Right Sizing Sausalito

Sausalito is no stranger to the vagaries of controversial major projects with false starts and very often a fabulous finish. The resort development at Cavallo Point took years to figure out, but finally there was compromise on the size of the project and other issues and it has been (in my opinion) a home run. The city’s public safety building was no less of an issue inspiring great public out-cry (for better or for worse) and in the end the facility was “right sized”, constructed, and stands proudly at the corner of Johnson and Caledonia Streets. Not even the most scurious residents seem disturbed by it. In my humble opinion, both projects can be deemed a huge success, but it took several attempts to get them right.

And now, the new ferry landing proposed for downtown Sausalito seems destined for a similar fate. Start. Stop. Resident Rage. Start again. I am hoping it, too, will also result in a happy ending (or “landing” as the case may be). My thought however is that perhaps this “right-sizing” could have happened long ago, sparing all involved the recent turmoil.

Ferry Landing Abridged Synopsis

For those who have not followed the saga, the project was conceived over four years ago, with the intent to upgrade the 40 year old landing and make it ADA compliant, which meant Federal grant and Golden Gate Bridge District (GGBD) monies were available to fund the estimated $11.5 million project. For a variety of reasons that I will not belabor here, it caught the public by surprise earlier this year. The City of Sausalito, Golden Gate Bridge District and the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC) can probably all take some responsibility for this but that’s not my issue today.

The net was that when residents and businesses saw the plans that were about to be approved, they went nuts. The existing 4,835 square-foot steel float was going to be replaced by something almost twice that size (an 8,500 SF concrete float). Residents argued it was excessive and unattractive, even “San Quentin” like; it was not Sausalito-friendly; didn’t reflect its “small town character.” Additionally, there were those who felt the larger dock translated into more boats and more tourists. The project was suddenly laden with controversy.

In the end, after public hearings and communications that should have perhaps happened long ago, the Sausalito City Council voted not to approve the project as presented. As property owners of the land that is leased to Golden Gate Transit (GGT) for the ferry landing, the City had the legal right to do so since the project was ultimately deemed a “major improvement,” (If it had been a more minor repair or upgrade then GGBD could have moved forward without the city’s authorization). GGBD of course has a legal responsibility to make the dock ADA compliant and safe for all passengers and to accommodate the increase in riders and cyclists. This was a multi-jurisdictional project involving several agencies that clearly begged for a collaborative effort and local leadership.

Without the city’s endorsement, GGBD and BCDC could not move forward and this meant that the federal and bridge district funds ear marked for the project were in jeopardy. Rather than a “right-sized” ferry landing, it looked as if there would be no new ferry landing. GGT could conceivably even take their boats and go elsewhere.

After an eleventh hour intervention by County Supervisor Kate Sears, and yet another community forum, it appears that the deadline to secure the funds has been extended and GGT has gone back to the drawing board to redesign a new ferry landing that Sausalito will find acceptable. The outcome of the project remains to be seen.

Putting a Better Process in Place

Hopefully Sausalito will get the ferry landing project “right” in the end, as they have with other controversial projects, but why not try to get it right the first time? Why not put more process in place to ensure that it doesn’t take so long to get it right? Just think of the time and precious resources that could be conserved –– countless dollars in law suits, endless hours of hearings, angst, political clashing and bashing and all the other disruption these controversial projects seem to inspire.

Perhaps it is not possible; Sausalito is simply too polarized a town, a volatile community where small groups can make a big impact whether they are well-informed, right or wrong. And maybe this project would have been problematic even if handled differently from the get-go. But perhaps there is a less contentious alternative, one that would have circumvented much of the aggravation and misunderstanding, averted a lot of divisive public sentiment.

If there were additional professional resources at City Hall to address these projects at inception and to communicate effectively with all constituents, it just might make a difference. If the city could adopt a better process for more clearly evaluating, vetting and reviewing major projects and engage businesses and residents sooner versus later in controversial projects, if the city could be more proactive, it just might make a difference. If there were parameters for “right sizing” Sausalito – whether it’s a new hotel, a public safety building, a ferry landing or bicycle parking and t-shirt shops – it might help.

It’s my understanding that the cty has made strides in addressing this and I know some Sausalito civic leaders embrace this concept, but I would argue for more “process,” more leadership and guidance from City Hall early on, with appropriate input from businesses and residents alike. I defer to the experts, but with a sustainable plan for infrastructure reinvestment, managing tourism and economic growth, it seems to me these projects and issues could be better addressed to ensure the health and well-being of the community so that “right sizing” can happen at the right time….and not after the fact.

Stay tuned for my next blog on Sustainable Tourism.