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.
"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."