Novato planners back zoning plan for Northwest Quadrant neighborhood

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

POSTED: 04/05/17, 6:11 PM PDT | UPDATED: ON 04/07/2017

Author: Stephanie Weldy

Publication: Marin Independent Journal

A view of Vallejo Avenue at Seventh Street in the area known as Novato’s Northwest Quadrant, north of downtown. The Planning Commission backed a new zoning plan for the area. (Robert Tong/Marin Independent Journal)


Novato’s Planning Commission recommended the City Council pursue form-based zoning for the city’s Northwest Quadrant neighborhood, north of downtown.

In their Monday review of zoning changes proposed for the area between First and Seventh streets and Grant Avenue and Carmel Drive, commissioners unanimously supported form-based zoning as a way to help maintain the neighborhood’s characteristics.

“I like this plan because I think over time, which is our role as planners, this has the possibility of creating real improvement in the aesthetics of that neighborhood where it’s lacking, and preserving where it’s already fine,” said Commissioner Jay Strauss.

Susan Wernick, chairwoman of the commission, said the zoning plan, crafted by Opticos Design Inc. of Berkeley for $62,385, offers a good design.

She expressed concern about possible overdevelopment in the neighborhood and a lack of parking, but said residents may have to address those apart from the zoning code.

“I think if you can all get together and work hand-in-hand with the city and you’re able to get grants for a park, and get street improvements and an extra code enforcement person out there — go for it,” she said. “Roll up your shirt sleeves. It’s not going to happen just by the city. It takes community involvement.”

Form-based zoning refers to zoning that specifies elements of how buildings should be developed. For example, in the Northwest Quadrant — a neighborhood that has gone unchanged for decades — new buildings would face the street and parking would be in back, under the zoning proposal.

A policy adopted in 1977 prohibiting redevelopment of single-family houses that are still habitable would be scrapped under the new code, allowing more redevelopment in the low-income neighborhood.

Homes and other residential structures could be replaced with single-family homes, duplex, triplex, fourplex and courtyard apartments.

The new zoning would align the neighborhood zoning’s density standards with the city’s general plan, which allows 20 housing units per acre. Existing zoning for the neighborhood allows 10 units an acre.

Edward Mainland, of Sustainable Novato, said his group likes the proposal. It keeps the neighborhood’s character intact, he said.

“But at the same time it allows for some impressive innovations in design and for a reasonable amount of development,” he said.

Rachel Calvert, who owns property in the neighborhood, expressed concern about the city staff’s motive. She fears the proposal may not be about improving the neighborhood but about ushering in density.

She said she thinks the plan has “flourished into more being about growth, leaving us worried about what’s the full intent.”

The Planning Commission encouraged the council to consider incentives for owners of the neighborhood’s large multi-family complexes to improve their structures that have gone untouched for decades.

Staff said most apartments in the area cannot be redeveloped without being downsized as they do not meet existing code.

On a 4-3 vote, commissioners also recommended the council establish a cap on the number of single-family houses that could be redeveloped per year. Commissioners Robert Jordan, Justin Derby and Dan Dawson dissented.

Jordan said the market should decide how many properties are redeveloped, not an artificial cap.

“In some years you’ll get six to seven redevelopments, other years you’ll get none,” he said. “You have to let the market decide.”

Wernick said it is important for residents to know the neighborhood will not be steamrolled with redevelopment.

She said the council can also choose to review the cap’s effectiveness at a later date.

The council will consider the proposal on May 9. If the council approves the changes, they will go back before the commission during the fall as part of the city’s general plan update process.

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