Larkspur's Missing Village

Imagine living on San Francisco Bay.  You live with the sound of the sea and the smell of the Bay.  There are fabulous views of shoreline and bits of the City's skyline peak over the hills.  Moonlight reflects off the water, and there are places to eat seafood very, very fresh.  You work in the city, but it doesn't matter because you are near the best transit in the region: departures are every 30 minutes on the dot and provide a speedy but relaxing 30 minute ride downtown.

I'm writing about Oakland, yes?  Near BART?  Actually, no: I'm writing about Larkspur Landing.  It doesn't have a train yet, but that ferry ride is very real, giving locals one of the best places in the County for transit to the City.  Buses regularly depart from nearby bus pads and from the Ferry Terminal, and the Marin Airporter office is in the middle of everything.  If a resident does own a car, Larkspur Landing is wedged between Highways 101 and 580, and located along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, giving easy access to Marin's principal arteries and to Contra Costa.  This should be a transit paradise and a destination to rival Sausalito or Tiburon, but it's not, and it's a lost opportunity for Larkspur and the County.

Jane Jacobs, the grandmother of New Urbanism, described a vibrant streetlife as vital to the health of a neighborhood.  People should be walking, they should be interacting and keeping an eye on the street to keep it safe.  Apartments and shops should interface with the street, putting more eyes on the street and adding to the draw of the outdoors.  To further encourage streetlife, traffic should be slow, roadways should be narrow and sidewalks wide, and parking lots should be kept away from the street if they exist at all.

Larkspur's downtown does this right: sidewalks are wide and inviting, the stores abut the street, the traffic is calm and there's not a parking lot in sight.  When we look at Larkspur Landing, however, it's clear the design is oriented to cars, not people.  A clear sign is just how much surfacing parking is available.  The Ferry Terminal alone has over 9 acres of parking, a terrible waste of land, and as the map at the start of this article shows that is only half of the surface lots that dot the neighborhood.  Larkspur Landing can do better, and the two lynchpins are Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and all that parking.

Sir Francis Drake cuts through the area as a divided and busy roadway, and its primary crossing is a pedestrian bridge that avoids the road altogether.  Cars zoom through, the sidewalks are narrow and uninviting, and there is nothing to do along almost its entire stretch through the area as it heads towards San Quentin and I-580.  It is a boring and unwelcoming street.  To combat this, Drake should be narrowed past the entrance to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.  It doesn't need the capacity it has and could be narrowed to two lanes, with the difference going to bike lanes and the sidewalk.  There should be an entrance to the shopping center there, and buildings should be reconfigured or newly built to face Drake's sidewalk.

The parking lots present an opportunity for three to four story construction.  Although parking, given the car-dependent nature of the County, is a necessity at the moment, the lots could be consolidated into two garages spaced to serve different parts of the community.  The freed-up space should be subdivided into streets and 2-4 story buildings.  The success of the Food Truck Crush shows a strong desire for a sense of place and permanent service shops.  More residents and office workers will support more variety and greater depth of shopping and restaurants, which will serve existing residents as well.  Around the Ferry Terminal itself, a large, flexible and programmable plaza would give an opportunity for farmers' markets or an ongoing Food Truck Crush.  Strong bus links will be needed to serve a larger population, but a huge number of buses pass by on Highway 101; they could be diverted to serve a revamped Larkspur Landing.

J. S. Rosenfield & Co., new owner of Marin Country Mart - formerly known as the Larkspur Landing Shopping Center - plans to give commuters walking between SMART's planned station and the Ferry terminal someplace nice to walk, a third place literally between work and home.  But to make it that walkable place, Rosenfield and the City of Larkspur need to examine solutions for the deficiencies of the entire neighborhood: the lack of a street grid, the disconnectedness of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the oceans of parking, and the pedestrian-unfriendly development already in place.  Many waterfront areas are resounding successes, with examples in Marin and San Francisco.  Larkspur should take a long, hard look at this neighborhood and do what it can to make it the best it can be.