Planning for Reality: How to Rig the Community Input Process

As Larkspur faces a radical proposal to add the equivalent of 5 WinCups plus a hotel and 177,000 sq ft commercial it is useful to learn about the Civic Center Station Area Plan committee process. This is how things get rigged...

The alternatives presented by the Civic Center SAP
The alternatives presented by the Civic Center SAP
I never used to pay any attention to local politics - I was too busy with my family, job and the busy day to day and trusted our elected officials and taxpayer paid employees of public agencies to do the right thing. But in August last year I had a sobering awakening into how our future gets chosen for us - and it doesn't matter if or when you show up. Public input was carefully controlled, and input that diverged from the desired outcome was somehow conveniently disregarded. Now with Plan Bay Area the stakes are much higher - a "mega-plan" will see regional agencies MTC and ABAG place significant pressure on target areas - Primary Development Areas (PDAs) - to plan for very high numbers of new residents which must be housed in high density housing near transit.

Our local planners and elected officials must respond to this need with plans - plans that should align with the communities they represent - but how can this work if trust has broken down? How can we buy into a plan if we cannot even trust the local process that executes on the plan to respect community input?  The MTC $528,000 Contract with the City of San Rafael Back in May 2010 Mayor Boro (since replaced by Mayor Phillips), Barbara Heller (still a serving councilor) and Greg Brockbank (now running to get back onto city council) entered into a remarkable committment with the Metropolitan Transportatation Commission. A contract was prepared by and ushered through by Linda Jackson, a former planner for the City of San Rafael who now works for TAM. You can read the binding contract here. But here's a summary: - the city received $528,000 for the purpose of conducting community planning workshops for the two areas around SMART stations in downtown San Rafael and Civic Center - at the top of page 19 the contract states that "RECIPIENT shall...maximize housing potential"

- finally the contract requires a specific deliverable 12b that the San Rafael council must adopt [vote to accept] the plan or payments will be withheld. Had I known all this when I had attend a city council meeting along with over 200 other residents voicing concern that the plan did not reflect our input, I perhaps wouldn't have been so surprised that the council voted 5-0 unanimously to accept the plan. It was pre-ordained! 

Concerns Met with Appeasement

Time and time again members of the community were dismissed by officials with "why did you all show up so late to the process, if only you'd voiced your opinion earlier". Well many of us did - and still we were ignored. Even to this day we're told "don't worry - there are many additional steps requiring public input that will occur before anything gets built". After our experience you can imagine the extraordinary reassurance this provides.

The Public Input - and the Magically Transformed Output 

Early on in the planning process visioning sessions were conducted to capture public input, here is a summary of the visioning comments relating to housing that you can find documented in the final plan on pages 221-224.

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 form 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 compliment the existing homes and natural areas." (pg. 251) It 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 mini-team was headed by Linda Jackson, the lead project manager.  Now it must also be remembered that 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 mini 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!

So somehow the community input went from allowing a moderate amount of additional housing units of height consistent with the neighborhood, to extensive 5 story high density housing. 

In my line of work heads would roll if someone tried to pull trick like that and got found out.  Getting Back to Plan Bay Area Plan Bay Area uses a carrot and stick approach - just like the awarding of $528,000 to San Rafael for planning - of awarding transportation and housing funding to cities that plan for very high numbers of additional housing units. 

Now if Plan Bay Area goes through the very same processes will be used far more extensively to secure public input and validation of high density housing plans, perform zoning reviews and change cities general plans.  How Do We Put This Right? Eliminate the North San Rafael PDA. [Update: Plan Bay Area was enacted in July 2013; Marin Supervisors Katie Rice and Steve Kinsey both voted for it, Mayor Pat Eklund of Novato abstained]

What ultimately needs to happen is either acknowledgement that the Civic Center Station Area Plan was flawed and should be disregarded, or the San Rafael city council should unwind the damage done by making the area a target for development by making it a "Primary Development Area" - which is where Plan Bay Area concentrates new housing. In effect by making Terra Linda a PDA it will be transformed from a suburban neighborhood and "urbanized".

We also need to ensure we don't repeat what occurred before. We need to be wary of the officials who got us into this situation and we need to demand more accountability and transparency. In summation as Sir Roger Daltrey of the Who so rightly put it - "won't get fooled again".

Update: After a year of outcry by residents that the plan failed to reflect their input major housing aspects of the plan were removed. Every single request made by residents was accommodated and the plan changed.

Mayor Gary Phillips was outspoken in contradicting prior assertions made by others that the "Priority Development Area" designation came with no strings attached. He articulated that by proceeding with accepting more funds it would lead to a situation where a developer could accuse the city of accepting the money, so they should accept the development.

Mayor Phillips most significant concern was around schools. The additional housing would have placed substantial burden on schools leading either to a degradation in the quality of Dixie School District, or an increase in taxes. Amongst the many considerations he expressed that it was the schools aspect that tipped him to vote to rescind the PDA designation.

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.

Peter Hensel December 16, 2013 at 02:12 PM
Richard, this is a success story of sorts. It shows how a determined and saavy group of citizens can push back against cunning and draconian Plan Bay Area promoters---who quite relentlessly are seeking to apply their urban planning model to Marin tranquil suburbs. Yes, all who live here should rouse to fight this in the spirit of Roger Daltrey's rallying cry, "Won't Get Fooled Again!" shusgh


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