Mill Valley Herald March 29–April 4, 1993
Meanderings by Dwayne Hunn,
Final interview series on Pedestrian Pockets.
If you are interested in various Pedestrian Pocket designs, visit St. Vincent’s Design competition on display through April, sponsored to provide the city with development ideas on one of Marin’s most significant remaining pieces of land.
Eight years ago Peter Calthorpe’s business was struggling. He was struggling to get people to listen and build the old fashioned way—with neighborhoods embedded in Pedestrian Pockets (PP). Remember the neighborhoods—playing in the street, biking to a neighborhood park, returning a coke bottle to the Mom and Pop store—for pennies or a stick of licorice?
Sometimes the best quality of changing, growing, adapting is in returning us to where we began. In a shrinking world where ideas, change, competition and dollars fly ever faster, shortsightedness and political selfishness can damn a nation’s development if her most basic resource—land—is used wastefully.
Today Calthorpe continually appears in print and has appeared on network nightly news. His Sacramento Laguna West Development, about 1,000 acres for 10,000 residents with bungalows from $20,000 to custom homes at $400,000, is the nation’s largest Pedestrian Pocket. Nonetheless, not enough people understand the importance inherent in moving the political process that stymies this common sense land use approach which fosters economic security and a healthier life.
At least, however the idea of community centered development woven together by narrow streets, front porches, easily identifiable civic buildings and walkable thoroughfares has moved beyond idealized discussion into market reality. Even housing market analyst and owner of Market Perspectives, John Schleimer, reversed his critical PP market beliefs based on the results of his survey of 619 homeowners at Laguna West and three other “neo-traditional” neighborhoods in Florida, Washington D.C. and Memphis. Those homeowners were willing to pay a “premium” because they felt their homes would appreciate more than the traditional suburban neighborhood.
Here in Marin it remains to be seen whether the debate over the need for Pedestrian Pocket development reaches the level of sense. Marin’s environmental movement, long controlled by a handful of politically astute, so-called environmentalists, has been opposed to PPs. If some fresh thinkers, concerned about community, affordability and environmental sensitivity ever get into the inner sanctums of these organizations, an interesting debate over true environmental issues might ensue.
Are PPs working anywhere else?
They work all over Europe where the traditional towns are mixed use communities in which rail transportation provides a healthy alternative to auto use. In Canada there are regions that have directed growth into transit oriented communities. In Marin, prior to the Golden Gate Bridge construction, we had many fine models that grew around rail stops. These town centers, such as Mill Valley, are among the most desirable places to live because of their mixed-use qualities.
If you were a planner in charge of the remaining land in Sonoma and Marin, what would you have cities, counties and developers do?
Zone for mixed use growth along the North West Pacific rail corridor. In some cases, this would merely mean transferring development rights from one part of a site to another.
For example, take the St. Vincent site. Presently San Rafael has St. Vincent’s thousand acres zoned for low density housing spread over a large portion of that land, along with some commercial uses. This development could be clustered into a 100 acre of mixed-use adjacent to the rail line leaving the wetlands and beautiful rolling hills as open space. None of the development would be visible from the freeway. The community would gain valuable open space, transit ridership would be reinforced and the land owner would still be allowed a reasonable level of return for his property.
Some environmentalists fear that PPs development and rail transit may impact the wetlands. What is your response?
The wetland areas are critical issues mainly in northern Marin and south Petaluma. Much of the rail corridor is to the north as will be much of the growth. Therefore a lot of the PP development should take place in areas away from the wetlands.
In Marin there are few viable sites for PPs. In these sites development in the wetlands should be avoided. Once again, clustered development would provide the means to preserve the open space permanently by exchanging the development rights in the pocket for permanent open space easements on the wetlands and other important open space areas.
What is needed to move the PP concept to the next stage?
Some model PPs that the environmental and financial community can look at and judge. We are now working on opportunities along the new rail line in San Jose and in Sacramento. If these are built they would generate the concept and test its results. These two cities with their existing light rail systems are in an advanced position to test the idea.
In Marin and Sonoma the next step must be for the 101 Corridor Committee to study a transit option which forces transit oriented land uses. If such a study proves the case, we would have the basis for moving ahead with financing for transit and land use studies in each county and municipality. But such a regional unifying study has to be a prerequisite.