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San Rafael gets $1.6M in planning grants for ‘priority’ areas

February 3, 2023

by Adrian Rodriguez| Marin IJ

A school bus drops children off near apartment buildings on Canal Street in San Rafael, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

San Rafael has been awarded $1.6 million in grants to fund studies for long-term planning in the Northgate and Canal neighborhoods.

The two neighborhoods have been named “priority development areas” in Plan Bay Area 2050, a regional land-use outline. The designation is for areas within a half-mile of public transit and considered by city officials as focal points for development.

The designation qualified the city for the grants so city planners can create precise development plans for both neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved the $797,000 grants, one for each study, last week.

“The goal is to establish some development standards as we look at how development might occur in these priority development areas,” said Ali Giudice, the city’s community development director.

“We will be identifying mobility goals, equity goals, affirmatively furthering fair housing, capital improvements and transit,” Giudice said.

Priority development areas are nominated by cities, towns and counties for consideration by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The organization called for nominations in 2020 as part of its 30-year regional land-use plan, which it is updating with an extended timeline through 2050.

That’s when the San Rafael City Council named the Northgate and Canal neighborhoods priority development areas.

The Association of Bay Area Governments had already recognized downtown San Rafael as a priority development area in 2009. It gave the city $600,000 to pay for a land-use planning project there.

In 2012, the city adopted a “downtown station area plan,” establishing a vision for land use and circulation improvements around the downtown SMART station. The downtown precise plan, which was approved with the city’s general plan 2040 update, was the city’s latest step in guiding development in downtown.

Giudice said the city unsuccessfully applied for grants to fund studies for the Northgate and Canal projects in the 2021 cycle. Staff applied again in 2022.

City Manager Jim Schutz announced last month that the grants were likely going to be approved.

“Recently having done the precise plan for downtown, I think that we see kind of the value of that and how it could really spur things to happen in the community,” Schutz told the City Council.

The Northgate development area includes the Northgate mall, the Northgate I and III shopping centers and the Las Gallinas Avenue office and gas station areas. The Canal area includes the majority of San Rafael’s southeast boundaries, but excludes the Spinnaker and Baypoint neighborhoods.

Giudice said that once the city receives confirmation of the grants, staff will present the projects to the council to accept the funds.

A consultant will have to be hired, and the city would appoint a steering committee to help guide the process, Giudice said.

In recent years, both neighborhoods have been hot spots for project proposals, including hotels, residential complexes and infrastructure upgrades, Giudice said. The studies will have to take into consideration what has been approved already but not yet constructed, and what might be pending.

In the Terra Linda area, for example, a 136-condominium complex called the “Northgate Walk” and the 192-apartment “Neighborhood at Los Gamos” project have received approval.

A plan to redevelop the Northgate mall with 1,320 new residences is also in the works. That project is under city review.

In an ideal situation, the study and development plan would have been completed before anything new was introduced into these areas, Giudice said.

“But we’re going to be working with the community to come up with something that is best for the city,” Giudice said.

The plan has been a long time coming, said Grace Geraghty, executive director of the nonprofit Responsible Growth in Marin.

“Responsible Growth in Marin has actually advocated for a PDA for north San Rafael for quite a while, and we’re happy it finally happened,” Geraghty said.

Considering the projects that are already coming down the pike, Geraghty said it’s unfortunate the designation and study didn’t happen sooner.

“It’s better to have a plan than no plan,” she said.

In the Canal area, an equity-guided climate change and sea-level rise study is underway, Giudice said. Staff and consultants will be working in tandem with that effort as they develop the Canal area PDA study, she said.

“We’re lucky to have secured the funding,” said Omar Carrera, executive director of Canal Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the immigrant community.

“There is a clear need for deeper engagement with the Canal community in our city’s planning,” Carrera said. “This planning exercise will allow us to elevate, in a very meaningful way, the voice of the residents.”

Read the story on the Marin IJ

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