Mid-Week Links: Onward and Upward

Dipsea to Tourist Club

The Dipsea Stairs

It has been an extremely busy weekend apparently, with retrospectives, bond sales, HSR criticisms, new laws, and more.

Marin County

  • Mill Valley’s alleys and stairs, pedestrian shortcuts up and down the hills that cars can’t manage, are one of the signatures of the town. Photographer Skip Sandberg has taken it upon himself to document them all. (IJ)
  • Golden Gate Transit is now 40 years old.  Born out of a transit victory in 1969 that stopped a second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge, GGT – despite its many faults – has proven itself invaluable to the North Bay time and again. (IJ)
  • SMART has jurisdiction over the Measure Q repeal effort, according to the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters. This bodes ill for RepealSMART, as they have called the signature threshold SMART wants unobtainable. (IJ)
  • The monthly federal tax exemption for transit decreased on January 1 from $230 to $125 – roughly half the cost of a Marin-SF commute – thanks to Republican obfuscation in Congress. The exemption for parking increases from $230 to $240.  (SF Examiner)
  • Sausalito wants to redesign Alexander Avenue to be more bike-friendly, widening shoulders and potentially adding a tunnel.  Public comment on the plans are open until January 27. (IJ)
  • Mill Valley wants to update their 1989 General Plan in just 18 months. They met last night and will meet again on January 17 to discuss the scope of work. (Patch)
  • A driver struck a teenager in Petaluma just after New Year’s.  The boy suffered major injuries but is in stable condition. (Patch)
  • Richardson Bay’s Aramburu Island will be transformed into a nature preserve 50 years after the development that spawned it fizzled in the early 1960s. (SF Chronicle)
  • Marin’s plastic bag ban and paper bag fee are now in effect.  If changes from Washington, DC’s similar bag fee are any indication, Marin’s fee will work wonders on peoples’ habits. (IJ)

The Bay Area

  • The Sustainable Communities Strategy, branded as One Bay Area, will mean major changes for the region as regional agencies try to limit greenhouse gas emissions. ABAG and MTC are planning a tour to explain the state-mandated plan as its development gets under way. They’ll be at the Marin Civic Center on January 17. (Mercury News)
  • San Francisco now allows storefronts facing the street to build “parklets”, extensions of the sidewalk that use up at least two parking spaces, and they’re popping up everywhere. (SF Chronicle)

State of California

  • Most of California’s redevelopment agencies will likely be shut down after losing their court fight against Governor Jerry Brown’s austerity budget, although cities promise there will be more litigation. The agencies captured property taxes to fund themselves, which the Governor said was a drain on local and state budgets. (LA Times, Pacific Sun)
  • LA will soon follow San Francisco’s example and install a downtown performance parking system. While performance parking seems to be the future, it may be wise to understand parking’s past. (Los Angeles Magazine)
  • California communities can now round down their streets’ calculated speed limits, rather than being forced to round up. (Land Line)
  • CAHSR should not be funded just yet, according to a review group with heavy clout in the state Legislature.  Governor Brown may push forward anyway. (LA Times, SF Chronicle)

The Greater Marin

  • Ottawa, Ontario, is planning out the areas around its light-rail stations stations.  The city – as big and diverse as a county – specifically wants to upzone in choice areas, and doing so is just as complicated as one might think. (Ottawa Citizen)
  • Vancouver, BC, is building new micro-apartments in a trendy neighborhood and renting them for $850 a month, showing the folly of the unit-per-acre density limits ubiquitous in Marin. (Grist)
  • Don’t abandon the public process so easily – project outcomes are positively correlated with participation.  I’m looking at you, SMART. (Next American City)
  • A whole mess of new transit projects start construction starts up this year across North America.  It’s a good thing. (Transport Politic)

Tiburon’s Housing Element Might Actually Work

"Coming About" Fountain & Sculpture in Tiburon, CA

Tiburon recently released its draft Housing Element, the document required by ABAG every seven years. The document reflects the challenge of accommodating low-income residents in a high-income and largely built-up city, a challenge that all of Marin’s communities have been forced to face. Tiburon answered the call with substantive proposed changes to its zoning and ordinance laws that should break the affordable housing deadlock in the town.

The strategies Tiburon currently in place are fairly common in Marin, although they have faced limited success since the last housing element:

  • Inclusionary zoning laws, which force developers to include affordable housing in their developments
  • Density bonuses for developers that make more affordable housing than required
  • Affordable housing zoning overlays (AHOs), with lower barriers for affordable housing construction but with higher affordable housing mandates.

Commercial linkage fees, which force new commercial developments to pay a fee towards affordable housing, has been suggested by the town council but it has been stuck in limbo since 2005.

It is not difficult to see why these strategies have failed to generate much affordable housing, as each constrains developers in an already constrained market. If a developer includes affordable housing, the most generous restrictions are about 20.7 units per acre, roughly that of single-family attached homes (rowhouses); a maximum lot usage of 35%; and a 3-story height limit. This gives developers a very small building envelope to work with when looking at any new construction. As well, the cost of development is quite high, around $300 to $500 per square foot, including land acquisition. Add the affordable housing requirements and it becomes extremely difficult to thread the needle and make a development profitable. The AHO loosens these requirements somewhat, boosting density to 24.8 units per acre, but includes price controls on more than 60% of a development’s units, an impossibly high amount.

The Housing Element as written does loosen these restrictions. One goal – H-aa, if you’re wondering – lowers AHO’s affordable housing requirement to only 25%. Another, goal H-y, introduces flexibility to the general zoning code: studios and one bedroom apartments count as 0.5 and 0.66 units, respectively, and parking minimums are decreased given that many low-income residents are carless. This opens the possibility of a one-acre, three story apartment building with 59 studio apartments or 37 one-bedroom apartments – still less than what such a building could normally support in the absence of density maximums, but far more than what Tiburon would otherwise allow.

This is far different from the approach taken by Novato, which had an incredibly contentious mark-up period for its Housing Element. Novato tries to encourage nonprofits to build affordable housing projects on vacant lots scattered throughout the city, building concentrations of poverty among the market-rate, single-family detached homes. Tiburon’s plan would encourage mixed-income developments in already high density areas, concentrating people where they would do the most good for the town.

At least, that’s the theory. Unfortunately, only one available and earmarked site is downtown, at 1555 Tiburon Boulevard. Granted, it would be wonderful infill development. Built on the site of an abandoned supermarket and its parking lot, the site would be immediately accessible to the town core, two bus lines, and the Blue & Gold Ferry to San Francisco. Other sites would likely strain the town’s infrastructure. The Reed School site is almost a mile from the ferry, putting it out of easy walking distance to the town’s primary transit feature, while the Cove Shopping Center site is hardly accessible to transit at all, save those bus lines. The remaining sites examined are already zoned for market-rate housing that moderate income families can afford.

Despite problems with siting, the Tiburon Draft Housing Element presents a good way forward. Especially exciting is the change to densities, potentially opening a new market for developers that would otherwise find studio and one-bedroom apartments impossible to build in the town. It dovetails well with plans to improve downtown vibrancy, which calls for more housing in the commercial core. Still, it remains to be seen whether the plan will be any more effective in adding housing than the last Housing Element. No matter, though: the next element is due in just three years.

Tiburon’s Draft Housing Element will go before the Planning Commission on January 11.  You can find the document on the town’s website.