Tam Junction Isn't Going Anywhere

Despite the fears of residents, high barriers to development will likely keep Tam Junction just the way it is for years to come.

There is a lot of heartburn around Tam Junction. Development, they say, is coming, development that will be ruinous to the neighborhood and anyone who moves into new homes. What’s actually going on? As it turns out, a whole lot less than imagined.


Tam Junction is a 20-acre commercial strip wedged between Tam Valley and Almonte. (Click here for an interactive map.) It used to be the junction of the Interurban’s Mill Valley line and their main lines to Central Marin, hence the name. Now, it’s the intersection of Highway 1 (aka Shoreline Highway) and Almonte Boulevard, and getting through there is suitably difficult.

Though I haven’t been able to corroborate the grade, Sustainable TamAlmonte says the intersection has a Level of Service grade of F, meaning it’s over-capacity. There’s a push in Caltrans and among neighbors to make the whole area more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, which should take some pressure off the roads, but overall it is just a difficult intersection to traverse.

Tam Junction itself is built on flat, muddy soil, the kind that’s prone to liquefaction during an earthquake. Safe building standards, then, requires some serious reinforcement to bedrock. It’s a dusty, ugly, and semi-industrial bit of the county surrounded by some absolutely stunning scenery and some fairly charming homes.

The zoning for the strip is commercial, but it allows an FAR of 0.4, at most, and has a height limit of 30 feet. This means that a building can only have 40 percent of the square footage of the lot. In other words, a 1000-square-foot lot could have only a 400-square-foot building, which itself can only be 30 feet tall. The northeast bit is part of the Baylands Corridor, a special protected area in the county’s General Plan that can’t be easily built upon, but the rest is part of the Urban Corridor.

What’s going on?

Tam Junction has been marked as a Project/Priority Development Area, also known as a PDA. This designation tells MTC and TAM to prioritize it for transportation infrastructure funding, which it definitely needs. One Bay Area established the PDAs to help focus funding to areas that counties or cities deemed to be particularly worthwhile investments.

A common understanding is that a PDA designation is designed to focus housing development, but that’s not always the case. In essence, the purpose of a PDA is to align the transportation infrastructure with housing. That means either investing in housing development if the infrastructure is underutilized, or investing in infrastructure if what’s already there is over-capacity. Tam Junction falls mostly into the latter category.

I say “mostly” because the Marin’s state-mandated housing element points out six sites in Tam Junction that could be used for affordable housing development. These sites will in all likelihood never be developed: the high cost of construction in Tam Junction’s mud, not to mention the incredibly constrained building envelope, would scare away for-profit and non-profit developers alike. They’d be much more likely to invest in Sausalito, along Miller Avenue, or in downtown San Rafael than in Tam Junction. The six sites point out the possibility of rezoning those areas to moderate densities but do not guarantee any development.

It’s important to point out that any development that would occur would not be out of character for area – 268-274 Shoreline Drive is a small strip of 30 unit-per-acre density, and Tam Junction already plays host to 30-foot-tall buildings.

Oppositional dissonance

In one sense, it’s a bit of a shame nothing would be built in the area. Sustainable TamAlmonte, a local group, strenuously opposes any residential development in the area while supporting any commercial development. Yet residents now can’t support more retail than is already there. If they could, someone would have taken over the psychic’s shop and opened something with a bit more pizzazz. The strip would need more residents to become a viable retail center. It can’t become downtown Mill Valley just because residents want it to be; it needs more shoppers to bring in more money. Housing development would provide one way to do that without generating much traffic, as most new shoppers would be able to walk to their store of choice.

The other option would be to attract more shoppers from elsewhere in Marin, poaching some business from Sausalito and Mill Valley. Yet this option would attract even more traffic to the congested area, rendering it even more dangerous for residents walking, biking, driving, or simply living in the area. I hope Sustainable TamAlmonte isn’t suggesting this sort of development.

In sum, Tam Junction isn’t likely to change much more over the next decade than it has in the last decade. The barriers to development – namely mud and zoning – will make it difficult to do anything other than improve the existing infrastructure for existing residents and businesses. Given the harrowing testimonies of safety advocates at a recent TAM meeting, that should be change enough.

A version of this piece appeared on The Greater Marin.

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Thrasy Bulus December 28, 2012 at 10:49 PM
And of course improving transit systems to directly address the problems you identify is out of the question. Because... well, because you know the kind of people who use transit.
Rico December 29, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Thrasy, The majority of the traffic congestion in Tam Junction from 101 to Almonte is tourists from other parts of the greater bay area to west Marin and beyond. The only destinations served by public and private buses are the Muir Woods National Monument (served by private tour buses and the public funded Muir Woods Shuttle) and Stinson-Bolinas (served by the publically funded West Marin Stage). All the rest of Marins prime tourist destinations (and the community of Tam Valley too) are not served by any kind of public transit, if you were familer with southern and west Marin, you would know this. So, you can stereotype all you want to about "the kind of people who use transit" based on your own agenda, but the facts are that 90 percent of the people who travel through Tam Junction can't use public transit. Public transit works well in the urban areas where many people live and also many urban dwellers use public transit almost exclusively (except for shopping and errands like doctors appointments, where they rent autos and trucks for that). The City Car car rental and other car sharing programs are thriving, and I have seen many City Car autos in southern and west Marin too. With a rental car, the people can go wherever they want to, stop anywhere they want to and drive the way that they want to, all of which is not possible using public transit. Thrasy, are you one of those people who think that nobody should have the freedom to use personal transportation ?
Bill McGee December 29, 2012 at 10:19 AM
Thrasy is correct that improving public transportation is an area that warrants consideration. Thank you Ricardo for schooling us on the public transportation serving Marin’s tourist destinations. I am particularly impressed with your sentence that ends “if you were familiar with southern and west Marin, you would know this”. Nice roll Ricardo, how Pulipaca-esq. of you going from the put-down directly to a bogus stat. You wrote “the facts are that 90 percent of the people who travel through Tam Junction can't use public transit”. Really? Oops, there goes the credibility meter.
Bill McGee December 29, 2012 at 10:20 AM
Tourist definitely impact traffic in southern Marin however Ricardo's claim that they represent a “majority” is also contrived. Weekend traffic is certainly more impacted by tourists than on weekdays, but the percentage does not come anywhere close to “majority”. Ricardo correctly demonstrates that tourists will and do take public transportation where available and he also notes areas where it is lacking. Improving public transportation should be a priority. Traffic engineers and studies tell us that a slight reduction or increase in the number of cars, can be the difference between traffic that is flowing vs. congested. Ricardo has correctly identified the argument in favor or improving public transportation. Public transportation does not need to slice big numbers from the road to be effective for traffic flow and environmental benefits. Thank you Thrasy, you are spot on. Ricardo your rant about personal transportation sounds like an NRA style defense of automobiles.
Thrasy Bulus December 29, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Interesting what kind of responses a few words can get. It begs credulity to assert that improved public transportation would be ineffectual in improving the traffic situation, and thereby the quality of life, in and around Tam Valley. I am familiar with transit options in Southern Marin. I am likewise familiar with the larger world beyond that peculiarly myopic zone. an area that harbors more than its fair share of ill-informed me-generation burnouts with nothing to contribute beyond an entitled attitude and nostalgia for the good old days. Tam Valley is a creation of public transportation, as noted in the article above. Cars will drive wherever there are roads. Traffic congestion will result, as roads exceed capacity. The only solution is improving the transportation infrastructure. Roads and cars are a key element. But public transport cannot be treated as an afterthought. There are no easy answers. People don't use public transport because it often doesn't take them where they want to go, or leaves them stranded without a way to return home. Others find the bus stops or stations uncomfortable or even dangerous. Others think of themselves as not the sort of people who use transit. Cars are a reality and here to stay. So roads, and access to roads, parking, police oversight etc. all need continual improvement. But abandoning public transportation as unworkable was/is shortsighted in the extreme, and led to the present situation.


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