Here’s how to solve everything.
Well, ok, maybe not everything, but how about housing, environmental protection, traffic congestion, community vitality and lack of socio-economic and racial diversity?
The Marin problem:
· Due to the end-of-work in offices and shop in-person, our downtowns are on life-support, minus the life support.
· Affordable housing is about as scarce as ridership on our “SMART” train.
· California has mandated new dwellings be constructed (just in unincorporatedMarin: 3,569)--we don’t really know where, we don’t know how.
· Municipal leaders have been spending millions of dollars (just Marin County paid $1.6M this year) solely on consultants (not from our community) to identify locations (very questionable) to build housing.
· Many of these locations are far away from our downtowns, transportation, water and even if anyone would build on them (likely requiring massive subsidies) they would destroy pristine open space.
· Marin is becoming less and less diverse—racially, culturally, economically.
It’s an exercise in futility as during the last (Element) go-around—almost nothing was built. But this time, the state just might get serious and put in draconian penalties for our non-compliance.
These are all big problems that can be almost completely solved with one solution.
“What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” – Gary Keller
The One Thing: We can immediately support and encourage the conversion of hundreds if not thousands of empty offices and retail spaces within our communities to quality, highly rentable, housing (that’s affordable and profitable for property owners). This encourages diversity in our neighborhoods.Thirty-eight percent of all offices in the United States are vacant. There’s no indication this will change. Just in San Rafael there’s well over 100vacant commercial buildings (Loopnet).
By doing so, our downtowns could be revitalized, commercial property owners could make their properties profitable, local establishments could increase their viability and pristine open space in the middle of nowhere with no water or transportation can be left to the hikers, cows and wildlife. And, no increased traffic congestion.
How can this be done?
First, it’s begun. San Rafael is leading the way with supporting conversion of downtown, mixed use commercial offices to housing.
What’s the path?
1. Zoning—most downtowns have historically blocked residential housing on ground level. This is an archaic zoning “ideal” when there was demand for retail and offices in our downtowns. It should be stopped immediately.
2. Life Safety—residential units need to be safe and up to code. Fortunately, most commercial spaces are built to a higher standard than residential codes require. Brining these spaces to safety standards is quite doable.
3. Identify appropriate commercial buildings—Apartments need windows, doors, air and light. The best commercial buildings to convert are long and narrow. Luckily, we have plenty.
4. Upgrades. The most appropriate buildings to convert are those that have been seismically upgraded or built within the past 50 years. Otherwise, upgrading could be cost prohibitive.
5. Incent homes to be homes. Many of our downtown homes were allowed to become commercial and are now vacant. Because they always were houses, not commercial property, these can be done with almost no work.
6. Parking. Most of our downtowns have public transportation. Parking is not critical, and public lots can be tapped into. No mandates on parking should be made for units constructed within ½ mile of public transportation.
7. Profitability—the best development plans are those that make economic sense to those who have the property and means to convert. The average rent in Marin for an apartment is just under $3,000 and demand is surging. The cost to convert, can be recaptured quickly making this a highly attractive solution to property owners of empty commercial spaces with almost no other options.
8. Demand—Not only is the state mandating more housing, the market, with rising interest rates, and inflation, will mean there would be almost no vacancies.
We need to not only support these initiatives by not blocking them (zoning) but encourage with grants and permit fee waivers (like with ADUs).
What can you do?
Contact your mayor, representative, city administrator, etc.that--let’s get going on real solutions, to real problems.