Marin City USA

  • Urban Land Archives
  • July 1, 1993
  • Elizabeth Shreeve

A complex cast of characters balances social and financial goals to redevelop a long-vacant Bay Area site within a pocket of poverty in affluent Marin County.

Imagine the perfect redevelopment site: 45 acres of mostly vacant land located five miles from major downtown, with direct freeway access and expansive water views. The ground is level, environmental issues are minimal, and surrounding real estate values are high. The local community welcomes the new jobs and housing opportunities offered by a possible development. Now let's make this development the sole project of the county's redevelopment agency. And, to further sweeten the pot, let's make this project the logical recipient of a charitable foundation with ample funds.

Sound like a dream? The Marin City USA project fits the bill for all of the above. Yet for 40 years, the redevelopment site has remained vacant, while scores of development proposals have fallen by the wayside and residents have become increasingly cynical about plans for the site being more than a subject for student seminars. Finally, an $80 million development proposal is now poised to transform years of neglect into a sophisticated mixed-use development, promising jobs and affordable housing for a community that is strikingly out of place in one of the nation's wealthiest counties.

Marin City USA is a development plan 186,645 square feet of retail space, 340 housing units, major reconstruction of a freeway interchange, an 8,500-square-foot church, a bus transit station, parks, and roadways. More than that, it is a plan for job generation, affordable housing, and revitalization of a community that has involved itself in the development business. It is the product of a complex partnership between public and private groups that differ on many issues and yet have worked toward a common goal: to overcome the formidable obstacles of "impossible" entitlements and "nonexistent" financing, and to get the project built.

How the Community Came to Be

Marin City is an unincorporated community of 2,500 people located along Interstate 101 in southern Marin County, next to the affluent waterfront city of Sausalito and minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. The land is shaped like an amphitheater, with the freeway and waterfront on one side and the hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the other. During World War II, Marin housed workers at the famous Matinship, where Liberty ships and other naval craft were built at record speed by 75,000 workers, many of them African Americans recruited from the southern states. At its height during the war, the community housed 6,500 people, a grocery, a barber shop, a restaurant, churches, and a post office. The town was hailed as an example of successful racial integration, and described by Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, as "the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and so wild and joyous a place I've never seen since."

After the war ended and jobs disappeared, many African American residents were confined to Maria City due to segregation in the local housing market. The worker housing became increasingly dilapidated, and in the mid-1950s, the Maria County Housing Authority cleared what remained and built nearly 500 units of low-income public housing. No new businesses moved in to replace the flurry of wartime employment. As Maria County became increasingly a bastion of wealthy white professionals commuting to San Francisco, Maria City became racially and economically isolated.

Today, the average income in Maria City is $15,800; for Maria County as a whole, it is $59,000. Unemployment stands at 30 percent, ten times the county average. Drug abuse and school dropout rates are very real problems. The population is 75 percent African American, and about half of the residents live in public housing. Housing options are limited and neighborhood services consist of one small store selling liquor and sundries, a small complex of community buildings, and several churches. The community's buildings sit on the hill slopes, leaving its center empty like the hole of a donut. While isolation has disenfranchised the population from the mainstream of economic progress, it also has solidified the community.

A Partnership Is Created

Efforts to redevelop Marin City began in 1958, with the Marin City Redevelopment Plan, which the county amended and restudied many times with few results. In 1980, the Marin City Community Development Corporation (CDC), a nonprofit public benefit group, was formed. Its goal was to improve the economic and social quality of life for residents. In 1982, CDC and the Marin City Community Services District, a public services benefit agency, established a partnership with BRIDGE Housing Corporation, a large nonprofit affordable housing developer active in the Bay Area. Five years later, the partnership hired The SWA Group, a planning firm located in nearby Sausalito, to prepare a master plan that would implement the county's redevelopment plan and address community issues.

The executive director of the CDC, Al Fleming, describes the partnership between BRIDGE and CDC as "a first critical step in the process." A non-profit trust formed by the partnership, with the help of a grant from the Maria Community Foundation, was able to purchase the land from a local school district for the redevelopment. Two years of intensive community workshops, meetings with individual residents, and planning studies followed. The redevelopment team identified its primary goals—job generation, affordable housing, and community identity—and developed a proposal for a mix of retail, office, housing, and community uses. CDC worked closely with skeptical community residents to explain the development and political process. It also looked for an experienced commercial developer with access to financing. Meanwhile, the office market in southern Marin County collapsed, the local water district put a hold on new water hookups because of a drought, and financing for development dried up. The prospects for achieving the community's plans looked dim.

In 1990, BRIDGE and CDC asked The Martin Group to take a look at the prospects for a commercial project. This private, for-profit commercial developer was experienced in redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods, commercial development, and financing, and it was attracted by the project's financial upside--as well as its social objectives and the political consensus evident within the community. The developer reconfigured the commercial center to be more attractive to tenants, began the process of securing financing, and placed a project manager on site to stay in touch with the community.

With the addition of The Martin Group, the development consortium was complete. Each member of the partnership feels strongly about the project, and each values the way the group works together. According to David Martin, president of The Martin Group, "Our objective is to address the community as a whole, not just impose a product on a site. We tried to take what the community wanted and help to proportion the products to make the project financially viable. We were just a member of the development team trying to turn the community's vision into reality." Andrea Jones, senior manager with BRIDGE Housing, feels that Marin City USA is representative of the new emphasis within her company: rather than focusing only on affordable housing, it now seeks projects that integrate jobs and services with housing to support healthy communities.

Marin County is also a key member of the team. Serving as both redevelopment agency and planning department, the county reviews the master plan, precise development plans, and building permits. Putting on their redevelopment hats, county staff members obtain financing and bonding, and facilitate approvals from a host of other agencies, including CALTRANS, the Marin County Municipal Water District, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The county's technical assistance has sped up processing and helped to save money.

Denise Pinkston, redevelopment coordinator for the county, refers to the project as the "Miracle-a-Week Plan." In negotiating the project and related freeway improvements through a myriad of approvals and funding requirements, she says, "We felt like we were on a mission—like we could really make a difference. Somehow the team has been able to convey a sense of urgency to bankers and bureaucrats alike." Although the county has devoted time and money to this project, she adds, "the process has been led by the Marin City community." Community support is especially important in the exclusive climate of Marin County, where land use approvals are nearly impossible to secure. In 1992, after full environmental and design review, the Marin County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors gave unanimous approval to Marin City USA.

The Development Proposal

The project emerging from this partnership is a mix of attached housing, value-oriented community retail, a relocated church with upgraded child-care facilities, and infrastructure and open-space improvements. It will cover 45 acres now occupied by a grassy field, a pond, the existing St. Andrew Church, some roadways, a bus transfer station, a small store, and a dusty field that is a flea market on the weekends.

Two types of housing will be built: 255 apartments and 85 for-sale townhouses. A minimum of 40 percent of the units will be available to very-low-, low-, and moderate-income households. The housing will be sited around a central grassy recreation area, and residents will enjoy excellent views of the waterfront.

Three major chain stores will anchor the retail center: a low-cost grocery store, a home improvement center, and a variety drugstore. In the leasing of smaller stores, preference will be given to Marin City resident-owned retail or service businesses. The center will draw shoppers from a three-mile radius and is expected to generate more than 600 permanent jobs. The existing pond will be upgraded for wildlife habitat. The development program triggered the need for a $6 million upgrade of the free-way interchange serving Marin City and northern Sausalito, an undertaking requiring a complex strategy for public/private financing and intensive coordination with county, regional, state, and federal highway programs.

Making the Project Happen

Some special factors have worked to bring this plan to fruition, with construction scheduled to start in midsummer 1993. Foremost is the successful collaboration of the various players: the developers; the community, including the public housing tenants council and other groups; the consultant team; the county, state, and federal agencies; the church; and financial institutions. This multifaceted group addressed a complex set of issues: a rebuilt freeway interchange, negotiations with HUD, on-site wetlands, toxic materials on the site, a multiracial community with high levels of unemployment and drug use, and neighbors with NIMBY attitudes. Conflicts between public and private interests arose frequently around such "details" as lease agreements, with some groups weighing in on the side of strong affirmative action measures while others preferred to put the emphasis on signing good anchor tenants. In almost every case, the partners found ways to balance social objectives with profit goals.

Another key step was securing the financing to cover $80 million in costs. The Marin Community Foundation, a local charitable group, initiated the project by granting $2.1 million to the Marin City Community Land Corporation to help acquire the land. Security Pacific (now part of Bank of America) agreed to a $14 million land loan for development planning and approvals. (Security Pacific needed to fulfill the Community Reinvestment Act provisions, which this loan accomplishes, before its merger with Bank of America.) Tax increment bonds issued by the redevelopment agency will help finance the interchange improvements and other infrastructure. Private and public pension fund money is expected to underwrite development of the commercial center. The balance of financing will be raised from grants from private and charitable foundations and other sources.

Community Benefits

The community's proactive role distinguishes Marin City USA from many other redevelopment efforts. According to Pinkston, "In Marin City, the community organization—the CDC—is in the developer's chair. CDC is a stronger negotiator for the community than the county would ever be, and as a result, the affirmative action program is tougher, job training is stronger, and we won't just hope that local residents get jobs." The CDC has worked hard to direct project benefits to those in need. Fleming recognizes the need to prepare residents now to take advantage of opportunities that will be created by the project later. For him, the best part of the process has been watching community attitudes toward the development change from skepticism to support. At early land use workshops, consultants sometimes outnumbered residents; at the final public hearings, residents and other interested parties packed the rooms, waiting patiently through hours of testimony to show their support.

Initial community workshops identified jobs and better housing options as Marin City's most pressing needs. The project is expected to generate about 375 construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs. Comprehensive programs for job training and affirmative action will direct these opportunities to the community. In preparation, CDC is helping to train residents for jobs and entrepreneurship, as well as offering job counseling and placement services and training in basic living skills.

Over the past five years, more than 300 Marin City residents have learned carpentry, small business operations, and other work and professional skills. Last year, CDC opened Enterprise Center, an incubator for small businesses—including beauty supplies, baked goods, ethnic art and T-shirts, oils and incense, video rentals, clothing consignment, and ice creams and coffees—that may lease space in the project. How to market, keep store accounts, use telephone systems, and treat customers are among the topics of CDC's training workshops.

The lease agreement with The Martin Group includes stringent provisions for affirmative action, with a "first source" rule that guarantees that all jobs, business opportunities, and housing will be offered first to qualified Marin City residents.

The housing component of the project also addresses residents' needs. Currently, few options outside public housing exist in the community. BRIDGE plans to make a minimum of 40 percent of the housing affordable, but its ultimate goal is 50 to 60 percent. The current plan targets one-third each of the apartments for very-low-, low-, and moderate-income households, and 17 townhouses for low-income households. It is hoped that many public housing residents—perhaps with the help of jobs in the new shopping center—will be able to rent these apartments or even purchase townhouses.

Retained ownership of the land through the Marin City Community Land Corporation, a non-profit trust formed by CDC and BRIDGE Housing, is a basic community benefit. The Martin Group will lease the site to develop the retail center and apartments for 50 percent of the profits generated. At the expiration of the 99-year lease, the community will take possession of the buildings.

Despite the efforts to assure benefits to the community, some residents fear the project will squeeze out low-income residents and destroy the community's identity and solidarity. Others admit that although change will bring gentrification, the opportunities for jobs and housing that the project will provide are worth it. Some hope that the project will even lure back former residents who left the community for college and never returned.

Bringing Marin City USA to realization required many compromises to meet the agendas of a complex cast of characters, and it is likely that not all goals will be fully met. Certainly no private development project can cure all the social ills that a disadvantaged community suffers. Nonetheless, this project will create new opportunities for residents and also will make financial sense. Marin City USA stands as a test case for the potential of a public/private development partnership to address effectively the problems of unemployment and disillusionment.

Elizabeth Shreeve is a principal with The SWA Group, a national planning and landscape architecture firm. She is in the company's Sausalito, California, office and served as project manager for SWA's work on Marin City USA.