Novato's Affordable Housing Opportunity

New housing mandates for the City of Novato present a huge opportunity for the city, if only residents can bring themselves to seize the moment.

The big story in Novato this past month has been affordable housing.  The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is mandating new housing the city for the next five years under the “fair share” policy, under which each Bay Area government takes its fair share of the projected regional growth.  There has been a tremendous outpouring against the proposed sites as well as the process in general, leaving affordable housing advocates hopelessly outgunned.

Although ABAG shouldn't be mandating housing to Novato at all (not to say that Novato's government is terribly wise about its zoning policies to begin with), the situation does present an opportunity for the city to address some underlying issues that might otherwise get lost in the debate.  What kind of town ought Novato be?  How can it serve its residents better?  Neither side has been particularly effective in conveying their overall vision for the city, I think the answers can be broken down into three parts: density, transportation, and character.

  1. Character
    • Suburb.  The suburban character is the model that has been pursued by Novato through most of its modern existence.  It has led to the forms common to the Marin County landscape: long commercial strips dominated by parking, single-family detached homes, auto-centricity, exposure to housing market shifts, strip malls, and the freeway as the primary people mover.  Pedestrian traffic is focused around areas people drive to.
    • City.  The form of a city is the model pursued by San Francisco.  It contains few and expensive parking spots, contiguous commercial corridors, multi-family dwellings, insulation from housing market shifts, and transit-centeredness.  Pedestrian traffic is ubiquitous.
    • Town.  A hybrid between the suburbs and the city, a town is a small, mixed-density area centered around a central business district.  Housing is single-family outside the core and multi-family within.  Driving is dominant but walking, biking and transit use are common.  Commerce is clustered in the downtown node and radiates out along main thoroughfares.  Pedestrian traffic is moderate.  This is the model that was pursued in the pre-highway era and dominated Marin when the railroad was the primary means of transportation.

It seems to me that Novato is unsure of what character it ought to be.  Many residents have full faith in the surburban form, fighting any attempt to change the character of the town.  The location of SMART’s Novato North station a full mile north of downtown and isolated from most of the city, save for an office park, is testament to this thinking.  Simultaneously, the construction of a large mixed-use development near downtown, as well as efforts to further densify the area, shows a desire to create a town-like character among the more soft-spoken.

  1. Transportation
    • Auto-centric.  The auto-centric transportation model leads to large amounts of land set aside for car storage, such as parking lots.  Minimum parking requirements proliferate under this model while walking and active living are severely constrained.
    • Transit-centric.  Requires a minimum of medium density construction and a safe road network to walk around.  Tends to encourage walking to and from transit, as well as within the town itself.

Novato is unabashedly auto-centric.  The lack of real choice between an effective bus or rail system and the car exposes the city to gas price swings.  Any higher-density development will, by definition, increase traffic congestion, as roads must absorb all the new residents.  To mitigate, Novato would need to work with Golden Gate Transit to improve transit links while making the city pedestrian and bicycle friendly.  So far, there has been no honest attempt to do so, and this exacerbates suburbia's downsides.

  1. Density
    • Low.  Encourages auto use, increases pollution and environmental footprint, and decreases the efficiency of infrastructure (roads, sewers, etc.).
    • Medium.  Increases noise, decreases pollution, increases infrastructure efficiency.
    • High.  Increases traffic, transit use, walkability, efficiency, health, and decreases pollution.

Density can be done in a auto-centric way, yielding Los Angeles-style problems, or in a transit-centric way, yielding Seattle-style problems.  Density must be paired with mixed-use development to encourage walking, and with transit to keep cars off the road and parking lots from hogging all the land.  However, while you can have density without walking and without transit, you cannot have walking and transit without density.

Ultimately, Novato will become more dense.  Under the current legal regime, Sacramento and ABAG will ensure that this occurs.  Luckily, Novato can turn its situation into an opportunity instead of a tragedy.  Novato cannot maintain a purely suburban character, but few want it to.  Residents love their downtown, and the city provides incentives to start businesses – these are the marks of a town that wants to be more than San Francisco’s bedroom.

The developments being considered by Novato should be used to satisfy requirements for all income levels, diluting the problems of concentrated poverty, increasing the customer base for businesses downtown, and making that northern SMART station more than just the Fireman’s Insurance commuter shuttle.  For a long time, Novatans have looked to South Marin's bucolic, centralized communities with envy.  There is no reason why South Marin shouldn't look north and feel the same.