, eight minutes to San Rafael from the bus pad, and it’s walking distance to downtown Corte Madera, the Village, and most of Central and Southern Marin are biking distance. Town Center has a grocery store, doctors, cafés, and restaurants.

I can’t think of a better spot to put some low-rise apartments.

The Proposal

My concept is for Town Center to fill its entire lot rather than just a fifth of it, creating a walkable village that activates the streets around it for foot traffic and develops a bustling hive of activity on the inside. Even with parking garages using a quarter of the lot, the design could accommodate between 400 and 665 units of housing – far, far beyond what ABAG projects the town will need to build.

People actually live in places like this. From MadisonMarquette.

From the inside, the Town Center would look much like it does today: winding pedestrian streets 20-30 feet wide dominated by retail. The closest American equivalent I can think of is Santa Barbara’s Paseo Nuevo. Located downtown, the two-block mall opens directly onto the sidewalks, integrating seamlessly with the rest of the city. Small retail bays would encourage locally-grown shops that couldn’t afford larger retail, and encouraging studio apartments would ensure little undue pressure on schools.

The catch is that this sort of project is illegal under Corte Madera’s current zoning codes. Even the Mixed Use Gateway District is too restrictive, as it was tailor-made for the Wincup site and requires a parking space for every unit. The parking requirement would be particularly foolish for a development that relies on walkable, transit-oriented living, as it would impose onerous costs on the development for minimal return.

For the site to develop properly, a new zone would need to be developed for the site. Perhaps (and I’m spitballing here) a minimum of 40 housing units per acre but no maximum; no parking minimum; no restriction on what sort of store or office you could open on the site, contrary to what the code currently allows; a maximum height of 30 feet for the street, 45 for the interior; and a rooftop garden, to filter out the nastiness from the freeway. If the developer were allowed to unbundle the parking from the residences, meaning a resident could choose whether to just rent an apartment or to also rent a parking space, it would take some pressure off the need for more parking and allow the developer to figure out for itself how many spaces to build rather than rely on diktat from town hall.

The density may be enough to encourage Zipcar, the car-sharing service, to finally open in Marin. Studies have shown that one Zipcar takes 15 cars off the road, and that users tend to make fewer trips by car. If town hall wants to encourage transit use, too, it could facilitate a six month free bus pass program for anyone who moves to Town Center. Studies show that transit use is sticky – few people switch from transit to driving once going from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat – so putting people that already live in a walkable place onto transit from Day One will mean less traffic for everyone.

I present this project as a talking point, a concept of how Corte Madera could build value for itself through the affordable housing allocation process. The childless singles and couples that would move there would add tax revenue to the town without any additional burden on the school system. Rather than just a mall, Corte Madera would have a new village in Marin, and all on land that the city now thinks of as “built out” and undevelopable. These aren’t high rises, nor are they Soviet apartment blocks. By opening the door through zoning, rather than just constructing affordable housing, developers would be free to build housing however the market supports.

Every parking lot is an opportunity for something new. Storing cars isn’t a high use for land. It’s untaxable, and it leaves the land fallow for most of the time. Corte Madera has the space for new housing and, more than most towns, it has the location.  No matter what the town does it will need to build more housing. This is the best place for it.

Mid-Week Links: Build It and They Will Come

mill valley

Marin County

Well it looks like the other news organizations passed right on by the development news this week, and there’s no transit news to speak of. I suppose, then, these are the highlights from this week’s IJ.

  • The Grady Ranch debacle has reached New Yorker’s ears. The game of telephone, of course, has done wonders for our county’s image as an insular enclave for the granola-munching wealthy. Back in Marin, there is still debate as to whether opponents abused the system or not, or even whether they should be to blame. (NYT, IJ)
  • In the fallout of Grady Ranch, county staff want to create a panel to cut red tape and streamline permitting, and the supervisors seem to be on board. The results likely won’t mean much for developers in incorporated areas, who often need council approval to open a sandwich shop. (IJ)
  • Fully 85% of Marin’s land is protected from development, according to a new Greenbelt Alliance study, the most in any Bay Area county. Only 12.7% of our land is urbanized, and only 0.7% is at risk of development. (IJ)
  • Michael Rock, town manager and public works director of Fairfax, has resigned in order to pursue a position in what I can only presume is the far less interesting Lomita, CA. His last day as manager will be the June 22 budget meeting. (IJ, Fairfax)
  • Sausalito will not rezone a small area of old town for housing development after all. The two parcels in question could have accommodated 18 units of affordable housing but will continue in their role as offices. (IJ)
  • Under pressure from the feds, Novato’s remaining pot dispensary will close, leaving only one dispensary operating in the county. (IJ)
  • The $950 million Highway 101 widening project chugs forward, but the last $177 million hasn’t been found. At least CalTrans still has $20.5 million to repave 8.5 miles of the freeway from Vista Point to Lucky Drive. (Press-Democrat, IJ)
  • A San Rafael native has been enlivening the streetscape of Washington, DC, by playing the violin to passersby from his rowhome’s balcony. (Patch)
  • And…: Fifteen office buildings totalling about 710,000 square are up for sale in Marin. (IJ) … Terrorism, not the threat of bridge collapse, is the reason you can’t walk across the Bridge on its 75th. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC and ABAG have approved Plan Bay Area. It now goes out for environmental review before final approval in April. (SF Chronicle)
  • The San Francisco Bay Area has a surplus of capital looking for new tech start-ups but restrictive housing policies drive up rents, which drive up wages, which inflates start-ups’ costs of doing business, which drives down the number of new start-ups to invest in, and that’s bad for everyone.  (Forbes via Planetizen)
  • The State Senate will vote today on the three-foot passing law, requiring drivers pass bikers with at least three feet of clearance. (Cyclelicious)
  • The neighborhood planning battles of Seattle bear a striking resemblance to the planning issues faced by Marin’s small towns. (Crosscut)
  • Young people are moving away from the car. Has the driver’s seat lost its old magic? (Washington Post)
  • BART’s long-term plans include express trains, better stations, and shorter headways. (Examiner)

New Publishing Schedule

Moving House By Bakfiets

Moving day

To accommodate the broadest possible media coverage in Mid-Week Links, I will be posting them on Thursday instead of Wednesday from here on.  Marinscope’s hyper-local newspapers – Ross Valley Reporter, San Rafael News-Pointer, Twin Cities Times, Mill Valley Herald, Novato Advance, and Sausalito Marinscope – publish on Wednesday afternoon, and I’d like to include their coverage of the week’s events.

More diversity means you’ll have the best chance of getting the best coverage of a given issue when you click on a link. Though the IJ and Patch will likely remain the dominant news sources, Marinscope has some wonderful reporters whose writing should be read more broadly than it already is. See you tomorrow.

Have a tip? Send it to thegreatermarin [at] gmail.com.

ABAG, Let’s Talk About Corte Madera

Image from Plan Bay Area; drawing inspired by Lydia DePillis

It’s tiny, but Corte Madera is still important.

To ABAG Staff:

Congratulations!  You’ve been invited to testify at a couple of Corte Madera town council meetings.  I know it’s far away and I know it’s a tiny town, but please resist the urge to blow off these meetings.  Corte Madera deserves to know why it is projected to grow and how it’s expected to grow when it feels as though it’s already built out.  Luckily, the town council isn’t terribly familiar with the Plan Bay Area process.  For example, Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG, Councilwoman Carla Condon, only recently learned that Plan Bay Area involves more agencies than just ABAG!  There is a great opportunity to educate the council on what you do, why you do it, why it’s important for Corte Madera, and why it’s important for the region.

To prepare you for the task, I’ve assembled a bit of a cheat sheet of the questions you’ll get and what you should do in preparation to answer.  Each of these could be its own article, but hopefully I can point you in the right direction to find this out on your own.

Why is Plan Bay Area necessary?

Don’t simply say that the state mandated it, and don’t simply parrot a line about Smart Growth.  Give the background on the subject.  For reference, make sure to read the articles Planetizen has gathered under its SB 375 tag, including the ones critical of the legislation.  That’s your homework, because you need to argue for SB 375 just as hard as you argue for ABAG.

In short, Plan Bay Area is necessary to do exactly what makes the most sense: concentrate growth where there already is infrastructure to support residents; to build up our central cities; to reduce particulate pollution; to promote active living for a range of public health reasons; and to ensure growth builds up our region rather than weakens it.

Doesn’t higher density growth lead to more greenhouse gases?

This is an argument popularized in Marin by Mill Valley resident Bob Silvestri, a kind of home-grown Wendell Cox.  His opus on the subject argues that low-density housing is more environmentally friendly than medium-density housing.  Mayor Bob Ravasio believes this, too.

Though there are a number of problems with his argument, the least obvious is that Silvestri argues as though no growth is a viable alternative.  Of course constructing buildings produces greenhouse gases, but the point is to reduce per-capita greenhouse gas production, not absolute production.  This means moving people to their feet where possible and transit where not, and that means that growth should happen with moderately higher densities.

Be prepared to answer criticisms like Silvestri’s.

Doesn’t ABAG want Corte Madera to become a high-rise city?

Assocated questions are: isn’t Corte Madera already built out?  Where would we put more people?  ABAG’s vice president stuck a foot in her mouth when she answered this question with a finger pointed in the air, saying, If you say your town is built out, then build up.  For towns in Marin, her statement played right into the image of ABAG as a soul-sucking, social-experimenting, power-mad agency that wants to destroy town character.  Never, ever, say that Marin needs to build up.

Not only does it sound bad to Marinites, but it’s also not accurate. Instead of such a ham-fisted answer, you need to emphasize that Plan Bay Area wants to move the region back to how we used to build cities. To illustrate, talk about the parts of Marin that Marinites like.  We love the places like downtown Mill Valley, downtown Corte Madera, downtown San Anselmo, downtown Larkspur, etc.  When we think about small-town feel, we think of these commercial strips.  Contrast this with those areas we don’t like as much: Smith Ranch, Terra Linda, Vintage Oaks.  The distinguishing factor between the two types of areas are what they were oriented around. The places Marinites like are old transit-oriented development, built around train stations and people walking.  The places Marinites don’t like are car-oriented development, built around parking lots.

What Plan Bay Area envisions is a return to traditional town planning in those places that were built with the parking lot in mind.  In Corte Madera, allowing residential uses on the parking lots of the Town Center shopping mall, even if they’re just townhomes, would be more than enough growth for many RHNA cycles and certainly more than expected over the next 28 years of Plan Bay Area.

People don’t walk or bike now, so why would new residents?

To address this question, bring solid research and charts.  Remember that the densities you’re talking about for Corte Madera are in the range of 4,000 people per square mile, and that it’s proximity to transit amenities and bicycle infrastructure more than population densities that will induce people to use their feet and the bus.

Take, for example, the new study from the Arizona Department of Transportation.  Even at very low housing densities, moving people closer together brings down the number of vehicle miles traveled.  The goal isn’t to eliminate driving but to give people the option to walk, bike, or use transit without it being an undue burden.  Also, it’s also not solely focused on commutes.  Someone who drives to work but walks to Corte Madera Cafe on Saturday – Plan Bay Area promotes more of that.

Oh, and nearly one in five commutes in Corte Madera are already by transit, bike, or foot, so someone’s doing some walking.

What good has ABAG ever done for Corte Madera?

Talk to the Council about what ABAG does on a regular basis for Marin County as a whole and what they expect to do for Corte Madera in the future. ABAG, for example, manages federal grant money as a metropolitan planning organization.  It also provides financial services for members; provides research data on population and housing in the region; and a host of other things (PDF).  If appropriate, talk about the role of Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG and how you would love to work with her more.

What is the methodology used to create your growth numbers?

Bring a modelling expert with you who can answer questions about growth methodology.  This is important, so I’ll say it again: bring a modelling expert with you to answer questions.  For Corte Madera, the whole dispute boils down to what is happening inside the modelling black box.  The council is worried that your agency will destroy Corte Madera’s character out of negligence, so bring someone who can answer their questions and open up that black box.

Corte Madera has some legitimate questions that need legitimate answers.  You cannot sleepwalk through this presentation or the Q&A afterwards.  You will likely face a hostile public that will call you a fascist for doing regional planning.  You cannot zone that out either.  You need to be engaged and engaging.  You need to educate the Council about what One Bay Area is doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, and what it all means for Corte Madera and Marin.

In all honesty, I’d love to have the answers to some of these questions.  What is the proper role of a representative to ABAG?  What is the exact work that went into Corte Madera’s projected growth?  I’ll look forward to your testimony almost as much as the Council, I’m sure.

In any event, this is your chance to change the conversation in Corte Madera and the rest of the Bay Area.  This is your chance to reboot your messaging.  This is your chance to justify your agency’s existence.  Don’t let that chance slip away.

Mid-Week Links: Until Next Time

Mt. Tam with Long Shadows

Mt. Tam with Long Shadows by cproppe

Thank you all who came out to last week’s happy hour!  We had a small group – a couple of planning commissioners, a couple of regular readers – and it was good fun.  The next one will likely be around the end of September, so keep an eye out.  In the mean time, I’m back in DC keeping an eye out for the goings-on in Marin.

It’s been two weeks with no links, so let’s get caught up.

Marin County

  • What might One Bay Area learn from other regions as it crafts its Sustainable Communities Strategy?  First of all, make sure to do good outreach, and second, make sure to invest enough in transit. ABAG’s outreach has thus far been horrifically bad, at least in Marin, but at least MTC is on the ball with transit investment. (SPUR)
  • As it turns out, San Rafael’s red light cameras at 3rd & Irving are good for safety, reducing accidents by 12% over the last fiscal year while also reducing the total number of citations. Win/win, in my book. (IJ)
  • The Board of Supervisors wants San Rafael to take its due diligence regarding the proposed San Rafael Airport sports complex. While most of the neighbors are in unincorporated areas like Santa Venetia and so fall directly under the county, the airport itself is under the city. (IJ)
  • Apparently, George Lucas was serious when he proposed building affordable housing at Grady Ranch.  I can scarcely think of a worse place for it, though the irony is rich. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Then again, perhaps Grady Ranch wasn’t such a slam-dunk for the environment after all… (IJ)
  • Are you a smoker living in an apartment or condo in unincorporated Marin? Better quit now – the Board of Supervisors is likely to ban smoking in apartments and condos, both indoor and outdoor, next week. (IJ)
  • West Marin tourists, park rangers, and bobcats got a pedestrian upgrade when two bridges were installed near Sausalito – one 180-foot span that bridges a creek and wetland, and another one 60-foot span. They were built so walkers could bypass nearby traffic. (IJ)
  • Sausalito’s Housing Element has been rejected by HCD, which cited a lack of 20-unit-per-acre developments and zoning. The city will take a second look and consider revisions. (Marinscope)
  • The 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, celebrated on May 27, will be a grand affair with no parking, so take transit!  There’s free bike parking at the Presidio, both Muni and GGT will boost their buses, there will be buses to the Larkspur Ferry (a shock!), and it will generally be a good time. Alas, Marin Transit doesn’t seem to be adding service so be prepared to walk, bike, or taxi from your bus pad or transit center of choice. Oh, and I recommend getting Clipper Cards for the family – saves you money and time boarding the bus and ferry, not to mention that it makes transfers to Muni easier. (Patch, GGB75, ClipperCard, IJ)
  • And…: The upcoming June 5 election?  Yeah, there’s an app for that. (Patch) … This week there were five DUIs on 101 in just a day. Be careful out there, people. (News Pointer) … Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness is a go, and is set to open in 2016. (Chronicle) … Dispelling rumors on bike lanes and bike safety. (Mercury News) … The Golden Gate Bridge had its share of detractors. (SFist)

The Greater Marin

  • If you missed it (I did), there’s a proposal winding through Sacramento to consolidate MTC, ABAG, BAAQMD, and BCDC into a single agency called the Bay Area Regional Commission governed by 15 commissioners elected from new districts in the Bay Area.  Fearing a loss of influence, Napa is fighting this one tooth and nail. (Napa Valley Register)
  • Martinez may soon join the city of Napa in switching its downtown streets to two-way. Ought San Rafael follow suit? (Contra Costa Times)
  • In a move that defines ambition, Chicago declared that it would have no road fatalities in 20 years. (Streetsblog)
  • Sometimes we go so long without transit that we forget how to behave, or we are so used to transit we never unlearn our bad habits. SFist has a great series of articles on transit and walking etiquette that I heartily recommend to you.
  • If you want a better street and live in San Francisco, check their new website for info on how to get some street improvements on your own.  Marinites, well, check it out for some street envy. Perhaps one day even Novato will warm to the parklet. (Streetsblog)
  • Cincinnati is giving form-based zoning a try, allowing neighborhoods to develop along the lines of how they wnat to look, rather than just based on how buildings are used. (Cincinnati.com via Planetizen)
  • UPDATE: People that live where it’s easy to walk from home to work or stores tend to do so, and also tend to bike significantly more than their more thinly-spread compatriots. Though the study was done in some of DC’s more tony neighborhoods, I suspect you’d find the same thing in the old TOD downtowns of Marin. (Washington Post)

Come support Corte Madera in ABAG

Corte Madera will consider whether to finalize its departure from ABAG tomorrow (Tuesday) at 7:30. Come out and voice your opposition! I’ll be speaking at the public comment time and I would love to have more than me there.

As a reminder, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG over what it saw as overreach by the association in housing mandates and the One Bay Area process. I strenuously opposed the decision, calling it a dramatic overreaction to nonexistent problems. It will hurt the town, in that it will get housing mandates from the state after the upcoming RHNA cycle is over in 2021, and will hurt the region as a whole, in that a growth model that fails Corte Madera may be failing the rest of the Bay Area. I will make the same arguments during the public comment period.

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