The Civic Center PDA - A Square Peg for a Round Hole

More than 4 years after the San Rafael city council voted to make Civic Center a PDA the city published an analysis. The analysis seems to suggest Civic Center is a square peg and the PDA categorization a round hole.

The Civic Center PDA designation is set to apply a fast growth planning philosophy to Terra Linda, turning it into Northgate City with multiple 5 story high density apartment blocks on both sides of 101.

The PDA targets the ½ mile area around Civic Center station on both the Northgate and Civic Center sides of 101. Currently there are 1,065 homes, most single family, in this area. However, with the MTC Station Area Planning Manual PDA designation of “transit town center” the council has set a goal of packing in up to 7,500 housing units – a seven fold increase.

Residents have turned out in number repeatedly expressing their opposition in planning and council meetings – but at almost every turn up until now their concerns have been dismissed and they have been told not to worry as in future the same process will protect them.

PDA Benefits - a Vegas Gamble with Distant Odds of Success

The Civic Center PDA is a designation made by the city in the hope of receiving transportation funding from Plan Bay Area. Clearly if the city receives funding that is close to or matches the costs needed by the city to support the proposed development the PDA designation may be worthwhile. However the funding amounts are unclear and uncommitted.  

To achieve just the initial 620 housing unit capacity (not the full 7,500 unit build-out) – the capacity of the area identified in the city’s General Plan - would require extensive highway improvements. Just one such improvement is the Freitas interchange would cost in excess of $14m. This omits consideration of multiple other improvements that may be required. So how much of this $14m+ burden to taxpayers might the city expect to receive from Plan Bay Area?

MTC allocated just $10m to all of Marin in the last 4 year funding cycle of which at least 50% must be allocated to PDAs. However this must be split between six PDAs in Marin including the Marin County Unincorporated 101 Corridor, Marin City, California Park, Strawberry Village and downtown San Rafael. Civic Center’s share of this funding is unclear.

The city's August 2013 report estimates that:

“if current policies are continued the six years following the current four year-cycle might generate another $10m to $20m in transportation funding for Marin and with 50% directed to PDAs this would generate $5m to $10m in future funding cycles”

These amounts must however be divided up among five other PDAs. One might reasonably expect Civic Center to receive $1-2m at best.

So while the PDA imposes very clear and substantial costs in the tens of millions of dollars, it is likely to receive no more than a few million dollars from Plan Bay Area’s grants. A drunk gambler in Las Vegas might take those odds, but the city should not be playing with San Rafael taxpayers' money in such a manner.

A Noble Goal - Reducing Greenhouse Gases

Plan Bay Area aims to reduce greenhouse gases by concentrating 80% of new housing into less than 5% of the land area. This 5% of the land area are represented by “Priority Development Areas” or PDAs – they are specifically located within ½ mile of transit hubs. The hope is that a substantial number of the new residents will abandon their cars and take transit.

The thinking is that transit uses less greenhouse gases – but since the transit proposed is the SMART heavy diesel train which gets just 1.1mpg, compared to cars which are mandated to achieve 54.5mpg by the EPA the reverse is actually achieved. With cars carrying 1.67 passengers on average unless the train achieves an average ridership the length of the line of 82+ passengers it will serve to increase greenhouse gases.

The placement of thousands of new apartments is almost certain to add more traffic to highway 101 choke points causing more congestion and more emissions!

This all overlooks the simple fact that the SMART train dead-ends in San Rafael.

Is Civic Center a Match for Transit Oriented Development?

The study published by the city of San Rafael states:

“One study found that vehicle trips per dwelling unit decreased by 15-25 percent for transit-oriented apartments in low-density suburbs”

It cites a study “Vehicle Trip Reduction Impacts of Transit-Oriented Housing” by Robert Cervero and G.B. Arrington (2008).  Interestingly this reference actually doesn’t reinforce the case for Civic Center being a PDA. Cervero’s report states on page 2:

“Many TOD proposals have been abruptly halted or redesigned at lower densities due to fears that dense development will flood surrounding streets with automobile traffic. Part of the problem lies in the inadequacy of current trip generation estimates, which are thought to overstate the traffic-inducing impacts of TOD. Some analysts, however, have identified a serious “suburban bias” in the current ITE [trip] rates. Typically, the data used to set trip rates are drawn from suburban areas with free and plentiful parking, low-density, single land uses, and minimal transit services. “

Suburban areas with free and plentiful parking, low density, minimal transit services – that’s a fairly accurate description of Civic Center.  

The report then assesses a set transit of oriented development sites that it sees as more appropriate; consequently these locations would not flood surrounding streets with traffic. You can see the results in a chart and table linked to from this article. 

The Cervero study cited by the city of San Rafael is almost an affirmation that the Civic Center PDA is not suited for transit oriented development.

A comparison of the commute times finds that Civic Center is the only location with an indirect commute – all 16 locations in Cervero’s study had direct transit to central business districts.

Furthermore the average commute time – even assuming the SMART train is built and financially viable enough to continue operations – is almost triple that of the developments in Cervero’s study. The locations in Cervero’s study have an average commute time to major employment centers of 35 minutes while to get from Civic Center to the major employment center of San Francisco on the train would take 95 minutes.

The upshot of Cervero’s study is that Civic Center is poorly suited for transit oriented development. The significant distance from a major employment center, plentiful parking in the surrounding areas and low density means it is unlikely to significantly reduce car usage. So while the city’s report states that vehicle trips per dwelling should decrease by 15-25 percent, this is only true for developments with entirely different characteristics.

The city’s Q&A references a second study published in 2004 “Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the United States: Experiences, Challenges and Prospects”. This report states on page 22:

“Since TODs increase accessibility among those living, working, and shopping near transit, an extensive transit network is also often necessary for the benefits of TOD to materialize”

While SMART provides some limited connectivity it can hardly be described as “an extensive transit network”.  The report goes onto state:

“transit users are highly sensitive to service quality; therefore, running frequent and reliable trains and minimizing the need to transfer can be critical to the future of TOD.”

It is already known that SMART will not be reliable. Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager states that on days when SMART's train tracks are submerged by water, which occurred on 3 days in 2012 during king tides in the Gallinas Creek immediately adjacent to Civic Center station, the train will not operate. Sea levels are rising so that the number of days SMART will not operate is only likely to increase.

To the report's second point we might consider that one day SMART does connect to Larkspur. Getting to a job in San Francisco using SMART requires at least one transfer at Larkspur ferry, and for many a likely second transfer when they arrive at the San Francisco ferry terminal to get to an office deeper within the city.


Retaining Civic Center’s designation of Priority Development Area does not appear logical:

  • The certain costs of even a more limited 620 unit build-out are exponentially greater than any reasonable estimation of grants or other financial benefits that the city is likely to receive.

  • Even the smallest class of PDA as defined by MTC's Station Area Planning Manual, a "transit neighborhood", has a target of 4,000 housing units, far exceeding the capacity of the area as defined by the city's General Plan

  • The location does not fit the characteristics described by the expert reports cited by the city as critical factors needed for successful transit oriented development. Car trips per housing unit are not likely to be substantially reduced, but traffic congestion on 101 and greenhouse gas emissions will surely increase.

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.

Randy Warren September 02, 2013 at 07:47 PM
Good point Richard. While these solutions make sense in BART counties with 1+ million populations, here they will merely be the Millenium Party on steroids.
Richard Hall September 02, 2013 at 09:19 PM
The Millennium Party - what was that?
Randy Warren September 02, 2013 at 09:39 PM
The San Rafael City Council had an idea that couldn't miss. For new year's eve 1999-2000 they had the city host a major bash called the Millenium Party. Big headliners. $225 per ticket. It missed. In one night, the city council lost $1,200,000 of tax money, the biggest single loss in the city's history. Famous quote from then-mayor Al Boro: "We did not see that coming."
Bob Silvestri September 02, 2013 at 10:11 PM
Well said, solid research and sound reasoning. As article every city planner should consider.
John Parulis September 02, 2013 at 11:47 PM
Richard, nothing the City of San Rafael does is "logical" unless you apply the logic of addiction. The city should not even be making decisions for what will mostly effect county residents outside its jurisdiction. The City of San Rafael is on a binge building drunk right now and they don't know how to stop. Only a big fat array of lawsuits will reign them in. I urge anyone reading this to seek out law firms like The Pacific Legal Foundation to begin to act for the county's interest and reign in the hopeless development addicts of the City of San Rafael.
Clayton Smith September 03, 2013 at 01:30 PM
My heart goes out to the folks in Terra Linda and Santa Venetia. Additional condolences should be given to those commuters having to past through this area in the future. And to the already over-burdened taxpayers of San Rafael, my sympathies. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ I attended the meeting in Northgate a couple of months ago where Mayor Phillips and the blonde gal on the city council pretended to listen to the general publics concerns. The heartless demeanor of these two was so irritating to the attendees that it became one of the most talked about issues during the event. I have not seen such directed anger at attitude in Marin before. Yet, no move to recall them from office. "In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." If the people of Marin want better government, they will have to get off their butts and do something about it. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++The SMART fiasco is another example the effects of what James Carville referred to as dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park. In this case, the trailer park in question is our local governments and the $100 bills are these so-called "transit investments." In a poverty stricken community, one might expect this sort of sordid behavior, but in wealthy Marin! Where is the outrage, and who will organize it? ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Let us not forget that the confluence of government and corporate interests is the basic definition of Fascism. Today, this is disguised as Public/Private Partnership, but we can plainly see that "public" means that super corporation, the State, not the people. The people of San Rafael be damned, look at all the opportunities this pot of money provides. Look at the extra control over people's lives it gives us. Won't we look swell at the ribbon cutting ceremonies (not to mention the free eats and drinks afterwards). +++++++++++++++++ This odious sellout of Marin by her elected officials is the consequence of one party government and the corruption that always attends it. No viable opposition, so no real discussion. All we get is fake concerns and a lot of overt phoniness, increasingly pointless meetings to grind us down, and then the planners, politicians and developers do as please. +++++++++++++++++++++ If the people want to do themselves a grand favor, they should RECALL THEM ALL!!!
Richard Hall September 03, 2013 at 05:49 PM
I'm hearing rumors that a Marin county transit planners visited Dixie school and talked to students there about transportation and housing plans. I don't know exactly what was "taught".
Clayton Smith September 03, 2013 at 06:47 PM
Sounds like the good old USSR. If you can't convince the parents, then work on your captive audience, their kids. Welcome to the USSA.
Franz Listen September 03, 2013 at 07:58 PM
Richard, From my reading of the Civic Center Plan, 620 units is all the will be allowed in the area per the General Plan. It actually says that specifically . There does not appear to be any such thing as a "7,500 unit build out". You're getting that from an MTC place type designation which shows a range of 3,000-7,500 units to provide a generic example of what that type of place COULD look like. However, the place type designation is not law and does not appear to be controlling. I agree that its confusing. Moreover, since the "opportunity sites" are commercial sites with existing structures, it would probably be years, if not decades, before any of them would turn over and housing would be built.
Richard Hall September 03, 2013 at 08:45 PM
Franz - the MTC designations are targets, they're quite preposterous and indicate the current PDA classification is way out of line, and in fact any of the classifications has target build-out expectations far in excess of what is reasonable or achievable. This further serves to underscore Terra Linda's lack of suitability for transit oriented development and as a PDA of any kind. All of the impacts I describe relate to the Station Area Plan's proposed buildout. This plan has been accepted by the city council. If enacted without changes on September 16th then all the impacts described apply. Sure the build-outs will be gradual, not denying that, but the opportunities are then created. Just look at how quickly actual implementations are occurring in Corte Madera (building underway) and Marinwood (specific project plans under review for non-profit developed largely tax exempt housing).
Franz Listen September 04, 2013 at 01:35 AM
Richard, You might not like the Transit Town Center classification, but its doesn't look like it determines anything at all. It comes from a manual, and it's not the law or San Rafael's zoning. The manual even says that the numbers are descriptive, not proscriptive, says that details will vary, etc. I agree 3,000-7,000 is not a range of total housing units that makes any sense for the Civic Center area. The City apparently agrees, which is why only 620 units would be allowed over 20 years. The document they produced for the upcoming study session says that there are 1,056 units in the area now, so even after a 20 year build-out, there would only be a max of 1,682 units (with 620 being new). You can argue that 620 is too much. You can argue that 4-5 stories is too high. You can argue that certain sites should not be considered for mixed-use zoning. You can be concerned about the fiscal/quality of life impact of this housing is affordable. You can argue that the PDA should be dropped (although that would not change the city’s zoning). However, I don’t think that 7,000 units are in any way part of the equation.
Judy Schriebman September 04, 2013 at 02:15 AM
Richard, Great summary of some of the issues and poorly made assumptions driving the PDA at the Civic Center. It's really clear from looking at other areas designated for TOD that Civic Center does not match any of the conditions to be successful.
Clayton Smith September 04, 2013 at 12:37 PM
Franz, First comes the "description," then comes the "proscription." It's that old slippery slope. I certainly hope that as many local residents as possible show up for the San Rafael City Council's session on this topic. If the people living in the effected area are not there in mass, the council will likely conclude, they just don't care. It's Democratic Action Time folks!


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