Bad Ideas in Sacramento County

These really aren’t the same thing. Photos by road_less_trvled and Brave New Films

Sacramento has done great things lately. A new light-rail line extends from downtown to a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood near the river. A strong Sustainable Communities Strategy was recently approved by the region. Smart growth is taking root in the sprawling region.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. The Sacramento Bee reports that Sacramento County supervisors approved a smart-growth redesign of Watt Avenue, an aging, low-density commercial strip, and immediately granted a waiver for Wal-Mart to move in to the very heart of the corridor, the part closest to the city and closest to light rail.

Staff argued that Wal-Mart would generate jobs, provide access to cheap groceries, and help catalyze growth in the area. Supervisors reportedly were only concerned with pedestrian safety and not the store’s traffic or the store’s design. It also apparently didn’t occur to them that supermarkets would move in on their own as the corridor developed.

I can’t comment on the wisdom of a smart-growth corridor extending in a thin, four-mile line through some fairly suburban neighborhoods far from the central city, though at first glance the land-use and parking requirements don’t seem particularly progressive. What I can comment on is placing a suburban-style, car-centric Wal-Mart where the supervisors want to encourage anything but driving.

In short, it’s crazy, a poison pill.  Nobody likes to walk by a strip mall parking lot.  When was the last time you walked next to a 10-acre parking lot on a summer day? What about walking through it to get to the bus?  Now imagine doing that in a Central Valley summer.  I shudder to consider it.  If Sacramento County wants to build a walkable, transit-oriented corridor, they need to stop granting approvals for projects that stand in direct contradiction to their goals.

It’s like saying you want to lose weight, but you still let yourself have McDonald’s for lunch every day. Your goal is at odds with your actions, and any progress you might make will be slowed or stalled entirely because of it.

One of Wal-Mart’s planned DC stores. Image from JBG.

Department stores, the classier ancestors of the big-box genre of stores, were once an integral part of walking around downtown. Macy’s, now more associated with the mall, even throws a parade in New York on Thanksgiving to celebrate its connection with that most urban of communities.  Wal-Mart is trying to recapture that feel in Washington, DC, building urban-style stores with apartments and offices above and smaller shops along the sides.  The parking lot is an underground garage.

Wal-Mart, in other words, didn’t need a waiver from the density minimums and could have anchored the smart-growth corridor with a smart-growth store. The Sacramento County Board and staff should have pushed for something better, but instead they will be saddled with a strip mall in a place that is supposed to be the opposite.

Thankfully, Marin’s governments are a bit more savvy, and Marin’s residents are much more wary, than to allow such a fiasco. What we do allow, though, are sprawl projects that take life out of our downtowns. Hanna Ranch, for instance, could have been a major boost to downtown Novato had the city been willing to push the project there. Instead, it will be a greenfield sprawl development beyond that giant dead-end called Vintage Oaks.

While we draw up new general plans, our governments and people need to keep in mind their more philosophical goals: to protect the character of each town, to strengthen and preserve town centers, and to focus what growth we do allow in ways that will do those things. Otherwise, we risk just the sort of near-sighted foolishness exemplified in Sacramento County’s decision, and that would be a tragedy.

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Mid-Week Links: Crashworthy

One of the reasons for SMART’s higher-than-expected cost is Federal crashworthiness standards that forced the agency to look for custom-built heavy DMUs.  Yet, as explained by Market Urbanism, the regulations were made for a time before intelligent, lightweight materials were available and force the US to forego the engineering standards used everywhere else in the world.  As shown above, the new materials are perfectly capable of keeping vehicles safe.  It’s too late for SMART to change their order, but this regulatory regime can and should be changed for all the other transit agencies looking to hold down costs.

Marin County

In case you missed it, there were off-year elections this past Tuesday.  Urbanism won the day for the most part, fending off avowed anti-city challengers in Novato and San Anselmo.  Many disagreed with San Rafael’s new mayor, Gary Phillips, on Target but he has a firmly pro-business stance and will serve downtown San Rafael well.  Across the country, Greater Greater Washington looks at what makes a candidate electable, the Center for Transportation Excellence has posted the status of transit measures nationwide and Half-Mile Circles looks at a few of the big-ticket items.

  • The County is considering regulations on smoking within multi-unit dwellings, I guess because a home is only private space when it’s got a half-acre of land around it.
  • There will be no Terrapin Crossroads, says Phil Lesh.  Fairfaxians are heartbroken.
  • A driver struck a teen in Novato last week along pedestrian-unfriendly Novato Boulevard.  He’s doing okay, although he’s also lucky to be alive.
  • SMART plans to spend up to $200,000 to polish its image and push back against opponents.
  • Novato’s Hanna Ranch development would be built without affordable housing while creating low-income jobs.  This is suspiciously inconsistent.  Deciding on final approval, meanwhile, has been punted by the Council to November 29.
  • California may have  a massive infrastructure maintenance deficit, but at least Mill Valley is behaving responsibly.
  • Mill Valley’s Chamber of Commerce plots a comeback.
  • A proposal has surfaced to create dedicated, separated bus lanes on Van Ness Avenue, speeding buses along the corridor with significantly more efficiency than currently allowed.  Since Golden Gate Transit uses Van Ness for a number of its lines, this change would benefit Marinites as well as San Franciscans.
  • Want to save a state park otherwise slated for closure? Stop by the Parks Coalition brainstorming session on November 15.
  • If there’s one thing Marin does well, it’s loving local businesses.

The Greater Marin

Using open, real-time location data, Eric Fischer mapped the speeds for the transit system. Click to enlarge.

  • Cotati is considering revamping a short stretch of Old Redwood Highway near their hexagonal downtown to make it more pedestrian-friendly and less of the car thoroughfare it currently is.  Local businesses want to entrench the 40 MPH status quo.
  • The City of Napa is considering something similar: a $38 million redesign of their downtown.
  • San Francisco apparently boasts three of the best bars in the world, and there’s no better way to enjoy a bar than to take transit.  Don’t stay out too late, of course: your last bus to Marin leaves at 12:30am.
  • Oakland residents are dedicated to historic preservation, going so far as to wield shotguns to defend their heritage.
  • Shockwaves from the $98 billion (nominal) price tag for California High-Speed Rail continue to ripple through the blogosphere.  On one side are engineers, who say it is far, far too overbuilt, and on the other are those who look at the big picture to argue it’s still a good deal.  I say, if you can save money by foregoing massive viaducts through San Jose, forego the viaducts.
  • Sacramento might not get its rail line for a while yet, but where to locate a station is still troublesome for officials.
  • We love our green initiatives.  Unfortunately one of the most popular, Cash for Clunkers, was a bust.
  • Congress did something bipartisan today and unanimously passed out of committee a two year extension of the federal transportation bill, MAP-21.
  • Bad traffic designs that create gridlock create exhaust which seems to hurt our neurological health.
  • Lastly, in a testament to how budget cuts can even cut efficient programs, the General Services Administration no longer will have the money to make their headquarters an example of solid office design and will instead remain in the big, bureaucratic office building that looks just like you expect.