Durable Growth

A more livable Larkspur Landing under consideration

Larkspur Ferry. By UDPSLP, on Flickr.

Larkspur Ferry. By UDPSLP, on Flickr.

The reexamination of the Larkspur Landing neighborhood is proceeding apace, and the city started to consider the SMART Station Area Plan’s final documents last Tuesday. However, the forces opposed to change in Marin are mobilizing opposition already, fueled by some ill-chosen words in the IJ and ideological misgivings about transit.

Some protested outside the meeting, waving signs that called it a regional plot to destroy Marin. It’s not, but there’s not a lot of understanding of what it is. Even if you’re not from Marin, how Larkspur Landing plays out will impact your city, too.


The station area plan (SAP) was put together by a citizen advisory committee over the course of about a year, with public meetings and community input the whole way. It studied the possibility of new office, housing, and retail development, and its possible impacts on traffic, parking, and transit. It described ways to ameliorate some of the existing problems and ways to ease the introduction of new development.

While it was described in the IJ as a housing plan for 900 new units in the Larkspur Landing neighborhood around the ferry terminal, this is inaccurate. It studied how up to that amount might accommodated in the neighborhood, but does not plan for this number. At best, it is a conceptual document with plans for infrastructure investment. A real housing plan would likely come as part of a new housing element or a broader zoning reform.

This is not a housing plan.

Why Larkspur Landing?

Larkspur Landing is a drivable bit of Larkspur centered around the once-eponymous Larkspur Landing Shopping Center, now called Marin Country Mart. It has the second-fastest-growing transit line in the county in the Larkspur Ferry and in all likelihood will soon be home to a SMART station. Plans for the Greenbrae Interchange will add a connection to the Highway 101 trunk line buses, giving easy access to the rest of Marin by transit.

It is a pass-through neighborhood. Commuters use it to travel to the Richmond Bridge, causing massive backups during the evening commute that spill onto northbound 101. The recently-approved Greenbrae Interchange Project will likely fix many of these issues, but fitting them into a broader plan to make the neighborhood a more livable one is important.

As well, Larkspur Landing is a good candidate for infill development. While the SAP is not a housing (or office, or retail) plan, it targets improvements with the idea of improving circulation and infrastructure in the neighborhood. It will be a transit and transportation hub, with easy access to the ferry, SMART, the region’s major trunk bus lines, and the North-South Greenway, our county cycling superhighway.

If the city ever decides it would be a good idea to add development or encourage new business to grow in that part of the city, the SAP’s studies of capacity and circulation at multiple population and job levels will be invaluable to that decision-making. Though that time is not now, advocates and opponents should know what they’re supporting and opposing.

Key areas are under threat

Opponents of any growth and change in Larkspur will fight for any mention of development in the SAP, believing it to be a “housing plan” and crippling its ability to improve the neighborhood. Supporters of a livable Larkspur should argue strenuously for maximizing the flexibility of the plan.

This means defending the land use portion of the SAP, which rests on the commonly accepted understanding that transit-oriented development promotes transit ridership. Though opponents have tried to tear down the concept, it holds true in the settings where it has been applied rigorously.

A recent study of rail-oriented development in New Jersey found that it is the density of bus stops – not proximity to rail or the newness of development – that is best correlated with transit use. The Larkspur SAP, by its proximity to the 25, 28, 29, and soon the 101 bus trunk, will fit that category.

The old-school TOD in Marin, oriented around buses, has led to the highest transit mode-share in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco, showing the truth of this concept in Marin’s suburban setting.

Arlington County, VA, dramatically increased its population in 40 years by growing only on the 5 percent of its land immediately next to transit. The result has been no increase in traffic. Though its densities are more suited to the Peninsula than Marin, there’s no reason for the model to fail on a smaller scale in the Marin setting.

Most importantly, the real traffic savings in transit-oriented development isn’t in moving trips from car to transit; it’s from moving trips from car to foot and bike. Not every trip can (or should) be so moved, but well-designed places give people the opportunity for productive use of their feet. If you lived in downtown Larkspur, your kids could walk to school; you could walk to get a haircut, get coffee, get a book, get new pet food, or do some light grocery shopping. Doing each of those trips on foot saves a mile or two from the roads and gives that road space to people who need or want to travel further.

A progressive SAP will give Larkspur the flexibility to build this way if it chooses but will not lock the city into this way of thinking if it feels the shopping center model is better than its downtown.

The SAP should aim for the best transportation future for the area: ameliorate traffic, promote the ferry-SMART connection, promote strong 101 bus connections, activate Sir Francis Drake and Larkspur Landing Circle as walking and biking streets, and examine ways to bring more counter-commuters to the ferry terminal.

Logistical hurdles

A few of the challenges faced by Larkspur Landing are not within the scope of the SAP.

The biggest is the ferry’s legal capacity limits. At the moment, it may only do 42 catamaran trips per day, and it’s currently doing 37, not including ballgames. This is a problem that needs to be resolved, but it can only be done through a revised environmental impact report on the high-speed catamarans.

The next is traffic, which will be addressed by the Greenbrae project. Unfortunately, the project as passed didn’t include much benefit analysis, so it’s unknown at the moment how much traffic will be ameliorated by the bus, bike, and road improvements.

The last is the location of the SMART station, which is currently too far from the ferry terminal. Doing it right would mean moving the station either to the Marin Country Mart parking lot, which has space to spare, or to the ferry terminal itself. The SAP should keep this option open and encourage the SMART board to change its station site.

The rest of the Bay Area should take note

Larkspur Landing is a gateway to Marin, and with the SMART train coming it will be one of the best transit hubs for in-commuters. But it cannot become the destination it ought without some changes to the existing land use or transportation infrastructure.

The Larkspur Ferry is straining under the weight of its southbound commuters. Without northbound commuters, it won’t be able to sustain its 5-7 percent annual ridership growth. Without midday ridership, it won’t be able to increase frequency in the morning even if the legal barriers disappeared. It must pay crews full-time, and there wouldn’t be demand for them.

And, if the ferry cannot grow, it will mean more suburbanite traffic on San Francisco streets.

If this is something you care about, write letters to the editor of the IJ and write them to the Larkspur City Council (email here). Let Marin’s people and Larkspur’s leaders know there are people who want a more livable Larkspur Landing.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

3 comments to A more livable Larkspur Landing under consideration

  • ron61

    Are you out of your mind? This is going to be a disaster on a 5x greater scale than the monstrosity at the old WinCup site.

    Do you think everyone who lives in Marin commutes just to San Francisco?

    • Of course not! But the idea that this would be a 5x Wincup isn’t right, either. City ordinances won’t allow developments that make traffic worse, and the traffic is going to get better when the Greenbrae Interchange project finishes.

  • Rob Ireson

    David, I respectfully disagree with your statement that traffic won’t get worse. See the discussion of Impact TRANS-1 (adverse effect on Sir Francis Drake traffic in conflict with Policy C of the Larkspur General Plan Circulation Element) on p. 135 of the DEIR. Mitigation Measure TRANS-1 “. . . recommends a policy to amend the Larkspur General Plan to eliminate Circulation Element Policy C.” In essence, this simply states that they recommend memorializing the removal of a policy to avoid adverse impacts on traffic. Not exactly what I’d call “mitigation.”