Capdiamont\’s Weblog

MIJ: A chance to think boldly in Novato
Friday 4 Apr 2008, 08:14
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad, SMART

Map here. Quite a few railroad crossings in Novato have bridges over them, and the one near this “Novato North” station is also bridged over. So things are not as bad off, as Arnold would have you think. Also since this North of Highway 37, NCRA and their freight trains will be going past here.

Staff Report
Article Launched: 04/04/2008 02:00:33 AM PDT

MARIN’S EVOLVING economic landscape offers a rare opportunity to reshape a prime site in northern Novato.

The San Diego development company that owns the Fireman’s Fund site recognizes the three large buildings – a total of more than 720,000 square feet of office space – are underused and out of step with today’s economy.

American Assets is floating a plan that would include a 100-room hotel, restaurant, three parking structures, new office space, more open space and a community center of some kind. The company bought the 65-acre complex last year for $312 million.

The goal is “to create a true mixed-used development,” according to a spokesman for the developer, which has not submitted a formal proposal to the city.

A mixed-use project is the way to go. We also strongly encourage the developer – and Novato leaders – to think big and bold and peer into the future when deciding what should happen at property just west of Highway 101. A project that increases the city’s sales tax revenue base is important, but there are larger issues to consider.

It is encouraging that the key players agree that something needs to be done at the site. Fireman’s Fund, while still one of Marin’s largest private employers, has dramatically reduced its workforce in the county over the years. There are 1,050 full-time and 300 to 500 part-time workers, down from 2,500.

The Fireman’s Fund complex is a Highway 101 landmark, but it is also is symbol of the past – an isolated, auto-dependent
corporate campus. It is at odds with today’s new urbanism movement and climate change concerns.

Novato officials have been cautiously receptive to the plans, while expressing worries about density and increased traffic.

We urge officials to think decades ahead and come up with a creative project that isn’t defined by the past or the status quo.

Whatever project is approved needs to breath life and vitality into a sterile office complex surrounded by acres of parking. It looks like a well-lit ghost town at night.

The site is ideal for an infill development that includes a significant amount of workforce housing, along with what the developer envisions. If North Bay voters approve a passenger rail system in November, in a few years there will be a train station nearby. Many Fireman’s Fund workers live in Sonoma County and will be able to take the train to work, removing cars from Highway 101. Other employees who live in Marin also could take the train to work. Housing at the site would mesh well with passenger train service and encourage people to leave their cars at home. The growing Buck Center for Age Research would benefit greatly from such a development and contribute to its success.

This urban village concept should be explored. And the public must be part of the discussion from the start. Workshops should be held to solicit ideas and stir debate. Residents and businesses should be asked what they would like to see at the Fireman’s Fund site – and not after a detailed project has been developed that leaves little room for real change. The canvas should be as blank as possible. Density, for example, should be discussed but not feared.

We need to recognize that suburban sprawl has created problems decades in the making. True change will take decades, vision and guts.

A development that perpetuates the status quo would be a mistake that Novato, Marin and the North Bay will live with for a long time.

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