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City of Mill Valley

Letter to the Mill Valley City Council on the importance of honoring the public's trust

On August 7th, the Mill Valley City Council will meet to consider a proposal to implement a pilot program to reduce traffic capacity by 50% in the Parkway section of Miller Avenue from Millwood St. to Willow St. The following letter opposing that plan has been submitted for their consideration.

Dear City Council Members:

I am writing to express my opposition to the proposed one lane “pilot project” plan to reduce Miller Avenue to a single lane of traffic from Willow St. to Millwood St., in each direction. I believe this change would increase traffic congestion and be contrary to the fundamental goals of our General Plan and the rationale for undertaking the Miller Avenue Streetscape Improvement Plan. I believe such a public policy decision would not only be ill-advised but would represent a significant breakdown in our public process and a breach of the public’s trust.

If there are some minor modifications that might make the four-lane Parkway plan work better for all concerned, then by all means let’s discuss them. However, as a city, we have a responsibility to honor the public process and original design that was unanimously approved by the past City Council.

I previously sent in comments prior to the July 17th hearing and those are incorporated herein by reference.

Respect public process and institutional knowledge

The City Council debate on this issue has revolved around the pros and cons of one lane versus two lanes. However, these are not the relevant questions.

The Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan was the result of thousands of hours of efforts by hundreds of residents, staff members, consultants and experts, who reviewed many studies, models, analyses and reports, which were presented and discussed by multiple taskforces, in public workshops and at public hearings, and subjected to multiple votes, all of which is encoded in the final, community-vetted Streetscape Plan that was unanimously approved by your predecessors on the Planning Commission and the City Council.

It cannot be overstated that the Streetscape Plan was the result of an authentic and robust democratic process, which began in the year 2000 with the directive to establish the Miller Avenue Precise Plan Citizen Advisory Committee, on which I served. In contrast, the 3 to 2 decision to amend the plan, based on emotional and anecdotal comments of a small group of residents and biking enthusiasts, is arbitrary and unsupported by objective analysis or evidence.

A decision to reduce traffic capacity now would appear to be based on the conceit that the present council somehow knows better than everyone and everything that came before them. I doubt that is the impression you want to make. It insults community contributions and insults our intelligence.

However, this is not just a case of bad “optics” but of bad public policy. It has been equally embarrassing to hear council members complain that public pushback on their decision would be an attempt to “limit the council’s discretionary power.”

New information?

Council members in favor of the one lane change have argued that their decision is based on “new information.” However, nothing being discussed is new information.

As an original member of the CAC, starting in 2001, and someone who’s been actively involved in the Streetscape process for 16 years, I can assure you that every comment and opinion that is now being proffered to defend the staff’s recommendation to reduce the Parkway to a single lane in each direction, has been heard, debated, analyzed and voted on, endless times before.

The lack of institutional memory or acknowledgment of the history and evolution of the Streetscape Plan, on the part of the Council and Planning Staff, is very disturbing.

Miller Avenue was intentionally designed to invite increased traffic in the future

Miller Avenue is our designated in our General Plan as the major arterial in and out of downtown and the entire canyon. It is the only route where large trucks are legally allowed. Making Miller Avenue our main thoroughfare was one of the fundamental goals of the Streetscape Plan from its inception.

The goal has been to enhance Miller Avenue’s commercial district (Camino Alto to Sunnyside) in order to promote higher density, mixed-use housing development and attract and retain local-serving businesses.

It has also been a stated intention from the outset to encourage and increase traffic on Miller Avenue in order to alleviate congestion on Blithedale Avenue and to reduce the decades old problem of dangerous cut-through traffic in the “Triangle” neighborhoods (Sycamore Park and Tam Park).

The original driving goals of the Miller Avenue plan were to:

Actual “new information”

Since the Streetscape Plan was approved in 2011, the City has completed an update of our General Plan, and rewritten and adopted a new zoning ordinance, which includes the Mill Valley Residential Multifamily Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance, in 2016. And, although high density development wisely remains a conditional use in the new zoning ordinance for parcels on Miller Avenue, the intentions of the new General Plan and zoning code are clear.

Miller Avenue is now not only our designated main arterial in and out of downtown, but we have targeted Miller Avenue’s commercial district (the Gateway, Main Street, Parkway and Passage) for considerable increased residential density and commercial activity in the future. This has also been encoded in our certified Housing Element.

For this reason, any traffic projections from 2008 that formed the basis of the Streetscape final plan or those done for the General Plan 2040 update (both, referenced in the staff report as substantiating evidence) are now questionable. In light of the potential impacts of the newly approved Mill Valley Residential Multifamily Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance, it is highly likely that those projections are already outdated and in need of updated data analysis.

The “Pilot Project” is misleading

Anyone with planning experience knows that traffic congestion is a highly fluid phenomenon. Traffic flow is constantly seeking efficiency and equilibrium. If we were to allow one traffic lane in the Parkway for a year, after Miller Avenue is completed, traffic flow will adjust accordingly, seeking equilibrium between Miller Avenue, Blithedale Avenue and cut-through in the Triangle. It will do this regardless of the overall volume of traffic at any given time of the day or year. That is how traffic works: traffic flows are constantly adapting to maximum time efficiency for drivers.

For this reason, if Miller Avenue is opened with only one lane in the Parkway, as overall traffic inevitably continues to get worse everywhere, over time, a year or two from now the Council will simply shrug and say, “Well that’s how it is. Traffic is bad. Ride your bike,” because, we’ll have no objective baseline data to compare it to.

Without establishing any baseline statistics for traffic on the completed Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan as designed to judge from, there will be no way to gauge the increased impacts of traffic congestion on Miller Avenue, Blithedale Avenue or the increase in cut-through traffic in the Triangle neighborhoods causes by reducing capacity to one lane.

The only way to generate credible baseline data is to build the street as planned, let the two lane design mature for a period of one to two years, and then, if desired, consider the impacts of a change. Without doing that, within a year or two we’ll be right back to square one, where we started, 15 year ago.

This is not a popularity contest

What is at stake here is the sanctity of our public process. However, whether done intentionally or not, the City Council and Staff have encouraged the Parkway design debate to become a popularity contest, pitting the majority of the town’s residents against biking advocates and those who live and work on the Parkway. The Staff Report itself shows considerable bias in its failure to disclose the true extent of the opposition to the one lane proposal.

In an affront to all the Mill Valley residents who signed the petitions against the one lane proposal, the Staff Report doesn’t even acknowledge that the city received the petition by the Mill Valley Community Coalition at their last hearing.

Likewise, by arguing that one lane is “safer,” based on nothing more than subjective personal opinion, and by failing to emphasize to the public that both the one lane and two lane designs include continuous bike lanes, the Staff and City Council are fanning the flames of community hostility and divisiveness.

As you well know, the bike lanes in both the one lane and two lane solutions are 100% compliant with all federal and state safety standards.

Results from online petitions asking the City to honor the two lane solution

The aforementioned considered, the combined results of the two online petitions supporting the original, community approved Streetscape two lane design, created by the Mill Valley Community Leaders Coalition, are compelling.

I recognize that online petitions can be problematic, because anyone can sign them from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether they live and vote in Mill Valley. In addition, online petition software typically reflects the location where it was signed on a mobile device. If the “results” data is not thoroughly vetted, it can produce distorted results.

To account for this, as best as possible, signatories were checked against public records to establish if their residency was in the City of Mill Valley or within its sphere of influence (defined as within the 94941 or 94942 zip codes) or if they lived outside of Mill Valley. Duplicates were deleted.

The petition results are presented as three lists:

Culling through the data, we estimate that of those who signed the petition in support of the 4 lane solution, and who live in the 94941 or 94942 zip code, approximately 93% are Mill Valley voters. To the best of my knowledge, this level of vetting and review was not applied to the online petition in support of the one lane solution.

Requirement to conform to the General Plan

Those in support of the one lane proposal have stated that “safety” is their number one priority. However, in our General Plan, safety is just one of many inter-related priorities to be considered in making public policy and planning decisions. Even state law suggests that the health, safety and general welfare of residents needs to be considered equally.

This is not to say that safety isn’t an important consideration. It is. But even if we were to agree that safety should be the primary consideration, it is very questionable which scheme (one lane or two) is actually safer for all users – cars, trucks, pedestrians and bicyclists. We all have a personal definition of what is safety but the answer to that would require a more complex analysis.

In his letters to the City Council,Ken Wachtel addresses these questions at length and has argued persuasively that the two lanes solution is actually safer. But, either way, new studies and analysis are required before an informed decision could be made. That analysis was never undertaken for the one lane scheme during the Streetscape Plan process so there is no basis to claim that a one lane scheme is categorically safer.

What does the General Plan say?

Consider what the General Plan states, under “General Plan Goals”:

The two primary goals of the General Plan remain the same as established in the 1989 General Plan, and are: 1. To protect and enhance the natural beauty and small-town character of Mill Valley; and 2. To encourage continued diversity of housing, income levels, and lifestyles in the community.

No mention of “safety” being the most important consideration in those “primary” goals. However, the General Plan Introduction also encodes important “community values” to guide public policy decisions. Among those community values we find “minimizing traffic congestion” and “cultivating community participation and volunteerism.”

The Staff Report itself notes:

General Plan Consistency. The General Plan has several policies addressed at improving traffic through arterial streets such as studying ways to improve the flow of traffic and improve congestion on major routes such as Miller Avenue" [Emphasis Added] (M.9-3), and lists several requirements for new development along Miller that would mitigate impacts to traffic or improve the roadway (M.9-10). [Emphasis Added]

Incredibly, the Staff Report then goes on to completely ignore these fundamental directives, choosing instead to provide “creative” and self-serving interpretations, and wandering off into vague and legally unsupportable statements to support its recommendations.

The City Council cannot ignore the priorities of the General Plan, based purely on their subjective opinions at any given time. Certain council members have accused critics of the one lane scheme of trying to limit their discretionary powers. However, Council’s discretion does not extend to personal interpretations of the priorities of our General Plan, its Elements and its certified Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Future growth and traffic on Miller Avenue

Again, Miller Avenue is acknowledged to be Mill Valley’s main arterial. This has been stated repeatedly in the General Plan, the Streetscape Plan, the Transportation / Mobility Elements and elsewhere, and it is also reinforced and encoded in the certified General Plan Housing Element and the Multi-Family Residential Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance.

In fact, the two driving issues that created the momentum to do the Miller Avenue Plan in the first place, starting in the year 2000 and restated many times since, has been (1) to move high volume traffic to Miller Avenue and away from Blithedale and cut through routes, and (2) to encourage and incentivize future high density and local-serving business development along the Miller Avenue commercial corridor (Camino Alto to Sunnyside).

Selective disclosure of facts

The Staff Report cherry picks from the General Plan’s more subordinate priorities, such as those found in the Mobility Element, apparently in an attempt to confuse the issue and elevate these goals to equal decision-making, consideration status. For example, it notes the concept of “Complete Streets,” in stating the values of:

improving the efficiency and safety of the transportation network for all travel modes (M.4-1); fostering safe and efficient transportation links for transit, cars, bicycles and pedestrians (M.4-2); and implementing and improving bicycle and pedestrian connections (M.4-4 and 5).

However, it conveniently leaves out that this same document also goes on to state that we need to improve transportation systems;

This system should improve mobility for Mill Valley residents by investing in transportation infrastructure, providing viable alternatives to the automobile, and managing congestion to improve travel times and choices.[Emphasis added.]

This bias by Staff, to only disclose to elected officials those arguments that support predetermined conclusions, while leaving out contradictory facts is unacceptable.

Traffic analysis is overly-simplistic, unrealistic and inadequate

I submit that based on compelling evidence about recent transportation trends (Uber, Lyft, Amazon Prime one day delivery, self-driving shuttles, etc.) and recent Mill Valley and state legislation, since the approval of the Streetscape Plan, the traffic projections the staff is relying are grossly inadequate. The consequences of this could be a considerable burden on valley floor residents.

The traffic evaluation noted in the Staff Report fails to assess or adequately address the realities of reducing a major arterial from two lanes to one lane. The report states:

The proposed pilot program does not modify land use and therefore the lane configuration does not have the potential to generate traffic volumes different than those evaluated in the MV2040 General Plan. The General Plan identifies daily traffic volumes for 2012 and 2035. The volumes are broken down into peak hour volumes below illustrating that the capacity of a one-lane roadway can accommodate (with excess capacity) the current and future projected traffic volumes. These traffic volumes identified in the table are consistent with traffic volumes reported in 2008 as part of the Streetscape Planning process, with the Passage generating approximately 400-500 vehicles per hour in each direction and the Parkway generating approximately 600-700 vehicles per hour in each direction.

These statements are based on an overly simplistic traffic count table (page 4) from which it concludes that capacity is adequate and there are no issues. However, any casual observer will tell you that traffic flow and what causes traffic congestion is a dynamic process not subject to academic or numerical analysis.

Common sense

Consider the common experience of how a one car stopped by a police officer on the right shoulder of Highway 101 can back up traffic for a mile at rush hour. Human behavior dictates that people will slow down dramatically, regardless of how open the roadway “capacity” actually is.

Similarly, traffic congestion can occur even if a single car or a delivery truck is double parked, driving slowly, stalled, stopped while trying to make a right or left turn when another car or truck is blocking the side street (e.g., Park Avenue.) or alleyway (e.g., Una way), or encroaching the slightest bit into the traffic or bike lanes, forcing bicyclists into the one traffic lane.

At critical rush hour commute times, this very common type of slowing can back up traffic significantly, even if there is no apparent reason and theoretical capacity is adequate.

Subsequent Regulations Invalidates Staff Report Assumptions

The Staff Reports academic “analysis” of traffic impacts also fails to incorporate the potential negative unmitigated traffic impacts of the new Multi-Family Residential Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance, which was undertaken after the adoption of General Plan 2040, and which intentionally encourages and provides zoning for more high density residential and mixed use development in the Parkway “room” and our downtown, as well as on the rest of Miller Avenue in the commercial zones (Camino Alto to Sunnyside).

All of this has the potential to dramatically increase traffic in the future, beyond even the projections of the General Plan Study itself.

In fact, the actual, cumulative, future potential traffic impacts have never been assessed with consideration for all the new subsequent legislation enacted since the Streetscape Plan was approved. These include the recent updates to the General Plan and its Elements (Transportation, Mobility, and Environmental) and the even more recent Multi-Family Residential Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance.

As noted, these more recent documents and regulations contain significant changes to the potential for increased high density development and adjust the potential traffic impacts and cut through traffic, in particular. These documents and new regulations specifically promote and encourage greater density, growth and commercial development on the entire one mile length of the Miller Avenue commercial district (Camino Alto to Sunnyside). The newly approved conversion of the Mill Valley Lumber Yard from a single, limited hours, business operation to a mixed use retail, commercial, restaurant use is a perfect example of this future trend.

Cut-through traffic comments in Staff Report are invalid

The Staff Reports state the following regarding cut through traffic as a consequence of the one lane proposal.

Cut through traffic was also documented and report in 2008 as part of a study conducted for the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan. The study noted that the highest non-residential traffic traveling through the Sycamore Park and Tamalpais Park neighborhoods are at LaGoma and the secondary route is through Locust. The study also noted that the overall traffic volumes on these local neighborhood streets are comparable to those experienced on other local streets in other communities.

A determination of the impacts of changing the approved plan from two lanes of traffic to one lane cannot be made on the basis the 2008 studies, which pre-date the Streetscape Plan itself and pre-dates the more recent updates to the General Plan and its Elements (Transportation, Mobility, and Environmental) or the even more recent Multi-Family Residential Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance.

As explained above, these more recent documents change the potential high density of development and the potential traffic impacts and cut through traffic, in particular. These documents and new regulations intentionally encourage greater density, growth and increased commercial development on the entire one mile length of the Miller Avenue commercial district (Camino Alto to Sunnyside) and those changes will definitely impact cut through traffic and traffic impacts on Blithedale.

Finally, the last sentence of the Staff Report above, that “The study also noted that the overall traffic volumes on these local neighborhood streets are comparable to those experienced on other local streets in other communities,” is the most bizarre rationalization of all.

Are we supposed to be satisfied with and accept living with increasing hazardous conditions because other communities put up with it? By this standard, our entire town could be one big traffic jam and Staff would say it would be okay because other communities are also experiencing it.

This type of comment by Staff, demonstrates just how biased and out of touch they are with this community.

Failure to adequately address CEQA

On page 7 of the Staff Report the staff cites General Rule, Section 15061(b)(3), as the basis of its claim that this “pilot project” is exempt from CEQA review. However, that exemption does not apply in this situation, nor does it provide the city with any legal safe harbor against potential legal challenge by “any interested party.”

Contrary to the guidance of the Staff Report and I assume the City Attorney, CEQA makes no exemptions whatsoever for “pilot” projects, regardless of their length. This project is a “project” under CEQA like any other, and is therefore subject to a thorough and complete CEQA process that includes evidence-based analysis and assessment of potential unmitigated impacts on traffic and the environment.

Of greater concern, this is the exact same loophole the City attempted to illegally exploit for the Multifamily Residential Mixed Use Zoning ordinance. Community Venture Partners challenged that attempt, forcing the City to conduct a proper CEQA assessment, which resulted in a Mitigated Negative Declaration. I strongly advise the City to not attempt to evade their legal responsibility again.

Baseline traffic impacts analysis required

As I noted in my letter of July 17th, the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan was adopted based on its Mitigated Negative Declaration, which analyzed the Parkway design with 4 lanes for motor vehicle traffic (two in each direction), not 2 lanes. Because of this and because this project is not exempt from CEQA, the City cannot consider the proposed reduction in lanes without additional CEQA compliance.

That compliance would include assessing the potential for significant unmitigated traffic impacts caused by the proposed change (traffic congestion, traffic safety, air pollution from idling cars, etc.). This assessment would have to include a new baseline traffic study. This new study would have to rely on newly collected data on existing traffic loads under normal operating conditions.

However, since we all acknowledge that current traffic loads and use patterns on Miller Avenue, and consequently all the other streets in the surrounding areas, are anything but normal at present, there is no way to conduct such a study at this time.

In addition, the potential unmitigated negative impacts of the new parallel parking along the Parkway roadway in the one lane proposal, is something that has never been assessed or analyzed in any previous studies or analysis that formed the basis of the design of the Streetscape Plan.

Almonte Ave. intersection change not comparable

The “Marsh” room was not a part of the original Streetscape Plan nor was it ever subjected to the extensive scrutiny and public process that was applied to the Miller Avenue commercial rooms (Camino Alto to Sunnyside). The Marsh was added at the very end with little public participation. As a consequence, the “design” for the intersection at Almonte Avenue only became controversial when the final plan was published.

The plan called for the reduction of traffic lanes from two lanes to one lane, eliminating the right turn lane onto Almonte, along the roadway next to the Tam High athletic field. No businesses or homes were directly impacted and there is no zoning for future mixed use development there, as there is in the Parkway.

The community logically protested this hastily drawn up plan to reduce overall traffic flow to only one lane, because it would result in traffic backing up for blocks behind a single car trying to negotiate a right turn. This is similar to what will occur in the Parkway if a single car is stopped waiting to make a turn onto Park Avenue or Una Way or a left turn into Willow, because a delivery truck is double parked or there is some other temporary obstruction of the road.

The situation at Almonte is in fact the exception that proves the rule that the streetscape design should “minimize traffic congestion,” as stated in our General Plan.

Why bother if we can’t trust our public process?

Perhaps the most consequential question that the one lane proposal raises is this. Why should any of us, who have put in so much time and effort for so many years, who have respected and contributed to the public process at the request of the City, ever trust the City or its planning process again? In fact, if years of contributions can be wiped away just because someone suddenly “feels” like doing something else, why should we participate at all? It gives the appearance that no one is listening, anyway.

I see a lot of long faces when a community advocacy group such as CVP threatens legal action to force agencies do what is right. But arbitrary decisions such as the one lane proposal, only invite that. In fact, they leave the public with no other choice.

I ask you again, to please reconsider your vote to change the Parkway to one lane in each direction. I urge you to please build what was approved and give it a chance to prove its wisdom and benefits.

It is the only way you will be able to continue to enjoy the public’s trust.