Tam Junction Isn’t Going Anywhere

There is a lot of heartburn around Tam Junction. Development, they say, is coming, development that will be ruinous to the neighborhood and anyone who moves into new homes. What’s actually going on? As it turns out, a whole lot less than imagined.

Background

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction is a 20-acre commercial strip wedged between Tam Valley and Almonte. It used to be the junction of the Interurban’s Mill Valley Line and their main lines to Central Marin, hence the name. Now, it’s the intersection of Highway 1 (aka Shoreline Highway) and Almonte Boulevard, and getting through there is suitably difficult.

Though I haven’t been able to corroborate the grade, Sustainable TamAlmonte says the intersection has a Level of Service grade of F, meaning it’s over-capacity. There’s a push in Caltrans and among neighbors to make the whole area more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, which should take some pressure off the roads, but overall it is just a difficult intersection to traverse.

Tam Junction itself is built on flat, muddy soil, the kind that’s prone to liquefaction during an earthquake. Safe building standards, then, requires some serious reinforcement to bedrock. It’s a dusty, ugly, and semi-industrial bit of the county surrounded by some absolutely stunning scenery and some fairly charming homes.

The zoning for the strip is commercial, but it allows an FAR of 0.4, at most, and has a height limit of 30 feet. This means that it can only have 40 percent the square footage as the size of the lot – a 1000-square-foot lot could have only a 400-square-foot building, which itself can only be 30 feet tall. The northeast bit is part of the Baylands Corridor, a special protected area in the county’s General Plan that can’t be easily built upon.

What’s going on?

Tam Junction has been marked as a Project/Priority Development Area, also known as a PDA. This designation allows it to get additional funds for transportation infrastructure improvements, which it definitely needs. One Bay Area established the PDAs to help focus funding to areas that counties or cities deemed to be particularly worthwhile investments.

A common understanding is that a PDA designation is actually to focus housing development, but that’s not always the case. In essence, the purpose of a PDA is to align the transportation infrastructure with housing. That means either investing in housing development if the infrastructure is underutilized, or investing in infrastructure if what’s already there is over-capacity. Tam Junction falls mostly into the latter category.

I say “mostly” because the Marin’s state-mandated housing element points out six sites in Tam Junction that could be used for affordable housing development. These sites will in all likelihood never be developed: the high cost of construction in Tam Junction’s mud, not to mention the incredibly constrained building envelope, would scare away for-profit and non-profit developers alike. They’d be much more likely to invest in Sausalito, Miller Avenue, or San Rafael than in Tam Junction. The six sites point out the possibility of rezoning those areas to moderate densities but do not guarantee any development.

It’s important to point out that any development that would occur would not be out of character for area – 268-274 Shoreline Drive is a small strip of 30 unit-per-acre density, and Tam Junction already plays host to 30-foot-tall buildings.

Oppositional dissonance

In one sense, it’s a bit of a shame nothing would be built in the area. Sustainable TamAlmonte, a local group, strenuously opposes any residential development in the area while supporting any commercial development. Yet residents now can’t support more retail than is already there. If they could, someone would have taken over the psychic’s shop and opened something with a bit more pizzazz. The strip would need more residents to become a viable retail center. It can’t just become downtown Mill Valley because residents want it to be; it needs actual shoppers with actual money, and housing development would provide a way to do that without generating much traffic, as most new shoppers would be able to walk to their store of choice.

The other option would be to attract more shoppers from elsewhere in Marin, poaching some business from Sausalito and Mill Valley. Yet this option would attract even more traffic to the congested area, rendering it even more dangerous for residents walking, biking, driving, or simply living in the area. I hope Sustainable TamAlmonte isn’t suggesting this sort of development.

In sum, Tam Junction isn’t likely to change much more over the next decade than it has in the last decade. The barriers to development – namely mud and zoning – will make it difficult to do anything other than improve the existing infrastructure for existing residents and businesses. Given the harrowing testimonies of advocates at the last TAM meeting, that should be change enough.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

10 Responses to Tam Junction Isn’t Going Anywhere

  1. Kathy McLeod says:

    Your article really tells it like it is in Tam Junction. We are caught between a rock and a hard place but at least we should be able to utilize the funding for safe biking and walking. You said, “A common understanding is that a PDA designation is actually to focus housing development, but that’s not always the case. In essence, the purpose of a PDA is to align the transportation infrastructure with housing. That means either investing in housing development if the infrastructure is underutilized, or investing in infrastructure if what’s already there is over-capacity. Tam Junction falls mostly into the latter category.” This makes perfect since. Developing Tam Junction beyond what is already there would be a developers nightmare, with sea level rise, the current flooding at every high tide and the congestion and the cost of going to bedrock. Knowing that our hope is to at least make safety a priority along with a little beautification efforts. The blight is also unhealthy.

  2. Linda Rames says:

    Having read Mr Edmonson’s comments and ideas in the past, I have come to the conclusion that he is a shill for ABAG and their misbegotten ONE BAY AREA plan, a scheme in which every part of the bay area looks just like every other part and has lots of high density, low quality development.

    • You should know that ad-hominem attacks aren’t allowed under the comment policy either against an author or fellow commenter. Since this is your first comment I’ll let it stay, but ad hominems won’t be allowed in the future.

      Please stay on the topic and engage with the article – often even a point like yours can be backed up by critiquing the piece in a way that enhances the conversation. What makes you think the PDA will mean bad housing? Why would it be worse than the 30-unit-per-acre development already in Tam Valley, or is do you feel that’s already low quality? What about my points are invalid, and, more importantly, what are counterpoints to them?

  3. Why does someone who lives in Washington, DC give a hoot about the Tam Valley Junction area and its future?? It makes no sense to me and I wonder if he is not a lobbyist for the affordable builders. Washington DC and Tam Valley – doesn’t make sense.

    • Serious question? He is not. The FAQ clears it up somewhat, though it needs to be updated a bit. In short, I write about Marin because I care about my home, and I think the lessons I’ve learned while living in DC can be of use to Marin, and vice versa.

      That said, I want the site, especially the comments section, to be a place to engage (both for and against) with the ideas raised in posts. Is there anything in particular you disagree with? Since you’re involved with Sustainable TamAlmonte, I’d love to hear the group’s views on emphasizing retail development over residential.

  4. jsm says:

    This article points out the miserable current traffic state at Tam Junction. For those of us who live here it is as if we are almost trapped on most of the weekend and commuting hours during the week are a nightmare as well. ABAG states that high-density affordable housing brings residents without autos and their associated parking and traffic needs. Having lived across the street from these types of developments, I can say that even those residents with dozens of restaurants and multiple shopping opportunities within walking distance for the most part had cars. Unless these new residents work within walking distance of a very limited bus line, and don’t have any need for groceries/restaurants they will have cars.

    Another issue is school. Many of us moved to the valley for the access to good schools, but already some of my neighbors have to drive their elementary school in Strawberry due to lack of space here in Tam Valley. What is the county going to do to provide education for these new residents’ children? Will we now have to pin our hopes on local schooling to some sort of lottery system?

    While it would be nice to see mixed use development with a suitable density come to Tam Junction, it would be a terrible idea to assume that government bureaucratic will bring us this type of development. And when it comes to developers, they have only one goal, maximize short term profits. Government bureaucratic combined with developers bring us such lovely outcomes as the Marin City projects and the almost disastrous Marincello development.

    It would appear that the PDA and other movements afoot might seriously limit any ability to have input into the final outcome of these projects. Although there may be a certain amount of paranoia, it may not be unwarranted. An ounce of prevention….

  5. Pamela says:

    “…it needs actual shoppers with actual money, and housing development would provide a way to do that without generating much traffic.” Really?? People who live in Tam Valley aren’t “actual shoppers”, can’t support more retail than is there and don’t have money to support local shops? Instead, it’s the people who would be living in the high density affordable housing units who would need to bring in the money needed to support the retail? Really??? Are you aware of the demographics of the area? Very strange comment. There are clearly unrelated factors why the retail situation at Tam Junction is the way it is. I think the motives of the author of this blog are very clear.

    • Sorry, that was poorly worded. What I meant was that there aren’t enough Tam Valley residents to support additional retail, not that they don’t count.

      What are the unrelated factors?

  6. Loring Sagan says:

    I was recently asked by several Tam Junction residents if my partners and I, as urban infill developers in SF, would consider a discussion with the community regarding possibilities for redevelopment. We are both for profit and non profit developers and are reluctant to venture beyond SF, where we have full support of the neighborhoods.
    Our non profit, UPurban.org, was created specifically to address situations like Tam Junction which are in wonderful communities but have issues which cause them to to remain “inactive” for years.
    If anyone has constructive ideas and would like to discuss, we would be happy to do so.
    Loring Sagan

  7. Mike Desin says:

    Not sure the ‘high cost of construction’ is valid. With limited resources (land), high construction costs scale way down. Take the Fireside for example, that came out to around $500k per unit (one of the most, if not the most expensive ‘affordable’ housing projects per unit in the US). At the time, Class A apartments could be had for $370k per unit. High costs for these folks is not a problem.

    High density in Tam Junction is a given as it will pencil out for developers. We build on mud all the time; its no big deal.

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