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.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

4 Responses to Going Downtown

  1. danlyke says:

    I think in evaluating Marin, it’s important to remember that, so far as I can tell, towns like Fairfax and San Anselmo have always been commuter outposts. At first it was weekend vacation traffic (and out into the San Geronimo Valley), then the commuter rail made it easy to get into San Francisco, then, when cars got “better” (measured in a variety of ways) than rail, via automobile.

    (“better” – it’s tough to measure, because during WWII trains actually had decent fuel per passenger mile rates, but around the time that the passenger rail disappeared from Marin (late ’30s and ’40s) was about the time that automobiles got efficient enough to generally surpass rail in gallons per passenger mile of fuel, and, of course, mobility and the Golden Gate Bridge changed that equation too. Of course the mileage is one of those nasty feedback loops, because as rail use dropped so did its efficiency.)

    This, of course, doesn’t apply to the vast expanses of private castles that are the Eichler developments, but it does point out that it’s been a commuter base for far longer than 30 or 40 years.

    • Absolutely; the articles I linked to were about the central cities rather than peripheral ones like Marin. But during the railroading years it made sense to develop streetcar suburban cores – hence the tiny commercial developments near Lansdale and Yolanda Station in San Anselmo, as well as the town centers we have today.

      However, Marin will grow and that this growth should happen in ways that strengthen its town centers. To do that, residents need to see their town centers as mini-cities or, in the case of San Rafael, a satellite city: a place to live, as well as work and shop. “Village character”, a term often invoked in general plans, is absolutely compatible with single family attached or apartment residential development. Coincidentally, it would also make commuting easier, as transit would be more efficient.

      (Side note: the NWP was third-rail, like BART, and ran on hydroelectric power, so the principal costs were maintenance and payroll, not fuel. Cars became “better” because the bridge made it faster to drive than train to the City.)

  2. Dan Lyke says:

    Augh! WordPress just blew away a long response. Sigh. WordPress login doesn’t seem to be working for commenting.

    To your side note: It’s weird, it makes sense that it was electrified, but since my interest was mainly in the steam out to west Marin, I can’t remember seeing pictures of anything but carried-fuel locomotives on those lines.

    I do find it interesting that, even though I agree that the reasons you cite are the primary motivators for switching to automobiles, the switch happened at about the same time that automobile efficiency per vehicle mile passed heavy passenger rail per passenger mile.

    On “Village character”: Yep, mostly there with you. I lived in Fairfax for about a decade, then moved out to Lagunitas, and when we moved from Lagunitas, a place with a downton and walkable neighborhoods was primary. Fairfax and San Anselmo were headed towards tourism with a heavy commuter contingency, San Rafael is a place where you drive downtown, and Novato may as well be in the central valley, so we moved to Petaluma.

    I am not, however, convinced that single-family attached dwellings will really work. Maybe it’s just that I grew up rural, but the economics of condos suggest that real estate cycles will always be more pronounced in such developments, whereas with organically grown grid neighborhoods you get houses rising and falling out of sync, which means that the neighborhood as a whole tends towards more stability long-term.

    • Curses! I hate it when that happens; I’ve taken to copying my posts before making them.

      If you haven’t seen the video of the old railroad’s EMUs in action, you really ought to take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=znLBYLeH1Nk

      Actually, urban areas are much more resilient to real-estate cycles, at least if this last downturn is any indication, and that will typically mean either rowhomes (which is what I mean by “single-family attached”) or apartments. I’m partial to rowhouses, though, given that they’re still single-family but are energy efficient, can involve large, private yards, and still meet or exceed the 20 units per acre ABAG minimum without going over two stories. With the extremely common basement apartment a neighborhood can go to 44 units without sacrificing more than a half-story. They certainly do fit the grid neighborhood well and engage the street more than, say, duplexes – I can’t count how many times I’ve wandered through rowhome neighborhoods just to look at the architecture. They are, after all, the old Victorians San Rafael is so keen on protecting.

      One of the benefits of condo ownership is the ability to expand within a building, which often occurs in New York City. I’m not too much of a condo booster myself, but then again I know very few condo owners so I don’t have much of a feel for such developments.

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