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When is a “plan” not a Plan?

On June 18th, the Sausalito City Council met to consider a proposed ballot initiative called the “Marinship Blue Economy Innovation District Initiative.” It was ostensibly drafted by the Working Waterfront Coalition and their attorney and consisted of lengthy rewrites of the Sausalito General Plan. Its stated intention was to preserve the Marinship and protect the Marinship businesses from the market forces making it difficult for small, existing businesses and artisans to afford rising rental costs.

(CLICK HERE for a video of the hearing)

These are, of course, very worthy goals. The Marinship is much more than meets the eye and its economic vitality has been studied and debated for decades. The Marinship is home to a diverse and eclectic mix of maritime industries, small manufacturers, artisans, artists, tradesmen, and tech startups. As one participant in the City’s 2017 Marinship Workshop commented, “The Marinship contains the culture of this town.”

As such, the goals of the Blue Economy Initiative and the focus on stimulating innovation, though worth repeating, are nothing new. These goals have been discussed and codified, for decades, in the programs and policies of the Sausalito General Plan and were restated in the 2021 General Plan Update, the Sausalito Land Use Element, the Environmental Quality Element, the Sustainability Element, the Waterfront/Marinship Element, The Economic Element, and in the recent Housing Element. These goals were also enshrined in the 1989 Marinship Specific Plan.

As council members commented, the City spent years and hundreds of hours, held dozens of public workshops and hearings, and heard from a variety of special committees and task forces in crafting the 2021 General Plan Update and all its Elements. So, the questions of the night were, other than introducing a new terminology like “Blue Economy,” what has changed to require this General Plan rewrite, why now, and what does it accomplish that is not already accomplished by existing regulations?

Those questions remained unexplained by the Initiative’s promoters.

"In trying to resolve an existing Tower of Babel of regulations, the Initiative just adds more floors."

When is a “plan” not a Plan?

The fundamental flaw in the “Marinship Blue Economy Innovation District Initiative” was that it broke the cardinal rule of city planning, which is that in order to address land use challenges, one has to actually create a "Plan."

Drawing arbitrary boundary lines on a map of other people’s private property, without their knowledge (at 1" equals 1 mile scale), based on nothing more than one’s personal opinion or ideological leanings is not “planning.” Any Plan that hopes to be effective and sustainable has to be derived from a robust, inclusive, transparent public process that includes all residents, agencies, and stakeholders impacted by it, to reach a viable consensus.

This time-honored methodology includes a thorough analysis of all the associated social, economic, financial, geological, hydrological, environmental, and physical infrastructure impacts of any proposed changes -- areas of study that are particularly important in the Marinship, which is suffering from the effects of sea level rise, land subsidence, toxic contamination, infrastructure failures, and physical and economic obsolescence that directly affect the viability of the business community.

Changes to a city's General Plan and its Zoning Ordinances, like those suggested by the Blue Economy Initiative, only come after that process is completed and a “Plan” is agreed upon -- not before it.

So, despite its best intentions, the proposed Initiative is an unfortunate attempt to force a preconceived conclusion without a viable planning process. It provides no economic analysis or financial proforma data, whatsoever, to substantiate its claim that it will "save" the types of businesses it pretends to represent. In sum, it evidences a considerable lack of understanding about how to craft viable, flexible, and realistically administrable land use regulations.

Community push back

The significant push back against the Blue Economy Initiative witnessed at the City Council hearing was the predictable result of its promoters having the planning process backward.

This explains why so many of the Marinship’s major landowners and businesses wrote letters and showed up in droves (a crowd so large some had to view the hearing on video from another room) to fervently protest the Initiative’s adoption, because they were never consulted about it, had no input into it, nor were they made aware that the Initiative even existed until the notice of the public hearing, days before.

They felt that the Initiative’s proponents were trying to pull a fast one.

These protests belied claims made by the two gentlemen from the Working Waterfront Coalition, who presented the Initiative, that they represented “the voice” of the Marinship’s working waterfront business community. This was clearly not the case. Similarly, it is curious that the Initiative was not signed or specifically endorsed by the individuals or businesses it claimed to represent, as is the normal convention when a ballot initiative is submitted for public consideration.

"As it is, the Initiative is so filled with technical minutiae and obscure, undefined terminology, none of which is tested for real-world impacts or the magnitude of their unintended consequences, that it would be virtually impossible to adequately explain to the voters what they are voting for or against."

The “Marinship Vision”

The current Sausalito General Plan includes a comprehensive vision for the Marinship. Its “Marinship Vision Statement” proposes the following:

The Marinship is recognized by this General Plan as a key area of Sausalito. With a rich history and a diverse present, but at heightened risk due to sea level rise, the Marinship is a unique area not just for Sausalito but for the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2019, the City Council recommended a vision to guide the future of the Marinship:

The Marinship is an economically sustainable working waterfront maritime and industrial neighborhood that is planned and developed with innovative solutions to sea level rise combined with regional and global sea level rise reduction and management programs.

The Marinship welcomes residents of houseboats and liveaboards while providing safe and convenient public access to transit, the shore and parks with a low-impact and functional vehicular and pedestrian circulation network. The neighborhood is supported by updated infrastructure, has unique local neighborhood-serving services and amenities, and is home to a thriving community of artists and innovators.

The Marinship neighborhood respects and protects water-dependent uses as well as the neighborhood’s historical maritime and industrial nature and character. [Emphasis added]

Economic sustainability, defined as “a dynamic process in which communities anticipate and accommodate the needs of current and future generations in ways that reproduce and balance local social, economic, and ecological systems, and link local actions to global concerns,” will be considered throughout Sausalito, including, but not limited to, the Marinship. Economic Sustainability will also be a theme noted in each element of the General Plan Update. There should be a financial underpinning to ensure that the vision for each area of the city may be achieved. [Emphasis added]

Subareas may be considered as a planning tool in the General Plan Update, but they need not specifically be part of the Marinship vision nor align with the subareas designated in the Marinship Specific Plan. [Emphasis added]

Opportunities should be sought for more senior and live/work housing throughout the city, and not to the detriment of the viability of industrial business operations or viability in the Marinship. The General Plan Update should give the city flexibility to pursue aging in-place and industrial workforce housing strategies. [Emphasis added]

A waterfront path should be functional and serve residents and workers in the Marinship. It would ideally promote accessibility and prioritize the working waterfront, serving everyone from children getting to school to senior citizens in wheelchairs and including those who bicycle or walk to work. A separate Bridgeway-adjacent path should safely separate bicyclists from vehicles. [Emphasis added]

Environmental remediation should be a strong factor in the General Plan Update’s environmental policies and implementation programs, but it is not specifically part of the Marinship vision. [Emphasis added]

The General Plan Update should identify both unique infrastructure challenges and mechanisms to finance their solutions in all areas of Sausalito due to the interconnectedness of infrastructure issues throughout the city.” [Emphasis added]

The Blue Economy Initiative, as submitted, generally ignores consideration of the highlighted issues in that it fails to provide any proforma data to support the argument that it will produce these benefits  from its proposed changes. Restricting uses does not, in and of itself, guarantee prosperity or sustainability. In fact, the history of the Marinship suggests the opposite outcome.

The 1989 Marinship Specific Plan

The Marinship Specific Plan was created in 1989, primarily, to restrict the development of commercial office buildings throughout the Marinship. At that time, office development was rapidly displacing legacy maritime uses in the area.

The Marinship Specific Plan was and remains extremely restrictive of any changes in use in an attempt to essentially freeze the status quo. This was the Marinship Specific Plan’s fatal flaw. Despite its good intentions in its attempt to stop time, it micro-managed the allowable uses of every single square foot of space in the entire district without any viable provisions or mechanisms to adapt to socioeconomic change. (e.g., If a car repair business existed in 1989, and it subsequently goes out of business, no new car repair business can replace it, or conversely, if a restaurant did not exist in a particular location in 1989, a new restaurant is forever prohibited in that location.).

Allowances for new office space or housing, particularly for live/work or employee housing, are also essentially prohibited almost everywhere in the Marinship and restricted to the point of being counter-productive.

As one can imagine, all this punitive regulation has proven to be a major disincentive to building maintenance and improvements to addressing the functional and economic obsolescence of existing structures and infrastructure, and to attracting new capital investment.

A lot has changed

It goes without saying that a lot has changed since 1989. In many ways, the entire business world is almost unrecognizable now from what it was back then. In our ever-evolving Internet/remote/work-from-home/popup businesses/startups world, what is or is not a “commercial” use, what is or is not live/work, and the very definition of “a job” or a “career” or a “trade” is changing so rapidly it’s getting harder to draw clear lines of separation.

As a result, The Marinship Specific Plan’s regulations that were intended to protect the Marinship working waterfront are, paradoxically, causing much of the district to lay fallow and have left the Marinship in worse shape, economically, than it was before.

That said, the “Marinship Blue Economy Innovation District Initiative” not only fails to acknowledge this real-world conundrum, but it appears to double down on the same old, brute-force, impossible-to-administer methods found in the Marinship Specific Plan. It relies on the same kind of archaic, vague definitions and land use typologies, and the same cumbersome restrictions (e.g., from arbitrary, one-size-fits-all Floor Area Ratios (FARs), to limits to the number of customers at a business location, arbitrary distances between uses, and nostalgic architectural “style” restrictions) that have been enabling the deterioration of the Marinship business environment for decades.

If this location is supposed to be "innovative," new planning regulations need to be dynamic and flexible in order to adapt to an unknowable future.

As such, the Initiative fails to include any reasonable planning flexibility (e.g., it states that any variance for a change in allowable building height, no matter how minor, requires a special election and public vote), or include any methods to evaluate and approve entirely new land use proposals that might better fulfill the goals of waterfront preservation and business sustainability and be positive game changers for all concerned. It also fails to include reasonable methods to enforce any of its proposed micro-management of business types or allowable uses (e.g., it uses phrase like “shall not be encouraged” without defining what that means, legally).

The status of the Marinship Specific Plan

What went unsaid at the City Council hearing was that the status of the Marinship Specific Plan has remained unresolved since the 2021 General Plan Update was adopted.

The only policy change referred to in the current 2021 General Plan regarding the Marinship Specific Plan is in LU-4.1.2, which states,

“LU-4.1.2 Retire Marinship Specific Plan. Upon adoption of the revised Zoning Ordinance implementing the Marinship Vision, discontinue use of the Marinship Specific Plan as a regulatory document.”

However, to date, the City’s Zoning Ordinance has never been “revised” or “implemented,” as is required (a process that would require more public hearings and likely another Environmental Impact study). Therefore, technically, the Marinship Specific Plan remains active and in place.

A planning process that has yet to begin

The Blue Economy Initiative purports to offer a new vision for the Marinship, but it provides no policies or programs that don’t already exist in the City’s current General Plan. Instead, it attempts to permanently encode The Marinship Specific Plan’s most restrictive policies and some illogical new ones (e.g., it claims yacht sales are not a maritime use?) and inserts new terminology that is virtually impossible to administer (e.g., what is the workable definition of a “new applied arts” use that is “predominately marine-related” and who gets to determine that or enforce it?).

In trying to resolve an existing Tower of Babel of regulations, the Initiative just adds more floors to it.

This Initiative also does little to alleviate the Marinship Specific Plan’s shortcomings or clarify many of its outstanding legal issues.

"The whole approach of trying to micro-manage every single word in regulations and every square foot of space across acres of waterfront is not just fanciful but is the antithesis of the word "innovation", which, by definition, is always "new" and "out of the box."

The parts of the Marinship that the Initiative left out

By “walling off” the area north of Harbor Drive, east of Bridgeway, and west of the old, north/south railroad line, the Blue Economy Initiative would create a situation where one part of the Marinship would have a new set of regulations while the other would still operate under the old Marinship Specific Plan. The zoning, infrastructure improvement, tax assessment, and District planning chaos this would cause is immeasurable.

By failing to include commensurate planning and zoning changes in this northern area, the Initiative, ironically, fails to empower the area with the most potential to be the economic and tax revenue engine to cover the costs of addressing the infrastructure and public safety challenges facing the “Working Waterfront District" it proports to save.

With all this considered, one has to ask, what purpose does the Blue Economy initiative really serve? Buzzy labels like "Blue Economy" are catchy but without having any basis in a comprehensive master planning process, it remains nothing more than a marketing slogan.

Once more, with feeling?

At the hearing, Mayor Sobieski noted that more than two years ago, the City published a Request for Information (RFI) for master planning of the Marinship. Our nonprofit organization, funded solely by individual donor support, was among those who responded to that RFI with a proposal for “The Marinship Master Plan.” It was presented to the Sausalito City Council, last year.

This multi-phased proposal was the result of 3 ½ years of work with Marinship waterfront stakeholders and businesses, including those who wrote the ballot initiative. Its goals were identical to those found in the General Plan Update and the Blue Economy Initiative and included proposals to build hundreds of units of much-needed, supportive, waterfront workforce housing, without negatively impacting the designated working waterfront District.

However, at that time, City Staff and the City Council were under considerable duress and knee-deep in getting their Housing Element completed and certified by the state, and indicated they could not concentrate on anything else until that was done. 

Since that time, there's been no progress in master planning the Marinship.

There remains no doubt that the 150+ acre Marinship, which is the largest tax revenue base for the City of Sausalito, needs master planning. There is no other way that its local business, infrastructure, environmental, land use, and housing challenges can be addressed and coordinated in a practical, equitable, economically viable and financially sustainable way. But the Marinship is an intricate, multi-dimensional puzzle that needs to be approached methodically, meticulously, and thoroughly to get it right.

The proposed “Marinship Blue Economy Innovation District Initiative” falls short on all counts toward achieving that result.

As it is, the Initiative is so filled with technical minutiae and obscure, undefined terminology, none of which is tested for real-world impacts or the magnitude of their unintended consequences, that it would be virtually impossible to adequately explain to the voters what they are voting for or against.

In fact, the whole approach of trying to micro-manage every single word in regulations and every square foot of space across acres of waterfront is not just fanciful but the antithesis of the word "innovation", which, by definition, is always "new" and "out of the box."

The planning regulations for the Marinship need to allow for dynamic growth and unforeseeable needs.

The future is unknowable, but we can plan for that

In the course of our planning work in Sausalito, we urged the City to create a "planned development" (PD) submission process; a dynamic planning tool that is used everywhere in the country. It allows developers to submit innovative project concepts, which would be implemented in conjunction with land use "development agreements" with the City.

This would give future planning commissions and city councils a way to review and process innovative development ideas. It affords the City the ability to be opportunistic and able to positively respond to future development concepts that none of us can imagine, today, while maintaining complete control over the enforcement of the goals of the Marinship Vision.

One hopes the proposed Blue Ribbon panel that was discussed at the end of last week’s hearing can get a professional planning process back on track.