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.

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.

8 Responses to Being Marin again

  1. Richard Hall says:

    Hogwash! I bet if you asked 100 random people to describe Marin not a single one would say “a car-oriented bedroom community defined by strip malls”. I know a few other places they might describe – and this is possibly the description that might be achieved if the Larkspur Station Area Plan, followed by inevitable others, were to follow.

    Instead they would more likely describe Marin as one of the most beautiful rural and suburban counties in California, if not the US. They would describe the charm of the small towns of Sausalito, Mill Valley and Tiburon. They might talk about the lack of strip malls (I used to live in the South Bay – your description is a better fit for there and why folks like myself came north).

    It’s easy to paint words like “tradition” and “DNA” in any manner we choose. This is like the “painting a picture of Europe” and harkening back to the old days argument. Back in those old days folks with lower income were consigned to high density, inferior housing with no yards. They never had the choice of a reasonably sized place in Vallejo or Petaluma where rents are lower but a car provided the freedom to commute to a reasonably paying job. But it “seems” based on the picture you’re painting that the DNA would have such a lifestyle outlawed, and your tradition would curiously omit these stark realities.

    Do they reflect what the market wants – which is convenience and comfort when getting from A to B with a minimum of connections? The ability to live in a home of a reasonable size, perhaps with a yard? Do they consider that per capita transit ridership has steadily dropped since the 1980s?

  2. Stephen Nestel says:

    I agree with you that traffic IS a problem but there are sensible technical solutions within our grasp that don’t require intensive urbanization or billion dollar investments in 19th century rail lines.

    Perhaps you can’t see the furor from Washington, D.C. but the unrest in Marin is growing as people become aware of the massive development plans underway. Larkspur will be an important fight. A large development there will strangle the free flow of traffic from San Francisco to Santa Rosa permanently affecting economic development/lifestyles of hundreds of thousands of people.

    The tradition of Marin is small towns, nature and human scale development. No one moves here to be close to the concrete canyons of downtown or industrial wasteland. We have left urban areas to improve our lifestyles and provide great environment for our children.

    Why does the “flim flam sustainable crowd” think we are going to give up our county for business parks and condos now after decades of successful fights for sensible development? We will honor our heritage. We will protect Marin.

    to see the 261 mpg Volkswagen available in 2014 see:

    also, the $6800 Elio :

    These narrow personal vehicles effectively double our freeway capacity, pollute less and provide efficient transport at far less cost than public transit.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Stephen. Good comments. I think the sustainability crowd see themselves as “progressive”, but they only look through one lens of achieving this “urbanization”.

      Like you I believe there is another way – one that promotes and truly sustains small town suburban character. The VW and Elio that you point out, along with many other technologies and great personal transportation innovations have proven since the 1980s the people prefer and embrace *personal* and not *public* transportation.

      The truly progressive approach is to be more open minded than presuming “a return to urbanization” must be the answer as “it worked so well before”.

      It didn’t work so well before and it still doesn’t work well:
      – in the 19th century and early 20th income gaps were much more severe, personal transportation was one of the devices that helped change that enabling the poor to move out of urban centers
      – the living conditions of the urban poor were terrible
      – in Europe the subsidies simply to operate (let alone build anew) train systems place crippling burdens on taxes

      Remember history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.

  3. Franz Listen says:

    Unrivaled open space is what make Marin the most unique. However, if our built environment is nicer than other parts of the nation or region, it has a lot to do with the main streets and villages that were built mainly between the late 19th century and 1945. Sounds like there’s lots of agreement on this score.

    Those places were not typified by everyone living in apartments and getting around by transit for all their trips. Most dwellings were of the single family variety and there were plenty of cars. In 1930, there was an average of over 1 car per household in the Bay Area.

    The interesting thing about that era, however, was that while the car was accommodated, other values were often placed above automotive convenience. This included aesthetic considerations, pedestrianism, and heath and safety concerns. Cars had to adapt to places that were built for people, not the other way around.

    The era that followed, from the 50’s through the 80’s, saw big changes to the way that we approached infrastructure and urban design. There was an emphasis placed on maximizing automotive convenience regardless of the tradeoffs.

    Should giant new roads be built even if they ruin the character of nearby neighborhoods? Yes! Should roads be built wide to allow high speeds even in residential areas where kids are playing? Yes! Should there be rounded and sweeping turning radii at intersections so that cars don’t need to slow down even if its dangerous to peds? Yes! Should road widening come at the expense of street amenities like sidewalks and trees? Yes! Should ped movements actually be banned in many places so as not to slow cars? Yes! Should there be more parking lots even if nobody wants to live near them ? Yes! Should the government actually mandate parking even if it exceeds what is desired by a property owner or merchant? Yes! The list goes on and on.

    Many of these tradeoffs were made by public works bureaucrats who used pseudo-scientific “standards” to force these changes on the public. There is no doubt in my mind that the era from 1990’s to present has involved a backlash against this way of developing places. Lots of contemporary movements in Marin can be seen in this light: opposition to new freeways, the desire for “complete streets” with sidewalks, safer street crossings, safe routes to schools, the desire for more bicycle pathways, getting rid of parking minimums, creating commercial environments that feel more “main street”, etc.

    We will never go back to the world of 1930. Auto ownership rates will never be that low again. Shopping is not going to all involve everybody in County walking to the butcher, baker and candle-stick maker in the quaint little downtowns to take care of all their needs. However, the pre-WWII places in the County do provide useful and representative examples of extremely pleasant places to live (pedestrian-scapes!) that can also co-exist with the modern world.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Franz – you and I agree on a lot here. Neither of us are deluded of harkening back to the days before automobiles. Or weaving an enticing story that Marin can be just like Europe (if it just builds more high density and transit).

      And yes, it’s not just our rural areas that make Marin unique, it’s:
      – low rises houses perched on hills
      – small, charming towns like Sausalito and Mill Valley that attract tourists and that are attractive places to walk around and hang out (already!)
      – a largely suburban / rural character that so many of us moved here for (to get away from urbanization elsewhere)

  4. Franz Listen says:

    I’m in agreement with Dave’s basic argument, I’m just acknowledging that we won’t be able to re-create pre-war Marin in all its precise details.

    For example, even as we expand transit options, I don’t think Alan Nicol’s trolley idea is on a glide path to being built. Even while we make Marin more walkable and bike friendly, most people are still going to use a car for most trips. And, even while shopping evolves to be more benevolent to the pedestrian, the retail parking lot is probably not going to disappear in Marin any time soon.

    Having said all that, I think that there is a good reason to look at pre-war communities in Marin as a source of inspiration for future infrastructure and town planning. This is the essence of new urbanism (once known as neo-traditional design).

    We simply don’t have the virgin land to develop strip malls and subdivisions along the same lines that we did in the 60’s and 70’s, nor do most people want to see that happen.

    I don’t think that a knee-jerk opposition to all new development is the right approach, either. Do we really think that every single existing building and vacant lot in Marin County is a gem that requires preservation? Did we really want the Wincup site to be a polystyrene factory forever, whether that made market sense or not? Did we want the former PG&E site and home of the San Rafael Corporate Center to be a contaminated vacant lot forever? I don’t think so.

  5. Stephen Nestel says:

    Franz- The automobile has made it possible for the middle class to own a home, opened up economic opportunity and jobs for Americans. Americans prefer opportunity and freedom. It is not opposition to growth and change, it is an opposition to crushing our democratic rights and economic liberty that gets us upset. We have cities. Move to one. Leave us alone to manage our own affairs.

  6. Jon Kragh says:

    I support local planning versus accepting arbitrary planning decisions from our friends in Sacramento. I support ‘sensible development’ that is supported by roads, schools and services that are paid for by taxes on the development. I support increasing our housing stock to support more residents but in ‘baby steps’ like 100 units rather than massive 1,000 unit complexes. I support placing new housing in areas where it makes sense – where the roads and services can support it. For these reasons, we must create a better solution to the proposed 920 unit complex in Larkspur Landing that satisfies none of the these goals. A solution that makes sense for not only the new residents but also the folks that already live in Marin. One would hope that we can find better places in Marin (with more open space and better traffic) to provide housing for new residents

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