Fairfax’s progressive zoning under threat

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

About 16 years ago, I was excited to be a newly-minted Drake High freshman and Fairfax was excited to start on a major update to its General Plan. Three months ago I celebrated my 30th and Fairfax celebrated the passage of the final piece of its general plan update. But last month, the town started to undo its work, and the most substantive part of the General Plan – its zoning and housing elements – are under threat.

These elements are separate but connected pieces. The zoning element is something I neglected to praise when it was first revealed in 2012. It rezones all highway commercial zones as downtown commercial, a dramatic step away from the auto-centric design that defines Sir Francis Drake and Center. It also adds scatters in three Planned Development Districts to accommodate specialized developments: one at Christ Lutheran Church for 40 units of senior housing; one at 10 Olema Road for 22 small, single-family homes; and one at School Street Plaza for 9 homes mixed with commercial space.

Built atop the zoning element is the first state-approved housing element in over a decade. It puts Fairfax in compliance with state law regarding affordable housing, allowing it to avoid writing another housing element for 8 years. The element also allows second units (a major goal of anti-development activists), home sharing, and other non-traditional affordable home formats.

Unfortunately, the zoning element suffered from typos and inconsistencies between its tables and the actual policy text and maps. Though Fairfax’s legal counsel and planning staff assured the public and the council that the typos were not a problem, project opponents alleged the typos opened up dozens of other properties for development. Led by former councilmember Frank Egger, the opponents drew up a ballot initiative to withdraw zoning. That would have the housing element out of compliance with state law and put the town back to Square One.

Opponents relied upon this falsehood to sell their initiative and gathered 1,000 signatures, which they submitted the afternoon before the town council was scheduled to vote on addressing the typos the initiative was intended to address. That locked the zoning from any changes and prevented the council from fixing the problems opponents complained about.

While opponents claim they had no idea this would lock the zoning, it strains credulity that a former mayor and a coterie of old political hands wouldn’t know that legislation that’s the subject of a ballot initiative is locked down.

Yet rather than face a ballot fight and further divide the town, the council decided in a 3-2 vote in May to start the process to rescind the zoning themselves. Mayor David Weinsoff, one of the votes to keep the zoning, said the town was capitulating to bullies.

The vote to rescind is bad policy, an attempt to find a compromise with opponents who refuse to work with the council. If they were concerned about typos, they would have submitted their signatures after the council had a chance to change them, not before. If they were concerned about the content of the General Plan, they had 16 years of public process to voice them.

The rezoning is the most progressive step by any town in Marin

As I’ve said before, the guiding light of this blog’s view that the beauty and livability of its town centers are at the heart of what makes Marin’s towns great. The policy under threat, to allow Fairfax’s downtown to grow into areas where it has not been, fits hand in hand with that understanding.

While other towns have decided to innovate and create standalone developments in driving strips, or to create driving-oriented developments on their fringes, Fairfax decided to invest in its downtown. It’s a recognition that what makes Fairfax great isn’t its parking lots on Center; it’s the shops and homes Bolinas.

Pursuing affordable housing in a way that doesn’t just fit with Fairfax’s character but is inspired by the physical and spiritual heart of town is the only way to turn the lemons of affordable housing mandates into lemonade.

Coalition for a Livable Marin has launched a petition asking the council to stop the process of rescinding the zoning. The coalition’s steering committee, of which I am a member, believes the decision to rescind the zoning is bad for the town. Not only does it spit in the face of downtown, essentially saying it’s an aberration that shouldn’t be replicated, but it puts in jeopardy 71 affordable housing units.

It puts Fairfax on a path toward legal confrontation with California, as the zoning underpins the already-certified Housing Element. And it undoes possibly the most promising reform of second unit policy in the county, setting back a key goal of both affordable housing proponents and the anti-development party.

What the council is doing runs counter to its history as the funky, progressive place we know it as. Fairfax should keep its zoning.

The zoning board should not be our nanny

2701 Shattuck

2701 Shattuck. Image from the developer.

There’s an apartment building being debated in Berkeley, and it’s not a bad proposal. At 60 feet tall, it would be about as tall as other buildings facing Shattuck. 2701 Shattuck would include 70 studio apartments (PDF), ranging in size from 307 to 344 square feet. It’s close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to Telegraph and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It will be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund.

Fifteen neighbors nearby aren’t happy with it. They cite the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, common stuff. But they also cite on the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. A zoning commissioner, Sophie Hahn, concurred, comparing the units to “penitentiary housing” and said there wasn’t enough room for “intimacy.”

Though I don’t want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others strike me as a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some other hangout, I’m not so concerned about my home’s size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live on a Mill Valley hillside, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise off the Embarcadero.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it’s the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are “a new style of tenement housing,” I get upset. And when a policymaker (Sophie Hahn) says of studio apartments, “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing,” that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, there must be something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue. I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it’s preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That’s freedom.

So it’s not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It’s the developer’s job to determine that. And, in a free society, it’s nobody’s job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

Markets are the third way to affordable housing

Boston, with 53 units per acre of pure character and almost nothing over 4 stories. Image from Google Maps

Boston, with 53 units per acre of pure character and almost nothing over 4 stories. Image from Google Maps via Placemakers.

It’s no secret that the cost to buy or rent a home in the Bay Area is extremely high and rising. Thanks to a regional economic rebound and renewed interest in the kind of walkable living that defines San Francisco, demand for Bay Area housing is at a high.

Unfortunately, this means that only the most privileged can afford to purchase a home in our inner-ring suburbs. Blue collar workers, service workers, and young professionals making less than astronomical sums are having an increasingly difficult time finding homes they can buy or even apartments they can rent. And so a debate over how to accommodate affordable housing swirls around every planning meeting and town council election.

Advocates rally behind nonprofit housing and the state’s regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, which assigns each municipality and county a certain number of units they must accommodate. Others, especially in Marin, say cities and counties are managing their affairs just fine and resent anything that could be construed as meddling from Sacramento or ABAG.

Yet both perspectives neglect the economic underpinnings of our housing cost. Fundamentally, we have a shortage of housing for any income. Until either side begins to address this fact, we’ll continue to face deadlock and continuing cost escalation.

Market urbanism

Our housing shortage isn’t everywhere. Stockton and Vallejo can attest to that. Rather, the cost hikes have been in the walkable areas that have come into vogue over the past 10 years. Downtowns both large (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland) and small (San Rafael, Napa) have seen their prices rise since the end of the recession.

While some of the demand in the big cities may come from name recognition, the principal reason for the price spike is that the supply of housing in walkable neighborhoods has not grown with demand for it. We have a classic housing shortage, and the only way out is to boost supply of walkable housing for all incomes, from luxury to low-income, by making it profitable to build such housing.

To some, this will sound like nonsense. We need affordable housing, not luxury housing. But the theory that increasing supply will stabilize prices has been borne out in at least one market.

Washington, DC, has seen a massive population boom. Since 2000, it has grown by nearly 10 percent, and now is adding 1,300 new residents every month. Though housing costs have increased (partly due to a lack of financing in 2007-2008 and partly due to a lag between demand for apartments and their completion), this year they are expected to be stable despite the continuing influx of people. Regionally, nearly 40,000 apartments are coming online in the next year, with another 30,000 the following year.

No government program could have forced such broad rent stabilization without direct price controls. Next year’s stable rents will only have come about because the region’s governments have worked with demand rather than against it. In the central city, DC is working on a revised zoning code that will promote high- and moderate-density walkable living. In the suburbs, counties are converting drivable retail centers into walkable mixed-use areas, sometimes far from the Metro rail system, relieving some of the demand in the central city.

The Bay Area could join DC and stabilize its housing market only by stepping back from the dysfunctional No Development vs. Affordable Housing debate. We must boost the supply of housing for all incomes or we’ll never get a handle on the problem.

Reform the laws, boost supply

Bay Area developers face a potent mix of restrictive zoning and anti-developer sentiment. We fear that any changes to our much-beloved downtowns will destroy their character, and that rapacious developers just won’t care.

Arguably, they didn’t care in the 1950s or 1960s. Ugly concrete replaced beautiful Victorian. Grassy hills became rolling tract homes. Governments helped by marking poor neighborhoods “obsolete” and tagging for them for demolition.

The laws put in place to stop this kind of idiocy worked, and developers now try to work within a city’s character rather than against it. Developers now face strict design review to ensure developments work with local character and architecture, or are built on characterless strip malls and dead zones.

Still, some of those laws hold back development to an undue degree. Take density limits, put in place to maintain neighborhood character. These ensure that only, say, 30 units per acre can be built in a given acre. While that seems like plenty of density, they encourage the largest units instead of the most rentable mix of units. A developer can’t charge as much for a studio apartment as he can for a two-bedroom, but since both count as a “unit” he’ll build a bunch of two-bedrooms. In Marin, this has meant continuing undersupply of studios and a rent hike of 14 percent since 2011.

Other constraints, such as parking minimums and inclusionary zoning, squeeze even more money from a project, rendering small infill developments unprofitable and impossible.

Cities should reform their zoning codes to make attractive and character-rich development profitable again. Density could be substituted with height limits, which would allow cities to keep a low-rise or mid-rise character while also adding housing units. Parking minimums, too, should be abolished in favor of alternative means of transportation and neighborhood parking plans.

Even in large cities, this will encourage dense development beyond BART stations. Though BART-oriented development is useful, there aren’t enough BART stations to make much of a dent in the housing supply. More importantly, these developments are often islands of walkability in a pedestrian-hostile sea if infill development is restricted to the BART station. Real cities are integrated fabrics, with buses, walking, and biking dominating short trips. Most of the walkable centers in the region follow this pattern and aren’t anywhere near rail transit. There’s no reason not to expand those town centers into the retail strips that dot the region or the vast office parks that dominate swathes of the East and South Bay.

Matthew Yglesias has written extensively about the need for infill development and upzoning. It is simply not tenable to prevent first-wave development from being redeveloped. Our land is simply too valuable to remain parking lots for offices and strip malls.

If the Bay Area is serious about affordable housing, its governments must tackle laws that keep supply from catching up with demand. We cannot rely upon nonprofits or government largesse to solve this economic problem effectively, nor can we freeze our cities and rents and call it a day. Only the market can fix the market.

The blog Sightline Daily has an 11-part series on legalizing real affordable housing, from zoning to density to rooming houses. It should be required reading for anyone involved in affordable housing policy.

 

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.

Errata of Corte Madera

While I was working on last week’s post, I gathered rather more information than I needed for something focused on mall redevelopment though most of it is really really wonky.  Be forewarned.

  • While working through Corte Madera’s zoning code (Title 18 of the Corte Madera Municipal Code), I found that the densest type of zoning is R-3, which allows 17.7 units per acre at most but still requires buildings occupy at most 35% of a given lot, meaning an effective floor-area ratio of about 1.  In these zones, even studio apartments need 1 parking space each, and one parking space is needed for every 10 housing units to accommodate visitors.
  • As far as I could tell, there aren’t any parcels zoned for R-3 in Corte Madera. R-2 is rather more restrictive. It allows only 10.8 units per acre.
  • The minimum amount of land needed for a parking space in Corte Madera is 204 square feet. The minimum size of a studio apartment in the state of California is 160 square feet.
  • Corte Madera precisely prescribes the types of uses allowed in any given type of commercial space.  One can’t, say, open a bookstore in the along Tamal Vista (zoned C-3), sell electronics parts downtown (C-1), or sharpen tools in a store at Town Center (C-2).
  • The number of units per acre in downtown San Anselmo, including the Flats, is about 15.5.  If you want to live downtown, nine stores (zoned San Anselmo’s version of C-2) can have at least one apartment above. One of them, the shingled building on San Anselmo Avenue between the Courtyard and Bridal Salon, has three.  Unlike Corte Madera, it’s legal to live above a store in San Anselmo.
  • The best tools I’ve found so far are MarinMap’s Geocortex and the county assessor’s Property Tax Inquiry. The standard MarinMap is pretty handy, but nothing beats the querying capability of Geocortex. Find out the zone, size of buildings on the property, address, parcel number, and just about anything else you wanted to know. For the rest, you’ll need to input the parcel number into the Property Tax Inquiry, which tells you things like the number of housing units, how much they pay in property taxes, and more.

Mid-Week Links: The Subdivisions

by xspindoc

Marin County

  • LucasFilm has pulled its Grady Ranch proposal and will sell the land as affordable housing thanks to NIMBY opposition, stating, “Marin is a bedroom community and is committed to building subdivisions, not businesses.” Ouch. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Town of Fairfax has a new General Plan.  Among other things, the plan gives downtown businesses the opportunity to build second-story apartment units by right, rather than seeking special approval. (Town Manager)
  • Supervisor Arnold wants to know why growth projections for Marin have fluctuated so wildly in the Plan Bay Area draft SCS, and also why they are so out of line with historic norms. If the assumptions for Marin are flawed, she writes, then the whole process for the Bay Area is flawed. (IJ)
  • The March 28 MCCMC meeting offered opponents of housing quotas and ABAG to vent their frustrations against the regional agency. In the end, they also got leftover cookies. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Staying within ABAG is not just good for Marin – it’s good for the region, because what worries us ought to worry the rest of the Bay Area. (IJ)
  • Marin’s Local Coastal Program has gone through a four year epic journey of Coastal Commission and West Marin politics, public comments, criticism that it does too much (or too little), and even a splash of dominion theology as the county has worked to update the decades-old document. If you need some catching up, you may want to start here. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The AT&T Park ferry ride is getting too complicated, and too expensive, what with online reservations and a new convenience fee. (IJ) … A sidewalkless street in Homestead Valley is getting some sidewalks. (IJ) … What sort of light should a bicycle have? (Mercury News)

The Greater Marin

  • The finances and projections of California High Speed Rail are under scrutiny by noted rail opponent Representative Darryl Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. (Politico)
  • San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project SFMTA will give Muni buses signal priority by next year. I’m hoping GGT gets in on that. (Streetsblog) [edit - contrary to Streetsblog's summary, signal priority is a related but separate program from TEP.]
  • Someone in San Francisco wants to park a tiny, 130 square foot house in a driveway. The plans are actually quite nice and would make a lovely second unit, though I thought the minimum dwelling size under California state law was 160 square feet. (SFist)
  • Little City Gardens will be San Francisco’s first real urban farm now that the city has approved a zoning change for the market. It will sell and grow its produce on the same property. (SPUR)
  • Cotati’s downtown revitalization plan will move forward, but because it uses redevelopment funds the vote is up for state approval. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Southern California Association of Governments – ABAG and MTC’s Los Angelino cousin – approved its version of Plan Bay Area.  The sustainable communities strategy will spend half its transportation funding on mass transit rather than cars over the next 25 years, though a number of communities said it didn’t go far enough. Streetsblog has details. (SF Chronicle, Streetsblog)

Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)

The SMART Area, Part 1: Land Use

Looking east on Fourth towards downtown. Photo from the Downtown SMART Station Area Plan

Over the next few days I’ll be posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan.  It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needs more than just a single post.  Today we tackle land use.  Subsequent posts will examine parking, mobility, and the future of the area.

San Rafael has released its draft downtown SMART Station Area Plan, and I must say that I’m excited.  So many good policies are wrapped into this – reducing parking requirements, form-based zoning, traffic calming, street engagement – that it has the potential to change the face of San Rafael and Marin by showing what can be accomplished with sensible zoning and real walkability.  While not a 180-degree turn in local planning practices, it’s pushing that direction.  If comments from the Planning Commission are any indication, there’s a hunger to go all the way, and that can only mean good things.

If you’re just joining us

San Rafael’s Station Area Plans cover the immediate areas around the upcoming Civic Center (for another post) and downtown SMART stations.  The downtown station will be located at the current site of Whistlestop Wheels and will be the terminus for the system’s Initial Operating Segment (IOS), which will extend north to Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, roughly 37 miles away.

To prepare for the incoming train, San Rafael convened the Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from San Rafael; the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency; SMART; the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (GGB), which operates GGT; Marin County; Marin Transit; and the Transportation Authority of Marin.  Their mission: to create the first real transit-oriented, mixed-use communities in Marin since the end of the Northwest Pacific Railroad in 1941.

This location is almost antithetical to transit-oriented development, located as it is next to the elevated section of Highway 101 that cuts San Rafael in half.  Second and Third are extremely busy arterials that function as extended freeway ramps, and the area is dominated by parking lots and auto-oriented uses, such as gas stations and body shops.

Almost antithetical, but not quite.  The station neighbors the Bettini Transit Center, which has buses departing frequently to all over the Bay Area and sees thousands of riders per day, and the Fourth Street commercial corridor.  Existing residential neighborhoods have a strong walking component, even under the freeway.  In other words, the neighborhood may be ugly but it is the transit and commercial nexus of the county, and that makes it ripe for redevelopment.

Better zoning

The key to development in this area is fairly basic: make it a place people want to walk around in and stay through safe sidewalks and streets, calm traffic, interesting sights and sounds, and high degrees of connectivity.  This is exactly what the plan advocates.

For land use, the plan recommends increasing height limits along Heatherton to 66 feet, enough for five-story structures, and to raise the limit to 56 feet along Irwin, as well as along Fourth Street to Grand.  Within these zones, the floor-area ratio would be raised to 2.0 and 1.5, respectively, while both areas would see density requirements lifted.  Residential uses would not count towards FAR, while parking minimums would be relaxed, although not eliminated.

I wrote last week about the need for residential development within the core, and the above would aid immensely in this endeavor.  Conceptual plans for the blocks immediately surrounding the station show the possibility of hundreds of new homes.  Given that a household can support 73 square feet of retail, just the example developments would support close to 20,000 square feet of retail.  Given the slack retail market in San Rafael, this will be a major boon to neighboring businesses.  With office development and the centrality of San Rafael to Marin, retail is likely to do extremely well.

The Montecito Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners along Fifth Street between Irwin and Grand, complained that increasing height along Fourth on their block would overshadow their homes, and I’m inclined to agree.  Really aggressive land-use liberalization could accomplish the same goal of pulling the downtown core across the freeway without increasing heights at all.  Perhaps the city could lift lot coverage maximums, implement a setback maximum, and lift parking requirements while maintaining a two-story height limit.

I hope that the Montecito Neighborhood Association will not come out against larger portions of the plan than just those that would effect their own homes, and so far they have limited their strong opposition to just those recommended changes on the eastern side of the freeway. If they do begin to oppose developments in places that would not effect their homes, San Rafael could have a problem on their hands.

I’m concerned about crowding out the possibility of a second track through town, however.  If the system performs better than anyone expects, it could lead to major problems down the line and severely limit capacity.  I don’t want planning now to put a ceiling on the system if we don’t have to.

In any event, these land use patterns are new and innovative for Marin.  The Planning Commission was strongly in favor of the plan, and some even wished it would go further, instituting parking maximums or abolishing the minimum altogether, but they also felt that San Rafael was not ready for that sort of thing.  This sort of change comes slowly, and the Station Area Plan is the first step.

Going Downtown

Downtown San Anselmo

Marin’s downtowns are rich, vibrant places, but they’re typically seen as historic shopping districts rather than places to live and work – Downtown San Anselmo is not considered to be the same as The Flats, although they are literally on the same blocks.  When redevelopment peaks its head out, it becomes lost in a sea of parking (as in the San Rafael Corporate Center), gets stymied by illogical density limits (as in the Second & B Monahan proposal), or dumbed-down by developers that see Marin as just another suburb (as in Larkspur’s Rose Garden development). Few bold developments do get built in our town centers, and the most important one of late – Novato’s Millworks – is perceived as a failure despite low vacancies.

One reason this might be is due to residents’ perceptions of urban living.  Many Marinites are San Franciscans who left the city in the 1970s and 1980s.  Urban living, with its grit, crime, and bad schools was not for them, so they sought suburbia and wilderness at the nadir of America’s cities. For a while, most commercial development was in shopping centers along 101, and most residential development was suburban tract homes.  Marin never went as far as Santa Clara, but that was largely due to geography – it’s no accident that the most car-centered areas of Marin are the flattest.

Old Urbanist offers a broader view than my particularly local theory.  He argues that the American conception of cities has always been the separation of residences and commerce, exemplified in the downtown/suburban divide.  The commercial interests didn’t want to give up their prized land at the center of town, so residents had to sprawl further outward, prompting more and more innovative transportation technologies culminating in the automobile.  Old Urbanist writes, “Once cars began to proliferate in the 1920s, the response was not, in most cases, to entice suburbanites with visions of urban living, but to either make valiant attempts at mass transit systems or, more often, to turn over large swathes of the downtown to the car.”  The car made it economical for jobs to sprawl with the people, and downtowns declined.

This was just as true in Marin as it was in San Francisco.  Offices that moved to Marin went to Terra Linda or Greenbrae, and retail followed.  Meanwhile, to accommodate Highway 101, San Rafael wrecked its inner waterfront and devoted half of its downtown to car throughput.  The old rail right-of-ways became arterial roads, making shopping centers almost as accessible as downtown.  Without a large built-in population, the historic cores necessarily declined.

To really renew our downtowns, we need to alter our perception of them.  Our town centers are not just old-timey shopping centers competing with the strip-mall shopping centers but vibrant urban spaces for business and residences alike.  Thankfully, this shift has already begun.  Downtown housing is a recurring theme in Marin’s draft housing elements, coming up even in the elements of Belvedere and Corte Madera.  San Anselmo going so far as to rezone its downtown core to allow for second-story apartments.  But this principally accommodates new residents; the old ones that fled the city still perceive density as an evil that brings the crime, grit and traffic of the 1970s, and that perception hinders development now.

In forgotten regional cores like Nashville’s, people are accidentally finding out that they really love living walkable, connected lives in the city. Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space looked at Nashville’s revival and proposed that, rather than leave revitalization to chance, downtown chambers of commerce or business improvement districts should actively market urban living.  They might rent a model unit and decorate it exclusively from local stores, or organize walking tours of the city.  Such measures would reacquaint Marinites to the kind of urban living our cities can support and show that it doesn’t have to be like the old San Francisco.  Indeed, residents moved to San Francisco to enjoy the urban lifestyle and moved out because they had families.  Perhaps they can see that they can have that lifestyle again without going back to the City, and perhaps then residents will ask more from developers than just more detached housing.

Mid-Week Links: Problem/Solution

As any company can tell you, the product is only as successful as the marketing, and Los Angeles took it to heart.  Not only was designing a good transit “product” important, but selling it to the public was immediately useful.  Other agencies would do well to do the same.

Marin

  • A sprawling development of 12 homes in Santa Venetia has been rejected by the Marin County Planning Commission.  The issue goes to the Board of Supervisors next. (IJ)
  • Druid Heights, an alternative community “whose members were dedicated to radical artistic, philosophical, spiritual, political and sexual experimentation,” is profiled by the IJ on news that it qualifies as an official historical site.  The irony is lost on the writer. (IJ)
  • Novato joins Corte Madera in considering a pot club ban. (IJ)
  • Downtown Novato’s Business Improvement District is doing good work to make the street a commercial destination. (Advance)
  • In what seems to be a weekly occurrence, all northbound lanes were closed on Highway 101 due to a crash.  Two people were injured. (Patch)
  • George Lucas wants to turn Lucas Valley’s Grady Ranch into anoffice complex for 340 employees in a manner similar to Skywalker Ranch. (IJ, Patch)
  • Marin’s $50 million renovation of its new Marin Commons space is slated to begin next year.  A government anchor tenant is a savior for the location. (BizJournal)
  • Marin local businesses felt the touch of this year’s surging shopping season, posting a fabulous Shop Local Saturday. (IJ)
  • The Marin City Transit Center got a $500,000 facelift and finally opened for business.  Bike parking and an information kiosk were apparently less important than trees, and will go in in the next couple of weeks. (IJ)
  • This year might be the last that Marinites will be able to sled in downtown San Rafael thanks to budget cuts (IJ)
  • Like the library?  Love infrastructure?  San Anselmo is seeking applicants for its Capital Program Committee and Library Board. (Town of San Anselmo)
  • A driver struck and injured a cyclist in San Anselmo. (IJ)
  • More inconclusive reports on the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. affects on wildlife. (IJ)
  • SMART may be controversial, but two of the most beloved bits of Marin infrastructure – the Ferries and Bridge – were controversial in their day, too. (IJ)
  • Polling suggests that SMART still enjoys strong support, but there are questions about its methodology. (IJ)
  • Tam Valley is home to a dangerous and well-traveled intersection, but one of the few that lacks sidewalks or good pedestrian and bicycling amenities.  Kathy McLeod wants to change that. (Patch)
  • Café Gratitude is closing or selling all its NorCal locations, including the one in San Rafael, but it still totally wants you to buy its stuff.  The closures are a result of multiple employee lawsuits. (SFist)
  • The Sausalito Chamber of Commerce is moving into its recently-purchased mixed-use building on Bridgeway.  I wonder if an employee will get the top-floor apartment… (Marinscope)
  • Are you prepared for the Big One? (SFist)

The Greater Marin

  • Vancouver is pursuing urban planning that makes people healthier and fights obesity.  How?  By getting people out of cars and onto sidewalks, bikes, buses and trains. (Globe and Mail)
  • Although California High-Speed Rail is undergoing some tough times, the short-sightedness of governors elsewhere means the project gets their funding. (SFist, New York Times)
  • Readers should know that zoning is important for the future and form of any city.  How important?  Edward McMahon celebrates 85 years of zoning regulations by looking at its philosophical basis, while Stephen Smith looks at the origins of zoning: New York progressivism.  (Urban Land Institute, Market Urbanism)
  • The exurb, of which the Bay Area has blessedly little, is not coming back. For Sonoma and other outer counties, the future rests in their own economic vibrancy. (New York Times)
  • Lastly, there is a pie cake, and it’s called a Cherumple.  This “dessert version of the turducken” weighs around 21 pounds.  Bring friends. (Boing Boing)
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