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Stack and Pack Suburbia: Goodbye Small Town Novato?

It is April of 2021 and Novato has a homeless crisis, but we have had a mediocre bureaucracy crisis for years. We have a tendency to think that small towns don't change. And despite the fact that Novato is technically a "city" --technically Novato is a city simply due to size and incorporation-- we all still assume Novato is the same sleepy small town it was for most of the 20th century.

In a lot of ways Novato is the ultimate California bedroom community. A 48 minute commute to San Francisco, not as chi-chi as Tiburon, the kind of place a lot of the military families who cycled through Hamilton Air Force Base in the old days dreamed of settling down in. Novato was a community of blue collar and middle class suburbs, three bedroom ranch style houses, winding cul de sacs. Essentially, Novato was the modest blue collar town in North Marin. A good place to raise a family. Not much in the way of big buildings or big business. A cute downtown with restaurants and banks. Between the end of World War II and the brief heady days when the Soviet delegation to the UN camped out eating oranges and drinking CocaCola at the back of Hamilton for a few months Novato's future seemed assured as a suburban California dream town. Novato stayed fairly sleepy for decades. Sure there was that time the assistant priest ran off with the Sheriff's wife but in general nothing much happened. The trustfund hippies of southern Marin thought Novato was déclassé and were eager to say so. Novato was considered "conservative" and "blue collar".... two things trustfund Progressives have never had much respect for.

The reality is that like any town growing into a city there will always be a little more variety than you see on the surface. When it wasn't considered o.k. to be Gay in a place like the Berkeley campus --the 1960s radicals were, in general, very "het"-- one of the residential neighborhoods of Novato was very quietly colonized by Gay and Lesbian couples. Decades before Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco decided to legalize Gay marriage same-sex couples were just a quiet part of the scenery in quiet cow-town Novato. Communists were also a quiet part of the scenery in Novato. The San Francisco Communist Party maintained a retreat in Novato. It is no surprise Communists in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s wanted to spend long weekends in North Marin swimming in a hilltop pool under the live oak trees. If you are indulging in the mental gymnastics necessary to deny the horror of Stalin's Purges, the labor camps at Magadan and the stark nightmare of the bureaucrat created Ukrainian Famine --which turned the breadbasket of Europe into a death house where the peasants were starved by communist apparatchiks-- spending a long weekend chilling out in Marin is probably a really good idea.

But the surface of North Marin has always been sleepy. Novato has been proud of its sleepiness. By the end of the 20th century the biggest draw in Novato was the classic car show Nostalgia Days --originally organized by locals who remembered the good old days when crossing the bridge from San Francisco into Marin meant that you were leaving the urban still-almost-all-Italian enclave of North Beach and joining the American suburban dream. For the past twenty-something years the biggest draw Novato has had is the Costco shopping center. Novato is the toilet paper capitol of Marin.

People in Novato city government have had a problem with that for awhile. Quiet suburban areas don't create huge amounts of tax revenue. Being an administrator of a quiet suburban-style "city" is a maintenance job. Most residents just want to maintain their quality of life. Nice parks, clean streets, decent schools. Quite frankly that is the American dream. A nice place to live.

But over the past few years, as crowds are trying to escape the depressing reality of modern day San Francisco --the city is sad now, trash, addiction, homelessness, San Francisco isn't the candy box city on seven hills people used to fall in love with-- real estate has zoomed in value in North Marin. The older conservative middle-class couples who moved to Novato because they could afford it are now being replaced by angry aging Gen X hipsters who are moving to Novato because they can't afford Noe Valley and they can just about swing a mortgage in Novato. All things change. But the question we should ask ourselves is, should we allow suburbia to change for the worse?

The truth is that suburbia has already changed for the worse. I'm a Millennial, but I'm a near Marin lifer so I have spent most of my life in Marin. These days there is a beggar most days on the corner of 7th Avenue and Novato Boulevard. A beggar in a suburban neighborhood where you can't buy a condo for less than half a million dollars.

These facts aren't connected. Correlation is not causation. In general you don't end up with beggars on the street because a community has a booming real estate market. The bloody used hypodermic syringes I've been finding in the parks lately suggest that our exponentially increasing homeless encampment may have issues that are more serious than high rents. Quite frankly, if you are a daily heroin user ALL your other problems are probably small potato. (And if you don't believe that just go to a 12 Step Meeting.)

But our city managers like big simple solutions to individual and rather complex problems. That our public parks are becoming the private residential areas of a community of a few hundred homeless people is EVERYONE's problem. But to a mediocre local bureaucrat, problems seem like opportunities sometimes. Homeless encampments on the lawn of the library? Well.... build a six story stack and pack retail/residential complex downtown. Simple, right? Not really.

Have you ever walked down Grant Avenue in Novato? The vast majority of the buildings on Grant Avenue are one or two stories, tops. As late as the 1950s ranchers and dairy men would ride their horses into town to have a few drinks at the Bit-A-Honey, the Viking or DeBorba's. It is hard to have a DUI on horseback. Novato was a cow town. North Marin is still dairy country... yes, we're now a community of suburban commuters and retirees, but we're still dairy country. And frankly I love seeing the dairy cows walking towards the milking barns. The scenery of Marin could make anyone with a soul want to learn how to paint. This is a pretty county. The million dollar condos are million dollar condos not because of the granite counter tops, but because of the views. Our scenery is our stock in trade. Because, frankly that warm communal feel that North Marin had back in the day when the dairy men rode their horses into town to have a few lifts at the tavern, the mothers all kept an eye on the neighborhood kids, and tough old men who fought in the Pacific cut the trees themselves for fire control rather than having the city "waste the money" hiring a crew when you could just get a couple of guys together with a pick-up truck and a chain saw and take care of the problem, was disappearing before I was born.

I was lucky enough to know a couple of those tough old men, and the ladies as well. When I was very small I met a very old lady who, when she was a very young girl, stood on the hills above Tiburon and watched the city of San Francisco burn for three days and three nights after the Great Earthquake of 1906. Those are the people who gave North Marin its quiet accepting golden charm. These were the people who truly MADE a community. Now we have bureaucrats who talk about "community".... And think they can guide or build a "community"... But communities don't really become real without people.

Buildings don't make community. But a bad building project can destroy an existing sense of community.

Grant Avenue is a sleepy winding street. A naturally "walkable" street. That isn't something that was created by a community planner... it just happened. Like true love sometimes something good just happens. No plans.

Now there are plans to RADICALLY change the architecture and feel of downtown Novato. Six story buildings always look sunny and pretty in an architect's rendering, but we should talk about what it really means to a street like Grant Avenue to have stack and pack fake "walkable" retail/residential complexes that literally will cast a shadow across a few blocks of downtown.

This is what is planned for the corner of Fourth and Grant Avenue. Similar stack and pack projects are planned for Vallejo Avenue just a few blocks away. The architect's rendering shows a handful of people walking on a wide and sunny street. The reality is if this project comes to pass the streets won't be sunny and the downtown will be crowded and full of shadows. And we will probably STILL have homeless encampments.

All things change. Often not for the better. North Marin is not déclassé anymore, it is actually chi-chi. You can buy six dollar croissants at a cute bakery with steel chairs on Grant Avenue these days. (The croissants aren't bad.... but if you want a REALLY good croissant go to a dingy North Montreal suburb and find a bakery with cracked linoleum floors and spend 80 cents Canadian. The French-Canadians do hockey and croissants well.)

But do we really want to layer over our natural down home charm with fake urban living? Do we want to cast shadows on the streets? Build MORE retail in an area where sadly a lot of the existing retail square footage is empty? With water shortages can our piece of North Marin suburbia afford to add more housing? People need water, they usually need parking too, and sunlight, and parks. The nearest park to this proposed building is now a homeless encampment.

We're not going to turn the clock back to the days of middle-class families buying homes on winding cul de sacs, or dairy men riding their horses downtown to have a few lifts. (Most of the old taverns have been replaced by fake brunch places that offer boozy drinks with eggs benedict.) But do we want to fast forward into an increasingly dehumanized and centrally planned future? A future that has no respect for the past and little respect for human interactions that make a real community?

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