Sustainable San Rafael is ostensibly a fantastic organization
sharing values that I hold true:
- Fighting climate change
- Encouraging sustainable living
However in their fervor to achieve “sustainability” they
have embraced a “fast growth” philosophy for Marin that appears to have diverged
from these objectives and really serves to progress an agenda not of "sustainability" but of "regionalism" where local control is lost, and Marin is rapidly urbanized.
Recently Sustainable San Rafael published a fact sheet about the North San Rafael / Civic Center Priority Development Area. They describe the fact sheet as a “point-by-point” review.
Had I not been more aware of the facts, trusting their words and buying into their flavor of “sustainability”, I might have sent an email or letters to Mayor Phillips supporting this build out of 620 five story high apartment blocks that will irreversibly Manhattanize Terra Linda.
However I like to deep dive into the facts and understand the real impact.
1) Residents Led the Planning of the PDA
The Priority Development Area was enacted by city council in 2009. The city states in it’s Civic Center PDA Q&A:
“There was no formal notification or community outreach employed when the PDA application was presented to the City County.”
After the PDA was enacted ABAG provided the city with $528,000 to conduct community advisory planning meetings and perform planning. In Civic Center an advisory committee of 20 was formed.
There were no residents from the impacted area on the east
side of 101 on the 20 person advisory planning committee.
The number one concern voiced by the community was the heights. No concern was voiced more often based on my analysis of the minutes of the meetings than height.
San Rafael Meadows residents were especially concerned by the heights of 4 or 5 stories proposed on Merrydale Road, but in January 2011 secured an agreement from the advisory committee that heights would be limited to 3 stories. They thought they were all set - then the plan went to the "Joint Project Team" and staff who were performing oversight. Behind these closed doors the plan was changed and came back with the higher heights, failing to reflect the agreement secured between the community and the advisory committee.
Most residents remained aware of the extensive urbanization planned for Civic Center until 23 months into the 24 month advisory committee meetings in July 2012. At this point the committee published its first “Draft Plan”. When the final The Draft Plan was a doozie! Residents expecting improvements to car, bike and pedestrian circulation, with improved landscaping discovered they were in for over 865 new housing units in 5 story high density apartments.
Visioning sessions detailed on pages 221-224 of the station area plan captured the following input from residents:
Group 1: “No need for higher density housing”
Group 2: “Surrounding neighborhoods to be left as they are”
Group 3: “Development should be mixed use with ground floor neighborhood serving retail (15’ high ceilings) with residential uses on top. No more than 2-stories for a total height limit of about 35 feet.”
Group 4: “Housing along Merrydale Rd. (mixed use with graduated heights - highest at Hwy 101, tapering down to two stories near San Rafael Meadows neighborhood.)”
Group 5: “Higher density housing, mixed use at storage facility. Housing at Northgate. Housing along Las Gallinas north of Chevy’s.”
Group 6: “Four stories is out of character with existing neighborhood. Buildings should not detract from view of civic center." In the subsequent Draft Vision Statement it says, "Buildings are not so tall they block the view of the hills and the new buildings complement the existing homes and natural areas."
Page 251 of the Final Station Area Plan goes on to say:
"Using this vision as a guiding principal, in June 2011 the Project Team solicited feedback the Advisory Committee land use that could be considered within the study area".
This input was relayed to a supervisory “Joint Project Team” headed by Linda Jackson and including ABAG representative Jackie Reinhart. The city's own General Plan states that the area in question has a maximum housing capacity of only 620 additional units. So what did the Joint Project Team come back with?
- Alternative 1: 1,414 dwelling units
- Alternative 2: 865 dwelling units
If you're looking for alternative 3 that actually reflected the public input - there wasn't one!
Readers should judge for themselves whether “residents led the planning” as Sustainable San Rafael suggests.
The PDA Preserves Local Control
The “Priority Development Area” is a funding designation given by Plan Bay Area, a plan enacted by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). San Rafael has one seat on ABAG of 100 seats. In the course of the last 5 years San Rafael's formal involvement in the process has been limited to attending budgetary approval meetings that on average last less than 7 minutes and result in approval. Most decisions are made in subcommittees staffed by a common core of officials who are primarily from urban areas such as Oakland and San Francisco.
To date ABAG and Plan Bay Area have already had a significant impact on Marin with the imposition of the Win Cup high density development in Corte Madera. This development stemmed from an ABAG clerical error.
Corte Madera spans only 6.4 square miles, 98% of Corte Madera is already built out and much of the remainder is subject to flooding and sea level rise. ABAG required Corte Madera to generate 244 additional housing units via the “Regional Housing Needs Assessment”. Diane Furst, mayor of Corte Madera says of this unpopular planning decision:
“If we did not zone for the 244-unit RHNA mandate we would have been sued by one of the numerous affordable housing advocacy nonprofits in the region.”
Only after Corte Madera protested did ABAG admit to making a mistake in their RHNA calculations. But but that time the 180 unit Win Cup site was already well underway. Since then ABAG revised Corte Madera’s target to just 72 additional housing units.
The point here is that if a city like San Rafael does not plan for the required number of additional units it opens itself up to liability. Even a clerical error by ABAG imposed a substantial deviation from local control.
Then there’s the carrot of Plan Bay Area development grants. Cities are desperate for the millions in dollars in transportation funding - the money tied to PDAs is a powerful carrot. But this will be covered in more detail later as the carrot is more of an illusion than real funding capable of covering the substantial costs of a Priority Development Area.
The Plan Guides Likely Development Guiding How the Area can be Intelligently Developed if the Slow Growth Rate there continues
There are 1,065 housing units currently in the Civic Center
Priority Development Area. The plan is not for slow growth – even after being
scaled back it plans for 58% growth of housing units the neighborhoods around Civic Center, Northgate and Terra Linda.
To put this in perspective according to the US Census the entire county of Marin grew by 2.1% in the decade between 2001 and 2010 (Source: Marin IJ / US Census Bureau).
The city of San Rafael differed little, growing by 2.9% in the same decade long period. If planning was for “slow growth rate to continue” then why did it plan for 58% growth (admittedly over 25 years) when actual growth had been under 3% over a decade?
The PDA Helps Prevent Sprawl, Taking Pressure off Open Space and Single Family Areas
Talk to any realtor and you will find many move to Marin
from San Francisco, the East Bay and other urban areas precisely because it is suburban and
offers single family homes in a rural setting. Perhaps this matches your own reasons to move to
The pressure and market demand in Marin is primarily for single family homes. None of this pressure is released by building high density apartments. Slide 4 of this 2011 National Association of Realtors survey illustrates that 87% of Americans prefer to live in a single family home.
The PDA Could Help Improve Area Traffic
This is perhaps the most remarkable of all claims. The development proposes adding 620 housing units. The city’s recently published Civic Center Q&A document states on page 13:
“The initial traffic modeling that was completed for the Civic Center Station Area Plan studied the potential impacts of additional growth within this area considering two scenarios:
1) the addition of 862 housing units; and
2) the addition of up to 1,400 housing units.
The model results for both scenarios demonstrated that the circulation system would fail, even with the implementation of the planned transportation improvements included in the San Rafael General Plan 2020. The land use capacity for the Civic Center PDA in the General Plan is 620 housing units and 280,000 square feet of office/commercial use. This capacity represents the upper limit of additional development within this area (forecast over the 15-20 year General Plan timeframe) in order to maintain the City-adopted traffic service levels at local intersections and arterials. In fact, the growth represented in this land use capacity cannot occur unless the planned transportation improvements are fully funded and scheduled to be built. One of the key transportation improvements is the reconstruction of the Freitas Interchange, which is estimated at a cost of $14 million.”
The Freitas Interchange represents just one improvement of many that would be needed, and I’m informed by city planner Paul Jensen that the $14m estimate is already out of date and considerably higher.
So how could the PDA help? Well the PDA designation could help ensure San Rafael gets access to Plan Bay Area grant money. For the current four year cycle $10m of Plan Bay Area grant money has been assigned to Marin. Over 50% of this has been assigned to PDAs, but there are 5 other PDAs that this must be divided amongst. Already the Transportation Authority of Marin has requested $1.9m of these grants be earmarked not for Civic Center’s Freitas Interchange but for bike lanes, signalization and roundabouts.
The next Plan Bay Area grant money cycle will likely provide
$10-$20m for all of Marin for the next 4 year cycle.
All one can surmise is:
- there are no guarantees that the PDA will provide any funding to improve area traffic
- At best the PDA might receive funding of perhaps $4m but the required infrastructure improvements would likely be over $20m
Costs for the Civic Center PDA will likely easily eclipse $20m but there is no guarantee of any benefit
San Rafael Needs Housing Choice
Some more housing is surely welcome. But this doesn’t mean
deferring control to regional bodies such as ABAG. And it surely doesn't mean pushing through extensive development of high density housing that does not align with residents wishes and that imposes substantial costs on the city.
The community would like to see a distributed approach consistent with North San Rafael - a low density approach.
60% of Marin’s Workforce Drives from Elsewhere [We Must House them in Marin]
By this logic San Francisco, which attracts tens of thousands of out of town commuters must house these commuters.
The problem with this logic is that it overlooks many realities that affect where people live and work, these are covered in a 1991 paper by Genevieve Guiliano of the UC Berkeley Transportation Center “Is Jobs-Housing Balance a Transportation Issue?”. This paper highlights the false logic behind Sustainable San Rafael’s premise:
- Many households have two (or more) earners in different locations, living near one household member’s job may mean living far from another’s
- Most people hold several different jobs during their working careers
- Living close to work is not a priority for many people. People are willing to sacrifice commute time and give preference to living in a larger home with more privacy
- Moving someone willing to commute from Vallejo to San Rafael to earn a higher income may simply result in that person choosing to commute to San Francisco which is now in range, increasing commuting
The housing proposed would pay property taxes for schools.
This is misleading at best and more likely erroneous – some property taxes would be paid but there is a high likelihood that much of the housing could be largely (not entirely) property tax exempt placing substantial burdens on existing taxpayers.
The plan proposed cannot mandate whether housing is developed by a non-profit or commercial developer. Currently extensive development is occurring in Marin by non-profits. Low income residents of non-profits receive a “Welfare Exemption”.
In Marinwood residents were first told that Marinwood Plaza would be 20% low income. However after this information was circulated to residents the plan changed to be over 90% low income. Substantial funding sources exist awaiting zoning to be expanded:
- Marin Community Foundation is spending $1.6m on advocacy to zone for affordable low income housing specifically in San Rafael, San Anselmo and unincorporated Marin. MCF has assets in excess of $1bn.
- EAH Housing’s chair of the board authored a document in association with the League of Women Voters similar to Sustainable San Rafaels attempting to encourage zoning for low income affordable housing. EAH Housing has revenues of $95/year
There is considerable funding available to implement low income affordable housing in Marin if the zoning is opened up.
This translates as follows:
- The 61 low income residents of the non-profit Pilgrim Place apartments in San Rafael pay a per unit contribution to the high school district of $4.70 per unit
- A resident of a modest 3 bedroom home valued at $690,000 and assessed at a$232,522 (lower because it was bought in 1979 with proposition 13 limiting assessment value) would pay 116 times that amount - $548.93 per unit.
Bridge Housing estimates each unit will add 1.8 students to the school system. The Civic Center PDA proposes 620 units or a likely 1,200+ students. Given the above examples it is clear that a substantial burden will be placed on existing residents.
The Plan reduces the greenhouse gases causing Climate Change
Sustainable San Rafael advocates “Transit Oriented Development” will cause the new residents to switch from cars to transit. But the evidence supports little if any such switch. In a separate article “The Civic Center PDA – A Square Peg for a Round Hole” I cover this myth in more detail.
This concept works well near BART stations. The City of San Rafael’s Q&A document cites a study by Robert Cervero “Vehicle Trip Reduction Impacts of Transit-Oriented Housing” as evidence that the transit oriented development proposed at Civic Center will reduce vehicle trips – this study serves to underscore the opposite – that San Rafael does is suited to transit oriented development as it is an area with “plentiful parking, low density and minimal transit services”.
The Cervero study goes onto to review 16 locations deemed appropriate for transit oriented development that would significantly reduce vehicle trips. The difference between these 16 transit oriented development suited locations and Civic Center could not be more stark:
- Civic Center residents would have to commute for 95 minutes on public transit to the nearest major employment center
- On average residents of the 16 TOD suited
locations would have to commute on public transit for just 35 minutes
- Civic Center residents would have to connect at least
once at Larkspur and likely a second time once they arrive at the ferry
terminal to reach a job in San Francisco
- Residents of the 16 TOD suited locations could all commute directly to major employment centers
The much more likely impact of the proposed development at Civic Center would be that vehicle trips would not be significantly reduced. The 620 more housing units would add over 1,000 cars to the area flooding 101 and adjacent intersections and causing congestion – which causes more greenhouse gas emissions.
One might ask the simple question “how does adding 620 high density housing units and cars reduce greenhouse gases?”
“Water is a Countywide Issue” Limiting Development in One Area Does Not Solve this Regional Issue
This doesn’t make sense - the plan advocates for rapid growth of 620 multi-family units in Civic Center (and similar amounts in downtown San Rafael's PDA).
The Marin Municipal Water District 2010 Urban Water Management Plan lays out abilities to support an additional 271 multi-family housing units county-wide between 2015 and 2035. Even then it assumes that single family homeowners will reduce water consumption by 5.7%. Some savings are achieved by new buildings using more efficient plumbing. The likely mechanism to achieve this is water rationing – with high financial penalties for those exceeding their ration.
How does adding 620 units to just one location in the county address the water situation when the planned capacity for the entire county is only an additional 271 multi-family units - a figure already being exceeded by development in other locations across Marin.
After reviewing the facts – traffic, funding, water… - the question that arises is “does this seem sustainable?”