Construction’s high carbon cost shouldn’t stop smart growth

In the aftermath of Plan Bay Area’s passage, development skeptics in Marin have circulated a study showing that new construction gives of much higher levels of CO2 than renovating existing buildings even if that new construction is done in a very ecologically-friendly way. This, they say, is evidence that encouraging new construction will only increase our carbon footprint, and so Plan Bay Area, not to mention smart growth itself, is a sham.

While the study, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is accurate in its assessment, skeptics are on shaky ground with this line of reasoning.

The study tries to answer the question, “Is new environmentally friendly development as greenhouse-gas efficient as renovating old development?” The answer, as common sense and the study say, is an almost* unequivocal yes. Construction is remarkably energy-intensive, and on its own is not a good way to improve our environment. We need to retrofit our existing structures as much as possible, adapting our old, underused buildings for a more urban future.

However, in the small towns most opposed to Plan Bay Area, this won’t happen. The Bay Area just is not a rust belt area that underwent the kind of decline whose aftermath this study tries to examine. Were we Baltimore or Cleveland, our conversation would be much different, as we’d have bountiful abandoned buildings to repurpose. This is happening now in downtown Detroit. But we’re not Baltimore, Cleveland, or Detroit. Our most bountiful development resources are not derelict industrial park brownfields. They are our grey fields, the monumental wastes of space that are our office park and mall parking lots. That will necessarily mean new construction.

Development skeptics purport the two alternatives are Grow or Don’t Grow, like their towns are islands, but that’s not a good understanding of our region. Instead, the alternatives are Grow or Grow Elsewhere. Marin did wonders by protecting its greenbelt and is in many ways a precursor to Plan Bay Area and the urbanist movement. However, the result has been – as the veterans of those fights say – a chronic housing shortage, displaced growth into Sonoma and Contra Costa, and a steady loss of those counties’ farmland and greenbelt. Nobody wants Marin to look like Walnut Creek (at least, I hope not), but Walnut Creek is in part a result of Marin’s development policies, as are Rohnert Park and the Oakland Hills.

While we could give up and do the minimum in the name of reducing our CO2 footprint, in reality we would just push people further out from the City and cause more greenfield development. Just because the lost greenbelt is outside our county borders doesn’t make the loss any less a tragedy. Even if that new construction were built to smart-growth standards, it would still be built, so the CO2 will be emitted no matter what we do.

It’s a preposterous argument to make that we shouldn’t build anything because it would add to our county’s CO2 footprint. It’s just tricky accounting, offloading the problem to other cities and counties.

A far better approach is to view these mandates as opportunities to make more small-town greatness. Our downtowns are the heart and soul of our towns, but between them is bland nothing. That we keep our density in safe downtown boxes but call it evil if it ever tries to escape is a profound disservice to our cities, region, and the environment development skeptics argue we should save.

Why is 34 unit-per-acre housing in downtown San Anselmo quaint but “stack & pack housing” just a mile east? Why is 40-unit-per-acre housing “San Jose-style massive apartment block” in Corte Madera when 89 110-unit-per-acre housing is a centerpiece of downtown San Rafael? Downtown Mill Valley could colonize its strip-mall-dominated flats, downtown Sausalito could grow into Marin City, downtown Novato could transform the North Redwood corridor a place worthy of Marin’s second-largest city, and each move would make these great towns and cities even greater. This is the essence of smart growth

And the benefits of smart growth go beyond simply reducing CO2 emissions from travel. Smart growth positively affects public health, public safety, town budgets, water pollution, greenbelt preservation, farmland preservation, housing affordability, and beyond. Yes, repurposing emits less CO2 than new construction, but this is a horrible reason to halt all growth in small town Bay Area. Not only would the growth would just happen elsewhere, but we’d be throwing away a chance to make our towns even better and stronger. That would be a tragedy.

*The exception to this is renovating warehouses, which are so energy-inefficient it’s best to just knock them down and start over.

A version of this post was cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

Silvestri ignores the implications of his own data

Recently, Bob Silvestri, a proponent of auto-oriented, low-density development, argued that auto-orientation is more energy efficient than person-orientation and, therefore, superior.

Yet his data, while implying that New York City or Paris are terrible polluters, does not support his thesis that Marin is the pinnacle of environmental quality. That’s not to say his data doesn’t have problems (it does), but let’s take the assumption that he’s measuring the right things and that the studies he cites are unimpeachable.

Houses, density, and greenhouse gases

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by development type. Image from Demographia.

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by development type. Image from Demographia.

Silvestri cites a (rather flawed) study (PDF) of greenhouse gas emissions per unit for a number of housing types, from high-rises to detached homes. Single-family detached homes were scored second best for all emissions in the Australian suburbs studied, with only town houses scoring better.

Simultaneously, Silvestri makes the quite important point that open space is a carbon sink. It’s undeniable that the more open space we preserve as a region, the better off we’ll be from a sequestration standpoint. The EPA says open space takes in 2.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per acre per year (MTCO2/year), agricultural or recreational land takes in 1.5 MTCO2/year, suburban land takes in 1 MTCO2/year, and urbanized land takes in 0.2 MTCO2/year. Town homes, which lie somewhere between urbanized and suburban land, still leave plenty of open space in the back yard (often 50 percent). We need to estimate, but let’s put that as 0.7 MTCO2/year. I will assume these numbers take into account commercial development patterns as well.

Silvestri measures San Francisco’s net emissions against Marin’s net emissions, but that’s not the way to evaluate optimal conditions. It unfairly punishes San Francisco for having small political boundaries and rewards Marin for having expansive boundaries. Rather, we need to establish a baseline of nature and determine how different methods of development will change the carbon status of the same land area.

Two towns

So, we have 640 acres (1 square mile) of virginal open space producing a net negative 1,600 MTCO2/year. We’ll people that with 100 households in a traditional suburban setting of about 4 homes per acre, which again will include commercial development. Using the average household size in the US, that means 259 people on 25 acres.

According Silvestri’s Australian data for per-unit emissions, people living in suburban areas emit about 2.5 MTCO2/year apiece. With 259 people, our little town emits 647.5 MTCO2/year. Subtracting our sequester, which is now 615 acres of virgin land and 25 units of suburban, our square mile goes from a net negative 1,600 MTCO2/year to a net negative 915 MTCO2/year. Not too shabby.

Next door, another 100 families has set up shop on another square mile of land, but, inspired by Europe, these guys want a village of town houses at a relatively loose 25 units per acre. Rather than 259 people on 25 acres, this village will only use up 4. Since town home denizens pollute less than suburbanites, they’re only emitting 518 MTCO2/year. Since they’re living on less than a sixth the land area, there’s more virgin open space to absorb their footprint. All told, the village goes to a net negative 1,075 MTCO2/year.

This other village, of course, will reap the other benefits of compact development. They will need to maintain fewer fire stations, fewer roads, fewer pipes, etc. Changes to travel patterns will mean less driving over the baseline and more walking, bicycling, and more transit users. That means they won’t have to maintain large parking lots or such wide streets (which means more environmentally friendly stormwater management), and the citizens won’t need to go to the gym to stay healthy.

As a bonus, with the money saved (and it would be substantial), they could electrify the whole transit system, rendering moot Silvestri’s argument that transit as too carbon-intensive. Then again, a townhome-style city is ideal for cycling and walking, so there wouldn’t be as pressing a need for transit anyway.

Far from supporting single-family housing, Silvestri should be supporting the kind of densities town homes provide, which can go as high as 60 units per acre. They are far more financially and space-efficient and less carbon-intensive than single-family homes. That’s in his data, clear as the day.

I don’t know why Silvestri would try to twist the data into saying something it doesn’t, but the study itself does the same thing. The author, Wendell Cox, has done some good research on cities but has come to some odd conclusions: that suburbia as we know it is the result of free-market choices (it isn’t, and is instead the result of $450 billion in annual federal subsidies) and that Seattle’s suburbs are growing much faster than the city proper (they’re not). I’ve found it’s best to approach anything associated with Cox or his firm, Demographia, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I hope Silvestri will join me and other urbanists in support of the kind of infill development that he has championed in the past. It offers a much better path to lower greenhouse gases than the Santa Clara-style sprawl his ideas advocate in the farmland and open spaces of Napa, Solano, and Sonoma.

Microblogging, expanded

gum wall

by 1yen, on Flickr

Yesterday, I realized I have more ideas for blog posts than I have time to do them. I’m in the middle of a series of posts on Larkspur Landing – I have two more to go – and the issue of affordable housing has reared its ugly and nonsensical head once again in Marin. I’ve also started blogging about the broader region at our sister site, Vibrant Bay Area. Unless one of you wants to pay me, you’re probably not going to get as much analysis as you or I would like to see.

Thankfully, I’m on a microblogging site you may have heard of called Twitter, so I condensed them down into a series of hypotheses. Though I’m confident there is enough data to back up these statements, I haven’t investigated them to confirm that my hunches are correct.

Pardon the swear here. Bicycling, if it’s going to take off in the US, needs to be more than some paint on the side of the road. Known in California as the Class II bike lane, the bike lane is far better than nothing but far worse than ideal. To me, if you’re uncomfortable riding a cargo bike on it, or if you wouldn’t send your 8-year-old to school on it, then it’s not good enough to put cars and bikes at parity.

Cities are not isolated pockets around subway stations. They are integrated fabrics. San Francisco is walkable even far from BART stations, when the only transit is a bus. Since most of the Bay Area is designed around retail strips like El Camino Real, upzoning plans need to take that into consideration. Bubbles of walkability, like Santana Row in San Jose or the BART transit villages, don’t encourage people to live car-free lifestyles, only a car-free commute. By connecting high-density rail-oriented areas with moderate density bus-oriented areas, the Bay Area could improve its mode share mix immensely.

The term “hipster” has become so over-used it’s lost what little meaning it once had. Hipsters are supposed to save the city (a simplification of Richard Florida’s theory of the creative class) and destroy the city (a simplification of Joel Kotkin’s opposite theory). They’re poor and unproductive one moment, rich and entitled the next. The latest in this devolving debate has Richard Florida positing that a lot of creative class types in a single city lowers income inequality. Joel Kotkin responded with a glorified, Told you so, which led to a Florida response of, No, idiot.

Through it all, I just wish people would leave the poor/rich/entitled/gentrifying/unproductive saviors of our society alone. Income inequality is more complicated than theories of cities, and no single class of people is the salvation or damnation of our society.

And stop calling them hipsters.

Actually, it probably won’t. In occurred to me that urbanism was the pursuit of maximum efficiency of access within the constraints of the age. In our age, those constraints are principally about preservation of land, character, history, and preexisting residential neighborhoods. In other ages these were sunlight and fresh air; defensibility; or access to water.

I define access as the number of destinations within a given travel time by a given mode, and I define efficiency as minimizing negative externalities and maximizing positive externalities in the course of one’s daily routine. That’s too technical. In other words, how much does our urban design pollute? How much does it make us healthier or sicker? How much land does it use up? How much does it cost? And so on.

My definition could be rephrased. Urbanism is the pursuit of the most access at the least cost to ourselves and to our environment within a community’s chosen or necessary constraints. Decisions from transportation to zoning hang from this.

The East Bay has a wealth of rail infrastructure. It has two parallel passenger rail lines running from Richmond to Fremont and branches going in all directions, while the Peninsula has only one rail line going north-south. The Peninsula’s rail capacity will be constrained by the blended Caltrain-High Speed Rail plan, while the East Bay’s capacity will not be.

Rather than pursue BART expansions and inefficient ferry service to San Francisco, it should bolster its Amtrak and ACE service to be true rapid transit in parallel to BART and Caltrain. It should restructure its zoning to encourage new neighborhoods to develop for San Franciscans fleeing ludicrous rents. And it should invite tech companies to build new neighborhoods around their train stations instead of new office parks in the middle of nowhere.

Each of these ideas should be pursued, but I fear I must decline the call. That shouldn’t stop you from heeding the call, of course. If you agree, or even if you disagree, pitch me a story on one of these themes. I might end up running it.

Marin: The original smart growth county

San Anselmo from Red Hill. Photo by the author.

San Anselmo from Red Hill. Photo by the author.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City. Mayors, activists, councilmembers, and the odd blogger came out to share successes and failures in their communities in the hopes that others could learn from their examples. And after it all, one thing is clear: Marin has it pretty good.

Smart growth came about in the early 90s as the response to auto-oriented sprawl. Though it can mean many things, the basic purpose is improving access for walking and bicycling. Within a 15 minute drive is a certain number of residences and businesses. Within a 15 minute walk there is less. In a place with high access for walkers, however, there is too much density for everyone to move around in cars, leading to congestion if that demand isn’t well-managed. Similarly, in a place with high access for cars, there is too little density for people to be able to walk with any efficiency.

While there have always been low-density places for the people who want peace and quiet away from the town center, the last 60 years has seen a great proliferation of such places. In cities like Tulsa or Houston, the city centers themselves were transformed to improve automobile access at the expense of walking access. What activists term sprawl was the outward growth of this style.

In Marin, we rebelled in the 1960s after we saw what freeways were doing to the rest of the Bay Area. Though our beloved trains and ferries were long gone, destroyed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101, we refused to allow West Marin to be built over. We developed our landmark Corridors plan, ensuring sprawl would not rule our day.

A centerpiece of smart growth is a commercially strong and walkable town, and almost every city and community in Marin has one. These are spaces where you can walk from a nearby neighborhood or park your car once and stroll the strip. They are places with a high density of destinations. They define their community. After all, what would Mill Valley be without Miller Avenue? Or San Rafael without Fourth Street?  Other cities aren’t so lucky.

But a place where you can walk isn’t much good if you can’t walk anywhere else, or if it’s unsafe to bike around town. On this, too, Marin has a leg up on its peers.

Surprising though it is, the fact that we have sidewalks on nearly all but the most rural streets and arterial roads is a rarity, and it shows in the pedestrian fatality rates. Across the US, there are 1.38 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. In California, it’s 1.6 per 100,000, but in Marin it’s less than half that. In 2008, Marin only had 0.6 pedestrians die per 100,000 people. Though every death is a tragedy, Marin is doing far better than the country at large.

Our focus on smart growth – not to mention the transit-oriented bones left by that rail system – has paid off in how we commute. Our county has the second lowest rate of car commuters in the state, surpassed only by San Francisco. If we add carpools, we are tied with San Mateo County for third. One in three Marin commuters travel by a means other than a single-occupant vehicle. One in ten take transit, third best in the state.

That’s not to say Marin doesn’t have its shortcomings. Our bicycle infrastructure is good but not complete. Our zoning codes needlessly inhibit small units and drive up housing costs. And between those walkable town centers are drivable strips, meant more to be sped through than lingered in.

But Marin has a lot to teach the rest of the country. I was raised on the Marin sense of pride, the understanding that if only the United States would be more like Marin we’d have a more sustainable, prosperous world. Marinites should smile that the movement towards smart growth around the world is in essence an attempt to take the path Marin took 40 years ago. We should smile, that is, and roll up our sleeves.

It’s Policy, Not Preference, that Shapes Cities

Baltimore [Population: 288,530,000]

Baltimore. Photo by Oslo In The Summertime, on Flickr

People keep writing about the effectof our urban policies, but very few outside the urbanist blogosphere write about the policies themselves. The articles that result satisfy our curiosity about change but fail to actually inform. They’re all candy, no vegetable. Two articles published last week exemplify this trend. Both describe the effects of the same policies, but both fail to discuss the policies themselves.

The New York Times profiled the blighted rail corridor between New York City and Washington, DC. If you ever travel that stretch of rail, you’ll see boarded up homes, weedy back yards, abandoned factories, and the detritus of a country that’s moved on from its industrial past. In its place has arisen an incestuous service economy built by a New York-Washington axis of power. Anyone with any money has moved to the ‘burbs, leaving the cities behind to rot. At least, that’s what the Times’ Adam Davidson says.

Meanwhile, Meredith Galante, writing in Business Insider, wrote glowingly of micro-apartments, tiny homes 160 to 300 square feet. These, it’s thought, will help solve the housing crunch in major cities as people flock to city centers and drive rents to the stratosphere. Such homes, according to one entrepreneur, are the future in increasingly overcrowded urban areas.

Wait a second. Anyone with money has moved to the ‘burbs but people with money are so desperate to live in cities that tiny, expensive apartments make sense? Both explanations can’t be right, but both trends are happening anyway. What gives?

Suburbanization, and the policies that encourage it outside and within cities, is to blame. The layers of regulation banning increasing density; the hundreds of billions invested in roads to speed suburbanites into the city in cars; the parking lots to store all those cars that destroyed buildings and the city’s fabric; and the zoning codes that locked uses into place have released bizarre forces on cities. Where suburbanization has been restrained, city living is so valuable but so difficult to accommodate that housing is squeezed into every nook and cranny of developable space, and there’s not a lot of that. Where suburbanization runs rampant, cities collapse under the weight of regulation and outright destruction.

Micro-apartments in the Boom Towns

Zoning, that can be the most destructive by banning reinvention of place. Regulations dictate exactly what kind of building can be built, how many people can live there, what kind of business you can open, how many parking space you must have, how far back the building must be from the property lines, and on and on.

To amend the zoning code requires going through homeowners zealously protective of the status quo. Consideration of legalizing in-law units incites howls of protest that such plans would destroy the neighborhood. Even in New York, the idea of allowing taller buildings in Midtown Manhattan has caused consternation and hand-wringing over whether they would, yes, destroy the neighborhood.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1910s, Manhattan’s West Side was all mansions; by the 1930s, it was apartment blocks. The wealthy had found other places to put mansions, and the city was growing so rapidly that allowing one family to occupy a half-acre of land was unacceptably expensive. Putting a hundred families in its place ensured that new housing satisfied the extremely high demand. Apartments along San Rafael’s D Street are the result of the same process. Sprinkled among single-family homes, the apartment buildings provide valuable housing for those who want to live close to Marin’s urban heart.

Now, the places where development can happen become ever more rare, and stiff design review processes ensure that it will take huge sums of money and sometimes years to pass just one project. It’s no wonder there’s a housing shortage – we have the political brakes on so hard we can’t move anywhere near fast enough. Micro-apartments, which allow the most units to be squeezed into the city’s apartment production line, are the inevitable result of supply constrained on every side.

Cities We Leave Behind (Every Day)

In the blighted cities described by the Times, policies designed to facilitate the suburbs accelerated declines from prominence. Loans and tax deductions favored single-family homes, single-use zoning isolated residences from business from office, and superhighways encouraged anyone with money to leave cities behind. It didn’t help that those superhighways destroyed huge swathes of cities and shut out downtowns from the nearby neighborhoods.

The trigger for the exodus in many of the cities between Washington and New York were race riots in the 1960s. Angry mobs tore through businesses and destroyed the livelihoods of millions. Even DC was not immune; the current population boom mostly involves repopulating the burned-over areas that had rotted for decades. New freeways built over the poorest neighborhoods whisked people between their new homes in the ‘burbs and their old jobs in ossified office districts, zoned and reserved for the needs of car-based office workers. Even today, those workers leave their cities behind to fend for themselves on a daily basis.

Now that we want to reinvest in our center cities, the priorities of the car-driving suburbanite still take precedence. Requiring developers to build a certain amount of parking spaces, for example, is extremely common in American cities. Unfortunately, the practice has little basis in science and does quite a bit of harm. It reduces the viability of projects by forcing the construction of excess spaces, hurts the streetscape by putting more cars on the road and lining sidewalks with parking rather than retail. At the very least it means investments in on-street bicycling are rejected because of reductions in on-street parking or in the number of lanes on a street. Dedicated transit lanes and freeway demolitions are often rejected for the same reason.

Yet this is The Greater Marin, a blog about a suburb, and it may seem out of step to advocate for keeping Marin’s low-rise towns while excoriating cities for bowing to the needs of the people that live in those low-rise towns. I don’t think it is.

Novato has zoning rules that ban banks from facing Grant Avenue, forcing the new Umpqua Bank branch to face a parking lot instead of the sidewalk. San Anselmo’s zoning bans bike shops from San Anselmo Avenue, though clearly the rule is happily ignored. San Rafael forces downtown residences to build parking on-site while city-owned parking garages sit half-empty. These restrictions hurt our towns, businesses, and both current and potential residents. It’s not just the big cities that are hurt by unexamined rules; we are, too.

When articles tout micro-apartments as the Next Big Thing or bemoan the decline of the industrial city without a policy discussion, they do a disservice. They gloss over the causes that created and perpetuate these trends, providing easy answers in place of honest critique. It wasn’t just industrial decline that wrecked the cities of the Northeast; suburbanization did. It’s not that young people want to live in tiny apartments; zoning forces them to trade living space for location. Avoiding discussions like this is bad for San Francisco, bad for the Northeast, and, ultimately, bad for Marin. The Times and Business Insider should know better.

Mid-Week Links: Formalization

Marin City Sunset

Marin City at sunset. Photo by Veit Irtenkauf on Flickr.

Marin County

  • Marin City is pondering incorporation. Though it would give the community of 6,000 greater independence in some respects, it would also mean higher costs, its own RHNA, and added responsibilities now taken care of by the county. (IJ)
  • Skywalker Properties was partially to blame for the Grady Ranch debacle, at least according to the state water board, because it knew certain aspects of its creek restoration effort were “unacceptable.” (IJ)
  • New housing guidelines are in development for unincorporated Marin, and the county wants your input. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The Marin District Attorney has launched an investigation into a $350,000 housing loan given to former RVSD general manager Brett Richards. (IJ) … Belvedere has an interim city manager. (IJ) … Fairfax to get electric vehicle charging stations. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Metro Atlanta rejected a major investment in its transportation infrastructure on Tuesday, turning down a 1% sales tax in all but three of its regions, which will see their own investments. Transit advocates are, of course, disheartened. (Streetsblog)
  • The fiscal health of a city is related to its urban form. Sprawling suburbs cost more to maintain than more densely packed cities and towns. Stockton and Bakersfield didn’t go under because of too much housing; they went under in part because they spread it too thin. (CNN)
  • Coddingtown Mall is throwing its weight around, demanding that the Coddingtown Station Area Plan leave some streets without bicycle lanes, cut out other bike lanes and new streets that cross mall property, and more, saying they would impose “undue economic hardship” on the property. (Press Democrat)
  • Napa County has a new director of transportation and planning. Kate Miller’s resume is thick on more urban experience, running AC Transit and working for MTC, and here’s hoping that will translate into better service for the Valley. (St. Helena Star)
  • When Caltrans wants to improve air quality in Los Angeles, it doesn’t turn to transit, it turns to wider roads. (Bay Citizen)

The Toll

  • A 37-year-old cyclist died in Santa Rosa after a driver hit him at an intersection. He’s the fifth bicyclist to be killed in Santa Rosa this year. (Press Democrat)
  • Sonoma: A very intoxicated driver seriously injured himself and a man standing in the shoulder of Highway 116. (Press Democrat) … A driver ran off a cliff and survived. (Press Democrat) … A driver was beaten and his car was stolen after a minor fender-bender in Santa Rosa. (Press Democrat)
  • Marin: Two motorcyclists riding at around 100 miles per hour collided, seriously injuring one another. (IJ) … The plaid-hating Tiburon driver apparently also hates bicyclists. (IJ) … A woman drove off Highway 101 and injured herself. (IJ)
  • The toll this week was one person killed, six people injured, and one person beaten.

Bad Ideas in Sacramento County

These really aren’t the same thing. Photos by road_less_trvled and Brave New Films

Sacramento has done great things lately. A new light-rail line extends from downtown to a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood near the river. A strong Sustainable Communities Strategy was recently approved by the region. Smart growth is taking root in the sprawling region.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. The Sacramento Bee reports that Sacramento County supervisors approved a smart-growth redesign of Watt Avenue, an aging, low-density commercial strip, and immediately granted a waiver for Wal-Mart to move in to the very heart of the corridor, the part closest to the city and closest to light rail.

Staff argued that Wal-Mart would generate jobs, provide access to cheap groceries, and help catalyze growth in the area. Supervisors reportedly were only concerned with pedestrian safety and not the store’s traffic or the store’s design. It also apparently didn’t occur to them that supermarkets would move in on their own as the corridor developed.

I can’t comment on the wisdom of a smart-growth corridor extending in a thin, four-mile line through some fairly suburban neighborhoods far from the central city, though at first glance the land-use and parking requirements don’t seem particularly progressive. What I can comment on is placing a suburban-style, car-centric Wal-Mart where the supervisors want to encourage anything but driving.

In short, it’s crazy, a poison pill.  Nobody likes to walk by a strip mall parking lot.  When was the last time you walked next to a 10-acre parking lot on a summer day? What about walking through it to get to the bus?  Now imagine doing that in a Central Valley summer.  I shudder to consider it.  If Sacramento County wants to build a walkable, transit-oriented corridor, they need to stop granting approvals for projects that stand in direct contradiction to their goals.

It’s like saying you want to lose weight, but you still let yourself have McDonald’s for lunch every day. Your goal is at odds with your actions, and any progress you might make will be slowed or stalled entirely because of it.

One of Wal-Mart’s planned DC stores. Image from JBG.

Department stores, the classier ancestors of the big-box genre of stores, were once an integral part of walking around downtown. Macy’s, now more associated with the mall, even throws a parade in New York on Thanksgiving to celebrate its connection with that most urban of communities.  Wal-Mart is trying to recapture that feel in Washington, DC, building urban-style stores with apartments and offices above and smaller shops along the sides.  The parking lot is an underground garage.

Wal-Mart, in other words, didn’t need a waiver from the density minimums and could have anchored the smart-growth corridor with a smart-growth store. The Sacramento County Board and staff should have pushed for something better, but instead they will be saddled with a strip mall in a place that is supposed to be the opposite.

Thankfully, Marin’s governments are a bit more savvy, and Marin’s residents are much more wary, than to allow such a fiasco. What we do allow, though, are sprawl projects that take life out of our downtowns. Hanna Ranch, for instance, could have been a major boost to downtown Novato had the city been willing to push the project there. Instead, it will be a greenfield sprawl development beyond that giant dead-end called Vintage Oaks.

While we draw up new general plans, our governments and people need to keep in mind their more philosophical goals: to protect the character of each town, to strengthen and preserve town centers, and to focus what growth we do allow in ways that will do those things. Otherwise, we risk just the sort of near-sighted foolishness exemplified in Sacramento County’s decision, and that would be a tragedy.

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)

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)

Walkable Centers, Walkable Stations

If our local transit agencies ever revamp their bus maps or create supplements like my spider map, they should mark important stops as walkable centers, branding them like rail stations even if SMART will never go anywhere near them.

Inspired by David Klion’s metro station walkability rankings for the DC area I decided to make my own.  I was curious how our various bus pads and transit hubs stack up against one another in part out of curiosity, and in part to see whether major improvements could be made around our town centers and bus pads.  Using Walkscore, I got the following rankings, in order:

  1. Santa Rosa Town Center, 98
  2. Mill Valley Town Center, 97
  3. Fairfax Parkade, 95
  4. San Rafael Transit Center, 94
  5. Copeland Street, Petaluma, 94
  6. Terra Linda Bus Pad, 86
  7. Larkspur Town Center, 83
  8. San Anselmo Hub, 82
  9. Sausalito Ferry, 82
  10. Rohnert Park, Town Center, 82
  11. Ignacio Bus Pad, 80
  12. Cotati Town Center, 80
  13. Tiburon Town Center, 78
  14. Strawberry Transit Center, 75
  15. Novato Transit Center, 75
  16. Marin City Transit Center, 75
  17. Rowland Avenue Bus Pad, 74
  18. Lucas Valley Bus Pad, 74
  19. Corte Madera Town Center, 72
  20. Civic Center, 72
  21. Paradise Drive Bus Pad, 71
  22. Larkspur Landing, 71
  23. Ross Town Center, 69
  24. Delong Bus Pad, 68
  25. Lucky Drive Bus Pad, 68
  26. Tiburon Wye Bus Pad, 68
  27. Canal (Average), 67
  28. Seminary Drive Bus Pad, 66
  29. College of Marin 63
  30. Manzanita Bus Pad, 60
  31. N San Pedro Road Bus Pad, 58
  32. Spencer Avenue Bus Pad, 55
  33. Atherton Bus Pad, 51
  34. Alameda del Prado Bus Pad, 34
  35. Marinwood Bus Pad, 18
  36. Manor, 12

A few things stick out to me.  First, bus pads are far less walkable than town centers, though most of them are walkably close to amenities.  Especially surprising was the Lucas Valley bus pad, which is within walking distance of quite a few commercial outlets.  It is apparently more accessible than bus stops in downtown Ross and Corte Madera.  Second is the high accessibility of older towns and low accessibility of newer areas.  Third is that Marin’s development is remarkably walkable compared to that of the DC metro area.  The average score for Marin is just a hair under 71, the same as DC’s subway station average of 71, though some of the suburban counties have averages in the 40s. Lastly, there is no stop in Marin with a perfect 100.

One should keep in mind that Walkscore doesn’t include the actual pedestrian environment. I’d much rather spend an afternoon in downtown Corte Madera than around the Smith Ranch Road office parks. Rather, Walkscore tells us that the bones of a real, metro-esque system are already in place, and that these neighborhoods, if retrofitted for walkability and served properly by transit, could take off.  It also tells us that development and the bus system have gone hand-in-hand: the various walkable (or at least accessible) centers around the county are served by the bus.

And these are the places that should be branded as transit hubs.  In DC, unlike the Bay Area, metro stations are the centers of a huge amount of development.  Cities market their metro stations as potential downtowns, and conversations about urban planning, office development, and more revolve around transit accessibility.  DC’s metro map makes it easy for people to know how to get where they want to go, and businesses can market themselves with ease.  The carless Washingtonian may never get on the bus, but they know how to get where they need to go if it’s next to a Metro station.

The same sort of branding and mapping could bring investment to the various gray fields around our bus hubs.  The Hub, for example, has an abandoned construction project not more than 500 feet away.  It’s built into the hillside, so a taller building of four stories or more is certainly feasible.  Something similar might be built around Smith Ranch Road on either side of the freeway, while the huge parking lots around downtown Tiburon and Larkspur Landing could be put to far better use than car storage.

Because these centers are already walkable, they could in theory support more transit than is currently in place.  Marin’s buses are blessed with walkable areas and mostly simple routes.  They just need that push to succeed.

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