Freeways Don’t Need to be a Housing Show-Stopper

It’s common sense that living near a freeway isn’t healthy. The pollution from the cars and grit from the roadway make for what most would term a wholly unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, the only places for infill development, not to mention quite a few SMART stations, are near Highway 101. Before any post-SMART buildings are built, communities in Marin and Sonoma need to take measures to mitigate these negative health effects, or we’ll simply be building health problems for the future.

Roadway pollution is almost entirely from tailpipe emissions, and most of the health effects are from particulate material, that brown smoke most recognizably seen coming out of large truck exhaust pipes.  It’s nasty stuff (PDF), not only because the shape of the particles increases the risk of asthma and lung cancer but because they carry heavy metals, which can contribute to diminished brain formation in children.  Gases, such as carbon monoxide, are less hazardous to the health of nearby residents.

These particulates, at least when they come from a freeway, are concentrated within 200 feet of the road, though they are measurable up to half a mile away during the day and 1.5 miles away during the early morning hours.  In Marin, that means a huge portion of the county lives with 101’s pollution: all of San Rafael, most of Novato, Greenbrae, Mill Valley, Corte Madera and Larkspur, Marin City, and Sausalito lives within the freeway’s pollution plume. Only Ross Valley and West Marin don’t need to deal with the problem, though arterial roads generate their own plumes.

Within that 200 foot buffer, though, is the most danger, and the most opportunity to cut pollution.  Solid barriers, such as sound walls, send the pollution upward, dispersing it but still leaving high concentrations near the freeway.  Plant barriers (PDF) also send a plume upward, but much less pollution reaches the areas near the freeway. Instead, they collect the particulates on leaves and act as natural filters.  Using both solid barriers and plant barriers, of course, yields better results than using only one.

Practically, this means that, wherever pollution is a concern, local government and Caltrans should try to plant trees and build walls to contain and filter out the pollutants.

Another tool in our air pollution mitigation toolbox is building design. Most people spend most of their time inside. When discussing pollutants, it’s ultimately about how the pollution gets into apartments or offices. Most obviously, plants can be grown on rooftops and on the sides of buildings to filter pollutants in concert with whatever is next to the freeway. Inside the building, the county can require air filters.

Air filters for freeway pollution are effective. Most particulates can be filtered with specialized HVAC systems that, though they run upwards of $700 per apartment unit per year to operate, though yield an estimated $2,100 in health care savings annually.  These systems are required in San Francisco for developments near freeways and are a logical step for Marin to take. The county might go the extra step to subsidize the filters for affordable units included in market-rate developments.  However, these don’t filter out ultrafine particles, which constitute most of the particulates in freeway pollution. Laboratory-quality HEPA filters are even more expensive than San Francisco’s standard, but not much more, and could be encouraged through subsidy or required by law.

Exposure could be further limited by encouraging office development closest to the freeway.  The buildings, along with rooftop gardens, would act as a pollution wall for residences further back.

In short, while air pollution is a major concern for building new residences along the freeway, it should not be a show-stopper. Building higher up the valleys or sprawling outward in other parts of the region will only make traffic and pollution worse. The North Bay’s governments need to make mitigation part of their building codes before any more major developments are built if they want to get ahead of the curve. It will save them money in the long-run and will make their new communities far more livable than they would be otherwise.

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.

30 Responses to Freeways Don’t Need to be a Housing Show-Stopper

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  3. Mary Holman says:

    That’s the spirit. Let the low income apt dwellers inhale the heady aroma of freshly emitted carbon monoxide. Nothing like a big ugly section 8 building at the Civic center, while acres of land lies fallow just miles north.

  4. Richard Hall says:

    Dave you state “It’s common sense that living near a freeway isn’t healthy” – many medical studies conclusively agree with you. Your exact point was made to the mayor and council of San Rafael at the council meeting on August 20th by a Medical Doctor.

    Can you please therefore explain why the CIvic Center Station plan proposes adding 620 new units to help justify SMART train ridership, many of which are located within 200 feet of a freeway overpass?

    • The point of the article was to see how we could mitigate those concerns. The questions I attempted to answer were, If cities want to zone for residences here, how can it do so in a healthy way? What should be required, what should be merely encouraged? Should we place a blanket ban on residences within X feet of the freeway?

  5. Richard Hall says:

    That’s not what’s happening. The concerns aren’t being mitigated. Committee’s and councils are proceeding without incorporating community feedback into the body of the plan (a feeble “attachment” to the plan was offered).

    • Unfortunately you’re right. It’s also telling that nobody voted against the Station Area Plan. I think it’s because of the at-large nature of the council, which might benefit from a district system.

    • By the way, that’s also why I wrote this article. I wanted to know what the problems would be and how to address them. Building housing without addressing them would be a mistake, so as the Council goes through its rezoning process it ought to require developers to mitigate the problem without unduly harming the viability of a given project.

      I’m planning a response to the Council vote sometime next week or next Monday, because something feels wrong about it. Even though I support the rezoning, the strength and legitimacy of the City Council is more important and this showed a weakness of the system.

  6. ROGER THORTON says:

    Dave, I was all set to respond to a comment on the Tempest in Teapot blog, although I see you have censored it. You claim to desire an open discourse–apparently the only discourse you are interested in is from those that agree with you. Typical of those that believe they have vision and everybody else needs bifocals.

    • I’m sorry, which comment? I haven’t censored any on that post; I leave up the comment and add that a) it’s been removed, and b) why it’s been removed. I only do this to comments that are in violation of the comment policy.

    • Wait a sec, I know the one you’re talking about. Told me to butt the hell out of Marin or somesuch.

      Didn’t touch it; it was posted before the comments policy and so therefore couldn’t have been in violation of it.

      As well: please comment on the appropriate post rather than any post you find.

  7. ROGER THORTON says:

    Dave, please refrain from suggestion your comments policy is anything other than your opinion as to what is out-of-bounds because you disagree. . It isn’t as if you have some editorial board.

    I am referring to the thread on the Tempest in a Teapot post where you deny this blog is a pander-fest for the development agenda from which you seek work. I can not see anywhere on this one sided blog where you oppose any projects with even remotely the same intensity that you advocate growth. You even opposed a park in San Anselmo.

    So the comment, that you are merely beating a drum for the development agenda is far from baseless.

    • The comment policy enforces the notions that a) comments will be on topic for the post they’re on (this conversation is off-topic for the post you’ve commented on), and b) will not resort to ad hominem attacks. This is the difference between, “Your idea sucks because you’re a pandering carpet-bagger,” and, “Your idea sucks because you didn’t take into consideration the viewshed in downtown San Anselmo and the widespread unhappiness with Creek Park.” The first is unacceptable, the second is not.
      I’m presenting my opinions as points to start a discussion. Tell me why it’s a good idea to demolish a building in downtown San Anselmo and replace it with a park, not that I’m a shill for a government-development complex. Tell me why my analysis of Corte Madera’s historic growth rate is flawed. I want, genuinely want, an open and fair discussion about how Marin should, and shouldn’t, grow. Take the comments section on my latest post: there’s back and forth, it’s a little testy but everyone is addressing the topic or concepts. If someone came in and started attacking your character and integrity I’d remove their comment, too.

      The comments are right where we left them; I’m surprised you aren’t seeing them.

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  10. Kevin Moore says:

    Sounds like we need building code changes! Without code changes, these are nice to have options that won’t go in. I look at new developments and ask:
    Would I want to live there?
    Would I want my mother living there?
    Who would want to live there?

    Some people are opposed to the next to the freeway developments as they would not want to live in that environment. Upgraded HVAC systems and better sound proofing are a start. But people will go outside, especially children and what is waiting for them outdoors?

    • Richard Hall says:

      If it’s affordable or low income housing they may not have a choice – they will just get assigned to it. This is especially unfair. Can’t we create decent homes, in healthy locations with yards for their kids that don’t stick out like a sore thumb?

      If it’s market rate doesn’t the near vacant 33 N San Pedro Rd send a clear message that this is not the type of housing people are finding desirable?

      Second units and conversions are the way to go. A reasonable amount of growth in line with local jobs growth is appropriate – and the Marin job market has hardly been going gangbusters. But unions, developers and special interests wouldn’t want that would they now. They need big development and urbanization to make money.

    • Kevin Moore says:

      The Whistle stop senior center to be built over the downtown SMART station is a prime example of a bad location.
      Housing for seniors… yes!
      Housing for seniors over a busy train station, next to a bus station, a block from the freeway, on the busiest streets in San Rafael, where shootings and other crime occur… NO!
      The Whistlestop senior housing looks like a formula to create “shut ins” and respiratory health problems. Better than being old, homeless, and living onthe street. Yes. Can we find a better location to spend the money? I would hope so.

      • Franz Listen says:

        Kevin Moore,

        The new Whistlestop idea is not just for housing, but also includes space for all their other senior programs. The people who run that service must have decided that is convenient for their clientele to be located near rail and bus services.

        Would you prefer that senior services be located out on some far-flung periphery where seniors who can’t drive would be excluded without reliance on astronomically expensive (to the taxpayer) dial-a-ride services? Undoubtedly there are efficiencies involved with adding housing, program space, and ground floor parking in a single building rather than spreading those things around in multiple buildings across the County.

        As for crime- yes, this area is sketchy. However, the long-term solution to that problem is not to ban new housing and leave it to criminals. The solution is to flood that area with more normal people who are not criminally inclined. Some market rate housing down there or some new commercial/office would be especially helpful.

        As for air quality, there are huge numbers of people that live, work, recreate and shop within the pollution shadow of Hwy 101. It’s unfortunate fact of life but not a rationale for evacuation.

    • Totally. Actually, this is one area where, if people could get over themselves, the two sides could work together. It would address one of the concerns development conservatives have about TOD in Marin and meet one of the concerns development liberals should have about the same. This is also an area where Marinites could lead the rest of the region – I saw new apartments going up in Emeryville with windows that open onto the freeway. Totally unhealthy, and a place where a new building code could be a model.

      This is the kind of issue an unlikely coalition is supposed to form around.

      • Richard Hall says:

        If only health near freeways was the only issue. But there are many others:
        – 4-5 story buildings do not align with the community’s vision (see station area plan visioning)
        – N San Pedro Rd and Freitas 101 intersections are already at capacity without adding any new housing
        – major parking issues
        – TOD residents in suburbs/rural locations don’t take transit, especially on a train that doesn’t get them to major employment centers easily
        – affordable housing cannot give preference to those with jobs in Marin
        – 33 N San Pedro Rd is empty, no one wants that kind of housing here at market rates
        – to absorb the new populations will need additional schools, services that will push up taxes
        – where’s the water
        – where’s the parking (and don’t lets live in a delusional world where they will all take transit or bikes)
        – building enough housing to make Marin affordable is an ocean boiling excercise. Nice places will always rent / sell at a premium. Consequently the subsidies to make any such new housing affordable will be substantial.
        – the housing will be right next to noisy railroad crossings (quiet zones only prevent blowing of horns, not railroad crossing bells)

        Let’s fix this right – low density, second units, distributed not concentrated.

        • There are! But nobody wins everything they want. That’s the nature of compromise. I’d be fine with 4-5 story buildings in North San Rafael, but I’d compromise on that for lifting density limits in that SAP or parking minimums downtown. I wouldn’t get everything, but I’d get something.

          • Richard Hall says:

            Compromise: We can achieve the building numbers needed by RHNA with second units and converting existing buildings across the entire city WITHOUT needlessly urbanizing the city and putting up 4-5 high density apartment buildings that are architecturally out of place here in Marin.

            Compromise: We’re 500+ residents who live in the immediate area and are the most impacted, you’re one person 3,500 miles away in Washington D.C. with your own vision.

            Lastly building lots more housing and bringing people in without there being more jobs here seems a little imprudent.

            Consider with affordable and low income housing preference cannot be given to people who work in Marin.

            BTW I do like Freitas senior community which is 2 story – what’s the density of that? I’d like to see more ADA and senior housing in San Rafael.

            I know you’ll chime in here on point #2 – but let’s see where this goes.

          • Neither of those are compromises. The first is a platform, the second a statement intended to discredit.

          • Richard Hall says:

            BTW it must be noted you don’t have standing to be the person to compromise with. You are 1 person in Washington DC with strong views on development in Marin.

          • I’m surprised it must be noted. I thought it was obvious that one doesn’t need compromise with observers, and that my examples were just examples.

  11. Franz Listen says:

    Richard Hall,

    You are too obsessed with the idea that the only acceptable structures in this County are single family homes and under-utilized, strip commercial centers. You assume that this type of landscape is preferred by all, and also seem to think that it correlates with high property values.

    I think that we should be more respectful of letting the market decide what people want. If people want to live in condos, townhomes or apartments, its their right. They don’t need us to warp the housing market by banning anything over 10 feet tall by government fiat. This itself is a form of social engineering – the use of state power (local zoning) to defeat markets and consumer choice.

    It will be interesting to see if 33 N San Pedro succeeds or fails. If its succeeds it supports that idea that there is a market for market-rate higher density in Marin. If its fails then you may not need to worry so much about market rate density – at least for awhile

    Beyond protected open space (which is our County’s greatest asset), I believe that the second greatest asset is our older, walkable, village-like, town centers. We need more places like those. Many, many residents agree.

    There are lots of great buildings in Marin County that are 3 stories+ tall, including the Left Bank building in Larkspur, the new building on Miller Ave, the Whole Foods project in Novato etc, etc, etc. Adding a couple more in the right places could actually enhance our property values if done well.

    Naturally, as a community we citizens have a right to influence design and I would agree that anything 5 stories+ is probably a bad fit for anywhere except existing downtowns. I also agree that subsidized housing creates risks for neighborhoods and am not a fan of RHNA process, SB375’s entrenchment of the RHNA process, the housing component of Plan Bay Area, or certain HUD interpretations of fair housing law.

    However, if I were forced to accommodate 20 low income residents in my neighborhood in below-market housing, I would rather have them in a 3-4 story building along an arterial road, or the edge of a downtown, or a parking-saturated commercial area – than to have a 20 new Section 8 backyard units scattered inside my neighborhood. How is that an improvement ?

    20 new low-income residents in ranch houses are not going to need less water, less schooling or less roadway capacity than 20 new residents in a 3-4 story building. You keep mixing and conflating the impact of an absolute number of new residents with the method of housing those residents.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Franz – we on more common ground than you think. I’m most concerned by going over 3 storys. 1-2 is fine, 3 when appropriate, so I’m not the 10 foot limit by government fiat that you mention. Then impact on water, schools services, traffic needs to be considered. Also distribution not concentration.

      Second units and conversions and sweat equity are good. There’s just no need for high density / high height.

      I don’t think we need to be building quite the large numbers I sometimes come across.

      • Franz Listen says:


        I’m glad that you are at least OK with 2 and 3 story buildings. I think that so much depends on design and setting. In downtown San Rafael there’s a 6 story, mixed-use building (San Rafael Town Center) on 4th St. that looks pretty good and fits well. Naturally, this wouldn’t work everywhere in the County, but I don’t think that density alone needs to be our enemy.

        While I don’t share Bob Silvestri’s fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright’s imaginary Broadacre Village, nor his dismissal of New Urbanism, he does make a few salient points – namely that ABAG and RHNA requirements for affordable housing are too prescriptive.

        I also think that the massive state and regional emphasis on “production quotas” for housing (even if it just relates to zoning and not construction) are fundamentally misguided and always end up dominating the planning conversation.

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