Lessons from Loch Lomond saga
by David Law
AFTER SIX YEARS and 100 meetings, the Loch Lomond Marina project has been approved by the San Rafael City Council (IJ, Aug. 7). Sadly, the decision follows a long series of compromises that delivers a result that satisfies no single entity and which is sub-optimal.
The city has lost a great opportunity to redeem its poor record in newly designed developments, whether residential or business. The city entities involved in the decision-making process have converged into making a prime bayside site into something similar to the inland Redwood Village, but with narrower streets countered with some lower elevations and use of “high quality” materials. All this while diminishing the marina aspect. Is this what is meant by “extraordinary” design? And what happened to the General Plan 2020 premise of housing “affordable by design”?
Memories of this disappointing project may well fade in time, but we must not let this happen again in San Rafael – or indeed anywhere else in Marin. There are so many lessons to be learned here, and we must quickly capture the good and the bad, and implement a new, even radical, approach to projects of this type.
Here are a few suggestions to start:
San Rafael city staff failed to serve as arbiter in the process. Instead, it acted more as bystanders to the confrontation between developer and affected neighborhoods, and often gave the impression of a lack of respect for those neighborhoods. In the future, city staff should be actively and continuously brokering positive dialogue. And they must be the custodians of the city design guidelines and General Plan – not justifying why these can be waived.
The city committees (Parks and Recreation, Design Review Board, Planning Commission) are representatives of the residents and we also look to them to be custodians of design guidelines and especially the General Plan to which everyone in the community has contributed. They must take much more time to interact, outside of the formal meetings, to truly understand all perspectives. For this project, I contend that they failed in their charter, and should not have abrogated their responsibilities and left it to the City Council to review, at the last minute, reasonable requests of the neighborhoods.
Let’s stop once and for all this confrontational approach, in which only public testimony (from individuals and associations that put in the time, effort and personal money to do so) addresses the deficiencies of the developer’s proposals. What would this development look like if there had been no challenges? The city must devise a much less confrontational, more inclusive process, and to start immediately lest other projects end up like this one. The first step, while things are fresh in the mind, would be a review workshop, run by an independent facilitator, involving representatives of all stakeholders.
It is still a mystery as to what was to be achieved at the Loch Lomond site. In future the “goes” and the “no-goes” which are to govern projects must be clearly identified up-front to give guidance to the proposers. Then perhaps the whole process can be shortened and the results fit for real pride.