Last Saturday, on a beautiful spring afternoon, a community event was held in Ross at the Marin Art & Garden Center. By all counts it had an amazing turn out. The crowd was estimated to have been between 300 and 400 people. The room, which seated 225, was packed with standing room only on all sides, three deep. As many as 50 people milled around outside trying to listen in and I was told 100 people were turned away at the gates by the facility managers due to fire code restrictions. Guests had to park many blocks away, if they could find parking at all.
Below is the press release put out by the organizers of that event.
How I Got Involved
I had been invited to speak at this event some weeks before and agreed to do so, as I have in many communities around the Bay Area. My personal interest in sharing ideas and listening to what communities have to say about growth and planning has been steadily increasing in the past decade, probably because state and regional planning is having a greater impact on my home town of Mill Valley. And because it seems that the decisions made by one city, more and more, impact the rest of us in other cities in Marin (e.g., the Win Cup project in Corte Madera and the upcoming Larkspur Station Plan in Larkspur Landing).
But no sooner had I been invited to make my presentation than I received an email basically uninviting me to make that presentation because Supervisor Katie Rice had “issues” with it. For the record I’ve never met or corresponded with Supervisor Rice, and to the best of my knowledge she has never heard me speak.
In any case a series of back and forth emails about the event and how it would be set up ensued. Various scenarios were discussed and proposed. But I should point out that contrary to the reason Ms. Rice gave for cancelling her appearance on Saturday, at no time was a “debate” with Ms. Rice or anyone else ever considered or discussed. I was either going to make my presentation or I wasn’t.
The final proposal was that she would have an uninterrupted hour and a half to talk with her constituents and make any kind of presentation she wanted and have a Q&A session. Then I would have an hour and a half to make my presentation and have a Q&A session. But that still didn’t seem to fly with Ms. Rice.
Eventually, the entire “negotiation” got really silly. It seemed that even my presence became a deal killer. At one point I offered that I wouldn’t even be in the same building at the same time as Ms. Rice, to placate her “concerns.” But even that was unacceptable, according to her aides. Then she cancelled at the last minute even though the community had footed the bill to rent the room, set up a professional sound system, and covered all the other costs of the event.
The Show Must Go On
I gave a presentation to a lively crowd that consisted of residents and neighbors of all ages and from all parts of Marin. And although the housing debate has become highly politicized lately, the goal of my presentations is always educational, first and foremost. Because in order for people to be able to engage in a productive way it’s important to be up to speed on how we got into the situation we now find ourselves in. Perhaps someday even the Marin Supervisors will come listen before they pass judgment. One can always hope.
In any case, for that reason I spent time talking about the history of modern planning and affordable housing, the various laws and regulations and government programs we work under, and about the environmental, economic and social impact realities of how and what we build, and facts and fallacies about greenhouse gases. And I tried to explain some of the cold hard facts about how the development business works and how its goals are not necessarily aligned with the public good.
But I also spent a good deal of time on Saturday talking about alternatives and better solutions to our planning and housing needs, and what changes in public policy are needed to help facilitate that. So I don’t want that part of the message to get lost in the politics of the moment because that’s ultimately what the endgame is all about.
I welcome anyone who’s interested in learning more about sustainable solution in Marin, to come to my next presentation.
The Press Release
Here then is the official press release about the Saturday event:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, March 24, 2014
Supervisor, Katie Rice, Fails to Appear
Over 300 Ross Valley Residents Attend Community Meeting on High Density Housing in Marin
Marin County, CA. – On March 22, 2014, 300 to 400 people concerned about high-density housing in Marin attended an open community meeting at the Marin Art & Garden Center’s Livermore Room in Ross. The over-capacity crowd spilled out into the patio to listen to a presentation by Bob Silvestri, a former low-income housing developer and a critic of ABAG and Plan Bay Area. Conspicuous by her absence was District 2 Supervisor, Katie Rice, Ross Valley’s representative on the Board of Supervisors, who three (3) days before the meeting, informed her constituents that after much thought, she decided that “it was best for the community” if she “did not attend.” Rice’s last minute announcement of her cancellation forced event organizers, Ross Valley volunteer residents, to scramble to inform attendees that the show would go on, but that the first hour and a half reserved solely for Rice, instead, was now two hours exclusively for Silvestri’s presentation and a public comment and Q & A session.
Peter Barry, M.D., former Town of Ross Mayor moderated the event. Dr. Barry observed that the 180 unit Win-Cup development in Corte Madera was the catalyst that sparked residents’ outrage regarding high-density housing in Marin and the interest in Mr. Silvestri’s presentation.
For the first hour, Mr. Silvestri explained in layman’s terms the intricacies of Federal and State housing laws, ABAG, and Plan Bay Area, followed by an hour of questions and answers. Mr. Silvestri was frequently interrupted by prolonged, loud applause, e.g., when he stated that Plan Bay Area is a one size fits all plan that does not fit Marin, that Marin’s metropolitan designation should be changed to suburban, that ABAG is a voluntary organization from which any city, town or county may withdraw at any time, and that an alternative to ABAG would be a new council of governments that included Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties, which share common interests such as agriculture, open space, parklands, and suburbs.
During the question and answer period, Marin resident, Clayton Smith, noted with anger that Ms. Rice’s failure to appear signaled that District 2 and all of unincorporated Marin “have no representative.” His comment was greeted with demands for Ms. Rice’s recall.
Okay, So What?
So what does all this mean? It would be nice for me to think that my presence had a big influence on the turnout but I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I believe we have Ms. Rice to thank for the publicity for the event. More seriously, I think the turnout was the inevitable result of growing, widespread concern that County Supervisors and many of our elected Town and City Council members are simply out of touch with the needs and concerns of Marin residents they are supposed to represent. And because people sense that the direction we’re going in by planning and approving massive new housing developments, is not the right one. And finally, because common sense dictates that better alternatives exist that are not being explored.
The fate of Supervisor Rice is a matter for her constituents in her district to decide. But the growing interdependence of our small cities is a matter that all of us need to become more aware of and proactive about.
Recently, I’ve been asking my own city council members in Mill Valley to understand that the old Marin small town governance model that says that we just don’t get involved in anything that’s not in our town, no longer works. The world has changed and we no longer have the luxury of that kind of innocence and isolation.
We are increasingly living in an interdependent world. What happens in one town affects us all, particularly when it’s on the scale of something like the Larkspur Station Plan which contemplates adding 920 housing units, 40,000 sf of office space, 77,500 sf of retail and 60,000 sf of hotel suites. And at that location we’re talking about a road network that serves all of Marin, and one that has intersections that are already operating at a level of service rating of “F,” the worst possible rating.
Other Marin city governments can no longer turn a blind eye to these kinds of highly impactful proposals. Cities need to begin to take policy positions and issue public statements to communicate the concerns of their own residents to their neighboring cities. We need to work together, as a County, if we have any chance of preserving the kind of communities that we’ve all worked so hard to create and invested so much in to maintain.
Certainly, if a proposal serves a greater good and has broad public benefits, we should support it. But continuing to allow what is amounting to a wholesale giveaway for development rights to “extractive” development interests, who have no stake in our communities and will not be around to suffer the consequences of its impacts on our schools, roads, infrastructure and vital services is not the right path, regardless of how green washed it is or how well it’s wrapped in high minded sounding but ultimately vapid social equity promises.