Politics threatens good policy in North San Rafael

There seems to be a majority forming on the San Rafael City Council to rescind the Civic Center Planned Development Area (PDA). At last week’s special session on the subject, three of the city’s five councilmembers (Mayor Gary Phillips, Councilmember Damon Connolly, and Councilmember Kate Colin) expressed opposition to the PDA.

While each expressed their own reasons for opposition, most swirled around the idea that, if we keep the PDA, San Rafael will be obligated to build massive quantities of affordable housing in an area that cannot support it. Fortunately, this is simply untrue.

What would the PDA actually do?

PDAs are an investment vehicle originally created by MTC. Cities tell regional agencies where they plan to focus population and job growth, and the region earmarks regional transportation money for those areas. In Marin, MTC requires that half of those regional transportation funds go the county’s PDAs. The other half can go to transportation projects anywhere in the county. While there is some talk in Sacramento to channel climate change transportation funds exclusively to PDAs, that proposal has not been finalized.

To help guide local planners, each PDA has a different “place-type” designation, which provides nonbinding guidelines about residential density and the quality of transit service. North San Rafael is a Transit Town Center, which MTC recommends should have or plan for between 3,000 and 7,500 housing units.

But, as a nonbinding recommendation, there is no obligation on San Rafael to actually zone for or build the recommended number of housing units. Rather, the recommendation is there to help San Rafael planners craft a local plan, which was done with the Station Area and General Plans.

There is concern about CEQA streamlining for affordable housing projects within PDAs, but the state doesn’t obligate the city or county to loosen its own environmental review processes. If the city decides a project shouldn’t receive CEQA streamlining, it won’t. This, as the only non-funding legal aspect of a PDA, is still well within the control of the city.

So what is the fear?

Anti-development (“slow growth”) activists in North San Rafael are concerned that the PDA creates an obligation to the city to zone for thousands more housing units than it could actually support, clogging streets, stuffing classrooms, and putting people in harm’s way along busy, high-speed arterial streets. We don’t have the water, don’t have the class space, don’t have the road space, and don’t have the tax revenue to take in so many new people.

But the PDA doesn’t obligate a thing. Mayor Phillips Councilmember Colin had another answer to that. They said it would be dishonest to use a place-type with a higher housing guideline than could realistically be put into the area without adverse impacts to existing residents.

As a nonbinding guideline, then, it would make sense for the city to simply downgrade the PDA to a level that falls in line with the existing level of housing development.  In fact, this is precisely what Councilmember Andrew McCullough proposed, and is one of the optional resolutions for Monday’s council meeting.

Why would we want a PDA?

Because North San Rafael has over $25 million in transportation needs, and the city is considering raising a sales tax because it can’t fund its existing obligations. It needs some extra funds if it wants to improve the neighborhood’s roads.

In fact, one project is very likely to be funded with PDA money: the proposed improvements to the Civic Center campus. Without the PDA, the $3 million project will be ineligible for regional money, and TAM will be forced to shift those funds to another PDA in the county.

But beyond that, a theme of those who spoke in favor of the PDA was that the neighborhood was unfriendly and unsafe for people walking or biking. Given the relative lack of bike lanes, bad connections to regional and local transit, and missing or crumbling sidewalks, it’s a wonder people haven’t been killed. Drivers, too, need to battle with congestion. They have been patiently waiting for a new freeway interchange for years.

All this could be funded by regional transportation dollars, or would need to compete with projects in the rest of the county. The PDA, as a funding tool, would put these projects on a fast track for approval and funding. Removing the PDA would likely cut the neighborhood off for years.

Politics, not policy, is at work

So the PDA doesn’t obligate any development, doesn’t obligate any zoning, and provides a way to make North San Rafael safer for kids to walk to school and commuters to get to the bus. If the PDA does start to obligate the city to do things it does not want to do, or even if it’s threatened, the city could rescind the PDA with no problem at that point. So why is the council voting on Monday? Alas, it’s about politics, not policy.

It’s an election year. Councilmember Damon Connolly is running against Susan Adams and Councilmember Kate Colin is fighting for her seat against slow-growth candidate Randy Warren. The county’s slow growth movement has fought against PDAs as a proxy for their fight against Plan Bay Area.

By setting themselves up against the North San Rafael PDA, Connolly and Colin are betting they can inoculate themselves against attacks from that camp. At first glance, that seems like a safe bet. Polling from One Bay Area shows that those with anti-development sentiment are more passionate about the issue and are more likely to vote than their counterparts.

Yet they are forgetting that Marinites want choices in how they travel and how they live. It’s not as easy a sell on the campaign trail, but it would be the way for Mayor Phillips and Councilmember Colin to knock the wind out of the slow-growth lobby.

The best compromise is to vote for downgrading the PDA. While it won’t satisfy those who lead the movement, it will show that the council is concerned about density and height while balancing it against transportation improvements North San Rafael desperately needs.

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.

19 Responses to Politics threatens good policy in North San Rafael

  1. Stephen Nestel says:

    Move along, little sheep(I mean people), there is nothing here to see… Just a little trip the slaughter house (I mean PDA meeting).

    Dave, with all due respect, you do a great disservice to Marinites when you suggest that they don’t need to participate in the process. True public involvement is what has been missing from the beginning. Ultimately, this is the reason why these plans will meet with insurmountable opposition when the public wakes up.

    I do respect your voice and ideas, I just think it needs to be tempered with real world issues.

    • I’m not suggesting that they don’t participate, but I am suggesting they come armed with more than unfounded fear. If the fear is that ABAG will use this as a stepping stone to control San Rafael’s land use policies, then they should see whether this is an imminent threat or not, and whether the Council could pull out at that time. Since it isn’t an imminent threat, we should take advantage of the local, regional, state, and federal money set aside for PDAs until the point where ABAG starts putting teeth into its plans.

      If the fear is that San Rafael itself will use this as a pretext for massive densification of the neighborhood, then people should push for a PDA designation that matches the existing neighborhood. Then, when San Rafael starts saying, “Oh, we want 5-story buildings with hundreds of housing units!”, they can justifiably say this runs counter to that new PDA designation and the General Plan. They can fight the rezoning, then, when it comes up.

      People should participate in the public process and be educated about what the process is. That way they can be properly equipped with facts, figures, and passion, rather than just passion.

  2. Bill Carney says:

    David, FYI, the proposed amended PDA designation of “transit neighborhood” is for areas with 1,500 – 4,000 homes. That makes it a match for the Civic Center Station Area, where the City’s existing zoning and the General Plan allow for around 1,600 units.

    • Richard Hall says:

      No, it’s still not a match. The general plan assumed 200 units on the east side in the location of the Christmas Tree Lot. Future site of the Farmers Market. This is no longer on the table.

      Current housing in the area is 1,056 units, add 400 and you’re still not in the range referenced. Still not a match. Also the midpoint of the range – 2,750 units – is arguably more likely the expectation.

      Even to achieve just the 400 additional units would require infrastructure (highway intersection) upgrades exceeding $20m, but the grants from PDA designation would only be $350k/year.

      You may not care what current residents think, deeming other factors more important, but they do not want expectations set that this area is to be the target of high density development such as the 4 story Win Cup site. (This is not about affordable housing, it is about high density housing). The city’s Q&A states:

      “the expectation of a PDA is to plan for increased, more concentrated development around/near transit”.

      Residents do not want any such expectation set.

      The city’s Q&A document states:
      “There was no formal notification or community outreach employed when the PDA application was presented to the City County”.

  3. Stephen Nestel says:

    Bill the lowered PDA designation still allows for 9600 people living in 1/2 mile radius around the Civic Center Station. That is a phenomenal upzoning and completely disregards the clear voice of the community. There is no free lunch. Who do you think should pay for all of this growth?

    • The PDA has no say in San Rafael’s zoning or development policy. It cannot “allow” anything, and it cannot “disallow” something because it’s powerless in that area. Similarly, it cannot be an upzoning because it has no zoning power or zoning authority. And this will not be a gateway to “all this growth” because it’s powerless to compel any growth.

      The designation is a suggestion in a planning manual, nothing more.

  4. Gail Napell says:

    Stephen –
    From your comments it appears that you do not understand the facts, or are deliberately distorting them for some reason.

    You can inform yourself by reading Paul Jensen’s thorough Q and A on the City of San Rafael website. It’s long but well researched and cites back to all the documents from the intervening years.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Station Area Planning Manual:
      – transit neighborhood is defined as 1,500 – 4,000 units
      – midpoint is 2,750 units (arguably “the expectation”)
      – currently there are 1,056 units (city Q&A)
      – increment would be 1,694 units to achieve the midpoint
      – @2.2 people per unit this would add 3,727 new residents, and likely a similar number of cars

      If the station area plan is scaled back to what is acceptable to the community then the low threshold of 1,500 units for the transit neighborhood will not be achieved.

      • “If the station area plan is scaled back to what is acceptable to the community then the low threshold of 1,500 units for the transit neighborhood will not be achieved.”

        … which is perfectly legally acceptable for the PDA, given that it places no obligation or restriction on what San Rafael can or cannot do and can be rescinded if legislation comes forward that would create those obligations.

  5. Stephen Nestel says:

    Thanks Gail. I am sure that you agree, “all is well” because the government tells you so. So there is no need to question anything. We will get free money with no strings attached and merely have to do a “planning exercise”. Your understanding of “the facts” differ from my understanding of the realities of business, financial, political and physical problems to be encountered. There is no free lunch.

    • This is money you’ve already paid for in myriad ways. In fact, it is the same money Marin gets every year from MTC, only it’s been split into PDA-only and everything else since the FOCUS program was rolled out in 2007. It’s not a “free lunch”. You paid for it last time you got gas.

  6. Franz Listen says:

    Most agree that the Civic Center area could use ped and bike improvements and Dave is right that regional dollars aimed at PDA’s could really help. And he’s right that the ABAG “place types” don’t set the zoning, and so the number of units in the “place type” should be irrelevant.

    Still, I think that some concerns being raised about PDA obligations and expectations are not completely irrational. Dave mentioned a lack of “teeth” in ABAG’s plans. I think that its important to point out that ABAG’s ability to shape PDAs in the future is not just related to state laws, or regulations or new legislation – which a local jurisdiction might be able to see coming.

    For example, one of the Plan Bay Area ancillary documents mention that there is now a $50M revolving loan fund in the Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH) program aimed specifically at PDAs. The document also suggests that MTC should “invest” more in this program.
    . http://onebayarea.org/pdf/Draft_Plan_Bay_Area/Draft_PBA_PDA_Development_Feasibility_and_Readiness.pdf

    I don’t know how effective the TOAH program will be, but it definitely raises the probability that any housing that does get built in PDA will be non-market rate. The relentless emphasis at the regional level that PDA=affordable housing means that residents must not only be comfortable certain densities but also with the prospect that the housing will all be subsidized.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Franz – they should give you Dianne Steinhauser’s job. Your arguments are always very thought through and informative.

      Residents are concerned by the tax impact – which as you point out can be very significant if the housing is largely tax exempt – which tends to get swept under the rug and dismissed by urbanization proponents.

      But I hear Dave and Miriam Chion crying till the cows go home that the designation carries no obligations. The issue is the *expectation*. Then there’s the risk that the PDA will over time get strings attached – this could be gradual and creeping, and before you know it the obligations could be substantial, onerous or just simply unacceptable. This presents a risk – a risk that the community finds unacceptable.

      Finally this is all based on flawed logic that the transit oriented development will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As mentioned prior Civic Center fails to fit the bill as suitable, it has what Robert Cervero calls “suburban bias” and will not reduce vehicle trips substantially. More certainly it will pour a lot more cars onto 101, causing congestion and increased emissions.

      • Valerie Taylor says:

        Stop referencing “the community” and “residents”. At best you’re referring to a handful of residents and a tiny “community” of NIMBY-Ists. This is not “the community”. But when the actual community of San Rafael residents find out what Colin, Connolly, and Phillips did tonight – throwing away grant money to fix up the Civic Center area to appease a dozen squeaky wheels – they will be unelected, as they deserve to be.

        • Stephen Nestel says:

          There you go again Valerie dismissing 80-90% of homeowners in Marin that are opposed to urbanizing Marin while you,a transit development public relations agent, attack the citizens. If we are such a “minority”, why can’t we put the civic station area plan to a vote?. I won’t deny that some people would LOVE to live in transit oriented development. Let them. Why not have a choice? Our real objection is not your lifestyle choice but the government overreach demanding the destruction of our neighborhoods to conform ONLY to your ideas. There are places called “cities” that have exactly what you are looking for. Most of us in the “suburbs” prefer “suburbs”.

        • Richard Hall says:

          Valerie – 506 people signed the petition asking to rescind the PDA, possibly over 100 attended last night’s meeting:


          I don’t appreciate your use of the term NIMBY. This is name calling and something one descends to when losing an argument.

          Let’s distinguish Slow Growth vs NIMBY:

          NIMBY is historically when a resident does not want a neighbor they consider undesirable, such as a group home for developmentally challenged adults. In this scenario, the neighbors do not encroach on the resident’s space or in any way really change how the residence can be enjoyed. It disturbs the resident to have to see these people, and may lower the resident’s property value.

          In contrast, the Fast Growth Lobby wants to overcrowd our streets and schools, and lower the quality of life in our community by converting a suburb to an “urb”. This DOES encroach on us because it impacts our ability to enjoy our village life, or to even maintain our life as a village. It alters not just the home of the new arrivals but also alters our community…in a way that a group home does not.

          Finally I would like to see more transparency and disclosures. Too often we’ve seen advocates with conflicts of interest submit to elected officials studies or insight, yet failed to disclose they were a board member of an affordable housing agency, a landscape architect that accepted public contracts that might be offered with such new building, a husband who worked for an affordable housing agency. It’s important to disclose these up front.

  7. Stephen Nestel says:

    Also Valerie, We have over two petitions with over 1300 signatures (not including the recall) in Marinwood-Lucas Valley . Tam Almonte has hundreds and Strawberry has over 1000. These are hardly a “few people”. It is the start of an unstoppable political force.

    • Richard Hall says:

      To add to Stephen I suspect the politicians also did a reality check and have now reconciled that the numbers are against high density housing and PDAs. They would not have done such a thing lightly. They weighed up if this was a “tiny minority” or a significant and growing opposition to PDAs.

  8. Pingback: A counter-petition starts in Strawberry | The Greater Marin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: