Marincello: The Failed City
Adil Modan| NextGen Marin
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Highway 17 was proposed to be lengthened all the way to Point Reyes National Seashore. With this would come plans to build 5 impressive developments along the Highway that would house almost 250,000 people.
Marincello was one of these projects. In the early 1960’s, a developer by the name of Thomas Frouge proposed Marincello as a suburban bedroom community of San Francisco, with financial support from the Gulf Oil Corporation. The project would have included high-rise apartment buildings, townhomes, retail stores, and even a resort between the Golden Gate and Fort Cronkhite Beach. There was even another project planned alongside Marincello, which would have been an entire city with a population of 150,000 being placed in Tomales Bay.
While this may seem grandiose by today’s standards, it was at the time a very popular and well-supported proposition, so much so that it was approved by the County of Marin in 1965 when the project's density was cut from 5.9 homes per acre to 3.5. It wasn’t proposed to be a massive urban city, but rather a reflection of the nature-focused character of Marin County by using open-space architecture, clustering buildings and amenities while maintaining the scenic landscape. The Pacific Sun wrote that the metropolis "will be a showcase, which will point the way to preservation of the clear and open areas essential and unique in Marin.”
Construction began almost immediately, and the large-scale project began to take shape as the gates of the city were erected. Peter Arrigoni, a stockbroker who would later become head of the Marin Builders Exchange, ran and won as a Republican against Ernest Kettenhofen in the Marin County Supervisor race of 1968. Arrigoni would go on to be the decisive third vote to withdrew support of Marincello in 1970 and would play a large part in repealing the West Marin General Plan that included plans for the city in Tomales Bay.
In an interview with the Marin Independent Journal, Arrigoni mentioned that "there was a distinct change in the Marin County political climate at that time." Prior to this shift, Marin County was booming. It had established a reputation for being the epitome of good growth. It maintained a healthy openness to development without compromising the quality of its environment. However, a small grassroots movement led by a few men began to single-handedly transform the mindset in Marin County. The leaders of this movement formed a new group: the Nature Conservancy.
This sudden emergence of a conservationist movement began to cause problems for the city. Homeowners were urged to complain of trespassing, lawsuits were filed against Gulf Oil, and Marin County’s General Plan was accused of having zoning irregularities and were accused of trespassing. The cost of project began to balloon. In 1972, the Gulf Oil Corporation sold the 2100 acre parcel to the Nature Conservancy at $6.5 million. The area would become a keystone in the Golden Gate Recreation Area, effectively eliminating the housing development project. The Marincello project’s cancellation set the precedent for Marin County’s harsh anti-development ideology and desire to sacrifice affordable housing for open space
A year later, Arrigoni, along with two other supervisors, voted to create a Countywide Plan, which divided the county into three corridors — coastal/recreational, inland/rural, and city-centered — and restricted development to only the city-centered corridor. Owners of agricultural land were allowed just 1 home for every 60 acres of property.
In the following few years, Supervisor Gary Giacomini worked with Congressman Philip Burton to purchase thousands of acres of Marin’s coastal land, leading to the expansion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, 84% of Marin County has been reserved as permanent open space. On the little land that can be developed upon, there are an absurd number of regulations, fees and other hindrances that discourage any sensible developer from addressing the housing crisis in the County.
Marincello is a perfect example of something that could have been. Its downfall symbolizes the birth of a stubbornly anti-growth mindset that has become the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) movement, a major contributor to Marin’s housing shortage and growing unaffordability. However, as California State Senator Peter H. Behr, one of the leaders of the conservation movement, put it “when enough people care enough, work hard enough, long enough, the right thing will in time happen despite what would appear to be permanent setbacks.” While we don't believe in such a large project, we can see that the pendulum can be swung the other way, through local and community action. If the numerically tiny Nature Conservancy could make a permanent impact in the political culture of an entire region, a group of people today most definitely have the power to inspire community and governmental action despite the overwhelming obstacles we face.