It’s been years since Marin’s planning issues have gripped the county like they do today. The normally dry and byzantine vocabulary of zoning and conditions of approvals, traffic Level of Service and the California Environmental Quality Act (also known as CEQA), have popped up again and again in columns, blogs, and everyday conversation.
Behind the rise in high-flying rhetoric is a confluence of interrelated crises: a local and regional housing shortage, a seemingly inexorable rise in traffic, and questions about Marin’s character and future. Coalition for a Livable Marin, or CALM, was founded last year on a simple principle: the best solutions to these crises are to be found in our town centers and our open spaces. Our mission is to create and maintain the vibrant, inclusive and sustainable places that make Marin, in combination with its magnificent open space, such a great place.
That means looking back to Marin’s heritage for the lessons and concrete policies our communities should adapt to face current challenges.
The debate about housing--the most contentious issue-- is fundamentally a question of Marin’s values. Throughout the Bay Area, far fewer homes are being built than jobs being created, resulting in a critical shortage of housing for thousands of residents and workers. The outcome is a tremendous rise in the cost of housing, closing Marin’s doors to all but the wealthiest. Our children and our seniors are forced to leave their homes and communities
While Marinites cannot fix this problem alone, we can help.
Marin has historically been a community for people of all classes, and provided a diversity of choice in homes, from backyard units and apartments to large homes on steep canyon slopes. Marin should do everything it can to welcome those of modest means and fixed incomes by encouraging more apartments, second units, and, yes, multi-unit affordable housing.
Concretely, that means lowering or eliminating fees for second units and entry-level housing, reducing administrative and political delay for affordable units, taking advantage of the State’s project review streamlining, and eliminating excessive parking requirements-- all of which drive up costs for new housing.
But these changes don’t need to sacrifice Marin’s small-town character. Our downtowns give us the map: they already have loads of apartments, both freestanding and above stores. With new zoning codes patterned on the architecture, height, and real densities of our beloved town centers, we can build new homes on parking lots and empty parcels. Building housing adjacent to town centers will also bring in new customers for local stores. This means new business for our town businesses and new sales tax revenue for communities.
Of course, when we discuss new homes, discussing traffic is inevitable. Traffic continues to plague our daily commutes.
CALM believes we need more ways to move around. Some trips can be taken on foot, others on bike, still others by transit, and some are just best done by car. By diversifying our transportation monoculture away from the automobile, each mode can work at its best. Marin was built around public transportation, an inter-urban rail system that linked town centers to each other and to the ferry to San Francisco. The SMART train will bring a portion of that system back, and our buses can certainly do better. With on-board transponders, they could keep green lights green just a little longer. By continuing the HOV lane on 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge, buses and carpools could bypass traffic entirely.
The distances and flatlands of Marin are ideally suited to bicycling. Marin has been building a world-class, interconnected system of pathways and standard bike lanes. Other American and European towns have seen protected bike lane systems – which create physical separation of on road bike lanes - double or triple the amount of cycling and walking, taking cars off the road and promoting healthier lifestyles.
These are the values of Marin, and of CALM. We believe in maintaining and creating places in our county for people of all incomes. We believe we must invest in choice and convenience in how we move around. And we believe it’s possible to do these things while preserving our open spaces and small-town character.
CALM works with our elected leaders to solve challenging problems rather than denigrating staff and officials when we don’t get instant results. CALM exists to promote the sorts of home-grown policies that made Marin great in the first place, and we’ll keep on working to ensure that Marin continues on that path.