Growing up in Petaluma in the 1960s and ’70s, it never occurred to me that I lived in a rarefied place. My husband, likewise, never viewed his childhood home, in a working class, Italian neighborhood in San Anselmo, as anything more than a comfortable place for his large, extended family.
But even then, things were changing. Open fields on the outskirts of town were being developed for housing. The corner grocery closed and was replaced by a duplex. Shopping centers and parking lots brought suburbia to our quaint downtowns. Today, when we return to those neighborhoods, it’s sometimes difficult to navigate through areas that were once so familiar. Do I begrudge these changes? Maybe a little. But I also recognize their necessity. Change is constant and inevitable, so what’s key is to prepare for change in a way that makes the most sense.
In recent decades, the North Bay has become victim of its own mystique. Our beautiful landscapes, temperate climate and proximity to the cultural and employment hubs of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area have drawn a multitude of people wanting in on the Wine Country lifestyle dream. As a result, across the North Bay, communities are struggling to find a balance between their agrarian roots and necessary reinvention to accommodate the needs of modern industry and an increasing population. In this special issue of NorthBay biz, we examine how each county is coping with these demands.
Like much of the rest of the nation, the North Bay is still recovering from the recent recession, which threw our housing markets into a tailspin and put an abrupt halt to most new development, both residential and commercial. Thankfully, construction has started again, but it’s not all smooth sailing.
Developers point to over-regulation and high permitting fees as stopping blocks in all three counties, a sentiment echoed by Al Coppin, founder of commercial real estate company Keegan & Coppin, who says, “We need to make it less difficult for developers, because they provide the infrastructure to grow.” When it comes to more housing and commercial spaces, the question isn’t if we need it, but where we’ll put it.
In Marin County, the lines are clearly drawn between proponents of development and protectors of open space. There, community groups and government officials regularly clash over what’s needed versus what’s wanted. “I don’t see a shortage of good ideas, although there’s room for debate on which solutions are most effective and well suited to Marin,” says Brian Crawford of the Marin Community Development Agency.
Napa County is still recovering from the 2014 earthquake that caused millions of dollars in damages, one result of which was a decrease in the amount of available housing, especially for lower-income workers. “The reality is, we would like people who work here to be able to live here,” says District One Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, “but this isn’t just a matter of houses being available.” Responding to a similar crisis, Sonoma County is studying how to best address runaway rents while looking for ways to encourage more development, including affordable housing.
Our housing markets are imbalanced due to low supply and high demand; the increase in short-term rentals in all three North Bay counties only exacerbates this. Despite these challenges, there are bright spots. Napa County’s long-term investments in the Napa River Flood Project and Highway 29 widening are well underway. Tourism is up and several large-scale construction projects are in the pipeline.
Sonoma County is exploring in-fill possibilities as one possible solution for its low-income and workforce housing needs, while community-minded projects like Windsor’s Bell Village and the reimagination of the Healdsburg plaza are also moving forward. And in Marin County, projects like BioMarin’s expansion into San Rafael prove that, if it’s done well and seen as a community benefit, growth and development will find a way.
The North Bay will continue to evolve in the years to come. It’s up to all of us to share ideas, build consensus and move forward together in a way that solves problems, enhances opportunities and maintains what’s best about this place we all call home.
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