Quaint Larkspur?

You know your way around Marin County, right? So, when someone mentions the city of Larkspur, what image comes to mind? A compact community with a Main Street, in this case Magnolia Avenue, lined with quaint shops and surrounded with cozy homes shaded by leafy maple trees? If that is your answer, you’re only partly correct.

“The City of Larkspur struggles with one rule book for four, maybe five separate areas,” says newly appointed City Manager Dan Schwarz. “Contrary to what many think, Larkspur is a very disjointed city.” A glance at a map proves his point. Larkspur’s haphazard boundary jumps both Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Highway 101; it stretches east almost to San Quentin State Prison and north nearly to the College of Marin. “Half of Greenbrae is in the City of Larkspur,” Schwarz says, “and Corte Madera Creek pretty much bisects our town…Many times, people have to look at the marking on a street sign to know what city they are in.”

Jigsaw geography aside, Schwarz loves his job. Larkspur’s different areas, he says, include the Bon Air Shopping Center; the Larkspur Landing and Cost Plus Plaza shopping areas; North Magnolia Avenue shopping area; and—the area most in Marin think of when they think of Larkspur—the Historic Downtown District.

Founded in 1908 (the English-born wife of an early developer mistook lupine for larkspur and name the town accordingly), Larkspur has about 12,400 residents living in approximately 6,500 homes. Interestingly, well over half (54 percent) of those dwellings are condominiums, apartments or mobile homes; the rest are single-family residences. Larkspur’s operating budget runs to about $13.5 million annually, and according to Mayor Joan Lundstrom, this is a “property tax city,” meaning real estate taxes provide nearly 90 percent of its income; the rest comes from sales tax revenues.

Lundstrom, a 75-year-old grandmother, knows Larkspur as few know the city. “In 1972, I was the first woman elected to Larkspur’s city council,” she declares with obvious pride, adding, “At the time, Sally Stanford was the colorful ‘Madam Mayor’ of Sausalito and we knew each other.” Now, after seven terms as mayor and 26 years on the council (she took a 14-year hiatus), Lundstrom is facing a future replete with development projects—and growth is not something most Larkspur residents are comfortable with.

If she can point to one generally accepted project, it’s the transformation of the somewhat lackluster Larkspur Landing retail and dining area now known as the Marin Country Mart. “This involves only cosmetic and signage changes, no construction, no enlarging,” Lundstrom explains. “A new owner paid $65 million for the site and he’s working on totally revising the tenant mix— we’re getting positive feedback, but nothing definite as yet.”

In the same area, east of 101, Lundstrom is leading the effort to have Larkspur—as opposed to San Rafael—be the terminus of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), the commuter line currently planned to run 70 miles into northern Sonoma County. “Larkspur is where two million people annually board the ferry to San Francisco; it’s a Marin Airporter station; and the Cal Park (bike path) tunnel has already been re-bored to the tune of $28 million,” she says. “So it only makes sense that Larkspur Landing be the terminus for SMART.”

To bolster her case, she points to the $16 million Central Marin Ferry Connector, a proposed bike and pedestrian bridge crossing over Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that’s a final vital link in the North-South Greenway, which would link Marin with San Francisco for bicyclists. “This bridge is close to being funded,” she adds. “It is going to happen.”

A Larkspur development already in progress is the new $22 million headquarters for the Twin Cities Police Department (a shared endeavor with nearby City of Corte Madera) on Doherty Drive. “This project is moving right along,” Lundstrom says. “It should be completed by spring of 2012.” 

Also fronting on Doherty Drive, but only approaching the moving-along stage, is the much-debated and centrally located Niven, or Rose Garden, development. This is a 17-acre, 85-unit Toll Brothers community composed of standard-size homes and cottages, some of them age-restricted, that Lundstrom predicts will get under way “later this year.” About its ultimate success, she has little doubt. “People are always asking me, ‘When will it start? How can I get on the buyers’ list? I want to live where I can walk into town.’”

And to be sure, Larkspur’s Historic Downtown District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has much worth walking to: the Larkspur Public Library still has a wooden card catalog cabinet; 70-year-old St Patrick’s Catholic Church and School radiates local history; and popular Dolliver (or “Dark”) Park sits quietly in a grove of towering redwoods. Is it a hot summer Saturday? Two cold Bud Lights and a round of pool at the earthy Silver Peso Saloon could be fun. On a crisp fall afternoon, consider tea and a fresh pastry at elegant Emporio Rulli. And any time of any day, when you want to connect with talkative locals, you can head to the Rustic Bakery on North Magnolia, where the scones and soups are legendary.

Okay, you are purpose-driven and want to spend the day hiking Baltimore or Madrone Canyon, then trekking Blithedale Ridge Road. You want to earn a great dinner. Again, Larkspur won’t let you down. Something dressy? Try the Tavern at Lark Creek or Fabrizio Ristorante. Feeling chatty? An outdoor table at Picco Pizzeria or the Left Bank Brasserie will work. A significant date? Do Yankee Pier, DJ Chinese Cuisine or the tastefully sequestered Ward Street Cafe. To top off the night, catch a first-run movie at the restored 1950s showpiece, the Lark Theater. Now all that’s left is a walk home; does it get any better?

Regarding that home, realtor Whitney Potter of Pacific Union’s office on Magnolia claims the community’s current “buy-in” price is about $1.2 million. “That’s for a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,700-square-foot home,” Potter says. “If you can find one.” According to him, the lowest recent sale brought $628,000 for a sunny two-bedroom, one-bath 900-square-footer needing cosmetic upgrades on a 4,500-square-foot lot in the popular Heather Gardens neighborhood. The top end? “That would be a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath on three quarters of an acre close to downtown and backing up to the bike path. It went for nearly three million.”