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How Downtowns Can Thrive Again

To make downtown truly thrive, Marinites can't just shop there. We have to live there.

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 on the same blocks.

When redevelopment peeks 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 in San Rafael) or dumbed-down by developers that see Marin as just another suburb (as in Larkspur’s Rose Garden development). Few bold developments get built in our town centers, and the most important one of late – Novato’s Millworks – is perceived by many as an aesthetic failure because of its sheer size in relation to all the quaint shops nearby.

One reason this might be is due to our perception 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 in Marin was in shopping centers along Highway 101, and most residential development was suburban tract homes. Marin never went as far as Santa Clara County did with its sprawl, but that was largely due to geographical limitations an the county's environmental commitment to preserving open space. It’s no accident that the most car-centered areas of Marin are the flattest.

Fellow blogger 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 were 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, 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 Marin residents 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, people moved to San Francisco to enjoy the urban lifestyle and moved to Marin because the city was no place for a family. But perhaps we can see that we can have that lifestyle again without going back to the city, and perhaps then we will ask something else from developers than just more of the same sprawl.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Edwin Drake January 12, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Ah yes, Novato, population 750,000+ with a thriving urban core live/work spaces atop boutiques, coffee shops, and art galleries. The powers that be have already squashed any hope of live work in the North Redwood corridor. DE you're barking up the wrong suburban template.
Tucker Murphy January 13, 2012 at 01:46 AM
If you want downtown San Anselmo to thrive have the stores open until 7pm or 8pm. Nothing more depressing than driving through downtown with everything shut so early in the eve. It gets people out walking around and it would help the restaurants get more business too. Fairfax thrives with good restaurants and the movie theater. If the stores there had much substance it would be even better.
David Edmondson January 13, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Well if you think you need 750,000 people in Novato to have a functional commercial corridor, you've already lost. Brattleboro, VT, has a population of 12,000 and has a thriving core, and those quaint villages people visit in Europe actually have people living, working, and shopping in them despite their small size. On the other hand, Houston has a massive population but its core is essentially gone, paved into a giant parking lot. A viable downtown doesn't need hundreds of thousands of people to thrive. It just needs people to live there.
Kelly Dunleavy O'Mara January 13, 2012 at 03:00 AM
When San Anselmo did that late night open house downtown was happening. They should do that once a month or every other week or so as a start.
David Edmondson January 13, 2012 at 03:27 AM
Sorry to geek out but I can't contain myself. Fun facts I learned writing my response: Novato is larger than Manhattan at 27.44 square miles vs. 22.96. At Manhattan densities, Novato would have a population of 1.9 million, but to achieve your projection it would need 27,000 people per square mile, a bit more than New York as a whole, more than 14 times the current density of 1,856.6 and 61% more than San Francisco as a whole. Okay, time to quit.
Sarah Shideler January 13, 2012 at 04:16 AM
I love that idea, Kelly!
Edwin Drake January 13, 2012 at 06:56 AM
DE - you miss my point, which is that WITH THIS CURRENT CITY COUNCIL Novato will never thrive. (I guess if I have to explain then it wasn't a good ribbing.) The current council, with the exception of Pat Ecklund, has no idea what they're doing regarding either governance or city planning. The reason Houston stinks, and it does, is that development and building in Houston is governed by a "hands off" principal from the local gov't. They've never met a project they didn't like and, in fact, have no zoning laws, which means anything gets built anywhere with no consideration as to how it fits into the city fabric. (con't)
Edwin Drake January 13, 2012 at 06:57 AM
The same thing is happening in Novato. We will end up like Houston, a hodge-podge of miscellaneous buildings with no rhyme or reason, so that there's no "there" there. Jeanne MacLeamy, an architect (?), famously said of the MIllworks bldg, "I didn't know it would be this big." That comment along raises so many questions my head spins. Until the city council starts making demands of developers - (exactly what did the city get for giving away the floating easement at Hanna Ranch?) - there will be no progress towards the "liveability" of Novato. Finally, this is NOT rocket science. There are TONS of towns around here and on the penisula with cute downtowns. Planners know how to make this happen. But evidently the NOvato City council is too beholden to the chamber of commerce to put the best interests of the town before the interests of the chamber. In addition to a dysfuntional planning process - when's the last time the planning commission met? - you have a central business district that closes shop at 6:00pm. The theater is promised as the Great Grant Ave Hope, but we'll see. thanks for reading
Tucker Murphy January 13, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Agree, the open house before Christmas was the first time I visited many of the stores and it was great. We actually stayed and had dinner after. They should do it once a month or once a week.
Rico January 13, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Are downtown areas of Marin not thriving now ? That would be a matter of perception of politicians and developers. People in most of Marin live here to get away from urban living, there is not much interest by long time locals to move down the hill into a downtown area putting up with city light pollution, air pollution from vehicles, noise from living in commercial areas and increased surveillance. The reasons that people never before wanted to live in downtown areas and very few residential units built are obvious. The only reasons to promote turning commercial zoned down towns into mixed use developments is that there is nowhere left to build multi family apartment buildings in Marin. Now we have concerns of not enough water and electrical power available to foster more high density development. Some people look at a downtown and think that if there are no apartments above the stores that the area is not thriving, it's all about perception.
John Ferguson January 13, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Like so many of the old line suburban areas that were originally built in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, we still have to complete the transition from a business core that provides low margin basic goods and services (grocery, pharmacy, hardware) to more high margin goods and services where the service and selection can be personalized to the community and there's little price competition with big box retail or online. As a local business, you can't compete on price. You just can't. Your competitive advantage has to lie in community understanding (and participation) and a higher level of service than can be delivered by big regional or national chains. It's why Albertsons could never work in Fairfax but Good Earth is sinking millions into rebuilding that site into something extraordinary. I fear for any local business that tries to sell commodities that can be carried or delivered by Costco or Amazon.
John Ferguson January 13, 2012 at 09:59 PM
By the way, the Millworks building as pictured wouldn't look at all out of place on the streets of Mountain View or Cupertino. Peninsula towns built along the rail and highway corridors have a much denser footprint than most towns in Marin.
Rico January 14, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Does anyone know the vacancy rate of the Millworks Apartment complex in Novato ? Not a very desirable place to live at all, right next to 101 and on a major 4 lane feeder into Novato. These people who are promoting this kind of high density transit oriented development don't seem to consider the facts that it will not be people living in Marin that will move into the complexes. Most of the promoters claiming that Marin downtowns are dead are people that don't even live here in Marin. They are the promoters of exotic transportation systems that are not necessary in Marin at all. They want to build more apartments and import more commuters to Marin to justify these trains in Sonoma County. Why should Marin have to build TOADs in areas that there will never be any trains, or at the very end of the line. Building apartments in San Rafael is not going to add any riders or need for trains in Marin. Now with the demise of the redevelopment programs, where is the money to build all these expensive, cheaply built projects like Hamilton, the Millworks and Vintage Oaks shopping center in Novato . Many people have enjoyed the profits of these projects, but the party is over for them now. Take a look at what they did to downtown Petaluma, if that is what developers think is a thriving downtown, with vacant apartments and parking lots, then the developers should focus on other parts of the bay area for their projects, not Marin.
Edwin Drake January 14, 2012 at 01:34 AM
It's exactly THE point that most people who live in Novato like Novato the way it is. This "smart growth" BS is just the shallow greenwash put out by developers looking for ways to squeeze more profit out of a filled area. That's why is so important for the city council to pay attention. Most people like the single family, quiet neighborhoods we have. If there is going to be more building, then it needs to be focused, so that neighborhoods aren't punctured by outsized and incompatible projects. DE is simply promoting the shallow thinking of the environmental community and doesn't realize it. If people want Novato to remain as it is then they need to be active to insure that development is forced into restricted areas. .
David Edmondson January 14, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Actually, I was looking at the Millworks to see if any apartments were available, but there aren't. I think it's all full, or close to it; I would've mentioned the fact in the article but was talked out of it. The conversation around "downtown" in Marin is always how we need to support it, how much merchants are struggling, etc. It shouldn't be this way, and it doesn't have to be. That, and Nashville's resurgence, were the kernels that sparked this article.
Mark Burnham January 14, 2012 at 01:57 AM
david i believe the millworks is almost completely full and has been for awhile. two questions for you. first who "talked you out of" mentioning the Millworks was full or close to it? why? secondly, regarding the "conversation downtown" that it is struggling..ect.. i am wondering what your thoughts are on how the downtown city office project will contribute (or not) to downtown vibrancy. or do you believe the site can be utilized in a better fashion to revitalize downtown? thanks
Bill McGee January 14, 2012 at 06:19 AM
The Millworks is full and has been for awhile.
David Edmondson January 14, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Oh, just my editor. She thought the reason for current groaning over the project was more its form rather than its success. Since I'm from San Anselmo and haven't been around Novato lately, I deferred to her judgment. Y'know, I think making Grant the heart of the city is a good thing, and moving offices there so it's easy to get to for people by bus is a similarly good thing. I don't think it will, on its own, contribute much. It's the indirect benefits - daytime foot traffic, psychology, transit accessibility - that will really be what help refocus the city (government and residents alike) on downtown. Besides, having staff deal with that area every day will mean they'll be thinking about it every day, and that's definitely a good thing.
Bob Ratto January 14, 2012 at 07:59 PM
David I am glad you responded to Mark B's good questions. One of the key issues with Millworks has always been the sheer scale of the project. Financially, it appears to have been pretty much a bust, as i believe one condo (out of about 126) was originally sold, and the rest had to rented out. I don't think "whole paycheck" is exactly thriving either, but that's just anecdotal opinion. The beneficial factors cited about moving city offices to downtown are largely psychological, which would be fine if money were no object (and at $700+SF for new city offices, maybe it isn't to our leaders), but finances are finite, and you have to look at the highest and best use for the area. Transit will not change one whit with new City offices, nor will visits by the citizens-Mayberry was a very long time ago. This is where effective planning needs to come front and center, as the whole idea of creating density in an area to help support transit is simply backwards to me.
Mark Burnham January 14, 2012 at 08:36 PM
david, thanks for the reply. i didn't realize you were from san anselmo. i assumed you were from novato. unfortunately your residence doesn't seem to allow you the opportunity to review the vast amount of evidence that indicates the city offices downtown are a giant waste of tax payer funds, will contribute almost ZILCH in the way of daily daily foot traffic, and will impact parking to the point of making grant ave an afterthought for the people of novato. if you get a moment the city issued a parking and building traffic report that you should review. in considering these reports also weigh the alternatives that these millions of dollars of funds can be used for to better novato. you seem to indicate wise planning of our downtowns is of importance. if you do become familiar with all of the facts, studies, and alternatives as they relate to downtown novato i would be interested in hearing your refreshed and informed opinion. thanks for the piece above.
David Edmondson January 14, 2012 at 08:39 PM
If Millworks has no vacancies, I think the developer just misread the market. Apparently there's plenty of demand for good rental apartments, just not much for condo ownership. Of course transit won't improve with the offices, but at some point one needs to actually use the system, and accessibility to it is important. As someone that relies on transit, there's nothing worse than trying to get where you need to be and finding its out on some god-forsaken transit line to a strip mall. Whether or not you need to use city services is immaterial; others do, and serving their needs is vital. As for density to support transit, well, that's why I didn't like the Mount Burdell development, and why I didn't like moving the SMART station from downtown to Fireman's Fund. Pooling our assets makes far more sense. Density gives downtown demand, while downtown gives density transportation options, freeing them from car-dependence. Not that they can't drive, of course, but at least they don't need to as they would at, say, the low-density hospital redevelopment.
Bob Ratto January 14, 2012 at 09:08 PM
Dave Thanks for the prompt reply. City services are used when one needs to use them (permits, etc). If we could step outside the box for a moment, since permits are typically revenue generators for cities, then we should just be able to do them online, and if the City wants to take transit to my house and inspect, that is just fine (maybe they could do that and reduce their parking impact...right!) I totally understand what you are talking about with the density and downtown issue, but without proper planning (which is apparently some precious commodity that we cannot get), anything positive getting done would simply be a happy accident. While our views differ on the SMART train (thankfully you have acknowledged the mismanagement issues), you are correct about the San Marin station (do not call it Atherton, it is on the other side of the highway) being stupid-downtown would have been a much, much better choice, as I think it would at least get people into what passes as a shopping district-the San Marin site does absolutely none of that, and we all know this is not a legitimate commuter train, and very very few will be riding the rails to Fireman's fund...I have to go watch football now.
Rico January 14, 2012 at 09:43 PM
From reading previous posts, David said he grew up in San Anselmo, but does not live in Marin now. He said he lives in an apartment that was converted from a condo. I might be wrong now about where David lives, but it is not really important. Like I said, many of the people pushing to move the populations down into the urban corridors and downtown areas have their own UN Agenda 21 and do not live in Marin. Many people want to transform Marin into something else, more like other parts of the bay area, equalize standards of life everywhere, surveillance cameras, heavy traffic, trains and pollution. I saw an interesting news segment a few weeks ago about how affordable housing comes with a high cost to tenants who reside in such projects. The high costs are due to health problems, they said that affordable housing is always built in the most polluted areas near rail lines, freeways and in busy downtown areas. Very high percentage of lung disease and cancers. Look at the most recent affordable housing projects in Marin, The Fireside in Manzanita built right under 101 and on state highway 1. There has never been any residential units built there except for hotels. The there is the San Clemente project in Corte Madera, built right on 101, and the Millworks in Novato next to 101 and a main artery feeding central Novato, oh, there is a train line next to it also. People want to promote these kinds of high density projects to fatten their wallets,
David Edmondson January 14, 2012 at 10:01 PM
A pretty decent article that dovetails well with my article. In essence, residents of places with a high density of businesses walk three times as much as residents elsewhere, but such areas need to pull attract other customers to really succeed: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/01/what-neighborhoods-need-succeed-walkability/922/

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