Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

Though the pages of this blog are often critical of the so-called “slow growth” philosophy of development stasis, its activists hold up second units as a solution to our housing crunch. While I won’t go so far as to say it is our only solution, they are certainly part of the mix.

Marin’s housing market is faced with two housing shortages. It is part of the overall shortage of housing in the region – the cause of the troubling spikes in rent in San Francisco, major displacement of the poor in Oakland, and threats to our open space in the far East Bay.

The other shortage is a local lack of small units, namely studios and one-bedrooms, in Marin. This has meant a steady increase in small-unit rents at a faster rate than either wages or the county’s rental market at large.

Second units offer a way to deal with both without dramatically altering the appearance of our neighborhoods. Though regional trends will be a far greater weight on our overall housing costs than new development, it would help solve the problems in our county’s submarket. And, for the region at large, it would allow some housing development to ease North Bay demand.

I say this is a point of agreement with slow growth because, well, they’ve said it often. Frequent TGM commentor Richard Hall certainly thinks so, with comments all over the place about it. Bob Silvestri, too, came out in favor of this strategy in his book (PDF, page 51). The IJ and Patch comments sections are rife with other examples.

My initial concern about allowing this sort of infill development was that it isn’t targeted, but actually that’s just fine. The reasons for the current ban on in-law units are familiar: traffic and parking. Planners feared that allowing second units would cause residents to park on the street (a big no-no in the 1970s) and put undue stress on the big arterial roads like Freitas Parkway and San Marin Drive.

But really, most of Marin’s mid-century sprawl and early 20th Century development is well-suited to the distances traveled by walking and biking. Shopping is typically within a half-mile, as is a bus line. There should be more than enough capacity in our neighborhoods for more small units.

To make this reality, two big changes should happen. First, the state needs to recognize second unit expansion as a viable method to expand affordable housing under its RHNA affordable housing structure. At the moment, it is not.

Second, towns and cities need to allow second units in their residential neighborhoods, preferably targeted in areas that are within walking distance of transit and shopping. Conversion of existing structures should be allowable by right, in other words buildable without more than city staff approval. New construction might go through a planning commission process, perhaps requiring approval from adjacent neighbors.

To really be affordable housing, towns and cities would need to ensure at least some units are built. To do this, they should offer incentive programs to householders who want to build the units. New buildings can be expensive to build well, and incentive programs would ensure these units are of good quality. Just lowering the permit fees could do the trick.

If the county makes it easy for these amateur landlords to take Section 8 vouchers, it would be a major boon to Marin’s affordable housing needs.

Because of the acrimony between the slow growth and smart growth factions in Marin, it’s imperative we embrace the areas where we can work together for a common goal. Second units are the area where we can, and where we must. If Republicans and Democrats can come together for a budget deal in the US House of Representatives, surely we can come together in our living rooms, pubs, and town halls.

And, since the end result would be a greater Marin, that’s something we could all celebrate.

 

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Post-Christmas Happy Hour

It’s time for another The Greater Marin Happy Hour!

Need a break from the holiday families? Want to talk transit with your fellow activists and advocates? I’ll be hosting a happy hour the weekend after Christmas, and you’ll finally get your chance.

Since our last few happy hours have been in San Rafael, and since Southern Marin doesn’t get much exposure, this time we’re meeting in beautiful, touristy Sausalito.

The details:

Wellington’s, 300 Turney Street, Sausalito. (Yes it’s called a “wine bar” but if you’re a beer person instead they have a wide selection of fine beers.)

6-9pm, Friday, December 27.

Access from The City is by Golden Gate Transit Routes 2, 10, and 92, as well as Golden Gate Ferry and Blue & Gold Fleet. Access from the rest of Marin is by GGT Routes 10 and 17.

I hope to see you next week!

The incredible efficiency of Golden Gate Transit

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

Mass transit an incredibly efficient way to move large numbers of people from two fixed locations or along a constrained space, like a bridge. Buried in a recent Marin IJ article we found out just how efficient they were: at rush hour, buses make up less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the Golden Gate Bridge but, along with ferries, carry 27 percent of the people. In other words, GGT adds a full lane and a half of capacity to the bridge and 101.

That is astounding, and a testament to the value of transit. The toll fees paid to support the transit system are well-spent, as they keep the freeway running smoothly for all users.

Well, somewhat smoothly. The HOV lanes through San Rafael and the Twin Cities are jammed, and without the old reversible lanes from Marin City to San Francisco, buses are prone to get stuck in bridge traffic. Finding ways to fix that problem would go a long way to improving bus traffic flow. Extending the planned Van Ness bus-only lanes along Lombard to the Bridge would go even further, and help ease a commute for thousands of Marinites and Sonomans.

Being Marin again

A high-density development is planned around a railroad station in Marin. There will be more than 150 housing units and a vast expansion of commercial space. Supported by the railroad, it will be an hour-long ride from the train station to the ferry to San Francisco. Behind it is a monopoly developer with unrivaled power in the state capital.

This is what we’d say if we were talking about downtown San Anselmo if it were being built today. We’d have similar conversations about each of our downtowns: new railroad station, new houses, new commercial development. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, a subsidiary of Southern Pacific, was behind them all.

And yet these are the areas we value most in Marin: dense, walkable, quaint. Though some look at all of Marin and think it’s perfect as it is, with strip malls and downtowns and freeways all coexisting in one great smear of suburbia, I’ve always felt that it was these downtowns, and that history of building for accessibility to transit, that made Marin unique.

Opponents have done their best to paint the plan as a reckless regional power grab. It ignores congestion, they say. It’s part of a scheme to “urbanize” Marin. It is out of step with our traditions, our heritage, and our character as a San Francisco suburb.

Carol Brandt, in a December 1 Letter to the Editor, wrote that protecting Greenbrae was part of protecting our small-town character and our nature as a suburb.

While I understand the trepidation and concern people have regarding the Larkspur Station Area Plan, it is in the best traditions of Marin to build near a ferry and a rail station. To my ears, the urge to keep Marin as a car-oriented bedroom community defined by strip malls is at odds with those traditions.

Yesterday’s Marin Voice put it best: “Taking advantage of a new train station and a popular ferry terminal is literally built into the DNA of our towns and our county’s identity. It’s only natural we’d want to do again what our county’s forebears did a century ago.”

The traditional transit-oriented development our forebears built has served us extremely well. Not only is its centerpiece, the downtown, the focus of civic pride for every city and town in the county, but it has proven remarkably practical.

Our traditions give us the third-highest transit usage in the state and the second-lowest rate of people driving alone to work. Our traditions have literally saved lives, as Marin has less than half the traffic deaths per capita as than the national average. We are the original smart-growth county.

Dick Spotswood wondered if the transit-oriented development model could work in Marin. It does work, and Marin is the living, breathing proof that it doesn’t just work here. It thrives here. A progressive Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan is a chance for Marin to be itself again. To steal a motto, it’s time to Be Marin (Again).

Write to the Larkspur City Council and the Marin IJ editorial page if you support a progressive future for Larkspur Landing.

Final Larkspur Station Area Plan goes before the community

The reexamination of the Larkspur Landing neighborhood is proceeding apace, and the city will start to consider the SMART Station Area Plan’s final documents tomorrow. However, the forces opposed to change in Marin are mobilizing opposition already, fueled by some ill-chosen words in the IJ and ideological misgivings about transit.

What is the Station Area Plan?

The station area plan (SAP) was put together by a citizen advisory committee over the course of about a year, with public meetings and community input the whole way. It studied the possibility of new office, housing, and retail development, and its possible impacts on traffic, parking, and transit. It described ways to ameliorate some of the existing problems and ways to ease the introduction of new development.

While it was described in the IJ as a housing plan for 900 new units in the Larkspur Landing neighborhood around the ferry terminal, this is inaccurate. It studied how up to that amount might accommodated in the neighborhood, but does not plan for this number. At best, it is a conceptual document with plans for infrastructure investment. A real housing plan would likely come as part of a new housing element or a broader zoning reform.

This is not a housing plan.

Why Larkspur Landing?

Larkspur Landing is a drivable bit of Larkspur centered around the once-eponymous Larkspur Landing Shopping Center, now called Marin Country Mart. It has the second-fastest-growing transit line in the county in the Larkspur Ferry and in all likelihood will soon be home to a SMART station. Plans for the Greenbrae Interchange will add a connection to the Highway 101 trunk line buses, giving easy access to the rest of Marin by transit.

It is a pass-through neighborhood. Commuters use it to travel to the Richmond Bridge, causing massive backups during the evening commute that spill onto northbound 101. The recently-approved Greenbrae Interchange Project will likely fix many of these issues, but fitting them into a broader plan to make the neighborhood a more livable one is important.

As well, Larkspur Landing is a good candidate for infill development. While the SAP is not a housing (or office, or retail) plan, it targets improvements with the idea of improving circulation and infrastructure in the neighborhood. It will be a transit and transportation hub, with easy access to the ferry, SMART, the region’s major trunk bus lines, and the North-South Greenway, our county cycling superhighway.

If the city ever decides it would be a good idea to add development or encourage new business to grow in that part of the city, the SAP’s studies of capacity and circulation at multiple population and job levels will be invaluable to that decision-making. Though that time is not now, advocates and opponents should know what they’re supporting and opposing.

How can we support a progressive Station Area Plan?

Opponents of any growth and change in Larkspur will fight for any mention of development in the SAP, believing it to be a “housing plan” and crippling its ability to improve the neighborhood. Supporters of a livable Larkspur should argue strenuously for maximizing the flexibility of the plan.

This means defending the land use portion of the SAP, which rests on the commonly accepted understanding that transit-oriented development promotes transit ridership. Though opponents have tried to tear down the concept, it holds true in the settings where it has been applied rigorously.

A recent study of rail-oriented development in New Jersey found that it is the density of bus stops – not proximity to rail or the newness of development – that is best correlated with transit use. The Larkspur SAP, by its proximity to the 25, 28, 29, and soon the 101 bus trunk, will fit that category.

The old-school TOD in Marin, oriented around buses, has led to the highest transit mode-share in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco, showing the truth of this concept in Marin’s suburban setting.

Arlington County, VA, dramatically increased its population in 40 years by growing only on the 5 percent of its land immediately next to transit. The result has been no increase in traffic. Though its densities are more suited to the Peninsula than Marin, there’s no reason for the model to fail on a smaller scale in the Marin setting.

Most importantly, the real traffic savings in transit-oriented development isn’t in moving trips from car to transit; it’s from moving trips from car to foot and bike. Not every trip can (or should) be so moved, but well-designed places give people the opportunity for productive use of their feet. If you lived in downtown Larkspur, your kids could walk to school; you could walk to get a haircut, get coffee, get a book, get new pet food, or do some light grocery shopping. Doing each of those trips on foot saves a mile or two from the roads and gives that road space to people who need or want to travel further.

A progressive SAP will give Larkspur the flexibility to build this way if it chooses but will not lock the city into this way of thinking if it feels the shopping center model is better than its downtown.

The SAP should aim for the best transportation future for the area: ameliorate traffic, promote the ferry-SMART connection, promote strong 101 bus connections, activate Sir Francis Drake and Larkspur Landing Circle as walking and biking streets, and examine ways to bring more counter-commuters to the ferry terminal.

What are the logistical challenges in Larkspur Landing?

A few of the challenges faced by Larkspur Landing are not within the scope of the SAP.

The biggest is the ferry’s legal capacity limits. At the moment, it may only do 42 catamaran trips per day, and it’s currently doing 37, not including ballgames. This is a problem that needs to be resolved, but it can only be done through a revised environmental impact report on the high-speed catamarans.

The next is traffic, which will be addressed by the Greenbrae project. Unfortunately, the project as passed didn’t include much benefit analysis, so it’s unknown at the moment how much traffic will be ameliorated by the bus, bike, and road improvements.

The last is the location of the SMART station, which is currently too far from the ferry terminal. Doing it right would mean moving the station either to the Marin Country Mart parking lot, which has space to spare, or to the ferry terminal itself. The SAP should keep this option open and encourage the SMART board to change its station site.

If you go (and you really should), the IJ published these details:

Larkspur will host a workshop about the Draft Station Area Plan and Station Area Plan Draft Environmental Impact Report from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 400 Magnolia Ave.

The workshop will explore the major land use policies, plans for various types of transportation and open space and recreation opportunities for the area.

From 4:30 to 5:25 p.m., an open house will be held with informational displays for viewing and opportunities for conversation with project consultants and city staff. From 6 to 7:30 p.m., there will be a formal presentation and question-and-answer session.

For more information, call 927-5110.