Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

Last month, we reported that Marin’s population grew much faster in 2013 than it had historically, up 1 percent rather than the historical average of 0.2 percent. Last week, the US Census released numbers for cities and towns, and the numbers show an equally sunny trend.

Cities and town populations grew an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 led by 1.8 percent growth in Novato, 1.2 percent in Mill Valley, and 1.1 percent in Tiburon.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

This is on the heels of a very slow growth decade. Between 2000 and 2010, a number of towns shrank: Sausalito, Belvedere, San Anselmo, and Larkspur, along with unincorporated Marin. As you can see from the chart above, not one part of Marin shrank in the past 3 years, a marked change. Of those towns that did grow from 2000-2010, Mill Valley and Corte Madera grew faster in the past 3 years than they did that whole decade. So did Marin County as a whole.

Other towns reversed shrinking trends. Belvedere, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Sausalito, and unincoporated Marin all shrank between 2000 and 2010, and all grew over the past 3 years.

Novato stands apart from the data as by far the fastest-growing city in the county, and it is accelerating along with the rest of the county. Between 2000 and 2010, it grew an average of 0.9 percent per year, while this past year it more than doubled that rate, to 1.8 percent. It is known as the city with the cheapest housing, but much of that cost is offset by driving. The H+T affordability index puts the city as just as unaffordable as the rest of the county, and it’s not surprising. Novatoans have longer commutes than other Marinites, while its high rate of retail leakage means plenty of them are also driving far for errands.

We don’t yet know who these new residents are by city, but we do know that they aren’t births. Most of the new residents to the county at large moved here; were it not for them, we’d be shrinking rapidly.

We also know they aren’t occupying new housing. Over the past 3 years, Marin’s housing stock has been essentially stable, growing by just 0.25 percent.

This throws a wrench into the slow-growth argument against housing. Every city is growing faster than it did from 2000-2010, and this past year every city grew more than 0.8 percent. It’s not just Novato carrying the county.

It also means that, even with essentially nothing in the way of new housing, Marin is growing. Critics are right that Marin can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, but it also can’t ignore the fast-brewing problems within its own borders. Rapid population growth without housing only tightens the screws.

While anti-development activists in other suburbs have proven to be reticent to allow second units, those in Marin have been veritable boosters of the idea. That opens up the potential for another 66,000 homes without altering the feel or character of host neighborhoods. We can’t ignore that potential, or the potential for proper infill housing, any longer.

Advertisements

A reality check for Randy Warren’s climate change plan

A candidate for San Rafael City Council has a bold plan to cut transportation CO2 emissions: subsidize electric cars. While at surface it sounds reasonable enough, the plan would be expensive for little gain.

Take a look at candidate Randy Warren’s platform and you’ll find, under the climate change header, a description for Operation New Leaf.

For all the theories about what we can do to reduce greenhouse gasses from cars and light trucks, the reality is that the plans are speculation and hope.  Let’s aim instead for guaranteed results.  I propose Operation New Leaf, a plan to provide incentives for our out-of-county workforce to purchase zero emission cars for their commute to San Rafael. This plan targets workers who have held a San Rafael job for at least one year and live at least 20 miles away. The city would negotiate special rates with San Rafael car dealers, from whom the cars would have to be purchased or leased.  Participating workers would have to make a good faith pledge to do their workday shopping in San Rafael, so we improve our local economy and recover some operating costs via related sales tax.  We would target up to a 50% subsidy to the workers, with proper safeguards.  We then need to line up sponsors, whether from MTC or the private sector (including the car manufacturers themselves as a pilot program).  This is a complex proposal that requires a city study group, and I will encourage such study take place.  But until our legislature has the guts to set a date for banning the registration of new gas-powered cars, Operation New Leaf would produce instant and certain results in reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Census doesn’t estimate the source of in-commuting jobs by city, but we can estimate. There are roughly 43,000 jobs in the city. Of Marin jobs, a quarter are held by workers in counties at least 20 miles away from San Rafael (i.e., all but San Francisco and Contra Costa). Proportionally, that means about 7,760 San Rafael workers live about 20 miles away or more. With that in mind, I estimate the cost of Operation New Leaf at around $97 million, not including the cost to move an additional 1,000 cars to the city’s job centers and store them once they get there.

Would MTC help? Likely not, given their pursuit of multi-modal solutions to transportation problems. Would Nissan help so they could promote their electric Leaf? Probably not enough to make the project affordable. Would a change in drivers’ shopping habits offset the cost? Again, probably not enough to make it affordable to the city. Leasing the vehicles instead of buying them outright might put the cost into a more-affordable area around $10 million per year, but that’s still far more than San Rafael could carry.

Equally as unaffordable are the consequences.

The cost to congestion would be enormous, given that this would be like closing a traffic lane on Highway 101. And the cost to our built environment would be high, too. San Rafael would suddenly need to find parking for at least another 1,000 cars per day [see update below], not to mention charging stations for not just these 1,000 vehicles but the 10,000 others bought by people who already drive to the city.

This might be net-negative in greenhouse gas emissions, provided increased congestion doesn’t make the situation worse, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. Electric cars in California emit the equivalent CO2 of a 70mpg gasoline car. BART, in contrast, emits the equivalent of around 940mpg. It would also put those currently taking transit to work into harm’s way (driving kills 35,000 people per year), and fight downtown San Rafael’s efforts to expand its walkable downtown east of Highway 101.

To reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, San Rafael ought to try to segment the travel market for trips under 2 miles, where most car trips are made. Some of those really are best done by car, but others are best done on foot or bike. How we build our roads and grow San Rafael should allow each mode to function best in balance with the others.

For walking, that means maintaining sidewalks and slowing down the perceived speed of cars, which can drive away foot traffic. For biking, it means building quality bike infrastructure that is safe for anyone age 8 to 80. For driving, it means encouraging people who don’t need to drive to leave the car at home and out of the way of other drivers. Even if a few percent of trips shift from car to another mode, that’s often enough to unlock traffic flow.

Or, if San Rafael really wants to spend millions of its own dollars on transportation, it could build a comprehensive Class I bicycle lane network for the whole city and Ross Valley with money to spare. It could provide free transit passes to in-commuters, cleaning up traffic while also cleaning the air. It could buy 48 hydrogen fuel-cell buses for Golden Gate Transit, or (for less money) retrofit Marin’s entire bus fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Operation New Leaf doesn’t solve any problems faced by San Rafael; quite the opposite, it spends millions to exacerbate its existing problems. And, far from providing “guaranteed results,” it could add to congestion-related CO2 emissions, possibly even enough to offset the gains.

Electric cars are touted as the solution to our transportation emissions, but it ignores the other costs of pushing car-only infrastructure: parking, traffic, public safety, and car maintenance. The way to reduce Marin’s greenhouse gas emissions is to diversify away from an automobile monoculture, not to deepen it. And, in the meantime, we’d solve our transportation problems, too.

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: Some questions have arisen as to why more cars would be on the road under this scheme. Roughly 11 percent of Marin’s in-commuters take transit to work, and it’s reasonable to suspect slightly more take transit to San Rafael given the presence of the transit center. By subsidizing car ownership, it’s reasonable to assume a good chunk of them would choose to drive instead and add more vehicles to the city and Highway 101.

Politics threatens good policy in North San Rafael

There seems to be a majority forming on the San Rafael City Council to rescind the Civic Center Planned Development Area (PDA). At last week’s special session on the subject, three of the city’s five councilmembers (Mayor Gary Phillips, Councilmember Damon Connolly, and Councilmember Kate Colin) expressed opposition to the PDA.

While each expressed their own reasons for opposition, most swirled around the idea that, if we keep the PDA, San Rafael will be obligated to build massive quantities of affordable housing in an area that cannot support it. Fortunately, this is simply untrue.

What would the PDA actually do?

PDAs are an investment vehicle originally created by MTC. Cities tell regional agencies where they plan to focus population and job growth, and the region earmarks regional transportation money for those areas. In Marin, MTC requires that half of those regional transportation funds go the county’s PDAs. The other half can go to transportation projects anywhere in the county. While there is some talk in Sacramento to channel climate change transportation funds exclusively to PDAs, that proposal has not been finalized.

To help guide local planners, each PDA has a different “place-type” designation, which provides nonbinding guidelines about residential density and the quality of transit service. North San Rafael is a Transit Town Center, which MTC recommends should have or plan for between 3,000 and 7,500 housing units.

But, as a nonbinding recommendation, there is no obligation on San Rafael to actually zone for or build the recommended number of housing units. Rather, the recommendation is there to help San Rafael planners craft a local plan, which was done with the Station Area and General Plans.

There is concern about CEQA streamlining for affordable housing projects within PDAs, but the state doesn’t obligate the city or county to loosen its own environmental review processes. If the city decides a project shouldn’t receive CEQA streamlining, it won’t. This, as the only non-funding legal aspect of a PDA, is still well within the control of the city.

So what is the fear?

Anti-development (“slow growth”) activists in North San Rafael are concerned that the PDA creates an obligation to the city to zone for thousands more housing units than it could actually support, clogging streets, stuffing classrooms, and putting people in harm’s way along busy, high-speed arterial streets. We don’t have the water, don’t have the class space, don’t have the road space, and don’t have the tax revenue to take in so many new people.

But the PDA doesn’t obligate a thing. Mayor Phillips Councilmember Colin had another answer to that. They said it would be dishonest to use a place-type with a higher housing guideline than could realistically be put into the area without adverse impacts to existing residents.

As a nonbinding guideline, then, it would make sense for the city to simply downgrade the PDA to a level that falls in line with the existing level of housing development.  In fact, this is precisely what Councilmember Andrew McCullough proposed, and is one of the optional resolutions for Monday’s council meeting.

Why would we want a PDA?

Because North San Rafael has over $25 million in transportation needs, and the city is considering raising a sales tax because it can’t fund its existing obligations. It needs some extra funds if it wants to improve the neighborhood’s roads.

In fact, one project is very likely to be funded with PDA money: the proposed improvements to the Civic Center campus. Without the PDA, the $3 million project will be ineligible for regional money, and TAM will be forced to shift those funds to another PDA in the county.

But beyond that, a theme of those who spoke in favor of the PDA was that the neighborhood was unfriendly and unsafe for people walking or biking. Given the relative lack of bike lanes, bad connections to regional and local transit, and missing or crumbling sidewalks, it’s a wonder people haven’t been killed. Drivers, too, need to battle with congestion. They have been patiently waiting for a new freeway interchange for years.

All this could be funded by regional transportation dollars, or would need to compete with projects in the rest of the county. The PDA, as a funding tool, would put these projects on a fast track for approval and funding. Removing the PDA would likely cut the neighborhood off for years.

Politics, not policy, is at work

So the PDA doesn’t obligate any development, doesn’t obligate any zoning, and provides a way to make North San Rafael safer for kids to walk to school and commuters to get to the bus. If the PDA does start to obligate the city to do things it does not want to do, or even if it’s threatened, the city could rescind the PDA with no problem at that point. So why is the council voting on Monday? Alas, it’s about politics, not policy.

It’s an election year. Councilmember Damon Connolly is running against Susan Adams and Councilmember Kate Colin is fighting for her seat against slow-growth candidate Randy Warren. The county’s slow growth movement has fought against PDAs as a proxy for their fight against Plan Bay Area.

By setting themselves up against the North San Rafael PDA, Connolly and Colin are betting they can inoculate themselves against attacks from that camp. At first glance, that seems like a safe bet. Polling from One Bay Area shows that those with anti-development sentiment are more passionate about the issue and are more likely to vote than their counterparts.

Yet they are forgetting that Marinites want choices in how they travel and how they live. It’s not as easy a sell on the campaign trail, but it would be the way for Mayor Phillips and Councilmember Colin to knock the wind out of the slow-growth lobby.

The best compromise is to vote for downgrading the PDA. While it won’t satisfy those who lead the movement, it will show that the council is concerned about density and height while balancing it against transportation improvements North San Rafael desperately needs.