Whose Fault Was the WinCup Disaster?

The Win Cup building in Corte Madera

The Win Cup building in Corte Madera

Today WinCup has become famous as a disaster to both sides of the housing debate:

  • Measured growth advocates point to a monstrosity that is a major departure from the architectural character of Marin, will impose major traffic impact and provides barely any (just 18 units) affordable housing
  • Fast growth new urbanists recognize that it is the highly visible monument that lost them the hearts and minds of mainstream Marin residents. It is right next to 101 where on a peak day as many as 591,000 people drive by according to Caltrans 2013 traffic counts.

Some blame the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) which imposed housing quotas on Corte Madera that the city had to plan for – failing which it was sure to be sued by housing advocates for “failing to deliver its fair share” of afforable housing.

Others lay the blame on the Corte Madera city council.

Both are both partially right a, but they overlook an entity that was fare more responsible for the fiasco that was WinCup.

The Real Story of WinCup

Win CupWhile it will be impossible to completely join the dots here is the real story behind WinCup that I’ve learned:

1) ABAG gave Corte Madera a ludicrously high target that it must plan for 244 housing units.This was preposterously high for a city that councilors tell me is near completely built out.

The city already had identified locations for about 60 units, but there was very limited remaining land available that wasn’t in a flood plain. Later into the process Corte Madera objected and ABAG dialed the quote back to about 70 units, but that point the developer had locked in WinCup and it was too late.

2) A former mayor of Belvedere, who understood how land deals worked, was retained by the land seller – the owners of the WinCup property. He was surely on commission and highly incentivized to help them sell the land for the maximum possible price. The only issue – the land wasn’t zoned optimally to attain a good price.

The former Belvedere mayor worked with consultants to produce an analysis showing the benefits of rezoning the site for high density housing. This analysis used a common technique – the same as used by SMART: presenting artificially inferior alternatives that guide the reader to the choice desired by the report’s authors.

Planning insight and guidance given to the council focused on rezoning WinCup to meet ABAG’s quota, but there were certainly other development sites.  The presentations and documents provided by city staff were guided and steered the council to address the ABAG requirement by rezoning WinCup. Within 2 weeks of the city publishing it’s Housing Element and rezoning WinCup the land was sold. Within 6 months a developer was presenting their plan to develop WinCup to the council. This is remarkably fast in the slow world of planning.

Who Controls the Conversation? City Staff

Part of the fault was that the council should have caught this, but I bumped into a government employee yesterday who referencing separate issues told me that city managers and planners on staff have immense power to guide proceedings. If you’ve ever seen the BBC TV show from the 70s “Yes Minister” or the more recent amazingly funny “The Thick of It” you’ll understand how the permanent staff run circles around transient elected officials:

Here’s how it happens…with the brilliant Sir Humphrey manipulating the British Prime Minister:
Yes Prime Minister, BBC

And here’s the more up to date version from The Thick of It where  Malcolm Tucker- the Prime Minister’s press secretary, puts a cabinet minister in her place. Warning, contains olympic class swearing:

Architectural Design Reviews Skipped

The council should also have conducted a proper design review – I’ve learned that in San Rafael the city would have never let WinCup happen. But in Corte Madera, steered by compliant staff the council was led to overlook this need.

Takeaways from WinCup

The takeaway here is that we all need to be very skeptical and vigilant – we can’t be apathetic and trust in the better judgment of our elected officials. The ones in Corte Madera I have great respect in, but they made an error and let themselves be manipulated. Likely they won’t let this happen again.

Staff can and will take advantage. It’s unclear to this day if they were ever in the pay off of WinCup. They may simply seek to secure planning grants and make things happen, helping justify their position or seeking to achieve some personally preferred goal such as to promote more affordable housing.

So there you have it – the real story of WinCup. It would be refreshing if the Marin IJ could research and report the real story, but probably not as it would require proper investigative journalism.

For More Information Read BaySeals.org

More information can be found on the excellent Bay Seals website which is produced by a Larkspur resident who has conducted extensive research on WinCup.