Two weeks ago, Novato approved the Hanna Ranch project, the city's newest commercial development. Squashed between Highway 37 to the southeast, Highway 101 to the southwest, wetlands to the northeast and the Village Oaks big-box development to the northwest, Hanna Ranch is the epitome of sprawl development. Inaccessible to anyone without a car, its only access road dead-ends within the development, rendering bus access impractical, and the only connection to the city proper is a freeway overpass a mile to the north. New utility lines will need to be built, and emergency services will need to go out of their way to serve the development - an expensive prospect.
What will the city get for their trouble? A hotel, some retail and a few restaurants on an eight acre site akin to an office park, far from any of the amenities that define Novato. Income from the development will be equivalent to around $650,000, but that doesn't count the added expenses described above.
Given the push in the city to improve downtown, this is a step backwards. Hotel visitors will be socked away in neighborhood that could just as well be in San Jose, Boise, or Dallas - a forgettable corner of Novato if there ever were one. Locating a hotel downtown would leave patrons with the small-town feel the city wants to foster and drive customers to local businesses rather than the chains that will doubtless move into the Hanna Ranch development. Adding more restaurants and retail downtown would continue to concentrate commerce in the core, promoting vitality for all of downtown.
Although councilmembers promoted this project as a way to combat blight, it will likely do the opposite. In promoting development far from downtown, Novato encourages people to come off Grant's sidewalks and drive to chains at Vintage Oaks and Hanna Ranch. Traffic gets worse, downtown patronage declines, and everyone loses.
Novato is often seen as the black sheep of the Marin family of communities. Recent decisions to move city offices downtown was supposed to be a turning point for the city, but by approving Hanna Ranch the Council has shown itself unwilling to abandon its sprawling ways to the detriment of all Marin.