Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)
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The SMART Area, Part 1: Land Use

Looking east on Fourth towards downtown. Photo from the Downtown SMART Station Area Plan

Over the next few days I’ll be posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan.  It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needs more than just a single post.  Today we tackle land use.  Subsequent posts will examine parking, mobility, and the future of the area.

San Rafael has released its draft downtown SMART Station Area Plan, and I must say that I’m excited.  So many good policies are wrapped into this – reducing parking requirements, form-based zoning, traffic calming, street engagement – that it has the potential to change the face of San Rafael and Marin by showing what can be accomplished with sensible zoning and real walkability.  While not a 180-degree turn in local planning practices, it’s pushing that direction.  If comments from the Planning Commission are any indication, there’s a hunger to go all the way, and that can only mean good things.

If you’re just joining us

San Rafael’s Station Area Plans cover the immediate areas around the upcoming Civic Center (for another post) and downtown SMART stations.  The downtown station will be located at the current site of Whistlestop Wheels and will be the terminus for the system’s Initial Operating Segment (IOS), which will extend north to Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, roughly 37 miles away.

To prepare for the incoming train, San Rafael convened the Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from San Rafael; the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency; SMART; the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (GGB), which operates GGT; Marin County; Marin Transit; and the Transportation Authority of Marin.  Their mission: to create the first real transit-oriented, mixed-use communities in Marin since the end of the Northwest Pacific Railroad in 1941.

This location is almost antithetical to transit-oriented development, located as it is next to the elevated section of Highway 101 that cuts San Rafael in half.  Second and Third are extremely busy arterials that function as extended freeway ramps, and the area is dominated by parking lots and auto-oriented uses, such as gas stations and body shops.

Almost antithetical, but not quite.  The station neighbors the Bettini Transit Center, which has buses departing frequently to all over the Bay Area and sees thousands of riders per day, and the Fourth Street commercial corridor.  Existing residential neighborhoods have a strong walking component, even under the freeway.  In other words, the neighborhood may be ugly but it is the transit and commercial nexus of the county, and that makes it ripe for redevelopment.

Better zoning

The key to development in this area is fairly basic: make it a place people want to walk around in and stay through safe sidewalks and streets, calm traffic, interesting sights and sounds, and high degrees of connectivity.  This is exactly what the plan advocates.

For land use, the plan recommends increasing height limits along Heatherton to 66 feet, enough for five-story structures, and to raise the limit to 56 feet along Irwin, as well as along Fourth Street to Grand.  Within these zones, the floor-area ratio would be raised to 2.0 and 1.5, respectively, while both areas would see density requirements lifted.  Residential uses would not count towards FAR, while parking minimums would be relaxed, although not eliminated.

I wrote last week about the need for residential development within the core, and the above would aid immensely in this endeavor.  Conceptual plans for the blocks immediately surrounding the station show the possibility of hundreds of new homes.  Given that a household can support 73 square feet of retail, just the example developments would support close to 20,000 square feet of retail.  Given the slack retail market in San Rafael, this will be a major boon to neighboring businesses.  With office development and the centrality of San Rafael to Marin, retail is likely to do extremely well.

The Montecito Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners along Fifth Street between Irwin and Grand, complained that increasing height along Fourth on their block would overshadow their homes, and I’m inclined to agree.  Really aggressive land-use liberalization could accomplish the same goal of pulling the downtown core across the freeway without increasing heights at all.  Perhaps the city could lift lot coverage maximums, implement a setback maximum, and lift parking requirements while maintaining a two-story height limit.

I hope that the Montecito Neighborhood Association will not come out against larger portions of the plan than just those that would effect their own homes, and so far they have limited their strong opposition to just those recommended changes on the eastern side of the freeway. If they do begin to oppose developments in places that would not effect their homes, San Rafael could have a problem on their hands.

I’m concerned about crowding out the possibility of a second track through town, however.  If the system performs better than anyone expects, it could lead to major problems down the line and severely limit capacity.  I don’t want planning now to put a ceiling on the system if we don’t have to.

In any event, these land use patterns are new and innovative for Marin.  The Planning Commission was strongly in favor of the plan, and some even wished it would go further, instituting parking maximums or abolishing the minimum altogether, but they also felt that San Rafael was not ready for that sort of thing.  This sort of change comes slowly, and the Station Area Plan is the first step.

Going Downtown

Downtown San Anselmo

Marin’s downtowns are rich, vibrant places, but they’re typically seen as historic shopping districts rather than places to live and work – Downtown San Anselmo is not considered to be the same as The Flats, although they are literally on the same blocks.  When redevelopment peaks its head out, it becomes lost in a sea of parking (as in the San Rafael Corporate Center), gets stymied by illogical density limits (as in the Second & B Monahan proposal), or dumbed-down by developers that see Marin as just another suburb (as in Larkspur’s Rose Garden development). Few bold developments do get built in our town centers, and the most important one of late – Novato’s Millworks – is perceived as a failure despite low vacancies.

One reason this might be is due to residents’ perceptions of urban living.  Many Marinites are San Franciscans who left the city in the 1970s and 1980s.  Urban living, with its grit, crime, and bad schools was not for them, so they sought suburbia and wilderness at the nadir of America’s cities. For a while, most commercial development was in shopping centers along 101, and most residential development was suburban tract homes.  Marin never went as far as Santa Clara, but that was largely due to geography – it’s no accident that the most car-centered areas of Marin are the flattest.

Old Urbanist offers a broader view than my particularly local theory.  He argues that the American conception of cities has always been the separation of residences and commerce, exemplified in the downtown/suburban divide.  The commercial interests didn’t want to give up their prized land at the center of town, so residents had to sprawl further outward, prompting more and more innovative transportation technologies culminating in the automobile.  Old Urbanist writes, “Once cars began to proliferate in the 1920s, the response was not, in most cases, to entice suburbanites with visions of urban living, but to either make valiant attempts at mass transit systems or, more often, to turn over large swathes of the downtown to the car.”  The car made it economical for jobs to sprawl with the people, and downtowns declined.

This was just as true in Marin as it was in San Francisco.  Offices that moved to Marin went to Terra Linda or Greenbrae, and retail followed.  Meanwhile, to accommodate Highway 101, San Rafael wrecked its inner waterfront and devoted half of its downtown to car throughput.  The old rail right-of-ways became arterial roads, making shopping centers almost as accessible as downtown.  Without a large built-in population, the historic cores necessarily declined.

To really renew our downtowns, we need to alter our perception of them.  Our town centers are not just old-timey shopping centers competing with the strip-mall shopping centers but vibrant urban spaces for business and residences alike.  Thankfully, this shift has already begun.  Downtown housing is a recurring theme in Marin’s draft housing elements, coming up even in the elements of Belvedere and Corte Madera.  San Anselmo going so far as to rezone its downtown core to allow for second-story apartments.  But this principally accommodates new residents; the old ones that fled the city still perceive density as an evil that brings the crime, grit and traffic of the 1970s, and that perception hinders development now.

In forgotten regional cores like Nashville’s, people are accidentally finding out that they really love living walkable, connected lives in the city. Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space looked at Nashville’s revival and proposed that, rather than leave revitalization to chance, downtown chambers of commerce or business improvement districts should actively market urban living.  They might rent a model unit and decorate it exclusively from local stores, or organize walking tours of the city.  Such measures would reacquaint Marinites to the kind of urban living our cities can support and show that it doesn’t have to be like the old San Francisco.  Indeed, residents moved to San Francisco to enjoy the urban lifestyle and moved out because they had families.  Perhaps they can see that they can have that lifestyle again without going back to the City, and perhaps then residents will ask more from developers than just more detached housing.

Mid-Week Links: Problem/Solution

As any company can tell you, the product is only as successful as the marketing, and Los Angeles took it to heart.  Not only was designing a good transit “product” important, but selling it to the public was immediately useful.  Other agencies would do well to do the same.

Marin

  • A sprawling development of 12 homes in Santa Venetia has been rejected by the Marin County Planning Commission.  The issue goes to the Board of Supervisors next. (IJ)
  • Druid Heights, an alternative community “whose members were dedicated to radical artistic, philosophical, spiritual, political and sexual experimentation,” is profiled by the IJ on news that it qualifies as an official historical site.  The irony is lost on the writer. (IJ)
  • Novato joins Corte Madera in considering a pot club ban. (IJ)
  • Downtown Novato’s Business Improvement District is doing good work to make the street a commercial destination. (Advance)
  • In what seems to be a weekly occurrence, all northbound lanes were closed on Highway 101 due to a crash.  Two people were injured. (Patch)
  • George Lucas wants to turn Lucas Valley’s Grady Ranch into anoffice complex for 340 employees in a manner similar to Skywalker Ranch. (IJ, Patch)
  • Marin’s $50 million renovation of its new Marin Commons space is slated to begin next year.  A government anchor tenant is a savior for the location. (BizJournal)
  • Marin local businesses felt the touch of this year’s surging shopping season, posting a fabulous Shop Local Saturday. (IJ)
  • The Marin City Transit Center got a $500,000 facelift and finally opened for business.  Bike parking and an information kiosk were apparently less important than trees, and will go in in the next couple of weeks. (IJ)
  • This year might be the last that Marinites will be able to sled in downtown San Rafael thanks to budget cuts (IJ)
  • Like the library?  Love infrastructure?  San Anselmo is seeking applicants for its Capital Program Committee and Library Board. (Town of San Anselmo)
  • A driver struck and injured a cyclist in San Anselmo. (IJ)
  • More inconclusive reports on the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. affects on wildlife. (IJ)
  • SMART may be controversial, but two of the most beloved bits of Marin infrastructure – the Ferries and Bridge – were controversial in their day, too. (IJ)
  • Polling suggests that SMART still enjoys strong support, but there are questions about its methodology. (IJ)
  • Tam Valley is home to a dangerous and well-traveled intersection, but one of the few that lacks sidewalks or good pedestrian and bicycling amenities.  Kathy McLeod wants to change that. (Patch)
  • Café Gratitude is closing or selling all its NorCal locations, including the one in San Rafael, but it still totally wants you to buy its stuff.  The closures are a result of multiple employee lawsuits. (SFist)
  • The Sausalito Chamber of Commerce is moving into its recently-purchased mixed-use building on Bridgeway.  I wonder if an employee will get the top-floor apartment… (Marinscope)
  • Are you prepared for the Big One? (SFist)

The Greater Marin

  • Vancouver is pursuing urban planning that makes people healthier and fights obesity.  How?  By getting people out of cars and onto sidewalks, bikes, buses and trains. (Globe and Mail)
  • Although California High-Speed Rail is undergoing some tough times, the short-sightedness of governors elsewhere means the project gets their funding. (SFist, New York Times)
  • Readers should know that zoning is important for the future and form of any city.  How important?  Edward McMahon celebrates 85 years of zoning regulations by looking at its philosophical basis, while Stephen Smith looks at the origins of zoning: New York progressivism.  (Urban Land Institute, Market Urbanism)
  • The exurb, of which the Bay Area has blessedly little, is not coming back. For Sonoma and other outer counties, the future rests in their own economic vibrancy. (New York Times)
  • Lastly, there is a pie cake, and it’s called a Cherumple.  This “dessert version of the turducken” weighs around 21 pounds.  Bring friends. (Boing Boing)

San Rafael’s New Apartment Proposal Isn’t What It Could Be

The Monahan Development

Monahan Development Inc. is proposing to add 41 units of housing and 1,400 square feet of retail to downtown San Rafael at 2nd & B Streets. Although the project is still in its preliminary stages, currently undergoing redesign based on comments from the city’s Design Review Board, what is known is that the building would consolidate four parcels into a four-story building.  (Click here for the meeting and attachments.) In whatever form it takes, more apartments would be a boon to downtown, but it is limited by legal barriers and complicated by the presence of a historical Victorian on the site.

The proposal would consolidate four parcels into a four-story, 41-unit apartment building, with two retail bays along B Street and a 57-space parking garage about a half-mile from the Bettini Transit Center, Marin’s busiest transit hub.  Two of the parcels to be consolidated are old Victorian houses that have seen better days, the third is a commercial space akin to the other ugly buildings along 2nd, and the fourth is a parking lot that has become a magnet for crime.  Given the prime location and the decrepit state of the parcels, it’s not surprising to find that this is not the first time the space has been targeted for development.  The Board’s staff report shows that four other proposals since 2005 have been floated and abandoned by various developers and that this is the first without significant commercial space.  With San Rafael’s commercial sector so weak, a focus on residential development is a welcome change.

The residential development, however, is severely curtailed by San Rafael zoning laws.  The property is zoned for a maximum of 30 residential units, but the developers would receive a density bonus by including more affordable housing.  Even with the density bonus, the 41 planned units are only enough to fill out three floors; the bottom is used as a parking garage for the required spaces.  While the two retail bays do interact with the street, a ground-floor parking garage is dead space on an already isolated street, and the market is too weak to support more ground-floor retail.  In all, zoning cuts about 14 units out of the structure and promotes car dependence.

The complicating factor in this site is a burned-out Victorian-era house at 1212 2nd Street, which is marked as a cultural resource.  At the moment, Monahan proposes to demolish all structures on the site, including the house at 1212, but doing anything to the 1212 structure would require an Environmental Impact Report, an arduous and fraught task that makes any construction within the project’s limited allowable scope that much less feasible.

By any measure, downtown San Rafael’s retail sector is weak.  Many of the stores that currently exist are transitory, like nail shops, and the streets aren’t exactly bustling.  With a new SMART station on the way and the trendiest downtown in the County, San Rafael is primed for the kind of transit-oriented housing Monahan’s project could be.  Unfortunately, zoning restrictions means that the development will just be better than nothing; it does not start a new path forward for San Rafael or the County.  Given the history of failed projects for the site, however, “better than nothing” might be about as good as San Rafael can get.

Mid-Week Links: Empty Inside

© Nathan Kensinger Photography

  • Nathan Kensinger took a fantastic photo essay of one of the Bay Area’s ghost towns: Drawbridge, Santa Clara County.
  • Density doesn’t have to be bad.  Here in Washington, DC, there have been a few particularly beautiful examples of rowhouses hitting the local blogosphere. (DCMud, DCMetrocentric)
  • Well, my Washington ties finally pay off.  The debt debate is all the town can talk about, and at least one outlet asks, What happens to transportation if we can’t borrow?  It turns out, not much.  In the mean time, the FAA still isn’t reauthorized. (Transportation Issues, Washington Post)
  • It looks like the Marin County Planning Commission is going to look at some zoning changes.  On the table: density and mixed use, among other things. (MCPC)
  • Some neighbors are filing suit against a planned expansion of Edna Maguire Elementary in Mill Valley over slightly more traffic and slightly more height. (IJ)
  • Fairfax could get some more night life, although a bit off the beaten track.  South downtown’s abandoned gas station might become a music venue.  Rockin’. (Patch)
  • For once, the IJ was full of constructive examination of SMART this week.  A veteran transportation planner takes a look at the SMART train and asks naysayers, “Can’t we now get on with this project?” while Dick Spotswood thinks it will be too successful for its rolling stock, which have a maximum capacity of 498 seats.  Personally I think his analysis is oversimplistic, as SMART’s corridor is hardly similar to CalTrain’s.
  • Just when you thought it was over, ABAG’s affordable housing saga rolls on, this time to Sausalito.  They’re just getting started, but so far the debate sounds rather more civil than Novato’s contentious debate.
  • Speaking of Novato, opinion on the new affordable housing plan keeps rolling in.  SUNN panned the site selections for being insufficient, the IJ editorial board congratulated the city for how far it has come since the start of the debate, Brad Breithaupt decryed the whole process, and the city itself, in an uncharacteristic bout of practicality, started to look at how to make  better use of the market to meet its affordable housing needs through second units. (Pacific Sun, IJ, Patch)
  • Late Edition: It’s been a long time coming, but the San Francisco bike share project marches forward by announcing next year’s pilot plans.  Other cities along the CalTrain corridor will also be part of the system which, in the Bay Area’s Balkanized transit system, is most welcome. (San Francycle, HuffPo)

Mid-Week Links: Baby Steps

County Proper

aja_2005_1210_010

photo from archibald jude

  • The never-ending news of rail in Marin continues with Novato’s final approval of the mighty and efficient freight train, which will now run through the city as far as Eureka.  Santa Rosa got its first new freight train this week, too.  (IJ, Patch, Press-Democrat)
  • In a mishmash of acronyms, MTC considers SMART’s pedestrian facilities for TIGER funds. (IJ, Fast Lane)
  • Work is starting to add HOV lanes to the Novato Narrows, an area of Highway 101 north of the Atherton Avenue exit.  Freeway widening is never a good answer to traffic, especially with a train on the way, but at least it’s HOV. (Patch, IJ)
  • Meanwhile, Novato declares sprawl to be the way forward, approving zoning for affordable housing at 20 units per acre instead of the State-mandated 30 units per acre.  Although 20 units per acre could do some good, as the form matters more than the density, the downgrade is a loss to the city. (IJ, Transit in Utah)

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