Mid-Week Links: Spin Cycle

Marin has one of the best recreational cycling cultures in the country and a burgeoning commuter cycling culture, but everyday travel is typically done by car – you can blame our beautiful and formidable geography for that. Cycling For Everyone from Dutch Cycling Embassy gives a vision of how Marin could look if we embraced the bike in Terra Linda as much as we do on Mount Tam.  The Pacific Sun has an excellent rundown on the political debate so far, from the Capitol to the Alto Tunnel.

The Greater Marin

It’s so easy to focus on Marin and its foibles that sometimes we forget that other places are doing awesome things.  Take Norfolk, VA, an active but small city of 242,000 people and one light rail that goes by the name of The Tide.  The Tide is brand-spanking new and underwent the same issues SMART is dealing with today: cost overruns, plans cut short, and political opposition.  After surviving that gauntlet, The Tide opened to great fanfare this past August.  One month in, the Richmond Times-Dispatch examined how the city feels about it now.  In a word, they’re proud.

Marin County

  • Of course, if RepealSMART gets its way, SMART will just be a failed dream.  The anti-rail organization started gathering signatures for its repeal measure this week.
  • In good news, MTC approved its $33.1 million SMART bailout (PDF) and recommended to the Federal Department of Transportation that it receive another $18 million (PDF) in federal funding for the accompanying bike/pedestrian path.
  • The IJ has profiles on Town Council candidates for Corte Madera and San Anselmo, and Patch will host a candidate debate for San Anselmo on October 5.
  • Tensions in Sausalito came to light when Councilmember Carolyn Ford filed battery charges against Vice-Mayor Mike Kelly for hitting her hand (rather hard) during a council meeting.  Video at the link.  Kelly has since apologized, but no word on whether the charges will be dropped.
  • The empty seat left by Joan Lundstrom’s retirement from the Larkspur City Council must be filled, either by a special election after the current election is over or by an appointment.
  • Speaking of Larkspur, Piper Park is due for a makeover.
  • San Rafael’s Design Review Board approved the Fenix Live music venue for the heart of Fourth Street.  You can hear the Board’s deliberations here.
  • Novato wants to sprawl, and, as much as it hates density, it loves its sprawl.  Planners just approved a 3-unit-per-acre subdivision.  Larkspur isn’t much better after the sale of a pre-approved 5-unit-per-acre development. That one is just one block from downtown in a prime walkable development location.  You can check out a possible site plan for Larkspur here (PDF, p. 13), although it may not be accurate because of the change in ownership.
  • Ever wondered what the deal is with that empty commercial building at 520 Red Hill Avenue?  Now you can find out.

The Golden Gate

Golden Gate issues deserve their own section this week because the sheer number of news items cries for special attention.  It cries, we answer.

  • Golden Gate Transit will install WiFi on all its buses, making it an even more attractive transit service.  Cost is cheap, too: only $610,000 for the final cost.  Take that, BART.
  • Marin Transit wants to reopen their $15 million/year contract with Golden Gate Transit to provide local bus service in Marin.  Marin Transit argues that GGT is overcharging by about 23%, while GGT argues the extra cost is due to regularly scheduled overtime.  Sounds like GGT has a staffing problem.
  • The Golden Gate National Recreation Area will be reconfigured under a preliminary general management plan with the aim of “connecting people with parks.”

SMART Money Part I: Relative Costs

There is no doubt that SMART is a major investment.  At $404 million, the 37 mile system is the largest single public undertaking the North Bay has seen in quite some time.  (Not to say it does not have competitors: CalTrans is widening and repaving Highway 101 up and down Marin at a total cost of $120 million, but that’s another story.)  Because of that unique position in recent history, the project has no local context, allowing opponent claims that SMART is an expensive boondoggle to go largely unchallenged.  To evaluate those claims, then, we need to place SMART’s costs into the wider scheme of transit projects around the country.  The easiest way to do that is to break each project down to two metrics: cost per mile (how cheap it is), and cost per rider (how cost-effective it is).  Let’s look at both in turn.*

Read more of this post

Mid-Week Links: We’ll Cross that Bridge

Richmond - San Rafael Bridge

photo by --Mark--

San Rafael

It’s been a busy week in the County Seat after a few weeks of Novato hogging the spotlight, and why not?  There are plenty of empty lots to fill, streets to calm (or not) and parks to lease.  The big news, of course, is that baseball is coming to San Rafael now that the City Council has approved the lease of Albert Field to Centerfield Partners.  There’s talk of a lawsuit from some neighbors, but they haven’t yet decided whether to sue or not.

Now that there will be a major pedestrian destination in San Rafael, the city will double-down on pedestrian improvements and try to really solidify a place as a walkable city, right?  Actually, no.  The city has deemed two intersections along Third Street, both within a quarter-mile of the Transit Center, to be too dangerous to cross.  Rather than try to improve the crossings and calm the raging one-way traffic, the city will make it illegal to cross there by removing the crosswalks.  Brilliant.  The city will hold a public hearing if it hears enough objections from pedestrians.

Greg Brockbank officially launched his campaign for mayor at a party on Sunday.  In his speech, he listed things he’d like to see to build up San Rafael: more events, more affordable housing, a shuttle, a downtown hotel, a music pavilion, and drawing seniors downtown.  I’d like to add more crosswalks to that list.

A bit further north, a long, long dead Sizzler’s near Los Ranchitos will be renovated into a hardware store.  This is an undeniably good thing, as North San Rafael has lacked one for over a year.  As well, the County is evaluating the old Fireman’s Fund building at 1600 Los Gamos as to the feasibility of it housing a public safety complex.

Elsewhere in Marin

  • The Ross Valley real estate market is “holding steady,” while White Hill and other Ross Valley schools are moving forward with plans to build more classrooms.
  • The Town of Ross will hold its annual Town Dinner next Friday, September 30.  Get home from work early for some community cheer.
  • The oldest business in Marin, Smiley’s Schooner Saloon in Bolinas, is up for sale.
  • Once again, the Mill Valley Council changed course when confronted by small and vocal opposition, voting unanimously to reject a plan to installing a paid-for electric car charging station.
  • Meanwhile, Mill Valley will likely spend around $400,000 to patch, not repave, their roads.
  • CalTrans will repave (PDF) a half-mile stretch of Tiburon Boulevard in downtown Tiburon at a cost of $1.2 million.
  • Dick Spotswood wanted the facts on affordable housing, and, courtesy of Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, here’s some facts for Novato.
  • The IJ comes out in favor of Novato‘s planned downtown city offices, citing economic and symbolic reasons.
  • Yet despite this renewed push to have a heart, the city continues its sprawling ways.
  • Larkspur‘s planning director, Nancy Kaufman, has retired to do watercolors and planning consulting.
  • MCBC is beefing up its efforts to improve open space bike trails.


The SMART project keeps chugging along, with new and old ideas coming up in the editorials of local papers.  Mike Pechner opined in the IJ that purchasing CalTrain trainsets would save money over the Japanese DMUs SMART currently has on order.  I haven’t seen a good comparison, but individually motorized carriages is best-practice in Europe and Asia.  Amtrak faces the same questions as SMART, which the Infrastructurist has kindly parsed for us.

Another ongoing debate is the effect of the system on home prices.  Conventional wisdom is that homes increase in price when they have proximity to transit, although some believe the noise of the trains will lower house prices.  Half-Mile Circles has a fabulous literature review for anyone’s perusal on the subject.

Meanwhile, the North Bay Business Journal wonders if an excursion train like the Vine Line is possible along the SMART corridor.  The short answer?  No.

The Greater Marin

  • Contra Costa’s Lafayette and Orinda want better downtowns, but it’s sparking some debate in the communities about what is, or is not, appropriate.  Marin needs a debate like this.
  • Streetsblog wonders whether our transit systems should strive for profitability or coverage.
  • Wondering what San Francisco was up to this past weekend?  Enjoying Chinatown and North Beach streets by closing them off to cars, that’s what.

Transit in Marin

Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh’s proposed music venue in Fairfax, CA, has been talked to death lately and, despite the fact that no formal design has been reviewed, is drawing quite a bit of excitement from the town.  Very rarely in Marin does a project of this relative scale bring more vocal support than opposition, but Fairfax is a rare town.  Still, one item itches: transit access.

Getting to and from Fairfax by transit is, to put it mildly, difficult.  Golden Gate Transit (GGT), Marin’s principal transit system, only operates a few lines outside the County.  This is a problem if you’re among the 28% of San Francisco households that have given up the automobile and rely on transit and your bike to get around.  To get from San Francisco to Fairfax, the best-case scenario will take 1:20 at $5.25, and the last bus home leaves at 9:30pm.  That’ll probably mean you’d have to leave the town well before any Terrapin Crossroads shows begin.  Getting between Fairfax and the East Bay is even worse, as there are no direct routes.

Most Marinites probably don’t care.  Why bring more San Franciscans up to Marin, and shouldn’t they own a car anyway?  The people that choose San Francisco and Richmond are the people that start new businesses, the young people who are poor in cash but rich in talent and enthusiasm.  They are also the people high tech companies want to attract.

Digital Domain Productions, Inc., a digital effects and animation company spun started by Industrial Light and Magic alumni, is moving to Larkspur Landing, but they’re concerned about attracting the young people that come to San Francisco to live in the city, not the ‘burbs.  Digital Domain likely chose a location by the Ferry so they could access the car-free employees they want to attract.  They’ll contribute to the city coffers, but those employees will probably never venture outside of that neighborhood.

How could they, and why would they?  Fairfax has so much to offer, but it’s locked away.  A carless San Franciscan thinks of Fairfax as impossibly far away, and even those Digital Domain employees that would come into contact with Marin daily are stuck on a car-centric island wedged between two freeways.  Odds are high they’d never even see downtown Fairfax, despite its proximity, and that means lost sales, lost interest, and lost opportunities.

How could Marin break out of its self-imposed exile?

In the short-term, GGT and Marin should market the Marin Experience.  Open hills, good hiking, good food and villages away from it all – these are things a city dweller will trek to find.  Pushing the time of the last bus departure to midnight would give visitors a chance to enjoy dinner before becoming stranded.

Often suburban buses carry a lot of unknowns about them.  Making a simplified map showing what goes where, like my simplified road map at right, can go a long way to demystifying the routes and drawing new riders in.  Washington, DC, has a bus called the Circulator, which operates as an express connecting activity centers to one another.  A GGT circulator could move from Market and hit the major downtowns between the City and Fairfax.  This further simplifies the route and gives GGT a chance to brand each stop with the town’s character: antiques for San Anselmo, redwoods for Mill Valley, the Mission for San Rafael.

Longer-term, Marin needs to move to a more transit-oriented form.  It is laid out in corridors, meaning most new construction in Central and South Marin will be along a transit lane, and it’s high time for Marin’s cities to build with the buses in mind.  Eventually, ridership would improve enough that GGT will be able to become a viable alternative to the car and build better connections with the regional transportation network.  By then Terrapin Crossroads will be years old, and hopefully be a draw north for young San Franciscans looking for good music in the country.

Mid-Week Links: City Papers

Lots of news from lots of cities this week, with retirements, delays, debates and bad ideas.  WordPress ate my homework, but I’ve culled what I can from local papers for this week’s Mid-Week Links.


  • If you’re a senior citizen, there’s a new way to get around town: Marin Village, which provides rides for subscribers.  I can’t help but think that better bus service could go a long way to helping Marin’s elderly get around, too.
  • Joan Lundstrom, 28 year veteran of the Larkspur City Council, is stepping down to get married and do “a great deal of traveling.”  Lundstrom was most recently on our radar for being the deciding vote on TAM’s $8 million SMART bailout.  The IJ editorial board wrote a fitting farewell piece for this local fixture.
  • Larkspur’s Doherty Drive reconstruction had no acceptable bids made, so the City Council rejected them all, delaying the project even further.
  • San Rafael’s mayoral candidates went to bat at a Marin Coalition lunch for their first debate.  Neither is shaping up to be a terribly urbanist candidate, with Greg Brockman decrying red light cameras and Gary Phillips pushing for the new Target store.  The Greater Marin is trying to obtain a full recording of the debate.
  • Further north, the San Rafael Airport may end up being converted into a large sports center, complete with 270 parking spaces.  Neighbors oppose the project.
  • Even further north, Novato’s City Council candidates debated at a breakfast sponsored by the Novato Chamber of Commerce.  Incumbents defended their records, while challengers argued that less housing, fewer downtown offices and more parking would boost commerce.  We’re also trying to get a recording of this debate, which will be televised towards the end of September.
  • After receiving endorsement from the Citizen Finance Committee, Novato is pressing ahead with its plans to move city offices downtown.  Opponents had complained that it would deaden the street, although office space can often be a boon to local merchants.  Somehow, the architect created a building so awful that, if built, it would make the opponents’ worst fears come true.  The building turns away from the street and places the main entrance in the middle of the complex, deadening it not just at night but also during the day.  Hopefully, Novato’s Design Review Board will tell the architect to start over.
  • To touch on yet another hot Novato topic, construction began on Eden Housing, a senior affordable housing development.
  • The transit center at Marin City is undergoing rehabilitation, with new lighting, pavement, and other amenities.  Total cost: $506,000.
  • A developer trying for the past decade to get a small building built in Mill Valley has been delayed again, this time by environmentalists who convinced the City Council that demolition would disturb lead in the soil and get it into the creek.  They’re demanding a full and detailed soil analysis, nevermind that the developer wants to restore the creek bank.
  • Golden Gate Transit’s popular 101 express bus to San Francisco is running on Sundays now, giving Sunday commuters and daytrippers another way to get into the city without using a car.

The Greater Marin

  • Ryan Avent, Economics correspondent for the Economist, writes in the New York Times: “The idea of it may chill a homeowner’s heart, but the wealth supported by urban density is what gives urban homes their great value in the first place. And when it comes to economic growth and the creation of jobs, the denser the city the better.”
  • Those foreclosed houses will soon be a boon to those that try to limit affordable housing development: Governor Brown just signed Assemblyman Huffman’s bill allowing cities to count foreclosed homes against their affordable housing quotas.
  • AB 42, another Huffman bill, has reached the Governor’s desk.  It would authorize qualified nonprofits to help operate and maintain state parks in danger of closing.  This isn’t a new idea: New York’s Central Park is operated by a nonprofit, and the National Mall is partly maintained by a nonprofit as well.

ABAG Density and Affordable Housing: Neither Are What They Appear

Every seven years, the cycle returns.  The Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, fulfills its California-mandated duty and examines the state of housing in the Bay Area, using the data to assign affordable housing quotas to its member cities and counties.  The following year or two sees each government in Marin haggle over where to wedge affordable housing zones without wrecking the neighborhood.  As Marin goes through this process yet again, it’s worth examining whether the process is really as bad as all that, and it’s worth wondering whether ABAG’s – that is, California’s – process even works.

Your Town Is Denser than You Think

Courtesy of Google

Rowhouses in Washington, DC: 22 to 44 units per acre

California mandates that all affordable housing zones meet one of two densities: 20 units per acre for cities smaller than 50,000 people, 30 units per acre for those larger than 50,000.  In Marin, some of the more partisan opponents to affordable housing use these density requirements to paint a picture of a Marin County overrun by poverty and crime, with apartment projects stretching into the skies.  They think of Oakland’s inner-city problems of the 1980s and believe that this is what will happen to Mill Valley and Novato if we allow any development.

It is clear from their imaginings that these partisans don’t realize how dense the mandates actually are or how dense their own city already is.  To imagine 30 units per acre, think of two-story rowhouses on a tree-lined street.  Each is a three bedroom, one bath home with a backyard, parking along a back alley, and a deck.  The example above is about 22 units per acre, more than the requirement.  This means the homes could be 10% wider, or could have small side walkways.

Duplexes in San Anselmo: 30 units per acre

The higher of the density requirements is 30 units per acre, we can look to duplexes with front garages.  These three-story duplexes on Forbes Avenue in San Anselmo count, and are about 30 units per acre.

If we want to go really crazy, take a look at those rowhouses above.  Each has what’s known as an English basement – a small, basement apartment, the equivalent of an in-law unit.  This 22-unit development is actually 44 units per acre!  Skyscrapers?  Hardly.  And if you think these are sardine cans, look at the profile local real estate blog DCMud did on a similarly-sized place near the Supreme Court: 3 bed, 2.5 bath.

California Mandates Explained

Although density itself should not be a problem, there’s a reason Marin has the mandates.  The State of California has mandated that regions “share the load” of accommodating for future population growth and has entrusted regional organizations, such as ABAG or the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), with determining how the region’s counties and municipalities will share.

In 2008, ABAG released its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, describing how much it believed the Bay Area population would grow and projecting regional demand for affordable housing.  (If you’re really curious about the process, you can read all about ABAG’s decision on their website.)  However, those mandates say that jurisdictions need to zone, not build, affordable housing of a certain type, with certain ratios for very low, low, moderate and above moderate income levels.  That means that a city can meet its quota by zoning that all new development in an area meet or exceed the ratios given by ABAG.

Does This Make Sense?

There is no doubt that the Bay Area is an expensive place to live.  Rents in Marin are as high as Washington, DC and parts of New York City, running about $900 per month per bedroom.  If one factors in the cost of car ownership and transportation, renting in Marin can easily be more expensive than San Francisco.  People, it seems, want to live here, but the price is too high for most.  At first blush, creating affordable housing seems to be a good answer.

Affordable housing does have a certain logic to it: prices are high, so control the price to make it lower so more people can afford it.  Unfortunately, what this really creates is a housing shortage, driving up the market price even further.

The economics of supply and demand say that when a commodity is scarce but demand is high, the price of the commodity goes up.  When the commodity is plentiful or demand is low, the price goes down.  In either case, there is enough of the commodity to go around among the people that can afford it; there is equilibrium.  When there is a cap on the price, it’s not as profitable to create the commodity so less is made, but it’s more affordable so more people can buy it.  With less being made and more being sold, there is a shortage.  This is what happens with affordable housing.

When San Rafael mandates that, say, 20% of a housing project must be below the market price, the developer has that much less incentive to build the project.  Often, the developer will entirely forgo the project and no housing is made, whether affordable or not.  This means that everyone that would have lived in that building has to look somewhere else for their housing, driving up competition, and therefore price, for those units that do get built, forcing more shoppers to the affordable housing alternative.  California’s mandates create affordable housing, but they also drive up the price of market-rate housing and increase the pressure to build more affordable housing.  It’s a vicious cycle.  The more demand there is for affordable housing, the higher the price goes.

Interestingly, affordable housing does serve one purpose well: income diversity.  Housing markets, if left alone, create affordable housing ghettos – think “the wrong side of the tracks”.  For the poor, the ghetto multiplies the problems of poverty and reduces opportunities for those that live there.  As well, ghettos are typically far from jobs, increasing the cost of transportation for those that can least afford it.  For the rich, their own wealthy areas insulate them from people unlike themselves, increasing prejudice against the chronically poor, such as new immigrants or minorities.  For both the rich and poor, the isolation means they cannot empathize with the other: the poor child can’t see herself being a doctor like her friend’s dad and the wealthy child can’t understand how much she has.  Economic segregation can be just as damaging to a society as racial segregation.

Affordable housing mandates are not the only tool in the legal toolbox to combat the problem.  Although California mandates affordable housing, it offers concessions to developers that do more than their mandated share, including increased units per acre variances from local zoning regulations.  California should replace the mandate system entirely in favor of a concessionary system, allowing developers to choose how much housing to make affordable and how much to make market rate.   A concessionary system would decrease the intensity of affordable housing construction but increase overall housing supply, driving down prices and affordable housing demand.

California’s mandates aren’t nearly as bad as they appear, but they are significantly more wrong-headed than one might imagine.  They won’t make Novato into the Tenderloin but they cannot solve our housing shortages.  That job is up to governments and developers; for the moment, though, the State is just getting in the way.

Mid-Week Links: Room with a View

a Sausalito view

photo by Robert B. Livingston via Flickr

  • Marin’s bayshore towns, especially Tiburon and Sausalito, are hoping they don’t get swamped by the America’s Cup, a 20-day event scheduled for next summer, and have requested an EIR on the impacts the increased boat and tourist traffic could have on their communities.  Included in Sausalito’s letter is this telling line: “It is not uncommon for the ferries to reach bicycle capacity and strand bicyclists in Sausalito to find other modes of transportation back to San Francisco.”  Yikes.
  • If your “other mode of transportation back to San Francisco” involves that bike, and if you’re starting to get tourist/gawker fatigue, the Golden Gate Bridge has good news: the Western sidewalk is reopening Saturday.
  • Sausalito might build a “hip” bathroom downtown.  It sounds like it’ll be a markedly different design than San Francisco’s proposed pooplets.
  • If you eventually arrive in the City, you might get a good ride down Market: San Francisco might shut down Market Street to car traffic in the near future, prioritizing cyclists, pedestrians and transit.
  • Old news now, but San Rafael’s Albert Park may soon be home to a minor league baseball team.  Think it sounds too cool to be true?  You may be right.
  • Elsewhere in San Rafael, electoral season’s endorsements begin with the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce giving its stamp of approval to mayoral candidate Gary Phillips and Council candidate Andrew McCullough.
  • Fairfax’s held a big town meeting on Terrapin Crossroads, the proposed major music venue in downtown.  Patch’s Kelly Dunlevy was there to record it: Part I and Part II.
  • Although we normally don’t recommend bikes and beer together, I think we can make an exception for Biketoberfest.
  • Work on Larkspur’s Doherty Drive has been delayed once again, this time because none of the bids were low enough and the city rejected them all.
  • And finally, in inevitable SMART news, the agency’s new GM Farhad Mansourian is getting paid quite a bit to run the organization, and the Press-Democrat editorial board thinks the deal sucks.  In response to criticism from another source, RepealSMART, Mansourian fired a shot across their bow in his first real, full-throated defense of the SMART project.  Shame it had to be over his salary.

San Rafael’s New Apartment Proposal Isn’t What It Could Be

The Monahan Development

Monahan Development Inc. is proposing to add 41 units of housing and 1,400 square feet of retail to downtown San Rafael at 2nd & B Streets. Although the project is still in its preliminary stages, currently undergoing redesign based on comments from the city’s Design Review Board, what is known is that the building would consolidate four parcels into a four-story building.  (Click here for the meeting and attachments.) In whatever form it takes, more apartments would be a boon to downtown, but it is limited by legal barriers and complicated by the presence of a historical Victorian on the site.

The proposal would consolidate four parcels into a four-story, 41-unit apartment building, with two retail bays along B Street and a 57-space parking garage about a half-mile from the Bettini Transit Center, Marin’s busiest transit hub.  Two of the parcels to be consolidated are old Victorian houses that have seen better days, the third is a commercial space akin to the other ugly buildings along 2nd, and the fourth is a parking lot that has become a magnet for crime.  Given the prime location and the decrepit state of the parcels, it’s not surprising to find that this is not the first time the space has been targeted for development.  The Board’s staff report shows that four other proposals since 2005 have been floated and abandoned by various developers and that this is the first without significant commercial space.  With San Rafael’s commercial sector so weak, a focus on residential development is a welcome change.

The residential development, however, is severely curtailed by San Rafael zoning laws.  The property is zoned for a maximum of 30 residential units, but the developers would receive a density bonus by including more affordable housing.  Even with the density bonus, the 41 planned units are only enough to fill out three floors; the bottom is used as a parking garage for the required spaces.  While the two retail bays do interact with the street, a ground-floor parking garage is dead space on an already isolated street, and the market is too weak to support more ground-floor retail.  In all, zoning cuts about 14 units out of the structure and promotes car dependence.

The complicating factor in this site is a burned-out Victorian-era house at 1212 2nd Street, which is marked as a cultural resource.  At the moment, Monahan proposes to demolish all structures on the site, including the house at 1212, but doing anything to the 1212 structure would require an Environmental Impact Report, an arduous and fraught task that makes any construction within the project’s limited allowable scope that much less feasible.

By any measure, downtown San Rafael’s retail sector is weak.  Many of the stores that currently exist are transitory, like nail shops, and the streets aren’t exactly bustling.  With a new SMART station on the way and the trendiest downtown in the County, San Rafael is primed for the kind of transit-oriented housing Monahan’s project could be.  Unfortunately, zoning restrictions means that the development will just be better than nothing; it does not start a new path forward for San Rafael or the County.  Given the history of failed projects for the site, however, “better than nothing” might be about as good as San Rafael can get.