Planning for Reality check: Larkspur conspiracies

Image from Planning for Reality

An apropos image from Planning for Reality

The Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan (SAP) is all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. People apparently don’t want to see any development or any changes to their community, and it looks like the development aspects of the plan are heading to the dustbin.

But there’s a myth Richard Hall, a leader in anti-development circles and writer of Planning for Reality, told me about yesterday on the IJ. He said the Larkspur SAP was necessary so SMART would get funding. Let’s fact-check this gem.

The claim

Under the Metroplitan Planning Commision’s (MTC) Resolution 3434, a commuter rail line like SMART can only get regional funding if it has an average of 2,200 housing units with a half-mile radius of its stations. MTC is in charge of dispersing regional funding from a variety of sources, and it’s entirely in its prerogative to disperse funds how it sees fit. Resolution 3434 is intended to promote transit-oriented development around train stations to limit sprawl out into the East Bay hills, farms, or elsewhere far from anything.

SMART, Hall claims, does not meet this requirement and needed to add 920 housing units around Larkspur Landing to qualify for MTC funding. Somehow Larkspur got involved, developed the plan, and now we’re headed for a train wreck of a plan.

The reality

There are a number of problems with this claim, highest on the list being that SMART has already qualified for regional funding under Resolution 3434. In fact, it was determined 4 years ago, in December, 2010, that SMART qualified for regional funding. SMART has since received funding and is using it to fund construction.

The finding was that SMART, excluding Corona Road and Novato North stations, had 15,251 housing units built or planned within a half-mile radius of its 7 planned stations. This is 99 percent of the required 15,400 units, and it was deemed sufficient.

Including Corona Road and Guernville Road, which was not the chosen plan MTC approved, there were 17,295 housing units out of 17,600 needed. It’s close, but not quite there.

Let’s say nothing happens in Larkspur except for a new station is built there. Let’s also say the planned Sonoma County Airport station is built and that SMART decides to open Corona Road. This means SMART will have 12 stations on tap, which means it needs at least 26,400 housing units within a half mile of its collection of stations.

Since I can’t find data on housing around either Novato North or the Sonoma County Airport, I’m going to say those have 0 units, just for the sake of argument. Adding up all the rest of the existing housing units gets us 19,796 housing units, well short of our needed 26,400.

However, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma have all completed station area plans. San Rafael plans for 272 more units downtown. Petaluma plans for 1,716 more units downtown and 523 more around its northern station. Santa Rosa plans for another 3,409 units around its downtown station and 2,680 around its northern station. This gets us to 28,396 total units, or 107 percent the needed amount.

A Rohnert Park SAP is also in the works, but it hasn’t been completed yet.

If there is a conspiracy afoot to get SMART to qualify for more regional funding through a Larkspur SAP, the conspirators are really bad at math. But if the author of Planning for Reality, a computer programmer, is similarly bad at math, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on them.

In sum: Hall’s claim is false.

What if there were no SAPs at all?

It’s important to note here that, when presented with this information, Hall shifted his tune both in email and online, choosing to criticize Sonoma for implementing SAPs and saying it was part of a bigger conspiracy for regional funding for construction. He also asked whether Larkspur Landing could have been included if no SAPs had been passed.

This question poses a highly improbable set of circumstances. First, Sonoma cities actually want to change, Rohnert Park especially. They believe their future lies in their downtowns, in the kind of places that Marin takes for granted. It is extremely likely they would have planned around their stations even if there were no MTC grant money, and likely would have planned even if SMART never existed.

Second, it was Larkspur, not SMART, that applied for SAP grant money. Anti-development activists believe MTC and SMART colluded to pressure Larkspur into taking that money against their will years before the Larkspur Landing station seemed possible. This was, they claim, to allow SMART to qualify for regional funding, even though it had already qualified for said funding.

But let’s indulge them. Adding Larkspur Landing would have dropped the number of housing units from 99 percent of qualifying to 94 percent. However, as link of regional significance, it would be extremely unlikely that MTC would have allowed this to disqualify SMART. It was still largely in line with Resolution 3434, and there would have been strong pressure to keep the funding.

But there were SAPs passed, and SMART is going to open with 10 stations, not 7. It can easily add Corona Road for 11, and it looks like Larkspur Landing will open in 2017 for 12 stations. But perhaps we should forgive SMART for building itself. After all, it was voters – a more insidious force than any regional body – who put them up to it.

Boost connectivity with integrated scheduling

The principal problem with Larkspur Ferry parking is really that it has poor connections to other modes, especially bus. Though there used to be a shuttle system in place, it didn’t do well and was cut years ago. While the Wave has taken a step toward reintroducing the shuttle, Golden Gate Transit has ignored regular bus service from the 29, as well as daytime and weekend trips to and from the ferry.

To help riders get a visual of their options, I’ve created an integrated bus/ferry schedule (PDF) for routes 17, 25, 29, and 228 – all of which serve Larkspur Ferry Terminal at some time or another. The Interurban light rail schedule (PDF) did the same thing with the Sausalito Ferry.

On the weekdays, what stands out to me is the very long connections for people coming from San Francisco. Though the 29 does pretty well for those heading to the ferry during the day – most require waits of only 10-15 minutes – it’s awful for connections from the ferry. Most connections are between 20-30 minutes, a couple leave only a minute to spare, and just a handful are in the sweet spot between 5 and 10 minutes. Optimizing the time points between the bus and ferry could boost ridership all on its own, without any need for new service.

Study the schedule yourself and you’ll see what I mean. And, if you’re a frequent ferry rider, print it out and keep it in your schedule book.

Being Marin again

A high-density development is planned around a railroad station in Marin. There will be more than 150 housing units and a vast expansion of commercial space. Supported by the railroad, it will be an hour-long ride from the train station to the ferry to San Francisco. Behind it is a monopoly developer with unrivaled power in the state capital.

This is what we’d say if we were talking about downtown San Anselmo if it were being built today. We’d have similar conversations about each of our downtowns: new railroad station, new houses, new commercial development. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, a subsidiary of Southern Pacific, was behind them all.

And yet these are the areas we value most in Marin: dense, walkable, quaint. Though some look at all of Marin and think it’s perfect as it is, with strip malls and downtowns and freeways all coexisting in one great smear of suburbia, I’ve always felt that it was these downtowns, and that history of building for accessibility to transit, that made Marin unique.

Opponents have done their best to paint the plan as a reckless regional power grab. It ignores congestion, they say. It’s part of a scheme to “urbanize” Marin. It is out of step with our traditions, our heritage, and our character as a San Francisco suburb.

Carol Brandt, in a December 1 Letter to the Editor, wrote that protecting Greenbrae was part of protecting our small-town character and our nature as a suburb.

While I understand the trepidation and concern people have regarding the Larkspur Station Area Plan, it is in the best traditions of Marin to build near a ferry and a rail station. To my ears, the urge to keep Marin as a car-oriented bedroom community defined by strip malls is at odds with those traditions.

Yesterday’s Marin Voice put it best: “Taking advantage of a new train station and a popular ferry terminal is literally built into the DNA of our towns and our county’s identity. It’s only natural we’d want to do again what our county’s forebears did a century ago.”

The traditional transit-oriented development our forebears built has served us extremely well. Not only is its centerpiece, the downtown, the focus of civic pride for every city and town in the county, but it has proven remarkably practical.

Our traditions give us the third-highest transit usage in the state and the second-lowest rate of people driving alone to work. Our traditions have literally saved lives, as Marin has less than half the traffic deaths per capita as than the national average. We are the original smart-growth county.

Dick Spotswood wondered if the transit-oriented development model could work in Marin. It does work, and Marin is the living, breathing proof that it doesn’t just work here. It thrives here. A progressive Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan is a chance for Marin to be itself again. To steal a motto, it’s time to Be Marin (Again).

Write to the Larkspur City Council and the Marin IJ editorial page if you support a progressive future for Larkspur Landing.

Final Larkspur Station Area Plan goes before the community

The reexamination of the Larkspur Landing neighborhood is proceeding apace, and the city will start to consider the SMART Station Area Plan’s final documents tomorrow. However, the forces opposed to change in Marin are mobilizing opposition already, fueled by some ill-chosen words in the IJ and ideological misgivings about transit.

What is the Station Area Plan?

The station area plan (SAP) was put together by a citizen advisory committee over the course of about a year, with public meetings and community input the whole way. It studied the possibility of new office, housing, and retail development, and its possible impacts on traffic, parking, and transit. It described ways to ameliorate some of the existing problems and ways to ease the introduction of new development.

While it was described in the IJ as a housing plan for 900 new units in the Larkspur Landing neighborhood around the ferry terminal, this is inaccurate. It studied how up to that amount might accommodated in the neighborhood, but does not plan for this number. At best, it is a conceptual document with plans for infrastructure investment. A real housing plan would likely come as part of a new housing element or a broader zoning reform.

This is not a housing plan.

Why Larkspur Landing?

Larkspur Landing is a drivable bit of Larkspur centered around the once-eponymous Larkspur Landing Shopping Center, now called Marin Country Mart. It has the second-fastest-growing transit line in the county in the Larkspur Ferry and in all likelihood will soon be home to a SMART station. Plans for the Greenbrae Interchange will add a connection to the Highway 101 trunk line buses, giving easy access to the rest of Marin by transit.

It is a pass-through neighborhood. Commuters use it to travel to the Richmond Bridge, causing massive backups during the evening commute that spill onto northbound 101. The recently-approved Greenbrae Interchange Project will likely fix many of these issues, but fitting them into a broader plan to make the neighborhood a more livable one is important.

As well, Larkspur Landing is a good candidate for infill development. While the SAP is not a housing (or office, or retail) plan, it targets improvements with the idea of improving circulation and infrastructure in the neighborhood. It will be a transit and transportation hub, with easy access to the ferry, SMART, the region’s major trunk bus lines, and the North-South Greenway, our county cycling superhighway.

If the city ever decides it would be a good idea to add development or encourage new business to grow in that part of the city, the SAP’s studies of capacity and circulation at multiple population and job levels will be invaluable to that decision-making. Though that time is not now, advocates and opponents should know what they’re supporting and opposing.

How can we support a progressive Station Area Plan?

Opponents of any growth and change in Larkspur will fight for any mention of development in the SAP, believing it to be a “housing plan” and crippling its ability to improve the neighborhood. Supporters of a livable Larkspur should argue strenuously for maximizing the flexibility of the plan.

This means defending the land use portion of the SAP, which rests on the commonly accepted understanding that transit-oriented development promotes transit ridership. Though opponents have tried to tear down the concept, it holds true in the settings where it has been applied rigorously.

A recent study of rail-oriented development in New Jersey found that it is the density of bus stops – not proximity to rail or the newness of development – that is best correlated with transit use. The Larkspur SAP, by its proximity to the 25, 28, 29, and soon the 101 bus trunk, will fit that category.

The old-school TOD in Marin, oriented around buses, has led to the highest transit mode-share in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco, showing the truth of this concept in Marin’s suburban setting.

Arlington County, VA, dramatically increased its population in 40 years by growing only on the 5 percent of its land immediately next to transit. The result has been no increase in traffic. Though its densities are more suited to the Peninsula than Marin, there’s no reason for the model to fail on a smaller scale in the Marin setting.

Most importantly, the real traffic savings in transit-oriented development isn’t in moving trips from car to transit; it’s from moving trips from car to foot and bike. Not every trip can (or should) be so moved, but well-designed places give people the opportunity for productive use of their feet. If you lived in downtown Larkspur, your kids could walk to school; you could walk to get a haircut, get coffee, get a book, get new pet food, or do some light grocery shopping. Doing each of those trips on foot saves a mile or two from the roads and gives that road space to people who need or want to travel further.

A progressive SAP will give Larkspur the flexibility to build this way if it chooses but will not lock the city into this way of thinking if it feels the shopping center model is better than its downtown.

The SAP should aim for the best transportation future for the area: ameliorate traffic, promote the ferry-SMART connection, promote strong 101 bus connections, activate Sir Francis Drake and Larkspur Landing Circle as walking and biking streets, and examine ways to bring more counter-commuters to the ferry terminal.

What are the logistical challenges in Larkspur Landing?

A few of the challenges faced by Larkspur Landing are not within the scope of the SAP.

The biggest is the ferry’s legal capacity limits. At the moment, it may only do 42 catamaran trips per day, and it’s currently doing 37, not including ballgames. This is a problem that needs to be resolved, but it can only be done through a revised environmental impact report on the high-speed catamarans.

The next is traffic, which will be addressed by the Greenbrae project. Unfortunately, the project as passed didn’t include much benefit analysis, so it’s unknown at the moment how much traffic will be ameliorated by the bus, bike, and road improvements.

The last is the location of the SMART station, which is currently too far from the ferry terminal. Doing it right would mean moving the station either to the Marin Country Mart parking lot, which has space to spare, or to the ferry terminal itself. The SAP should keep this option open and encourage the SMART board to change its station site.

If you go (and you really should), the IJ published these details:

Larkspur will host a workshop about the Draft Station Area Plan and Station Area Plan Draft Environmental Impact Report from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 400 Magnolia Ave.

The workshop will explore the major land use policies, plans for various types of transportation and open space and recreation opportunities for the area.

From 4:30 to 5:25 p.m., an open house will be held with informational displays for viewing and opportunities for conversation with project consultants and city staff. From 6 to 7:30 p.m., there will be a formal presentation and question-and-answer session.

For more information, call 927-5110.

Parking charge coming to Larkspur Ferry Terminal

In a stroke of good news, GGT will begin charging $2 for parking at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) on January 6.

The charge is part of a progressive plan to manage access at LFT. Last year, there were few ways to get o LFT without a car, but the parking lot filled up after 8:30am, leaving mid-day travelers stranded and depressing ridership.

GGT tackled this high demand by implementing a shuttle bus in Ross Valley, called the Wave, to give people an alternative to driving. With the $2 charge, GGT is also trying to encourage people to use the shuttle or bike. In short, rather than try to boost parking supply by building garages, GGT is trying to reduce parking demand.

It’s a smart plan. Travel from LFT is highly “peaked,” with a lot of people taking the ferry for commutes to and from San Francisco but hardly anyone taking it in the middle of the day. Boosting the parking supply would further overwhelm those morning ferries.

It’s cheaper to encourage people to take the bus to and from the ferry or to and from the city with a parking charge. The result is a parking lot with space for afternoon riders and essentially the same number of commute riders.

GGT staff should monitor the situation carefully and establish a goal of a certain percentage of spaces available after the morning rush. With such a goal in mind, the Board could raise or lower the parking charge as needed to attain that goal.

The next big thing for Marin-San Francisco LFT riders are new bus pads under the 101 overpass at Sir Francis Drake. Approved as part of the Greenbrae Interchange Project, the pads will mean travelers on the 101 trunk line routes (17, 36, 70, 71, 80, and possibly 101) will be able to easily transfer to the ferry, unlike the current trek from Paradise Drive. SMART will likely come soon after that.

Combined with the parking charge, LFT will be able to accommodate more years of booming ridership growth and allow it to become the all-day service the Sausalito ferry is. Though it will bump up against the limits of its ferry infrastructure eventually, that is a far better problem than being limited by a parking lot.

Bike share for the ferry terminals

Last week, Bay area Bike Share (BABS) launched to some fanfare. Caltrain commuters and residents in a few neighborhoods along the Peninsula and in San Francisco can now bike to or from transit, making the first and last mile a bit easier.

Calls for a broader bike share program to serve the East Bay, more Peninsula neighborhoods, and the whole of San Francisco have risen ever since the limited scope of the project was announced.

Advocates should add Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael to their list. As the outer ends of the Bay Area’s ferry service, they desperately need some way to bridge that last mile. Bike share is how to do it.

Why ferries?

A chronic problem with ferry service in the Bay Area is the lack of bi-directional demand. Though many San Franciscans work in Marin and Solano, it’s tough to get reliable transit service to their employment centers. Golden Gate Transit buses depart hourly heading north, even in the morning commute hour. SolTrans buses don’t even offer reverse-commute service.

While there is ferry service to Larkspur and Vallejo, there aren’t many jobs within walking distance of the terminals. Driving, then, is often the only viable mode, closing off those jobs available from car-less San Franciscans.

BABS stations could change that.

In Vallejo, the principal would be similar to the Caltrain satellite systems, like in Palo Alto. Scatter a few stations around the downtown, with a large one at the ferry terminal, and you’ve created is an easy way for commuters to head to or from the ferry terminal without the need to drive or to bring their own bike.

In Larkspur, the ferry terminal’s distance from downtown San Rafael, the county’s employment hub, means a more creative solution is needed.

A large BABS station at the ferry terminal, another in Greenbrae, and a few scattered around downtown San Rafael would allow reverse-commuters to use it as their last mile and draw San Rafael into the mindset of San Franciscans as a place to go.

As a bonus, both the Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael systems would boost ferry access. In Marin especially, it would boost access to the ferry for SF-bound riders and overcome the terminal’s poor transit service.

And, for both systems, it would improve access to biking in areas that could use some alternative transportation.

Golden Gate Ferry promotes reverse travel to Larkspur

In an attempt to get more reverse travel from San Francisco to Larkspur Landing’s Marin Country Mart, Golden Gate Ferry is giving away tickets for some of its trips* for the month of August. Here’s hoping this will lead to more reverse-ferry trip promotions.

It’s no secret that counter-commute ferry travel is, well, sparse. Survey show that some trips in the middle of the day have as few as 10 passengers for ferries equipped to carry 350. While this monumental waste of capacity won’t be solved entirely until Larkspur develops the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) parking lot, that doesn’t mean Larkspur Landing is only a desolate parking lot.

Marin Country Mart is the principal destination for the neighborhood. For a long time it was just another outdoor mall, but now the shopping center is trying to transform itself into a hipper destination, with jazz on Fridays and the Folkish Festival and food trucks on Sundays. The beer snobs among us have the always-wonderful Marin Brewing Company to visit, too.

People who want to participate print off an SF-Larkspur ticket (PDF click on the big image of a ticket on that page) at home, take one of the off-peak trips to Larkspur,* and get a return ticket from a Marin Country Mart retailer for an off-peak trip home.

All in all, it’s an ingenious way to get more reverse travel. It’s easy to think of Marin as Over There, out of reach for most people. By lowering the cost barrier, GGF could attract more regular riders and bring Larkspur Landing into the imagination of San Franciscans as a place they can actually go. There’s no guarantee these new passengers will stay with the ferry after the promotion is over, but some may start to think of Larkspur Landing as someplace as close as another San Francisco neighborhood.

Other promotions should draw in employees of Larkspur Landing businesses, who may drive today but could take the ferry instead. This promotion would help workers that commute north in the morning, provided they get something at Marin Country Mart before heading south.

GGF’s promotion, combined with the ferry shuttle, paid parking, and the new 7:30am departure, shows that GGF understands the challenges faced by its Larkspur ferry service and isn’t afraid to be creative in its solutions. I only wish its bus service was so bold.

*On weekdays, its any northbound departure between 8:30am and 3pm, and any southbound departure between 10:10am and 8:50pm. On weekends, it’s the northbound 12:40pm and southbound 4:45pm.

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