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Killing Density in Its Bed and the Deathwatch at Fireman's Fund

Columnist: Bill Meagher
April, 2015 Issue

Bill Meagher
All articles by columnist

Of late, the anti-density brigade has marched from the residential battlefields to take the fight to commercial areas in Larkspur and San Rafael.

A long time ago, perhaps around the time the gold rush was introducing the rest of the nation to the notion that California was a nice place to hang your hat, Marin might have been an easy place in terms of housing. Maybe design review and planning commissions didn’t exist, and over-caffeinated throngs of citizens didn’t crowd public meetings in matching T-shirts and preach the evils of adding housing to a community with terminal drawbridge mentality.
But probably not.
Of late, the anti-density brigade has marched from the residential battlefields to take the fight to commercial areas in Larkspur and San Rafael.
The brigade emerged victorious as the Larkspur City Council worked on its state-required housing element. The document is supposed to demonstrate that the city, via its planning process and zoning requirements, can provide the opportunity for enough housing to be constructed. In the past, the city submitted an element that allowed 90 housing units to be built above the existing Bon Air Shopping Center. Of those 90 possible units, 42 could have been affordable.
Under the new element that Larkspur submitted to the state, 40 units would be allowed and half of those would be classified as affordable. Opponents told the council that they had worries about water, traffic and additional kids draining resources from the local district.
In the end, the council voted 4-1 to slice more than half the units possible at Bon Air and forward its housing element on to Sacramento.
In San Rafael, the city council will need to decide if a new five-story senior housing project sponsored by senior nonprofit advocate Whistlestop, is the right fit. The organization would like to transform its existing center into a larger facility and provide 47 one-bedroom apartments for seniors located right next door to the San Rafael Transit Center and what will be the downtown stop for the SMART train.
Whistlestop, which has been in the old train station offices since 1971, provides meals, activities and transportation for Marin seniors. While Whistlestop knows that the project location directly next to the commuter train isn’t ideal, it has said it can’t afford to place the project anyplace else since the cost of property would be prohibitive.
Critics say the scale of the building, along with its location next to the train and using the now 87-year-old train station offices would rob the downtown of a historic building.
The scale argument is null, given the location of the project so close to the San Rafael Corporate Center and BioMarin headquarters. The argument over whether the train offices are historic versus just “old” will be played out in the coming months. The project is expected to land in front of the City Council in July for a possible ground breaking in 2017.   
While Marin takes great pride in projecting a small town character, the practice of placing housing above ground floor retail or other uses is already in play in Sausalito, San Rafael and Novato. These locations don’t represent new ideas, just old ones that offend residents who worry that providing housing opportunities for low-income folks or seniors could send the wrong message.
And they’re right. It would send a message that Marin is an inclusive place and values a community where affordable housing is more than a suburban myth. You wouldn’t want the rest of the world to get the wrong idea.

Fireman’s Fund: Burning down the house

The saga of the future of Fireman’s Fund in Novato continues to unwind in brutal slow motion. At one time, the company counted 2,400 people on its staff and was the largest employer in the county. But in September 2014, Fireman’s Fund’s parent, Germany-based Allianz, announced a reorganization that included moving Fireman’s Fund’s commercial property and casualty business to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.
In December, Allianz sold the personal lines business off to ACE Ltd. for $365 million. That deal is set to close sometime in the second quarter of this year.
The truth is that the company has been less than stable for a number of years, and if insurance executives desire anything beyond cushy margins, it’s stability. In the last decade, the company has featured eight CEOs, including Art Mossman, who was hired in January. And there’s no truth to the rumor that the company had a revolving door installed to accommodate the parade of executives.
Rumors do swirl, however that the insurance company will walk on the last year of its lease and leave at the end of this year.
Richard Manson, a spokesman for Fireman’s Fund, said the company intends to “have a Novato presence in some way.”
Meanwhile, Fireman’s Fund employees will polish their résumés and try not to talk about what the closing of the ACE sale will bring.


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