Where does our affordable housing go?

Often, people complain that there isn’t enough affordable housing being built in Marin and blame the developer. Often, however, it’s neighbor concerns – often quite reasonable – that drive up the cost of development.

Two years ago, a developer filed to build 10 townhomes on G Street in San Rafael’s West End neighborhood. That’s the maximum allowed density, and it included 2 affordable units to meet the 20 percent affordability requirement.

However, neighbors had some quite justifiable concerns. The street is a cut-through for drivers heading to or from Second and so is extremely busy and more homes would mean more cars and so more traffic. It’s a neighborhood of detached homes, and townhomes would be a departure from that. The lack of side yards will disrupt the feel of the neighborhood. The building architecture looked too tall in the area. There were also concerns about a heritage oak tree.

Each of these concerns were addressed in turn. The architecture was modified a number of times and utilities were reconfigured “at considerable expense,” according to testimony at a recent city meeting. Two units were cut to address density concerns, which eliminated one affordable unit. The developer will spend $250,000 to save the heritage oak.

Each of these changes makes sense to neighbors and so helps preserve the feel of the neighborhood. Even the oak tree, worth the price of a new home, was worth it. However, these changes cost San Rafael that affordable housing unit and the added expenses will likely inflate the cost of the market-rate homes.

It’s often believed developers are made of money, but they are businesses that aim to make a profit. Large developers can throw their net wide and absorb this sort of unforeseen cost on a few projects. Small ones, however, need consistency and a sure return on the time and money it takes to shepherd a proposal through the bureaucracy. This developer is right to work with neighbors to ensure the project doesn’t have adverse effects on West End, but it is also a lesson in why building for-profit affordable housing in Marin is so tough and rare.

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San Rafael must get a handle on pedestrian deaths

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

Four people have suffered violent, brutal deaths in San Rafael in the past nine months. Each one was entirely preventable, each one caused by what should have been a simple mistake that happened to have been made in traffic.

Traffic is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and San Rafael’s wave of pedestrian deaths shows the city is not immune.

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, San Rafael should take a page from cities that have adopted Vision Zero, a plan to cut annual pedestrian and bicycling deaths to zero, returning what is a too-routine fact of life into the shock that it really is.

If it does, it will follow the far-more congested cities of Chicago, and San Francisco, but especially New York.

New York’s pioneering transportation director, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, laid the groundwork during the last mayoral administration. Many of New York’s roads had overly complicated intersections or simple dead spaces of asphalt, which confused drivers and pedestrians alike, and she adopted a Keep It Simple approach to make these notorious streets safer.

Sadik-Khan directed her staff to clearly define pedestrian space, driver space, bicycle space and the areas where they need to share.

She expanded the use of the Leading Pedestrian Interval, which gives pedestrians a head-start on walk signs, and reconfigured intersections to allow for more direct pedestrian crossings.

Though the city’s drivers at first complained about a so-called “War on Cars,” the result was actually smoother-flowing traffic and — shockingly — faster drive times through Manhattan.

Safety, too, went up dramatically, with some intersections posting a 45 percent drop in injury crashes.

A report from her office summarizes the approach: “The fundamental characteristic of the successful projects is that they create the opportunity for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to move through the street network simply and easily, minimizing the unexpected, the confusing, and the potential for surprises.”

In other words, make the street easy to use by minimizing complexity and allowing people to go where they want to go.

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.

Best practice: red light cameras

Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.

When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.

Psychologically, this is not effective, as it does not create a culture where traffic violations are simply not done. Serial red light runners will continue to do so wherever they like, just avoiding the two or three intersections where they know they’ll get caught. Research finds dummy cameras, which flash a light but take no picture, are effective at stopping red light running, a strong indicator that running lights is often a conscious decision.

To change behavior, one must apply a little force consistently, not a lot of force inconsistently. Red light cameras, when seen in this light, don’t do a very good job. They should be ubiquitous and cheap, with a relatively low-dollar ticket – maybe just $150 – that hits a driver for every red light run.

California’s red light ticket minimum means ubiquitous tickets would add up rapidly. As it is, just one $489 ticket can be half of someone’s take-home pay for the month, or worse. It’s unjust to use such a painful instrument to change behavior city-wide, even if the end of crashes prevented is noble.

As well, the high ticket fine opens cities up to criticism that traffic enforcement is simply a money grab, a politically toxic accusation that could kill any such comprehensive enforcement.

San Rafael’s experience

Without the flexibility to catch red light runners every time, San Rafael’s experience with cameras was a poor one. Though a 2012 grand jury report found crashes declined by 12 percent up to that point, a police spokeswoman told me crashes increased by 1 fatality.

The managing company, Redflex, was also a political headache. The IJ’s Megan Hansen reported, “Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.” Red light cameras are never politically easy, and paying a potentially corrupt company hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds and ticket fines just makes things worse.

Though traffic enforcement is vital to creating a safe environment for all road users, San Rafael should focus its efforts on street design rather than automated enforcement. Though the impulse among some may be to keep fines high, road safety advocates should advocate for laws that do the most good, not just the ones that feel right.

To that end, California should create a two-tier system of ticket enforcement: one with dramatically lower fines for comprehensive automated enforcement schemes, and one with the existing fines for the spot-checking enforcement schemes cities rely on today.

Though it’s unfortunate San Rafael did not get a good deal for its cameras, removing them was ultimately a response to bad state law. Perhaps one day the city will be able to install a system that changes how we think about traffic laws, but until then it’s probably best to just go without cameras altogether.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he’s in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it’s entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That’s a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga’s companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion’s wounds and Olga’s death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.

Steps toward, and away, from performance parking in San Rafael

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Parking is always a sticky problem: there never seems to be enough. The solution, as discovered by San Francisco and described by parking academic Donald Shoup, is demand-responsive pricing, also known as performance parking: charge more for the most in-demand spots and less for ones that are out of the way. With a vote last week, San Rafael will put in place the technology to determine where to do just that in downtown.

But with the same vote, the city moves away from a range of prices based on location – the core of performance parking – to a flat rate across downtown. It’s one step forward, one step back.

Performance parking theory and practice

Like any scarce resource, the easiest way to manage it is through pricing. The more valuable a parking space – like one at Courthouse Square – the more the city should charge for it. The less valuable a space, the less the city should charge. People would self-select: if they really want to park on the street at Courthouse Square, they may. If not, they might choose to park in the cheaper spaces or the nearby garage.

Most cities today, however, don’t use this approach to parking. They charge a flat rate for all parking spaces, so there’s no self-selection. The result? Insufferable circling for a space, going ‘round and ‘round the block to see if something opens up.

It’s like Saturday at the mall: there are plenty of spaces around the lot, but people still circle around, trying to find somewhere closer to the door, often taking longer to park than they would take to just walk from a slightly further-away spot.

In addition to being annoying to drivers, all this circling causes traffic congestion. In particularly high-traffic areas, a sizable percentage of congestion is attributable to people circling for a spot.

San Francisco took this research to heart and created SFPark, which tries to keep 20 percent of parking spaces free on each block within a number of pilot areas. The city embedded sensors to detect whether a space is occupied. Staff take that data to adjust the price of parking incrementally up or down each month. The result has been a decline in traffic congestion, parking tickets, and even the average price to park, as price reductions have been more common than price hikes.

San Rafael gets sensors and a flat rate

In San Rafael, the city’s parking program is facing a budgetary shortfall. The program runs on the parking charges, but those weren’t enough to cover the various renovations needed as well as operations. The city, in response, decided to pass a moderate reform of how it does parking in downtown.

On the technology side, the city will purchase about 1,000 new parking meters with credit-card readers and parking space sensors. The sensors will tell the meters when the space is vacated so it can reset, tell parking staff when someone has run out of time, and tell drivers where parking is available via a phone app.

The sensors could also be used by parking staff to do a running survey of how people use the city’s spaces, but, at this point, there’s no sign they will.

And, rather than implement a performance parking program, the city has raised the rate on all on-street parking spaces to $1.50 per hour, up from $1.00 on Fourth Street and $0.75 on side streets.

It was on this hike Kate Colin raised concerns, and why she was the lone dissenting vote. The former planning commissioner wondered why side street parking should double in price. Those areas aren’t in demand now, and raising their price relative to Fourth could put more pressure on Fourth Street’s spaces.

One reason for such a dramatic hike, however, was to encourage people to use the garages and parking lots, whose prices won’t be changed. Lots will remain at $0.75 per hour, and garages at $1.00 per hour. While a good idea, it does make one wonder how much spare capacity the garages and parking lots have that they can absorb much of the on-street demand.

Going forward

Despite the rate hike, the technology is the real win. It’s a $750,000 investment – about $750 per meter – that will last for a very long time. It would have been difficult to get the sensors and meters under a performance parking program. The parking charge, while misguided, is on paper. If the city wants to start a performance parking program now, it would be extremely cheap, without any extra capital investment. It would simply be a matter of legislation and organization, not money.

This would be a good project for the Downtown BID and Kate Colin to spearhead, perhaps with TAM PDA funding.

A concern for those interested in performance parking is that revenue seems to be an overriding concern for the Parking Services. It has outstanding capital costs now, along with two parking structures that are apparently at the end of their lifespan. Performance parking can actually mean less revenue for the city than the traditional flat-rate charge, which runs counter to revenue needs. If some of these capital projects are found to be unnecessary, or if another revenue stream can be found, then that would take some pressure off.

For the city planning department, the sensors could mean a real-time survey of parking conditions around the city, a fabulous tool. It would let planners know how new office tenants or apartments change parking demand. It would let them know whether there was spare capacity in the parking system to shape changes to parking policy, such as eliminating parking minimums or residential use of downtown the garages. Someone has to make the data available to other city departments, however, for this to happen.

The changes to parking in San Rafael are promising, and it’s encouraging to see Councilmember Colin taking a stand for the essence of performance parking: varying the price based on location.

Marin Elections: Endorsements all around

The Marin County election cycle is coming to a close in two weeks. Though there is not much on the ballot that deals specifically with urbanism, there are plenty of candidates who have some strong opinions on the subject.

For the most part, I’m in agreement with the endorsements of the Pacific Sun. Progressive, thoughtful political reporting has always been their specialty, and their endorsements show how much they weighed the issues.

That said, the IJ makes some compelling cases as well. While their reporting can stir the pot at times, their editorial board has always been a bastion of calm. For endorsements, they go out of their way to interview each of the candidates and make a well-balanced decision.

Or, you may want to figure it out yourself.

Below you’ll find all the council races with Pacific Sun and IJ endorsements, links to candidate websites, video debates, and, for some races, a nugget that might have been overlooked.

Corte Madera Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Carla Condon (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “Investing in Kids Pays Off”; “We Need a Local ‘Council of Governments’ “; “Challenging Push to ‘Urbanize’ Our County”

Michael Lappert (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Diane Furst (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “TAM Should Support Working Group’s Freeway Plan”

David Kunhardt (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Though the Pacific Sun endorsed Carla Condon over Michael Lappert, as they seem to consider him arrogant, I think he is marginally less anti-urbanist than Condon. Condon has come out with fire against Plan Bay Area. Her Marin Voice pieces regarding development have, to paraphrase the Sun, bordered on the conspiratorial, which can be worse for governing than bombastics.

Fairfax Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Barbara Coler (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Chris Lang (challenger)
Campaign website

John Reed (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

David Weinsoff (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Larkspur Town Council

Three seats, one incumbent, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Kevin Haroff (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Dan Hillmer (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Daniel Kunstler (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Catherine Way (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Mill Valley Town Council

Two seats, no incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

George Gordon

Jessica Jackson
Campaign website

Dan Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

John McCauley
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Though neither the IJ nor the Pacific Sun endorsed Jessica Jackson, given her inexperience, Jackson is the most progressive of the four on transportation issues. She has called for greater investment in bicycle lanes and sidewalks, and an expansion of Bay Area Bike Share to Marin.

Jackson would be a strong voice for progressive transportation in Mill Valley, and she would bring that voice to county and regional agencies, too. TAM and GGBHTD both could use another progressive. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she would be the first millennial elected to a municipal council in Marin.

Novato City Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Denise Athas (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Pat Eklund (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Steve Jordon (challenger)

Eleanor Sluis (challenger)
Campaign website
Writing: Extensive Patch comments; “Entrance to Novato versus New Bus Transit Hub’s Location versus Mission Lodge, a Park, and Parking”

San Anselmo Town Council

One seat, no incumbents, three candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Matt Brown
Campaign website

Steve Burdo
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Doug Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Something to keep in mind about Doug Kelly, from the Pacific Sun: “Kelly has the most to say about Plan Bay Area and ABAG—he’s not a fan—but understands that if he’s elected he’ll ‘need to work with them in a positive manner regardless of [his] views.’ “

San Rafael Town Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Sustainable San Rafael debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Greg Brockbank
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Maribeth Bushey-Lang
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Kate Colin
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
“Making San Rafael a Sustainable City”

Randy Warren
Campaign website

Lots to keep in mind in San Rafael’s race:

Maribeth Bushey-Lang’s deep technical experience with railroad issues, especially railroad crossings could prove valuable for the city, county, and region. The city of San Rafael has seats on the boards of SMART, TAM, and MTC, all of which will deal with rail issues. And, while she can’t vote on the SMART-Andersen Drive crossing because she ruled on it as a judge, she believes she will be able to deal with all other SMART issues.

Kate Colin brings a wealth of experience about planning matters. Having someone from this background, who deeply understands these issues, would be of value to the city.

Randy Warren reneged on his blanket opposition to all PDAs by cautiously half-endorsing the one in downtown San Rafael, or at least promising not to oppose it if the mayor thinks it’s a good idea in three years. He did this in the Sustainable San Rafael debate so you can see it yourself, and it signals some flexibility to his heretofore inflexible anti-urban rhetoric.

Greg Brockbank is an unabashed urbanist and environmentalist, two hats that are difficult to find together in Marin. That, paired with his long history of public service, would make him a good fit to return to the Council.

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