San Rafael

Marin’s county seat and most populated city seems to have a little bit of everything that’s so distinctive about the county rolled into one package: a diverse population, world-class creative types, open space and parks, a vibrant downtown and, of course, that Mediterranean climate.

But it wasn’t always so in the city named after the archangel Raphael, according to San Rafael police officer Harry Barbier. “My great grandmother had a contract with the city to water the streets to keep the dust down,” says Barbier, whose family on both sides traces its history back to the late 1800s. Relatives on his mother’s side purchased property at Fifth and Grand avenues in 1878; on his father’s side, James Cochrane arrived here in the 1870s, became a city councilman and district attorney and “located his home where city hall is now,” Barbier reports.

Although the city has changed a lot since then, the family’s dedication to public service has endured: Barbier’s grandmother taught Latin and was dean of girls at San Rafael High School for 35 years, and his dad served on the city council from 1962 to 1972. Barbier became a policeman in 1972 and has spent the last 15 years as an officer working in 16 San Rafael schools. He likes being an officer in a city of this scale: there’s “enough work to keep you busy and there is always stuff you can be doing to better the community,” he notes.

Albert Boro has a similar view, having served 16 years on the planning commission before being elected mayor five times over, most recently in 2007. (San Rafael is the only Marin city that elects a mayor, the others rotate the position among active city council members.) As a leader here, he says, “you can really make a difference, and to see it happen in a town the size of San Rafael, you can really see the results.”

Boro is excited about the renovation of the Northgate shopping center, which is reopening this month, and the new rail project that will run from Cloverdale to Larkspur with a stop in San Rafael. But it’s the downtown revitalization that started in the early ’90s and continues today that he’s most proud of.

“We built housing and changed the nature of the downtown; it is now alive after five,” Boro says of the office buildings and more than 700 units of housing that have breathed new life into the area. “Our downtown is vital and active and has great events for young people and for families.”

A key factor in that was the reincarnation of the Rafael movie theater as the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and its partnership with the California Film Institute, the organization behind the renowned Mill Valley Film Festival. “We were looking all over Marin for a theater, but we felt in our heart that a theater in the heart of San Rafael would do the most good,” says institute founder, executive director and San Rafael resident Mark Fishkin. “We didn’t want to be on the side of the freeway; we wanted to be in a community.

“The last 10 years have proved that the Rafael has been the linchpin of the revitalization of the downtown,” he adds. “We are exposing Marin and the Bay Area to quality films, conversations and informative question-and-answer sessions.” Indeed, the 32nd annual Mill Valley Film Festival last month was one of the few festivals to show the highly anticipated Scott Hicks film The Boys Are Back; audiences were also treated to conversations with stars Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson and Clive Owen as well as Jason Reitman, who directed the George Clooney film Up in the Air, which screened at the Rafael Film Center.

So what does it take become a resident of such a happening town? According to Frank Howard Allen agent Scott Cherry, homes here sold this year for as low as $220,000 and as high as $4.185 million for a 7,000-square-foot estate owned by Carlos Santana; the average house price in San Rafael is about $765,000, the average condo price $310,000. Cherry, who has specialized in the area since 1974, says while customers are a little more cautious these days, there’s still plenty of buying, particularly by younger first-time owners: about 251 single-family homes and 127 condo units have sold thus far this year.