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The Best Laid Plans - Part I: A Brief History of Planning

A special series provides a context for ongoing discussions about affordable housing and planning in Marin. Click blue hyperlinks for more info. Click your "Back" button to return to this article.

“Adriana, if you stay here though, and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your... you know, was really the golden time.”

 ~ Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen

In the late 1800s, the social and economic disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution sparked a back-to-nature movement (inspired by the writers like Thoreau) and utopian communities sprang up across the country. But others believed that industrialization would bring about another kind of utopia: one filled with scientific wonders and new opportunity for all. But the dawning of the 20th Century brought surprises no one imagined.

The promise of the Industrial Revolution gave way to the financial panic of 1905 (when the federal government had to be bailed out by JP Morgan), the war to end all wars (WWI), the Depression of 1921, the Roaring Twenties and finally the Crash of 1929. The ensuing Great Depression left the public shaken.

By 1933, life seemed like an unending litany of booms and busts and scandals. Distrust of big business and government was at an all-time high. The majority of wealth was controlled by a small percentage of the population and the disparity between rich and poor had reached historic proportions. And the political landscape had become increasingly polarized on the left and the right.

Meanwhile, the general public was suffering from the worst real estate crash in history and they just wanted someone to get people back to work. Until the crash, people had been living high on the hog but now that seemed gone forever. People were very angry and they wanted “change.”

Sound familiar? History seems to be repeating itself, for better and for worse. But notwithstanding the years dedicated to fighting World War II, or ironically because of it, in the decades that followed taxes got raised, markets and finances were regulated, the middle class thrived and the American century came into its own.

A Very Brief History of City Planning

City planning has been with us forever. Alexandria, Athens, Rome, Tikal, Paris and Washington, D.C., were all carefully planned, albeit from the very top down. It’s even claimed that the reason Nero fiddled while Rome burned was because he wanted to do major urban renewal and starting from scratch was the best way to eliminate “community opposition.”  But the planning of our towns and cities (rather than seats of government) got a major boost from the challenges of the early 20th century when a new idea was born. 

From Bauhaus to Your House in Marin

There’s something about human nature that gravitates toward big, simplistic solutions when faced with complex problems. And faced with the multitude of woes in the 1930s, many believed that massive housing projects were the way to solve our social and economic problems.

This view was shared by many social reformers and prominent architects and planners of the time, who proceeded to take a plausible idea and completely overdo it. “Modern” architecture and planning, as it came to be known, embraced mass production and technological innovation and promised to create cities that showcased the wonders of the Industrial Age. This egalitarian and utilitarian ideal, proselytized by Walter Gropius and the German Bauhaus, was perhaps most famously expressed by an obscure painter turned architect named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (who changed his name to Le Corbusier - perhaps being the first artist to take on a one name moniker).

The Radiant City

For “Modernists” like Corbusier, housing people was an industrial undertaking and humanity’s needs were utilitarian (fresh air, sunlight, sanitation, human scaled space, clean water and a view). This culminated in a vision he called La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City).

The Radiant City envisioned thousands of boxy, well lit, unadorned living units stacked in towering glass, concrete and steel skyscrapers built in close proximity to transportation (automotive super highways) and within walking distance to shopping and other necessities (“The more things change…”).

Unfortunately, grand visions tend to be doomed to grand failures.

To be fair, the modernists were as much driven by concern about public health conditions for the 99 percent as they were by trying to house the masses: there was little fresh air or natural light and few private bathrooms in 19th century tenements and housing conditions for the masses in general were abysmal. The times called for bold action and optimism about grandiose solutions. Our innate love of all things new and shiny proved irresistible. 

So when our federal government looked for ways to solve the demand for new housing in the 1940s after WWII, they looked to Modernists' visions. 

Projects like Stuyvesant Town / Peter Cooper Village in New York City, built in 1947, housed almost 100,000 people in one high density location (the Radiant City in Manhattan). And the demand for housing at that time, after decades of almost no housing construction, was very real.

Proponents claimed it had everything required to ensure its success. It was a “walkable,” modern village close to schools, shopping and public transportation. But what began in the late 40s as a vision of equality and affordable housing opportunity became a dystopian nightmare, unflatteringly known as the "projects” by the 1960s.

To have grown up in the projects was synonymous with having had a deprived, crime-filled childhood that you dreamed of escaping. Somehow “warehousing” people near public transportation and in walking distance from shopping just didn’t magically bring about equality, harmony or happiness.

Perhaps I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe it had something to do with the complete lack of opportunity for individual expression and other less tangible human needs.

By the early 1970s, these massive experiments in social engineering had clearly failed and we began tearing down high density affordable housing projects across the country. Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis (2,870 units) was the most infamous but by no means the only example. Yet somehow this lesson continues to escape the “one size fits all” central planners today.

New Urbanism

By the 1980s and early 1990s, it became obvious that we needed a new take on things. Fiscal conservatism became the new fashion and federal funds for housing were drying up faster than the Sacramento River Delta. Consequently, city planning became more about urban renewal, historic preservation and zoning codes than about building cities of the future. Left in a lurch, planners swung 180 degrees in the other direction and embraced the back-to-nature utopian ideals of the last century, but this time with a new twist. This was a new kind of nostalgia for the past that came wrapped in a new phrase: “sustainable living.”  It was called “New Urbanism.”

Towns would now instantly have all the “character” of small town Americana. New Urbanism preached the benefits of walkable communities near shopping, amenities and public transportation. It was based on observing successful small towns (like our towns in Marin) and attempted to reproduce the lifestyle they enjoyed. The only problem is there’s a lot more to what creates “community” than meets the eye.

New Urbanism envisioned winding streets lined with quaint Craftsman-like clapboard homes on small lots, with people chatting with neighbors from rocking chairs on wooden porches behind white picket fences. Neighborhoods were laid out around quaint “town squares” with housing districts separated from commercial areas by green space. In many ways these plans were almost an exact copy of the utopian towns that were designed and built in the U.S. from the late 1800s and the early 20th century.

There’s no argument that there are compelling reasons for living in a more humanized environment. Just ask anyone who lives in Marin. But at the end of the day, the New Urbanism vision is superficial and its “community” is as faux as the shiplap siding on its cutesy bungalows. 

New Urbanism is like Ralph Lauren was in the 1980s. Both try to sell us a nostalgic, patina-tinged vision of a past that never actually existed. Rather than doing the hard work of rethinking our world from the bottom up, addressing inter-related socio-economic realities and offering a truly new vision of our future potential, New Urbanism offers us a sentimental throwback to a Norman Rockwell painting belief about who we are. But in the face of our 21st Century challenges, it’s devoid of sustainable answers because we are not those imaginary people and we don’t live those imaginary lives. New Urbanism planners have made their careers out of selling a vision of simpler times to a world-weary public. But in reality, the promises of New Urbanism are empty.

Interestingly, New Urbanism was originally conceived to improve upon and make some sense out of suburban sprawl. It is actually mislabeled. It should be called “suburban-renewal.” It primarily focused on better ways to build single family housing in places completely devoid of character (Laguna West, Denver Stapleton Airport, etc.) and hoped that suburban commuters would someday be served by better transportation options like light rail. 

These were perfectly legitimate goals. But New Urbanism wanted to get people out of cars mostly to enhance social interaction and small town character, not because of presumptuous claims about mitigating climate change. Likewise, New Urbanism was not originally about affordable housing. But in an attempt to remain relevant, it has been turned to the dark side.

Planners like Peter Calthorpe now work for major suburban developers like Forest City Enterprises, and New Urbanism has become synonymous with social engineering by big government agencies promoting infill, high density housing near freeways.

This unfortunate fusion has given us what might be described as the worst of both dystopian worlds: the faux “sustainable” community of the “back to simpler times” movement combined with the high density near transportation / housing for the masses visions of the Modernists. And in the middle, real communities like ours in Marin, which were built on decades of local control and environmental protection, are being thrown under the bus in the name of progress.

The result is projects like the 180-unit , located next to the 101 highway off ramps in Corte Madera, and the Millworks project in Novato. Building projects like this as “infill” won’t make them work any better than their larger scaled predecessors. It’s a sure bet that in 20 years these will not be among the most desirable places to live in Marin.

Perhaps the most absurd irony of all though is that we now have Peter Calthorpe coming to Marin to preach to us about the virtues of New Urbanism when in fact it is towns like ours that were the inspiration for New Urbanism in the first place.

I think our citizens know better than anyone what “community” and “walkable neighborhoods” and “small town character” are. The New Urbanism planners of the world should be coming to Marin to learn not to preach. We don’t need their definition of “sustainable” but they sure do need ours. Yet we find ourselves having to fight against the New Urbanist mantra to preserve what we have: the very thing they profess to want to create. Figure that one out.

In truth, New Urbanism’s solutions are not really more sustainable. Their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings are nonexistent. Their building methods are conventional and just as environmentally destructive as anything else. And implementing its concepts without first addressing the underlying social and economic causes of social inequity is fiscally irresponsible. 

Who’s not for a Sustainable Future?

Let’s face it. Everyone is for “sustainable solutions.” But those solutions need to actually be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable after considering their true costs of natural capital and their external affects (supply chain energy usage, third world environmental degradation, etc.). New Urbanism and the One Bay Area Plan approach are not that.  What we really need are solutions that are truly environmentally sustainable and address our social equity challenges at the same time. We need solutions that make fiscal sense for our cities and financial sense to private capital markets.   

That is the problem before us. But instead we find ourselves faced with an unappetizing menu of “high density” options and massive bureaucracies , none of which are really sustainable in any real sense of the word. 

But there was a third vision that came out of the 1930s that was totally ignored in its day and has been derided by historians ever since.  Its author was not a popular man. He was the quintessential “politically incorrect” designer of his time.  But it was the only vision that actually addressed long term sustainability.  Maybe there are things we can learn from it.

NEXT WEEK: PART II – 21st Century Planning 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim Phelps June 09, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Bob -- thanks so much for bringing your focus to this vital and misunderstood issue. Perhaps there’s a way to get you a (voting) seat at the ABAG table? I look forward to reading your PART II – 21st Century Planning.
Tina McMillan June 09, 2012 at 09:08 PM
The California Association of Realtors did not support SB1220 http://www.staor.org/c-a-r-opposes-sb1220-transfer-tax-for-affordable-housing/ "C.A.R. is opposing SB 1220 because: • SB 1220 targets one group (homebuyers) to pay for affordable housing which is an issue of broad social concern. • SB 1220 increases the already substantial cost of buying a home. • While C.A.R. adamantly supports the creation of homeownership opportunities, SB 1220 is clearly not the way to achieve this goal."
Tina McMillan June 09, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Our Governor has been telling us clearly that we do not have the revenue to create all these new programs. The fact that Democrats wont listen to a Democratic Governor boggles the mind. Even with the new taxes being voted on in November our public schools here in Novato remain sorely underfunded. We have to balance our revenue with our expenses if we want to rebuild our school system, our pension funds, our transit, and all other aspect of our communities. The first most important step the California Legislature can take is to stop playing partisan politics and refocus their energies on bringing jobs back to California.
Bob Ratto June 09, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Tina When people have an agenda, or are beholden to special interests, common sense (and truth) doesn't always see the light of day. SB1220 was bad legislation, BOTH discriminatory and regressive.
Rico June 10, 2012 at 03:52 AM
David, The point I would like to make is that now, Mill Valley has 121 miles of city surface streets that spread out in the canyons (Cascade and Blithdale), and also way up into the hills even further from the downtown area. The only transit now in Mill Valley is public( buses) , and it runs on Miller Ave. (1.2 miles) and E. Blithdale ( 1.3 miles), so around 2 percent of all the streets in the city of Mill Valley have public transportation now. And that is all that will ever be. Not your typical ABAG transit oriented town, and "that's the way we like it".
David Edmondson June 10, 2012 at 05:32 AM
That's how transit is supposed to be. It's not a door-to-door service. If you want transit, you'll probably have to walk for a few minutes. If you don't want to walk, that's what bikes, cars, and taxis are for, and if you can't walk that's what paratransit is for. Designing a good network means building a few high-frequency, transit-rich corridors and nodes where those corridors intersect. Locate the nodes where people can walk to what they need (i.e., downtown) and the corridors where people live and you have a pretty good system. Blend the places where people live and where they want to be and you have, writ small, Marin's downtowns and, writ large, the City. Marin Transit is doing what it should do in Mill Valley by putting buses along the central axes of the town where they are within walking distance of a good chunk of the town. If you put a quarter-mile buffer around those routes (about a 5 minute walk) you end up with all of the flats up to about Old Mill Elementary. If you can easily walk to E. Blithedale or Miller, you have transit access. Mill Valley is what an old-school transit-oriented town looks like because it IS an old-school transit-oriented town. This, not Soviet block housing, is what TOD means.
Trish Boorstein June 10, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Great piece Bob! Another friend of mine mentioned about the CCRs in real estate at the time- was it for rentals too? Hoping you'll include a brief history on Marin City. Thank you
Kevin Moore June 10, 2012 at 05:32 PM
I would say that the humble beginnings of Marin were the Mission, Spanish grant Ranchoes, lumber mills, rail lines to the lumber mills, and the ferry depot in Tiburon. People tend to migrate towards jobs and natural resources. Chicken or the egg. I would surmise that most new housing would be built near a railroad station, not due to people flocking to the station, but that is where developers built housing. Or in this case a developer exploited the railroads to get stations built around housing. Most rail lines were built to haul freight, passenger traffic is secondary. http://blogs.marinij.com/marinhistory/trains_in_marin/ In 1890 C.W.Wright discovered that the railroad would build a passenger station if five more homes were built in town. After the five homes were built, the station was constructed in 1891. The name "Larkspur" was given by the railroad company that selected it over the name "Graystone" after the town's blue gray rock. The Marin population exploded due to the addition of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Rafael bride, opening up auto traffic. San Quentin Prison and Hamilton Air Force base have been economic drivers of this county. Marin trains http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3DOc40NyZE Marin History http://www.marinij.com/150/ci_17665841 Marin trains http://www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/lb/main/crm/photoalbums/ridingrailroadalbum/rrd17.html
Kevin Moore June 10, 2012 at 05:50 PM
What makes Mill Valley nice, is the small downtown park that is surrounded with restaurants. I lived in Mill Valley for 11 years. I can hardly name a business that is not a restaurant. I can name off many restaurants that are supported by people with large disposable incomes. Downtown Mill Valley businesses don't extend beyond a couple blocks. Miller Avenue is really just an old strip mall, nicer though, fewer plastic signs, and great restaurants.
Trish Boorstein June 10, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Drive to Novato to see an example of a regional transit housing development. Linda, folks don't need to ride down the Peninsula to glimpse what Sustainable Marin, ABAG, and One Bay Area have in mind for Marin, as you stated in last wks IJ LTE. Bob I'm glad you mentioned Millworks. The Architect of Novato’s Millworks/Whole Foods could have sensibly designed a charming iconic building that blended in to Novato’s old town character. Gateway buildings that reflect the unique character of a town effectively welcome visitors and proud residents. Millworks could have served as a shinning example for all of Marin; a success story that other cities would want to emulate and a testament to effective local City planning and community collaboration. I hope Wincup will succeed better. Instead, some folks continue to boycott Whole Foods by not shopping there and some choose to bypass the exit entirely to avoid the shock and ughh. A “depressing style” it is, Linda. Just drive over the tracks on Grant in the back to view the “stack and pack”. One can’t help but feel some angst. Despite a concerned group of residents who protested the size and General Plan violation of 2 to 3 stories, Staff and Council overode Gen. Plan stating "it would be good for Novato". The common phrase heard by proponents of this type of development, “People will get used to it”, is an example of the callousness and arrogance prevalent in regional decision-making.
Bob Silvestri June 10, 2012 at 08:22 PM
It's a common misconception that CCRs with racial and religious restrictions are somehow historically unique for Marin and therefore of special significance. The unfortunate truth is that these types of covernents and restrictions were once more often than not included in almost every type of subdivision and land sales CCRs, and many times even in local building codes across the entire country. Some of those precluded from ownership or membership or even visitation that I've seen over the years, around the country, have included blacks, hispanics, asians, Jews, Catholics, Irish and Italians, to name a few. All these became unenforceable after the civil rights laws were passed in the 60s.
Tina McMillan June 10, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Bob Thank you!
Rico June 11, 2012 at 03:57 PM
reply to Kevin Moore, You are right about the restaurants, but that is true about all the towns and cities of Marin. Restaurants are the number one business in the old downtown areas. I guess that is because there are many affluent people here in Marin, not just Mill Valley.
Tina McMillan June 11, 2012 at 08:09 PM
http://www.aroundthecapitol.com/Bills/SB_1149/20112012/ SB 1149 (DeSaulnier) Bay Area Regional Commission. This is another DeSaulnier bill that would create a elected commission to run the regional agencies and that would have the power to implement legislation related to SB375 and the Sustainable Communities strategy. For now, the bill is on hold. DeSaulnier couldn't get the 2/3rds majority to pass SB1220 but he only needs a regular majority to pass SB1149. All of these bills share the same thing in common, a move from local planning and local control to state regulated mandates. None of these bills provide the funding to maintain needed infrastructure, just the mandate to build in a particular fashion. There continue to be problems with the management of regional agencies but taking even more control away from cities and counties is not the right direction. The only way to find out what is happening in Sacramento is to sign up to receive updates on specific bills. It is a complex and ever changing maze that is currently focused on The One Bay Area Plan to save our state from climate change. Bob's comments make clear that there is no plan that has ever proved viable to address all these issues. The scary part is how much control we could lose just by virtue of a simple majority vote. Follow the money and you will find DeSaulnier is financed by the industry set to build all this new housing. Without jobs the housing is meaningless.
Al Dugan June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Thank you for the heads up. This is a blant attempt to force "top down" planning into towns in the Bay Area. I have been in management for the last 30 years and "top down" planning is always flawed. The only plans that can be executed and reflect the needs of the community are plans that consider all of the local issues and considerations and then create a plan.
Kevin Moore June 12, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Hi Ricardo, my point was downtown Mill Valley really isn't much of a downtown. It is a small park, a few restaurants, a few retail stores. The post office is miles away. Almost anything you need to buy requires a trip away from downtown. IMHO, the small park with the restaurant and book store really create the nice feeling.
Kevin Moore June 12, 2012 at 02:50 PM
As for infill housing on the 101 corridore,I believe there is Goldilocks distance,not too far, not too close. Win Cupp seems too close to the busy freeway. The Lucas Grady Ranch is too far. Mill works in Novato seems like an emulation of Emeryville. Condos are renting as apartments, but was a train wreck for the developer with a $12 million loss.
Mike June 12, 2012 at 03:15 PM
How different would MV and Marin be had BART been extended here? Was BART or something similar denied due to racial or xenophobic reasons? Is the success of this place also kind of artificial due to the large amount of park lands? Some amount of mixed income dense housing has got to happen around here. Otherwise, the artificiality and walled off feeling will only increase.
David Edmondson June 12, 2012 at 03:31 PM
MV would have been very, very different. Marin lost out on BART because San Mateo didn't want it and the BART Board couldn't afford an extension into Marin without San Mateo's support, so they asked us to drop out. The Bridge District also is rumored to have futzed with the engineering reports to show that the GGB couldn't necessarily accommodate trains. But the BART plan was part of a multi-pronged development approach to Marin that at one point included a second bridge to SF, this one via Tiburon, and population growth that would have put us at 700k people by now, sprawling all over the hills into like the rest of the region. Here's my thoughts on it: http://wp.me/p1DLSx-7a And some of the 1970s alternative plans to SF: http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/4284312844/in/set-72157622518181915/ (they're the colorful pages to the left)
Rico June 12, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Mike, BART was not run into central Marin for many reasons. The main one was that there was not the ridership or tax base to support it in Marin, and the other counties did not want to subsidize the run of BART into central Marin (San Rafael). Yes, there was opposition from people worried about homogenizing Marin to be like the rest of the bay area, but that was not the main reason that BART politely asked the Marin BOS to opt out. More important reasons are that in order for a regional rail line to reach the GG bridge, they would have either carve up the open space with endless miles of switchbacks to get up Waldo grade, hence adding a lot of time to the daily commute, adding even more expenses , or condemn a route through Sausalito, displacing property owners (highly unlikely). Also, engineering reports confirmed that the GG bridge was not designed to handle the additional weight of regional rail line, that put the final kibosh on the plan. Yes, those of who lived here in the 50's and 60's, and still live here now are very thankful that many things never happened as far as development goes in Marin, BART was just one of the things on a very long list that simply "was never meant to be".
SHROYER FOR SUPERVISOR 2014 June 12, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Great article Bob---as always. People are constantly asking me, "How can we stop this high density political machine?" My answer is : VOTE. Vote the current politicians out that bring us Millworks and won't stand up to ABAG and our dictorial mandates. Recruit candidates that are for the people and not special interest groups (which include the high density developer machines).
SHROYER FOR SUPERVISOR 2014 June 12, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Hi Elizabeth, I know you mean well. I believe that. Please consider this: One of the many problems is: Nonprofit housing does not pay any real estate taxes yet uses our infrastructure and the nonprofit housing investors can (and I have examples) make millions a year off the tax payer and the government. In addition, "best practices" don't always work and in Novato, in two multi-family projects (1 project Bay Vista 220 units and Wyndover 136 units) their "best practices" still show many many arrests and calls for service from the police department (which their complexes do not pay into OR the Novato public schools who are a "low weath district". There was yet another arrest of an alleged Bay Vista resident with very serious allegations recently. The John Stewart Company was suppose to be our "model" for affordable housing management. The arrest records and calls for service are compelling and disturbing.
RD June 13, 2012 at 05:05 AM
Thanks for a great article Bob.
Y. Chang June 13, 2012 at 05:42 AM
You are right Mr. Ratto. This high density nonprofit housing is all about money, money, money---it will destroy town and city after town and city. It is the most fiscally unsustanable plan I can imagine. It doesn't work and history will repeat itself. Thank you Mr. Silvestri. I want to hear more of what you have to say.
Y. Chang June 13, 2012 at 05:45 AM
Millworks, what a stupid ugly project. The developer deserved to lose their shorts! Ruining beautiful Novato! I read in The Novato Advance that The Novato City Council and Supervisor Arnold were all for Millworks!
Kevin Moore June 13, 2012 at 05:11 PM
If BART had come to Marin in the 70's, Marin might be very different, not necessarily in a better way. With added transportation to San Francisco, land values could have gone up even more. That might have have made some of the Open Space purchases out of reach. When Lake Sonoma was built, Marin had the option to buy into the water supply. Slow growth forces kept Marin out of the project to keep water resources low and cap growth potential. Water is a limitation on growth. Jobs and exportable products are the drivers.
Bob Silvestri June 14, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Read Part II: 21st Century Planning http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-best-laid-plans-part-ii-21st-century-planning
Bob Silvestri June 21, 2012 at 06:19 PM
The Best Laid Plans: Part III - Affordable Housing http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-best-laid-plans-part-iii-affordable-housing
Bob Silvestri June 28, 2012 at 03:55 PM
The Best Laid Plans - Part IV: Public Policy, Community Voice & Social Equity http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-best-laid-plans-part-iv-public-policy-community-voice-social-equity
Bob Silvestri September 14, 2012 at 11:20 PM
For More Read "The Big Con: Or How an 1868 Iowa State Court Ruling Led To Unfunded, pro-development, housing mandates in Marin." http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-big-schmooze-or-how-an1868-iowa-state-court-ruling-led-to-unfunded-pro-development-housing-mandates-in-marin?logout=true

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