Matt Yglesias has a post on restrictive zoning in Marin County which pooh-poohs Joel Kotkin’s suggestion that Marin ought to allow more single-family housing development, because everyone really wants to live in a midrise block in Sausalito. But regardless of what Matt thinks of Joel’s politics, I think they should have common ground here.
For one thing, the existing developed parts of Marin have a lot less capacity for densification than, say, Washington or Brooklyn. The gridded portion of Sausalito is perhaps a couple hundred acres and a lot of the rest of the residential development is built into steep hillsides on twisty narrow streets.
But a more significant reason is that if you look back in history, the point at which Marin became notoriously anti-development was very much about greenfield single-family, specifically the Marincello development. Dive into the weeds on the references for the Wiki article and you’ll find a fascinating story.
It’s important not to overstate the merits of the development. The discussions and literature of the time make Marincello sound like a truly groundbreaking, visionary place. But looking at the renderings in retrospect suggests a standard Rouse-type master planned community, something like a cross between Columbia Maryland and Reston Virginia. In particular, there was a vision of high-density towers, but if you look at late 60’s/early 70’s community design there were often a lot of very earnest proposals to build high-rise residences among the ranchers which almost never penciled out. As-built Marincello would’ve most likely been single-family, garden townhomes, and a few tasteful stripmalls and 2-3 story office buildings.
Which isn’t bad at all.
But the real blow-you-away history lies in the court cases. For the death of Marincello ultimately hinged on two very iffy findings.
First, Marin County back in the day envisioned a future of suburban development and had a major thoroughfare plan drafted up to support it, just like Houston or Phoenix or Collin County today. One of those planned thoroughfares extended west from the existing Spencer Avenue Overpass over Highway 101, over what was at the time (and still is) a private street. Plans, models and sales brochures for Marincello all showed this roadway connection, as you might expect them to. After all, the county had expressed its intent to acquire the roadway, Marincello was going to construct a development that would justify the roadway, and certainly eating a few hundred feet of private road to connect a four-lane arterial stub with an six-lane freeway is about the clearest legitimate use of eminent domain one can imagine.
But the homeowners on the private street made a different argument. They argued that Marincello misrepresented their street, because the lines on the maps and models implied ownership. In the courtroom, the calipers came out, and the lawyers argued the width of the lines on the maps to determine the right-of-way Marincello was supposedly claiming existed. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a large-scale map where line width was a perfect to-scale representation of existing ROW. Have you?
Second, Marin County at the time had a short public comment period for rezones. Off the top of my head I think it was something like seven days. But when Marincello was rezoned, the comment period was cut short – I think it lasted for four. In either event, no objections were filed, and it’s extremely unlikely any would have been given an additional three days. But the discrepancy in the comment period was used to retroactively dezone the entire development. Basically the county said hey, regardless of what we all shook hands over six years ago, we’ve changed our minds and now we’re going to kick you back to square one.
And so it was that Marincello died and Marin’s established homeowners realized they could block pretty much whatever they wanted.
Now, leafy, curving streets lined with large-lot residential, fronting access-managed arterials with architecturally-controlled retail – that might not be your thing. Certainly it’s not Matt’s. But it’s definitely relevant. If you have a county planning and zoning apparatus that is pro-development and pro-growth, if you have a citizenry that accepts the concept of more people living near them, then it’s a much shorter conceptual leap to allow mid-rise blocks in downtown Sausalito. Cities which were long characterized by freeway sprawl can up and build something like Addison Circle. And at some point, your transportation planners are going to start to ask if we couldn’t accommodate some of this new housing through redevelopment rather than further sprawl.
But if you kill the peripheral development as Marin did, you set up an entire culture of blocking things anyone doesn’t like. And while it’s easy for some DC Blogger to say “hey, densify Sausalito” there’s just no infrastructure on the ground for it. The planning department isn’t eager to grant rezones, the agencies aren’t quick with the permits, and more importantly there’s no home-grown developer network which can make the case for allowing it. Instead it’s a bunch of out-of-towners from LA or NY or Texas making presentations to skeptical bureaucrats and waffley politicians beholden to ornery citizens. In other words, it’s not gonna happen.
Fewer restrictions on greenfield single-family development could’ve been a gateway to densification, but that’s not how it turned out.