Where does our affordable housing go?

Often, people complain that there isn’t enough affordable housing being built in Marin and blame the developer. Often, however, it’s neighbor concerns – often quite reasonable – that drive up the cost of development.

Two years ago, a developer filed to build 10 townhomes on G Street in San Rafael’s West End neighborhood. That’s the maximum allowed density, and it included 2 affordable units to meet the 20 percent affordability requirement.

However, neighbors had some quite justifiable concerns. The street is a cut-through for drivers heading to or from Second and so is extremely busy and more homes would mean more cars and so more traffic. It’s a neighborhood of detached homes, and townhomes would be a departure from that. The lack of side yards will disrupt the feel of the neighborhood. The building architecture looked too tall in the area. There were also concerns about a heritage oak tree.

Each of these concerns were addressed in turn. The architecture was modified a number of times and utilities were reconfigured “at considerable expense,” according to testimony at a recent city meeting. Two units were cut to address density concerns, which eliminated one affordable unit. The developer will spend $250,000 to save the heritage oak.

Each of these changes makes sense to neighbors and so helps preserve the feel of the neighborhood. Even the oak tree, worth the price of a new home, was worth it. However, these changes cost San Rafael that affordable housing unit and the added expenses will likely inflate the cost of the market-rate homes.

It’s often believed developers are made of money, but they are businesses that aim to make a profit. Large developers can throw their net wide and absorb this sort of unforeseen cost on a few projects. Small ones, however, need consistency and a sure return on the time and money it takes to shepherd a proposal through the bureaucracy. This developer is right to work with neighbors to ensure the project doesn’t have adverse effects on West End, but it is also a lesson in why building for-profit affordable housing in Marin is so tough and rare.

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Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

Mid-Week Links: Dusk

Golden Gate Beyond the Seat

You can actually enjoy the view if you let a bus driver do the driving. Photo by Orin Zebest.

It’s national Dump the Pump Day! Leave the car at home and take transit to work.

Driving to work costs you and Marin a ridiculous amount of time and money while degrading the environment. Switching to transit means you’ll have time to work on the bus or ferry and don’t have to worry about traffic. Switching to a bike means you can cancel that gym membership, and anytime you walk to or from a bus stop you’re making yourself healthier.

This year GGT and Marin Transit have made it easy to find a way to your job without 511.org (though the app is still handy). Google Maps has integrated the two agencies into its transit directions system, so you can figure out how to get where you need to go.

If you’re already at work, don’t worry; just take the bus tomorrow. Let us know how your commute goes in the comments.

Marin County

  • Tam Valley’s Evergreen sidewalk will be built. A judge threw out a lawsuit to stop the project, arguing that because the suit had come after construction had begun it wasn’t timely. Neighbors, though, have vowed to continue the fight. (IJ, @scottalonso, MV Herald)
  • It’s now legal to rent your home, or part of your home, for less than 30 days in Sausalito. The council voted to lift the prohibition in anticipation of the America’s Cup, but don’t get too comfortable. Participating homeowners need to pay for a $238 permit and collect the 12% transient occupancy tax, and the law expires in October, 2013. (Marinscope)
  • Sausalito resubmitted its draft housing element to the state with only minor tweaks and a letter addressing HCD’s criticism of the plan. Sausalito’s plan had been rejected by the state for a number of reasons, including over reliance on second units and liveabords. (Marinscope)
  • San Anselmo is pondering whether to ban chain restaurants and shops from downtown or anywhere in the town, but the existence of local chain High Tech Burrito has thrown the plans a bit of a curveball. (Patch)
  • SF Public Press has a wonderful series on Plan Bay Area and smart growth in general. So far the series has tackled local resistance to Plan Bay Area, reviews Forum’s conversation on the plan, and why smart growth actually is a good idea. Despite a half-bungled report on carrying capacity, the whole series is a must-read. If you can’t find a dead tree copy of the quarterly around, you can either wait for the slow drip of news online or just get it hand-delivered by the postman for $4. (SF Public Press, KQED)
  • Critics of Plan Bay Area ignore history when declaring Marin doesn’t grow, ignore environmentalism when declaring Marin must not grow, and ignore facts when declaring it a conspiracy at the highest levels. (Pacific Sun)
  • GGT’s @GoldenGateBus account tweeted about a bus service disruption caused by the Pier 29 fire. Though the tweet didn’t include a link to the site that actually described which stops were effected, it’s a good start and hopefully a sign of things to come. Great job, GGT! (Twitter, SFGate, GGT)
  • Go see West End at tomorrow’s Culture Crawl from 5pm-8pm. The neighborhood’s merchants see far less traffic than downtown San Rafael just over the hill, though the neighborhood is far from dull. (IJ)
  • And…: An unwalkable bit of south Novato is set to become home to 12-14 affordable housing units. (NBBJ) … County supervisors passed a $473 million budget for the year. An unallocated chunk of $22 million will be divvied up in coming weeks. (IJ) … It looks like San Rafael will pass a budget without cutting the Street Crimes Unit. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Plans for a car-free Market Street are chugging along in San Francisco under the aegis of Better Market Street. The plan would close Market from Embarcadero all the way down to Octavia, improving transit travel times and pedestrian and bicycle safety. If approved, expected opening date would be 2016. (SFist)
  • Apartments are booming in downtown Windsor with 1,200 units on track to open over the next five years. The rapid pace of development near its future SMART station has left some wondering whether the city can absorb such growth, and whether it even ought to allow it. (Press-Democrat)
  • Sacramento’s light rail now reaches its riverfront, part of a major redevelopment plan for the capital’s central neighborhoods. The city’s step is to get it over the river, though there’s no telling when the money will come in. (Sacramento Bee)
  • The next phase of the American Dreamwill not look like the last 50 years of sprawl as people finally learn what Marin knew so long ago: that the heart of a place is its downtown, not its shopping mall. (NYT)
  • The problems facing cities are as old as cities themselves. Ancient Rome had traffic jams, restrictions on freight travel within the city, noise pollution, slumlords, sky-high rents and poets to document it all. (The Iris via Planetizen)
  • A 10-story development in downtown Santa Rosa got another permit extension as developers continue to face financial problems. (Press-Democrat)

Got a tip? Tweet @theGreaterMarin, email thegreatermarin [at] gmail.com, or post something on Facebook.

Mid-Week Links: Get a Car

There’s a major threat to walkable living, transit, biking, and even our highways brewing in the House of Representatives in the form of a terribly written transportation reauthorization bill, HR 7.  Although we know Congresswoman Woolsey is firmly against the plan as written, it’s important to keep in mind what is happening on Capitol Hill.

Marin County

  • Novato cracked down on unsafe driving this past weekend, resulting in 44 citations.  It’s a good move for a city that has seen a number of pedestrian accidents in the past few months. (IJ)
  • County planners have approved the Grady Ranch development in Lucas Valley and, unless opponents appeal to the Board of Supervisors, the project will go ahead as planned. (IJ)
  • West Marin may help the county satisfy some of its affordable housing requirements by allowing ranches and farms to build workforce and owner housing on-site, cutting down driving commutes into the region. (IJ)
  • SMART ceremonially broke ground on its transit system, marking the beginning of real construction and the culmination of years of work. (Patch)
  • San Rafael’s Ritter Center expansion is on hold pending an appeal by Gerstle Park residents. The expansion would be a medical center housed in a temporary building, though Ritter says they will look for a new when it lease expires in 2015. (IJ)
  • West End is apparently a quirky place for the young and hip to shop in San Rafael, not to say that it doesn’t have challenges: auto-oriented businesses on the north side of Fourth, the half-dead Yardbirds strip mall, too-wide streets, lack of continuity with downtown, and an anti-development bias keep the neighborhood from really thriving. (Reporter, New Pointer)
  • Albert Park and the San Rafael Pacifics are go thanks to a judge’s ruling against Gerstle Park opponents of the planned baseball field who had sought to block the team. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC has rejected political appeals of projects that do not meet its required cost-benefit floor, putting common sense above more narrow local interest. (TransForm)
  • Intuition is correct: parking minimums encourage driving, and I think it’s high time for Marin to abandon the unscientific minimums posthaste.  (The Atlantic Cities)
  • The Americas Cup has downsized its plans for San Francisco and will not renovate Piers 30 and 32 after all thanks to regulatory issues.  Still, the Cup is a great excuse for the City to invest in its waterfront and should be a strong incentive for Sausalito to do the same. (SFist, SPUR)
  • Bicyclists like the same routes drivers do, and for the same reasons. I suspect that making it safer for bikers to use main roads would do more for cycling mode share than shunting them onto side roads.  In other words, bike lanes belong just where planners may not want to put them: Sir Francis Drake, Delong, and Fourth Street. (The City Fix)
  • Luxury car drivers, take note: you may be driving like a jerk and not even notice it. (SFist)
  • In case you missed Smart Growth America’s webinar on sustainable communities, they have their materials up for perusal. (SGA)