Make Town Center a Town Center

Central to the discussion of Corte Madera’s housing concerns is that it is built-out. There is no more developable land, and its commercial areas are productive and full. Where will more people go? The answer lies in Corte Madera Town Center’s parking lot.

The Situation

Corte Madera Town Center, block 024-163. Click to enlarge.

Over the next 28 years, Corte Madera is projected to grow by 204 units, most of which will be enforced by the state through its RHNA process. The town wants to rid itself of RHNA by quitting ABAG, saying that the assignment of so many units is simply too high given the fact that there is no unused land to develop.

Enter Block 024-163, occupied by the four story Town Center mall, two gas stations, and a buffer along the Tamalpais Drive exit ramp. Of the 31.7 acres, only 7.5 acres are used by buildings, leaving the other 24.2 used by parking or parking access.

Town Center prides itself on imitating a vaguely Mediterranean village, with narrow brick walkways and arches. Transit access is provided by no fewer than eight all-day bus routes and two commute routes. By bus, it’s 45 minutes to San Francisco, eight minutes to San Rafael from the bus pad, and it’s walking distance to downtown Corte Madera, the Village, and most of Central and Southern Marin are biking distance. Town Center has a grocery store, doctors, cafés, and restaurants.

I can’t think of a better spot to put some low-rise apartments.

The Proposal

My concept is for Town Center to fill its entire lot rather than just a fifth of it, creating a walkable village that activates the streets around it for foot traffic and develops a bustling hive of activity on the inside. Even with parking garages using a quarter of the lot, the design could accommodate between 400 and 665 units of housing – far, far beyond what ABAG projects the town will need to build.

People actually live in places like this. From MadisonMarquette.

From the inside, the Town Center would look much like it does today: winding pedestrian streets 20-30 feet wide dominated by retail. The closest American equivalent I can think of is Santa Barbara’s Paseo Nuevo. Located downtown, the two-block mall opens directly onto the sidewalks, integrating seamlessly with the rest of the city. Small retail bays would encourage locally-grown shops that couldn’t afford larger retail, and encouraging studio apartments would ensure little undue pressure on schools.

The catch is that this sort of project is illegal under Corte Madera’s current zoning codes. Even the Mixed Use Gateway District is too restrictive, as it was tailor-made for the Wincup site and requires a parking space for every unit. The parking requirement would be particularly foolish for a development that relies on walkable, transit-oriented living, as it would impose onerous costs on the development for minimal return.

For the site to develop properly, a new zone would need to be developed for the site. Perhaps (and I’m spitballing here) a minimum of 40 housing units per acre but no maximum; no parking minimum; no restriction on what sort of store or office you could open on the site, contrary to what the code currently allows; a maximum height of 30 feet for the street, 45 for the interior; and a rooftop garden, to filter out the nastiness from the freeway. If the developer were allowed to unbundle the parking from the residences, meaning a resident could choose whether to just rent an apartment or to also rent a parking space, it would take some pressure off the need for more parking and allow the developer to figure out for itself how many spaces to build rather than rely on diktat from town hall.

The density may be enough to encourage Zipcar, the car-sharing service, to finally open in Marin. Studies have shown that one Zipcar takes 15 cars off the road, and that users tend to make fewer trips by car. If town hall wants to encourage transit use, too, it could facilitate a six month free bus pass program for anyone who moves to Town Center. Studies show that transit use is sticky – few people switch from transit to driving once going from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat – so putting people that already live in a walkable place onto transit from Day One will mean less traffic for everyone.

I present this project as a talking point, a concept of how Corte Madera could build value for itself through the affordable housing allocation process. The childless singles and couples that would move there would add tax revenue to the town without any additional burden on the school system. Rather than just a mall, Corte Madera would have a new village in Marin, and all on land that the city now thinks of as “built out” and undevelopable. These aren’t high rises, nor are they Soviet apartment blocks. By opening the door through zoning, rather than just constructing affordable housing, developers would be free to build housing however the market supports.

Every parking lot is an opportunity for something new. Storing cars isn’t a high use for land. It’s untaxable, and it leaves the land fallow for most of the time. Corte Madera has the space for new housing and, more than most towns, it has the location.  No matter what the town does it will need to build more housing. This is the best place for it.

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ABAG, Let’s Talk About Corte Madera

Image from Plan Bay Area; drawing inspired by Lydia DePillis

It’s tiny, but Corte Madera is still important.

To ABAG Staff:

Congratulations!  You’ve been invited to testify at a couple of Corte Madera town council meetings.  I know it’s far away and I know it’s a tiny town, but please resist the urge to blow off these meetings.  Corte Madera deserves to know why it is projected to grow and how it’s expected to grow when it feels as though it’s already built out.  Luckily, the town council isn’t terribly familiar with the Plan Bay Area process.  For example, Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG, Councilwoman Carla Condon, only recently learned that Plan Bay Area involves more agencies than just ABAG!  There is a great opportunity to educate the council on what you do, why you do it, why it’s important for Corte Madera, and why it’s important for the region.

To prepare you for the task, I’ve assembled a bit of a cheat sheet of the questions you’ll get and what you should do in preparation to answer.  Each of these could be its own article, but hopefully I can point you in the right direction to find this out on your own.

Why is Plan Bay Area necessary?

Don’t simply say that the state mandated it, and don’t simply parrot a line about Smart Growth.  Give the background on the subject.  For reference, make sure to read the articles Planetizen has gathered under its SB 375 tag, including the ones critical of the legislation.  That’s your homework, because you need to argue for SB 375 just as hard as you argue for ABAG.

In short, Plan Bay Area is necessary to do exactly what makes the most sense: concentrate growth where there already is infrastructure to support residents; to build up our central cities; to reduce particulate pollution; to promote active living for a range of public health reasons; and to ensure growth builds up our region rather than weakens it.

Doesn’t higher density growth lead to more greenhouse gases?

This is an argument popularized in Marin by Mill Valley resident Bob Silvestri, a kind of home-grown Wendell Cox.  His opus on the subject argues that low-density housing is more environmentally friendly than medium-density housing.  Mayor Bob Ravasio believes this, too.

Though there are a number of problems with his argument, the least obvious is that Silvestri argues as though no growth is a viable alternative.  Of course constructing buildings produces greenhouse gases, but the point is to reduce per-capita greenhouse gas production, not absolute production.  This means moving people to their feet where possible and transit where not, and that means that growth should happen with moderately higher densities.

Be prepared to answer criticisms like Silvestri’s.

Doesn’t ABAG want Corte Madera to become a high-rise city?

Assocated questions are: isn’t Corte Madera already built out?  Where would we put more people?  ABAG’s vice president stuck a foot in her mouth when she answered this question with a finger pointed in the air, saying, If you say your town is built out, then build up.  For towns in Marin, her statement played right into the image of ABAG as a soul-sucking, social-experimenting, power-mad agency that wants to destroy town character.  Never, ever, say that Marin needs to build up.

Not only does it sound bad to Marinites, but it’s also not accurate. Instead of such a ham-fisted answer, you need to emphasize that Plan Bay Area wants to move the region back to how we used to build cities. To illustrate, talk about the parts of Marin that Marinites like.  We love the places like downtown Mill Valley, downtown Corte Madera, downtown San Anselmo, downtown Larkspur, etc.  When we think about small-town feel, we think of these commercial strips.  Contrast this with those areas we don’t like as much: Smith Ranch, Terra Linda, Vintage Oaks.  The distinguishing factor between the two types of areas are what they were oriented around. The places Marinites like are old transit-oriented development, built around train stations and people walking.  The places Marinites don’t like are car-oriented development, built around parking lots.

What Plan Bay Area envisions is a return to traditional town planning in those places that were built with the parking lot in mind.  In Corte Madera, allowing residential uses on the parking lots of the Town Center shopping mall, even if they’re just townhomes, would be more than enough growth for many RHNA cycles and certainly more than expected over the next 28 years of Plan Bay Area.

People don’t walk or bike now, so why would new residents?

To address this question, bring solid research and charts.  Remember that the densities you’re talking about for Corte Madera are in the range of 4,000 people per square mile, and that it’s proximity to transit amenities and bicycle infrastructure more than population densities that will induce people to use their feet and the bus.

Take, for example, the new study from the Arizona Department of Transportation.  Even at very low housing densities, moving people closer together brings down the number of vehicle miles traveled.  The goal isn’t to eliminate driving but to give people the option to walk, bike, or use transit without it being an undue burden.  Also, it’s also not solely focused on commutes.  Someone who drives to work but walks to Corte Madera Cafe on Saturday – Plan Bay Area promotes more of that.

Oh, and nearly one in five commutes in Corte Madera are already by transit, bike, or foot, so someone’s doing some walking.

What good has ABAG ever done for Corte Madera?

Talk to the Council about what ABAG does on a regular basis for Marin County as a whole and what they expect to do for Corte Madera in the future. ABAG, for example, manages federal grant money as a metropolitan planning organization.  It also provides financial services for members; provides research data on population and housing in the region; and a host of other things (PDF).  If appropriate, talk about the role of Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG and how you would love to work with her more.

What is the methodology used to create your growth numbers?

Bring a modelling expert with you who can answer questions about growth methodology.  This is important, so I’ll say it again: bring a modelling expert with you to answer questions.  For Corte Madera, the whole dispute boils down to what is happening inside the modelling black box.  The council is worried that your agency will destroy Corte Madera’s character out of negligence, so bring someone who can answer their questions and open up that black box.

Corte Madera has some legitimate questions that need legitimate answers.  You cannot sleepwalk through this presentation or the Q&A afterwards.  You will likely face a hostile public that will call you a fascist for doing regional planning.  You cannot zone that out either.  You need to be engaged and engaging.  You need to educate the Council about what One Bay Area is doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, and what it all means for Corte Madera and Marin.

In all honesty, I’d love to have the answers to some of these questions.  What is the proper role of a representative to ABAG?  What is the exact work that went into Corte Madera’s projected growth?  I’ll look forward to your testimony almost as much as the Council, I’m sure.

In any event, this is your chance to change the conversation in Corte Madera and the rest of the Bay Area.  This is your chance to reboot your messaging.  This is your chance to justify your agency’s existence.  Don’t let that chance slip away.

Come support Corte Madera in ABAG

Corte Madera will consider whether to finalize its departure from ABAG tomorrow (Tuesday) at 7:30. Come out and voice your opposition! I’ll be speaking at the public comment time and I would love to have more than me there.

As a reminder, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG over what it saw as overreach by the association in housing mandates and the One Bay Area process. I strenuously opposed the decision, calling it a dramatic overreaction to nonexistent problems. It will hurt the town, in that it will get housing mandates from the state after the upcoming RHNA cycle is over in 2021, and will hurt the region as a whole, in that a growth model that fails Corte Madera may be failing the rest of the Bay Area. I will make the same arguments during the public comment period.

Mid-Week Links: Colombian Roast

Medellín has a transit system unlike any other.  For the steep mountainsides there are gondolas and escalators; for the center city, there are metro trains and BRT, and for everywhere else there’s a burgeoning bikeshare system. Whenever I see movies like this, I imagine what kind of place Marin might have been if the trains had never stopped running, if BART had made it across the bridge, if we didn’t value mall parking above people and the planet.  What kind of a country would we be if, rather than putting cars before people, we put people before cars?

Marin County

  • The Ritter Center will expand into a temporary medical space, thanks to approval by the San Rafael council Monday night, but will be limited to only 60 clients per day rather than the 65 requested. (Pacific Sun)
  • Opponents of the Albert Park minor league plan have filed suit, arguing that professional baseball violates the park’s deed restriction against commercial activity. (Patch)
  • If you want to influence your town, show up to public meetings, if only to counterbalance the protestors that tend to show up instead. (Herald)
  • The Board of Supervisors delayed a vote on Lucas Valley’s Grady Ranch, pending review of environmental concerns raised by the Corps of Engineers and others. (IJ)
  • And…: Corte Madera started work on a new public plaza and cafe at its town-owned shopping center. (IJ) … San Anselmo approved a new parking lot across from downtown. (IJ) … Novato will install six electric car charging stations. (IJ) … San Anselmo is considering major improvements to Greenfield Avenue. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Congress approved a 90 day extension of federal transportation legislation, ensuring the gas tax and road construction funds did not end last weekend. The House never took up the Senate transportation bill, and the result is all kinds of bad. (The Hill)
  • Cost estimates for California High Speed Rail plummeted $30 billion under a new business plan released this week. (SFist)
  • Golden Gate/Marin Transit may not be the best transit system in the world, but at least it’s typically on time – something Muni can’t really boast. (SFist)
  • In the City often?  Need a break from the bustle?  You may want to investigate the privately owned public spaces that dot the landscape. (SFist)

ABAG Options that Work

Cutting our ties

Corte Madera’s departure from ABAG won’t solve any of their problems – indeed, it will compound them.  Despite the town’s protestations that housing mandates are imposed upon them by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats that don’t understand the town, the fact remains that by quitting ABAG they have simply gone from an organization where they had a say to a state housing department where they have no say.

If Corte Madera were serious about regaining local control over whether it will build any housing or not, it would look for ways to work within the system while seeking its reform.  In their ill-informed haste, Corte Madera left behind two important tools in the ABAG toolbox: forming a subregion, and allocation trades.

Shrink the fish pond

A subregion is a group of governments assigned their state housing needs as a block, and the subregion may then divvy up the allocations between members as they see fit.  This gives local governments significantly more control over planning decisions as staff is necessarily closer to the ground and even the smallest minnow of a town has a greater voice in a smaller fish pond.

An effective Marin subregion would need to involve the whole of the county’s towns and cities.  Policy decisions, such as factors for the allocation methodology, would be decided by either the county’s ABAG delegation or the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, consisting of all 60 of Marin’s elected councilmembers and supervisors.  Either way gives the process legitimacy, something ABAG is sorely lacking, and allows the public to be more involved decisionmaking.

Napa took advantage of the subregional option this RHNA cycle, forming a subregion for precisely the reasons of local control and to address local concerns.  Their draft methodology will likely include factors such as water availability and traffic, both serious concerns in Marin as well, and will involve significant negotiations between individual jurisdictions.

Alas, the time to form a subregion has passed.  Protests against this last RHNA cycle focused on the state’s supposed usurpation of local control and the deleterious effects thereof and so never got around to more productive lines of thought like forming a subregion.  Even if Marin were to establish a subregion tomorrow, the upcoming RHNA cycle would not take the subregion into account.  This process requires patience, and the blinkered opponents of RHNA are motivated by righteous anger, not calculated political moves.

Trading spaces

Luckily, ABAG allows localities who find their allocations particularly onerous to trade away some of their housing allocations, so long as a jurisdiction doesn’t entirely abdicate its responsibility for new housing, compensates the receiving jurisdiction for the burden, and maintains the overall mix of affordable housing. ABAG must approve the transfer, but is not required to under state law – the Southern California Area Governments, ABAG’s SoCal counterpart, does not require review, for example, though it does require the jurisdictions to be contiguous.

While there weren’t any trades based on taste last cycle, as there would be if Corte Madera involved, Mountain View did transfer some of its allocation to Santa Clara County for practical reasons.  Moffett Field was projected to add jobs, but the town had no jurisdiction over the facility, which was in unincorporated county land, and protested that it was responsible for what amounted to federal workforce housing.  Santa Clara, as the proper jurisdiction over Moffett Field, agreed to take over responsibility for the allocated units.

It’s unclear whether Corte Madera could be part of such trades while outside ABAG, as it would be the only jurisdiction in the Bay Area not part of the association.  Rather, as a jurisdiction receiving its allocation directly from the state it would likely be obligated to zone for the whole batch.  Town staff are preparing a report on what happens now that Corte Madera has left ABAG, which should shine more light on that issue.

Either option – forming a subregion, or initiating trades – requires political leadership that can reach across jurisdictional lines and convince those who want to work within the system.  It requires patience, and faith in the system, to lead reform, yet by acting so recklessly and counterproductively Corte Madera has shown it cannot be that leader.  Unless Marin finds such a leader, opponents of regionalism will continue to burn the only bridges they have back to local control.

A Lesson in Overreaction

There’s an old saying: “Think local, act global.”  It’s a pithy reminder that everything we do, from our brand of toilet paper to how we structure our cities, effects everyone else.

I think someone forgot to tell Corte Madera that.

This past Tuesday, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG, effective July, 2013.  The Council voted out of frustration at housing mandates it says are killing the town’s character, out of anger at Plan Bay Area, and out of a belief that Corte Madera is perfect.  Yet its actions will have no effect on any of the issues at stake in this debate and will hinder the town’s capacity to shape those issues.

Corte Madera will still need to zone for more housing.  Although ABAG is the administrator of housing requirements for this region, the mandate to zone comes from the state government.  By leaving ABAG, Corte Madera will receive its mandates directly from Sacramento, exposing it to the whim of a truly unelected and unaccountable body.  Within ABAG, Corte Madera had a voice in the association’s General Assembly.  It could contest mandates, allocation formulae, assumptions, and more.  Although staff has a major role to play in governments across the region, at least ABAG staff worked for local elected officials and were answerable to them.

Beyond ABAG, Corte Madera is still a part of the other three regional organizations – Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission – which are all working on Plan Bay Area.  Indeed, Corte Madera will be materially affected by decisions made by these agencies but will lack any voice at the proceedings, as it has no representative on any of their boards.

If Corte Madera is subject to SB375, it will need to work directly with staff at each of those regional agencies to formulate its greenhouse gas reduction plans, using up valuable regional and town staff time simply to duplicate efforts and wasting taxpayer money to do so.

Not that any of this will matter for a while.  Although details are a bit sketchy, it seems as though Corte Madera will still be subject to ABAG mandates for the upcoming housing needs allocation.  If you listened to media reports you’d never know it, but there will be no material difference to Corte Madera as a result of these actions.  The town will still be subject to Plan Bay Area and will still receive housing allocations from ABAG until the following allocation in 2020.

The straw that broke this camel’s back were preliminary draft growth projections being used in Plan Bay Area’s discussion phase.  They were too high, a problem brought up with force at Tuesday’s council meeting, but ABAG heard the voice of the town and others and will revise its numbers significantly downward in the next draft.  Those original numbers were released with no methodology, another complaint of Corte Maderans, but ABAG will release its second draft methodology this month.  Housing allocation numbers for the next cycle haven’t even been drafted yet, but they were brought up time and again as though the town already knew it would need to zone for hundreds of new units.  These are fake problems ginned up by Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilmember Carla Condon, who should be fighting within the system rather than railing against it.

So what did Corte Madera get with its resolution on Tuesday?  Headlines, extra costs, and a muted voice.  Corte Madera will still receive housing allocations from ABAG in 2013 and the state in 2020, it will still be subject to Plan Bay Area, it will still be under regional organizations, but it has forfeited its voice in any of these decisions and has thrust upon its staff state-mandated planning requirements currently performed by ABAG.  The council gets to look like a hero to the county’s paper progressives, but its petulant overreaction to nonexistent problems will only compound the town’s woes.

Walkable Centers, Walkable Stations

If our local transit agencies ever revamp their bus maps or create supplements like my spider map, they should mark important stops as walkable centers, branding them like rail stations even if SMART will never go anywhere near them.

Inspired by David Klion’s metro station walkability rankings for the DC area I decided to make my own.  I was curious how our various bus pads and transit hubs stack up against one another in part out of curiosity, and in part to see whether major improvements could be made around our town centers and bus pads.  Using Walkscore, I got the following rankings, in order:

  1. Santa Rosa Town Center, 98
  2. Mill Valley Town Center, 97
  3. Fairfax Parkade, 95
  4. San Rafael Transit Center, 94
  5. Copeland Street, Petaluma, 94
  6. Terra Linda Bus Pad, 86
  7. Larkspur Town Center, 83
  8. San Anselmo Hub, 82
  9. Sausalito Ferry, 82
  10. Rohnert Park, Town Center, 82
  11. Ignacio Bus Pad, 80
  12. Cotati Town Center, 80
  13. Tiburon Town Center, 78
  14. Strawberry Transit Center, 75
  15. Novato Transit Center, 75
  16. Marin City Transit Center, 75
  17. Rowland Avenue Bus Pad, 74
  18. Lucas Valley Bus Pad, 74
  19. Corte Madera Town Center, 72
  20. Civic Center, 72
  21. Paradise Drive Bus Pad, 71
  22. Larkspur Landing, 71
  23. Ross Town Center, 69
  24. Delong Bus Pad, 68
  25. Lucky Drive Bus Pad, 68
  26. Tiburon Wye Bus Pad, 68
  27. Canal (Average), 67
  28. Seminary Drive Bus Pad, 66
  29. College of Marin 63
  30. Manzanita Bus Pad, 60
  31. N San Pedro Road Bus Pad, 58
  32. Spencer Avenue Bus Pad, 55
  33. Atherton Bus Pad, 51
  34. Alameda del Prado Bus Pad, 34
  35. Marinwood Bus Pad, 18
  36. Manor, 12

A few things stick out to me.  First, bus pads are far less walkable than town centers, though most of them are walkably close to amenities.  Especially surprising was the Lucas Valley bus pad, which is within walking distance of quite a few commercial outlets.  It is apparently more accessible than bus stops in downtown Ross and Corte Madera.  Second is the high accessibility of older towns and low accessibility of newer areas.  Third is that Marin’s development is remarkably walkable compared to that of the DC metro area.  The average score for Marin is just a hair under 71, the same as DC’s subway station average of 71, though some of the suburban counties have averages in the 40s. Lastly, there is no stop in Marin with a perfect 100.

One should keep in mind that Walkscore doesn’t include the actual pedestrian environment. I’d much rather spend an afternoon in downtown Corte Madera than around the Smith Ranch Road office parks. Rather, Walkscore tells us that the bones of a real, metro-esque system are already in place, and that these neighborhoods, if retrofitted for walkability and served properly by transit, could take off.  It also tells us that development and the bus system have gone hand-in-hand: the various walkable (or at least accessible) centers around the county are served by the bus.

And these are the places that should be branded as transit hubs.  In DC, unlike the Bay Area, metro stations are the centers of a huge amount of development.  Cities market their metro stations as potential downtowns, and conversations about urban planning, office development, and more revolve around transit accessibility.  DC’s metro map makes it easy for people to know how to get where they want to go, and businesses can market themselves with ease.  The carless Washingtonian may never get on the bus, but they know how to get where they need to go if it’s next to a Metro station.

The same sort of branding and mapping could bring investment to the various gray fields around our bus hubs.  The Hub, for example, has an abandoned construction project not more than 500 feet away.  It’s built into the hillside, so a taller building of four stories or more is certainly feasible.  Something similar might be built around Smith Ranch Road on either side of the freeway, while the huge parking lots around downtown Tiburon and Larkspur Landing could be put to far better use than car storage.

Because these centers are already walkable, they could in theory support more transit than is currently in place.  Marin’s buses are blessed with walkable areas and mostly simple routes.  They just need that push to succeed.