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The SMART Area Plan Part 1: Land Use

SMART is coming to downtown San Rafael, and the city wants to be ready for it.

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, buses 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 pretty close. If comments from the Planning Commission, Design Review Board and the Transportation Authority of Marin 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 series) and downtown SMART stations. The downtown station will be located at the current site of Whistlestop 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, 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 area is home to the Bettini Transit Center, which has buses departing frequently to all over the Bay Area and sees thousands of riders per day, and is adjacent the Fourth Street commercial corridor. Nearby residential neighborhoods have a strong walking culture, even under the freeway. In other words, the Plan Area 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. The Area Plan had pushed four to six story buildings out east of Irwin to help draw the urban fabric under the freeway, but tall buildings aren't the only way.  Really aggressive land-use liberalization could accomplish the same goals without large height increases.  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 expected, crowding out a second track 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 unnecessarily.

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.

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.

Scott Adams February 02, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Hi David, I have seen the proposals mentioned and agree the planning ideas are good. The only problem I see is the platform is too close to the Whistlestop building and also too narrow at around 8 feet for passengers. It would be better one block North but the block is not wide enough. Perhaps fourth street could become a plaza but of course the city would have to study the impact on traffic. I suspect it is local traffic. Could SMART mitigate this with the scuttle system being discussed?
Scott Adams February 02, 2012 at 02:51 AM
correction SCUTTLE should be SHUTTLE.
David Edmondson February 02, 2012 at 04:33 PM
The SMART station location is set in stone, unfortunately. TDM, or Traffic Demand Mitigation, is extremely helpful in reducing the amount of traffic a given area needs to handle. That's things like improved transit, pricing parking appropriately, improved bike infrastructure, and promotions to encourage use of those other modes. I suspect the platform won't be the primary waiting area, rather it will be the Whistlestop building. Still, I've seen plenty of train platforms that narrow in Philadelphia and elsewhere, although you're right that 12 feet would be a better minimum.
John Parnell February 04, 2012 at 06:03 PM
David - Can you please explain why you think that reducing parking is a good thing? Also, you mention that if we build a bunch of high-density housing, then that will help retail, the environment, transit, etc. - but what about water? I have yet to hear our lack of water addressed in relation to all this housing. I know you like T.O.D., but if we don't have the resources to allow for the development, how is it a good thing just because it will be big box apartments next to the highway?
David Edmondson February 04, 2012 at 07:14 PM
The best place to point you about parking is here - http://www.lamag.com/features/Story.aspx?ID=1568281 - but I can sum it up. Parking is car storage space, which can add value to neighboring businesses by providing connectivity to the car network, but only to a point. The life of a good neighborhood is its pedestrian experience, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from parking infrastructure. Look at the heart of downtown San Rafael, and any great street: it's shops or homes lining the sidewalk, not parking lots. It's why people generally don't walk down Second but do walk down Fourth. As well, parking pulls people off the sidewalks, out of transit, off their bikes, and into their cars, not just by providing it but by spacing everything so far apart and making the place unpleasant for anything but a driver. It makes it harder to create a strong neighborhood if there's just stores with moats of parking.
David Edmondson February 04, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Oh, and I'll tackle parking, including current infrastructure, in the next installment. I'm taking the approach that Marin will grow no matter what anyone does, but it's the form that growth will take. Developments happening in Novato, Corte Madera and Larkspur are all car-oriented, and Larkspur and Novato are just more single-family homes, big lawns, etc, which is significantly more water-intensive than the sort of medium-density housing being considered. It's not good for the environment ephemerally, it actually IS good for the environment, at least compared with the alternative. If the alternative is 0 growth, then that will be better, but the alternative isn't 0, and San Rafael should plan for that by zoning for housing where it will do the most good and in a way that is the most sustainable.

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