A measure of Marin’s development politics: Regionalism

For decades, Marin has cultivated a reputation as a firmly anti-development county, most recently in vehement protestations against affordable and medium-density housing. This would certainly be a fair assessment if one simply attends or watches government meetings about development policy or read the IJ’s op-ed section. But survey data from One Bay Area shows Marin to be a much more nuanced, and rather divided, place.

This is the first in a four-part series on One Bay Area’s (OBA’s) survey and will examine the survey’s shortcomings as well as Marin’s responses on questions of regionalism. Subsequent installments will address Marin’s views on development, quality of life, and transportation.

On the survey

One Bay Area interviewed respondents in all nine Bay Area Counties and released the cross-tabs back in June. While the survey as a whole was informative and solid, there were some questions that were poorly worded and so tested messaging rather than policy.

“Do you support reducing driving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” was my least favorite. The Bay Area is strongly liberal and firmly convinced in the reality of global climate change. Of course we want to reduce greenhouse gases. Tying driving to such an obvious outcome doesn’t allow urbanists, who seek to reduce driving for a host of other reasons, to know whether driving reduction can resonate.

Another, “Do you support expanding commuter rail, like BART, to the rest of the Bay Area?”, conflates BART with commuter rail. Rather than focus on our real commuter railroads – Caltrain, SMART, ACE, and Amtrak – the question brings it back to everyone’s favorite transit system. The extremely strong positive response to this question is useless to planners outside BART who need to gauge public opinion on the subject. While it would be informative to SMART planners to see if their advertising campaign is successful in Marin and Sonoma, Napa and Solano are considering their own commuter rail system using light rail technology. Gauging support for such a system would be invaluable.

Regional planning

Notice how high Marin’s “Not at all important” response is. Responses to the question, “A long-term strategy for the entire bay area is currently being developed. The idea is to successfully plan the region’s housing and transportation needs for the next 30 years. This plan is focused on: improving the local economy, reducing driving and greenhouse gases, and providing access to housing and transportation for everyone who needs it. In general, how important do you think it is to establish this type of a regional plan?”

Marin’s sharp divisions are first seen in a question with overwhelming support in the county: do you support a regional plan? Fully 81.5 percent of Marinites think it’s a good idea, with only 10.7 percent who say it’s not important.  However, Marin has a far higher rate of response for those who answered that it was not at all important than the rest of the region, 8.6 percent in Marin vs. 2.8 percent for the whole region.

We further deviate from the region when discussing priorities. OBA asked whether a regional plan should focus on the economy, the provision of housing and transportation for all, or the reduction of driving and greenhouse gas emissions. Marin sided with the rest of the Bay Area in labeling the economy as the top priority, but was the only county where a plurality of people put greenhouse gas emissions in second place, slightly ahead of housing and transportation.

Answers the question, Which part of the plan is most important to the bay area's future: Improving the local economy, reducing driving and greenhouse gases, or providing access to housing and transportation for everyone?

Notice that Marin is largely in line with the rest of the region on the first question. Answers to the question, Which part of the plan is most important to the Bay Area’s future: Improving the local economy, reducing driving and greenhouse gases, or providing access to housing and transportation for everyone?

Asks what about the next most important priority. Notice here, Marin deviates from the rest of the region.

Asks what about the next most important priority. Notice here, Marin deviates from the rest of the region.

This is at odds with Marinites’ statements on the availability of affordable housing. Fully 67 percent of respondents said they believed the availability was either somewhat poor or poor. Only San Mateo residents were more negative on their affordable housing supply (71.2 percent). Perhaps some Marinites think that the lack of affordable housing isn’t a problem for solving. This sentiment has been expressed often in public testimonies: I scrimped and saved for a house in Novato even though I’d like to live in Tiburon. Why should someone else get taxpayer help when I got none*?

Marin is largely in line with the rest of the region on the subject of whether the region or local governments should plan development. Bay Area-wide, local planning wins out over regional planning by a large margin, 53.3 percent vs. 43.6 percent. Marinites responded 57.7 percent and 38.1 percent, respectively.

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No county in the Bay Area supports regional planning above local planning.

The sharp disparity between answers to this question and answers to the first question – whether or not a regional plan was a good idea – implies that Bay Area residents have separated in their minds a regional plan from local planning. Though it would be reasonable to think that they perceive regional plans as coordinating documents and local plans as visceral zoning documents, there’s not enough data to be sure. They could equally have a classic not-in-my-back-yard sentiment: we need affordable housing, just not here. Further studies are needed to clarify just what people think they’re supporting and opposing.

These questions on regionalism begin to explain the unease and rancor in Marin’s development politics. Marinites have a small but determined isolationist streak, and they are a bit more concerned about environmentalism than equity. When issues of affordable housing come up, arguments about social justice and social equity simply won’t hit as hard in San Rafael as they would in San Francisco. And when issues of regional mandates arise, this crosses into dangerous territory for those who are opposed to regional coordination and regional development planning.

But we need to look at how Marinites respond to specific development policies, and we’ll tackle that next time.

*As an aside, all homeowners get taxpayer help in the form of federal and state tax breaks, from the mortgage interest tax deduction to the stabilizing influence of Proposition 13.

Cross-posted to Vibrant Bay Area and Patch.

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Quiet and Safe San Rafael gets it wrong on density

A few weeks ago, Quiet and Safe San Rafael (QSSR) published the claim that 79 units per acre, zoned for potentially proposed for in Terra Linda*, is more dense than Manhattan or Hong Kong. Though they are technically correct, QSSR wildly misinterprets the concept, the data, and ignores the density already in our midst.

Density limits

A density limit in Marin restricts how many units can fit on the parcel as measured in acres. 2 units on a quarter-acre parcel works out to 8 units per acre (2 divided by 0.25 equals 8). This doesn’t include the street, parks, commercial development, or anything else beyond the building’s parcel.

I don’t know how Hong Kong does their density limits, but Manhattan doesn’t usually have per-unit density limits. Instead, New York limits how much floor area a building can have (a measure called floor-area ratio, or FAR, if you’re wondering). Again, this is based on the parcel, not the supporting infrastructure or all the other buildings.

The danger with measuring densities at a municipal level, as QSSR has done with Manhattan and Hong Kong, is that it does include all the rest of the city. It’s like measuring the size of a house and calling it all a bedroom. It is disingenuous to compare that to the parcel-based densities used by San Rafael.

So while it’s true that Manhattan averages 58 units per acre, higher than Terra Linda’s allowed 79, that includes Central Park, Times Square, the avenues and streets, the docks, ferry terminals, office buildings, plazas, schools, police stations, City Hall, the UN, the New York Stock Exchange, and all the other things that aren’t housing on that island.

Rafael Commons

Midtown Manhattan? Or senior housing in San Rafael? Image from Google Maps.

That’s ridiculous. Using San Rafael’s measuring system, a 20-story tower in Manhattan would average to 800 units per acre, far and away higher than Terra Linda’s 79. There’s a three-story senior home, San Rafael Commons, that hits 90 units per acre. Is it “more dense than Manhattan”? Not in any meaningful sense.

This exposes the danger of using density as a proxy for character, as it doesn’t measure anything about that. Character comes from a building’s form: how tall it is, how far back it’s set from other buildings or the street, etc. A single-family home can fit a second unit in the back, which doubles the parcel’s density. A three-story building could be filled with two-bedroom apartments and be low density, or be filled with studio apartments and be high density. It wouldn’t change the building’s visual impact.

Whether QSSR tried to be deliberately misleading or not, it is clear they are trying to stir up fear of tower blocks along 101. There are legitimate things to worry about in Plan Bay Area and legitimate things to critique. It’s truly unfortunate this activist group has chosen to focus on the ridiculous instead.

*Update and Correction: The intro misstated the current zoning and planned zoning and density around the Civic Center SMART station. Current zoning tops out at 43 units per acre, depending on where one looks. San Rafael’s Station Area Plan calls for densities “above 44 units per acre”, while the proposed Transit Town Center PDA calls for zoning to accommodate 20-75 units per acre. QSSR’s number comes from the average of all PDAs in the Bay Area, which is not applicable to any individual PDA like the Civic Center area in Terra Linda.

Mid-Week Links: The Subdivisions

by xspindoc

Marin County

  • LucasFilm has pulled its Grady Ranch proposal and will sell the land as affordable housing thanks to NIMBY opposition, stating, “Marin is a bedroom community and is committed to building subdivisions, not businesses.” Ouch. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Town of Fairfax has a new General Plan.  Among other things, the plan gives downtown businesses the opportunity to build second-story apartment units by right, rather than seeking special approval. (Town Manager)
  • Supervisor Arnold wants to know why growth projections for Marin have fluctuated so wildly in the Plan Bay Area draft SCS, and also why they are so out of line with historic norms. If the assumptions for Marin are flawed, she writes, then the whole process for the Bay Area is flawed. (IJ)
  • The March 28 MCCMC meeting offered opponents of housing quotas and ABAG to vent their frustrations against the regional agency. In the end, they also got leftover cookies. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Staying within ABAG is not just good for Marin – it’s good for the region, because what worries us ought to worry the rest of the Bay Area. (IJ)
  • Marin’s Local Coastal Program has gone through a four year epic journey of Coastal Commission and West Marin politics, public comments, criticism that it does too much (or too little), and even a splash of dominion theology as the county has worked to update the decades-old document. If you need some catching up, you may want to start here. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The AT&T Park ferry ride is getting too complicated, and too expensive, what with online reservations and a new convenience fee. (IJ) … A sidewalkless street in Homestead Valley is getting some sidewalks. (IJ) … What sort of light should a bicycle have? (Mercury News)

The Greater Marin

  • The finances and projections of California High Speed Rail are under scrutiny by noted rail opponent Representative Darryl Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. (Politico)
  • San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project SFMTA will give Muni buses signal priority by next year. I’m hoping GGT gets in on that. (Streetsblog) [edit – contrary to Streetsblog’s summary, signal priority is a related but separate program from TEP.]
  • Someone in San Francisco wants to park a tiny, 130 square foot house in a driveway. The plans are actually quite nice and would make a lovely second unit, though I thought the minimum dwelling size under California state law was 160 square feet. (SFist)
  • Little City Gardens will be San Francisco’s first real urban farm now that the city has approved a zoning change for the market. It will sell and grow its produce on the same property. (SPUR)
  • Cotati’s downtown revitalization plan will move forward, but because it uses redevelopment funds the vote is up for state approval. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Southern California Association of Governments – ABAG and MTC’s Los Angelino cousin – approved its version of Plan Bay Area.  The sustainable communities strategy will spend half its transportation funding on mass transit rather than cars over the next 25 years, though a number of communities said it didn’t go far enough. Streetsblog has details. (SF Chronicle, Streetsblog)

Mid-Week Links: Plans from On High

image from NASA

Plan Bay Area

  • Pacific Sun has a wonderful rundown, as they so often do, of the issues surrounding One Bay Area and Plan Bay Area – from the workshops disrupted by tea party agitators to historical context to just what the plan actually hopes to achieve.
  • One Bay Area has cut job and housing growth projections for Marin, with significant housing cuts in some towns and dramatic increases in others.  Town planners will be consulted for the next draft figures, to be released in May. (IJ)
  • However, Supervisor Judy Arnold, Marin’s alternate representative to ABAG,  called Plan Bay Area’s projected job increase in Marin unrealistic, citing a shrinking, rather than growing, job pool in the county. County staff will examine the numbers, and a decision will then be made whether to proceed with an appeal. (IJ)

Marin County

  • The Downtown San Rafael BID will get a $250,000 cash infusion for advertising and events after Keep It Local San Rafael settled their lawsuit against Target and Cal-Pox. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo is still tied in knots as it tries to tighten design review ordinances.  Neighbors are still upset over the addition to Councilmember Kroot’s home. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Joe Casalnuevo, who successfully challenged county ordinances over whether split lots needed to pay in-lieu affordable housing fees, has taken Marin to court over the fight, alleging $60,000 in damages and time lost fighting the fee. (IJ)
  • MCBC is taking volunteers for its annual Bike Locally Challenge, though at six months it may be a bit long for a promotion.  Arlington County, VA, does a month-long Car Free Diet that involves bikes and transit – perhaps Marin Transit could cross-promote? (Pacific Sun, County of Arlington)
  • Copyright law overrode local preference in Tiburon, where the council approved CVS’s red sign, overturning the Design Review Board’s ruling that it should be a gray and white sign. (IJ)
  • And…: Fairfax will at last install cameras for town council meetings. (IJ) … Ross Valley School District residents will vote on a $149 parcel tax in June to help stave off a budget crisis in the district. (Patch) … Marin Transit tweaks Novato and Terra Linda bus routes. (IJ) … Joseph Eichler designed more than just tract homes. (Bay Citizen)

The Greater Marin

  • While the focus of California High Speed Rail has been on just about everything but its utility, Central Valley cities are clamoring for the infrastructure. (LA Times, Fresno Bee)
  • Midcoast San Mateo is struggling with Plan Bay Area, which is including a county-designated Priority Development Area in the rural region.  Regional officials insist the rural development area is about improving infrastructure, not housing development. (San Mateo County Times)
  • Transit signage in the Bay Area are poor, and that’s actually no surprise at all.  Though MTC is on it, it’s unlikely Marin will see much of the fruit of their labor given our county’s current transit state of affairs. (Transportation Nation)
  • More people took public transit in 2011 than in 2010, the most since 1957, and that bodes well for the future of transportation and our cities. (New York Times)