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Council Accepts Civic Center SMART Station Plan

Around 200 people packed in the Council Chambers Monday night to voice their concerns about the vision for affordable housing near the planned Marin Civic Center SMART station.

The City Council unanimously accepted a report regarding the future of land use surrounding the yet-to-be-built Civic Center train station, which drew opposition from many North San Rafael neighbors over plans for high-density housing in the area.

Over 200 residents packed the Council Chambers on Monday night to oppose possible building heights of up to five stories near , the Redwood Highway and east of US-101, as well as an increase in housing density to 44 units per acre. The transit-oriented developement is part of the larger Civic Center Station Area Plan, a community vision for land within a one-half mile radius of the planned Civic Center Sonoma Marin Rail Transit station which is funded by the Association of Bay Governments and is part of the San Rafael planning process.

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"I think [this plan] lays the base of any future development that may or may not happen," said Councilwoman Barbara Heller, who noted that development plans for several areas usually take years to break ground. "When you talk about future development like that it’s a long, long road to go."

The station plan, which includes guidelines for development east and west of the Highway 101, is the product of two years of discussion from a 16-member Citizen Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Jeff Shopert.

“The plan is about what could we do differently in the area than now exists to leverage the benefits of having a regular commuter rail train service stopping at the station at the Civic Center," Shopert said.

According to SMART train planners, the Civic Center station is intended to be a "destination station," where commuters will disembark for work. Most of the land on the east side of US-101, which includes and the , is zoned for business. However, because the committee did not want to predict the economic environment of the area decades from now, they included a plan for re-zoning the area for housing, which would include units for low-income families.

Members of the recently-formed Quiet and Safe San Rafael, headed by Vista Marin resident Richard Hall, and other challengers oppose the plan due to the increased traffic and parking problems that could come along with high-density housing as well as the aesthetic quality of the existing homes, which are not higher than three stories.

The organization askes that the plan be modified to allow the proposed new high-density housing units on the west side of Highway 101 specifically in the Northgate Mall and surrounding parking area. They also asked that no new housing or re-zoning occur on Redwood Highway or Merrydale Road on the west side of Highway 101, and no new housing or re-zoning occur on Civic Center Drive or McInnis Parkway on the east side.

"We ask that you pause and you consider this modification, which progresses the plan. It does not end the plan," Hall said at the meeting.

Others are concerned about the environmental impacts of new development, the issue of noise from the train's whistle and the housing development clashing with the idyllic setting of Frank Lloyd Wright's vision for the area.

“The plan states the goal of a vibrant, lively, livable area. Well, guess what. A lot of people feel they already have that," said Carolyn Lenert, president of the North San Rafael Coalition of Residents. "What they want is the peace, the quiet the beauty, the open space.”

While most who spoke during public comment were against the plan, those who were in support believed that it would pave the way for more transportation options that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and would help low-income families live in Marin.

"We need to keep in mind that the car is not our friend," said Jerry Belletto of Sustainable San Rafael. "We need to figure out a way to construct a livable city and this is a step toward that."

Council members accepted the report on the condition that the public comment throughout the two years be included for when developers begin to draw housing plans for the area. Traffic studies and environmental reviews will be conducted when developers come to the city with a proposal.

Despite the Council's motion, Hall remained optmistic and was impressed by the turnout at the meeting. This issue led Hall and others to form a Marin-wide organization called Citizen Marin.

"As we have discussed the issues in San Rafael, we've learned about many other places across Marin where majority community input appeared not to be taken seriously in favor of high-density housing," he said. "We're seeking to engage with others outside of San Rafael who are encountering the same issues so that we are organized and united."

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Clarence Darrow August 26, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Is that your understanding of representative democracy, Scott? When a large group of homeowners suddenly gets exercised over a nonbinding report that has been in the works for 24 months--that's when the city council is supposed to stop everything and kowtow to a minority of voters? How many of the 23 public meetings held by the committee did you attend? How many drafts did you read and comment on? Before you accuse your elected officials of turning their backs on you, consider the integrity of the process. And be fair before you characterize the outcome as a slap in the face. It was not. The council merely accepted the report. It also accepted all of the opposition comments and attached them to the report. Whether anything in the report ever gets built is up to you and the rest of the community. I hope you'll stay engaged. As for the comments below expressing dissatisfaction about how the council failed to listen, do remember that San Rafael has almost 60,000 people. If district elections are preferred over at-large representation, we might end up with a very balkanized city council instead of one that listens to ALL neighborhoods. Is that best for our city? PS: If anyone got slapped in the face, it was the committee members who volunteered so much time and energy on behalf of their community only to see their hard work--and the public process they adhered to--trashed by neighbors over a single contentious issue (hi-density housing).
Richard Hall August 26, 2012 at 06:05 PM
@Clarence. You might consider that the #1 most voiced issue, by far, to the committee the was "don't build over 3 storys" (or words to that effect). This was voiced repeatedly and consistently by the community - over 30 times in the course of the 2 years. An attachment is completely unprecedented. Will it mean anything? It is separated from the official recommendation. Novato refused the same MTC/ABAG grant to conduct community workshops as they required that if the city accept the grant then there must be a "strong implementation component...including agreement to formally adopt or accept the completed Station Area Plan". Novato went onto say "Staff is concerned that the stated purpose and goals of the grant program could be perceived to indicate a prejudice in the outcome of the ongoing community planning / land use discussions"... "Conversations with MTC and ABAG have confirmed that the general focus of this review favors development intensification". So if a committee can ignore a majority comment during their 2 years of deliberations, then the council can ignore majority feedback (be it of the folks who took the time to attend the council meeting) , just what message does that send about the integrity of the process? The committee members may be commended for their attendance - should they be so surprised as this outcome when they FAILED to listen to and incorporate the number one voiced community issue? (Or should those most impacted be dismissed).
Clarence Darrow August 26, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Richard, the committee heard the 3-story issue loudly and clearly. That's why they split over this issue in the final document, offering two separate visions of building heights for the Redwood Hy/SR Meadows area including one with a 3-story cap. (And both visions were accepted as alternative viewpoints by the city council.) So, if this was the foremost issue raised by residents, and it was acknowledged in the report, how can you say that the committee ignored "a majority comment during their 2 years of deliberations?" I just don't understand your complaint that people are being ignored? If what you really mean is that the committee or the city council refused to act as your group requested, then be honest and say that. But don't accuse them of "not listening." That's not fair and it demeans the process.
Richard Hall August 26, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Clarence. Our neigborhood was invited to the first committee meeting with an agenda attached to the email clearly stating it was about landscaping and platform design in a 70+ page presentation. Even then I attended the first meeting and conveyed "please don't use the station as a reason to justify putting in high density housing". At the time neighbors thought I was being alarmist as the presentation never suggested such a change. 2 years later when the committee's first draft report was published was the first inkling that this was actually about radical re-zoning: putting in 620 new housing units and building 5-story heights on both sides of Civic Center Station. We showed up at the final meeting to convey these concerns. We didn't have 2 years to convey our neighborhood's views - just the last meeting when things finally became clear. I do applaud the one committee member who floated the proposal to add the community's comments aired at this final meeting to the plan - the proposal was met dismissively by the co-chair as a seemingly preposterous and unprecedented request. Subsequently the committee denied this proposal. I'd like to call out and commend this committee member who clearly did listen and tried their best to rectify the matter.
Clarence Darrow August 29, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Richard, I'm sure you are sincere when you say that high-density housing was not presented as one of the planning possibilities at the outset. However, that is simply NOT true, and when you say it you are perpetuating the myth that new multi-family housing was suddenly sprung on the surrounding neighborhoods. Additional housing on the west side of 101 was specifically identified as a potential new land use when the committee was formed and the consultant retained in 2010. (See the City Council Agenda and Staff Report from May 5, 2010.) A fact sheet relative to existing and potential high-density housing in the CC planning area was prepared and circulated early in the process. That fact sheet is still posted online (see p. 13-17 at http://docs.cityofsanrafael.org/CommDev/Planning/SAP/Documents/CCSAPFactSheets032011.pdf) I won't recite the countless times multi-family housing and related zoning requirements were raised throughout this process. They are numerous, but--like the many mailers and emails that were sent out to provide the public with ample notice--they are now being ignored. I don't fault you for your concerns about the impact of such housing on your neighborhood. But I would ask that you acknowledge that the process the volunteer committee and city staff pursued was a fair and reasonably transparent one. As for not incorporating all your last-minute concerns in the report, I can't fault the committee. I'm sure they were exhausted and out of patience.

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