Records Request Revelations: The Larkspur SAP

Records Request Revelations: The Larkspur SAP

Today one of the greatest mysteries in Marin is how it came about that the “preferred plan” for the Larkspur Station Area Plan is for 920 new housing units, a hotel and 77,000 square feet of commercial space. That such a plan is the preference of residents, their representatives and  civil servants seems wholly remarkable given the increasingly acute traffic circulation and parking issues at the ferry terminal and Larkspur Landing mall.

TAM – The Conduit Between ABAG, MTC and Plannning in Marin’s County and Cities

To shine a light and unearth the reasoning behind the Larkspur Station Area Plan on January 25th I submitted a Public Records Request to the Transportation Authority of Marin – the conduit of transit planning and funding that sits between ABAG, MTC and the cities and county of Marin. In other words – TAM is the focal point  straddling the regional agencies behind Plan Bay Area, and the cities and county of Marin.

Starting in late January my public records requests went back and forth with 3 denials, then  eventually in April – with the request  focused on specific TAM employees referencing Larkspur – things started to move and TAM agreed to produce records, but only after a county attorney could spend 20 business days vetting and censoring emails (which is permitted).

Finally today, for the princely sum of $62, I received a DVD-ROM containing emails back as far as 2011 from three TAM employees – Dianne Steinhauser, TAM’s Executive Director, Linda Jackson, Manager of Planning and Suzanne Loosen, TAMs representative on the Larkspur Station Area Plan Technical Advisory Committee.

SMART is Driving Growth (MTC Resolution 3434)

I’ve previously referenced the highly dubious MTC Resolution 3434. This is the regional transportation agencies resolution that transit projects that include SMART receive planning grants – such as the $480k grant for Larkspur’s Station Area Plan. The MTC policy document on resolution 3434 reads :

“The policy also provides support for a growing market demand for more vibrant, walkable and transit convenient lifestyles by stimulating the construction of at least 42,000 new housing units along the region’s major new transit corridors and will help to contribute to a forecasted 59% increase in transit ridership by the year 2030”

This is further reinforced in an attachment of April 5th 2013 to an email from Linda Jackson that succinctly states  the purpose of station area planning:

“MTC’s Station Area Planning grant program funds city-sponsored planning efforts for the areas around future transit stations. These station-area plans are intended to address the range of transit-supportive features that are necessary to support high levels of transit ridership.”

If you were looking for anything about accessibility, aesthetics, minimizing environmental impact – it’s listed far later in the details. In this particular document the text above is the entire paragraph describing the purpose of station area plans – it’s about what’s necessary to support high levels of transit ridership. In other words building houses near stations in the hopes that the new residents will take the train. Only then will SMART qualify for the federal funding grants that it needs.

Housing Trumps Local Priorities of Parking & Circulation

Now to the good part – what the records request reveals. Here is a memo sent by TAM to MTC and ABAG on January 10th 2011 seeking clarification. Granted this seeks clarification, but it reveals what TAM has learned from MTC and ABAG:

The documents reveal a pattern of a consistent and clear departure from local control and addressing current issues front of mind for Larkspur’s residents and Larkspur’s council. TAM clearly represents that Larkspur has issues with parking and circulation and seeks confirmation of whether these can be prioritized. The response is that no, they cannot be prioritized. Instead:

“The elements outlined in the MTC/ABAG Station Area Planning application are all critical elements of the planning process to achieve a range of transit-supportive features deemed necessary to support transit ridership and development around the station area.”

It’s clear that the priority is planning more housing units that generate more ridership for SMART.  TAM Executive President, Dianne Steinhauser affirms this understanding and the importance of MTC Resolution 3434 in this memo sent February 2nd, 2011. In the memo land uses (new housing) clearly take precedent over addressing problems serving existing residents.

SMART and MTC are near single-mindedly focused on achieving MTC Resolution 3434, or MTC’s Transit Oriented Development Policy, of attaining an average of 2,200 housing units within 1/2 mile of each station.

Page 8 of this December 2010 letter from MTC’s Steve Heminger [not part of the records request] states:

MTC recommends reviewing the TOD station area planning requirements going forward and redirecting any remaining station area planning funds to those cities along the initial segment that are most willing and able to add housing. Further, we recommend evaluating the location of stations that are poor performers for housing units before making future transit investments in these areas.

This statement appears directly below a table analyzing housing units based on the initial baseline stations proposed for the SMART initial operating segment (Santa Rosa to San Rafael), comparing it to removing Petaluma Corona and Novato North (misses the TOD threshold by falling 3,134 units short), or extending to Santa Rosa North.

So it’s pretty clear that it’s vital to SMART to pick up as many additional housing units as possible at the remaining locations – especially after they were unable to push through 1,414 units at Civic Center. So Larkspur needed to hit a really big number – perhaps the reason we’re seeing 920 units?

[Addendum, 5/19: The Greater Marin in an article of 5/19/2014 makes the incorrect assertion that Planning for Reality has stated that Larkspur must enact a plan with up to 920 units so SMART can qualify for funding. This assertion, like many others, is incorrect. The author has been seeking to understand whether the Larkspur SAP would have an effect. This was twisted and interpreted into “Planning for Reality says Larkspur must enact the 920 unit plan for SMART to get funding”.

The reality appears to be that MTC’s Grant money succeeded in Santa Rosa where the resulting plan added 3,409 units, enabling SMART to cross the resolution 3434 corridor funding threshold. Like a venture capital company, MTC invested in multiple SAPs, they just needed some SAPs in their portfolios to deliver big returns – as Santa Rosa did]

Ultimately this serves to reinforces a near lack of local control. Federal grants require achieving 2,200 housing units. MTC, the regional body, then invest money, with clear intent, selectively in station area plans that increase housing to meet the federal criteria. Where in the process do local residents and their council get a say? Does the outcome seem to be set up to be pre-ordained?

Environmental Impact Reports are “An Effort Not Required for SAP[s]” 

ABAG/MTC appear to concur that the station area plan can occur without an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as a requirement. EIRs are expensive. But ABAG/MTC do offer that Larkspur could apply for EIR funding  in a future funding cycle (I don’t know if such funding was sought). Of course we do know an EIR was later funded.

According to Wikipedia:

“An EIR [Environmental Impact Report] serves to inform governmental agencies and the public of a project’s environmental impacts. Further, an EIR proposes mitigations and alternatives which may reduce or avoid the environmental impacts; as the EIR is considered the heart of CEQA, mitigation and alternatives are considered the heart of the EIR. One alternative that a lead agency must usually consider is the no project alternative, that is, cancellation of the project and anticipated proposals of new projects in its place. “

Planning significant development such as hundreds of new housing units (a major engagement in Marin) without an EIR should be a red flag. Without it a city and it’s residents are blind to the impact on their quality of life, they are ignorant of what alternatives there might have been that would have been superior. One might as well be planning blindfold – but what would that matter if you have a pre-ordained outcome in mind?

“Lack of Housing Makes Traffic a Nightmare”

Likely an off the cuff statement, but in an email on December 23rd 2013 Linda Jackson of TAM says to former Larkspur planner Bob Pendoley:

“I’m going to ask Neal your question, and find out what I can about the traffic impacts. Note that the plan also adds hotel, retail and office along with housing. We’re happy to add those uses without traffic concerns! (when it’s the lack of housing that makes traffic a nightmare)”

In the same email she congratulates Bob Pendoley for his new presidential advocacy role at Marin Workforce Housing Trust. Conceivably Jackson might be implying that if only there were more housing adjacent to the retail and office this might reduce traffic – but this doesn’t make any sense to the author given that any additional housing unit, even TOD best case close in to major employment centers, generates 4.5+ car trips per day (see point #10 in the planning toolbox).

Larkspur DEIR “Needs Friends”

Although challenging to understand the true nuances of the statement, on  January 13th 2014 TAM’s Linda Jackson emails Brad Paul at ABAG providing a link to the Larkspur DEIR, stating:

“This is yet another plan that needs friends after 2+ years of study!”

Perhaps this is a reference to the Civic Center Station Area Plan that was 2 years in the making? After the plan surprised residents by deviating from their input this plan met fierce community resistance it was scaled back and the associated PDA rescinded. In other words, this message was a call to ABAG of the importance of supporting the Larkspur Station Area Plan DEIR to get it through.

Larkspur Underestimates the Cost of Public Outreach

It’s interesting to note in an email sent January 27th, 2014 that Larkspur Planner, Neal Toft is referenced stating:

“Larkspur is on verge of releasing the Station Area Plan/EIR and has incurred extra costs for additional public workshops ($12K), additional draft comment rounds to the report, and extra consultant meetings. The initial work program may have been optimistic about the number of meetings necessary and the obligation of the consultant.”

The TAM Board appears to have agreed to give Larkspur an additional $18,000 to allow Larkspur to complete its plan.

Is this good or bad? Don’t know. But it’s interesting to understand that Larkspur underestimated the public outreach effort.