DOWNTOWNS ARE MYSTERIOUS collaborations, especially here in Marin. Sometimes they thrive, other times they barely survive. Their only planning is city zoning; rarely does one entity own an entire downtown; and most downtowns have long histories. Novato’s Grant Avenue, one of Marin’s youngest downtowns, is 90 years old.
By my count, there are nine downtowns in the county. Alphabetically, they are Fairfax, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Novato, Point Reyes Station, San Anselmo, San Rafael, Sausalito and Tiburon. Most of them have a city hall, library, fire station and/or police department nearby, if not directly in the central area. Marin’s beloved city and town centers are also home to banks, cafes, bars, movie theaters and restaurants.
Another commonality: due to big-box retailers (Costco, Best Buy, Staples), the internet (Amazon — need I say more?) and many nearby established shopping centers (Town Center, Vintage Oaks, The Village at Corte Madera, Marin Country Mart), Marin’s historic downtowns are facing enormous pressures in order to survive, let alone prosper.
You’d think with its homelessness problem, San Rafael’s Fourth Street would be the last place to invest money. But Paul Goldstone, a Berkeley-based real estate investor, doesn’t agree. He just paid “well into the millions” for a decades-old 40,000-square-foot building in the heart of that city, where he plans to create a San Rafael Market Hall. “It will be similar to Rockridge’s Market Hall, Oxbow in Napa or the San Francisco Ferry Building,” he tells me with confident optimism. “There’ll be food and cooking vendors of all sorts, along with inside and outside dining.”
Regarding the homeless issue: “Once an environment is clean, well-lighted and successful, those problems, over time, will disappear,” says Goldstone, who owns buildings throughout the Bay Area and has already begun construction in San Rafael.
A success of a different size is in downtown Fairfax where Scoop, operating from a seven-foot wide storefront, sells organic ice cream. “Eight customers and this place is full,” owner Ray Martin says. “And they come from all over, Novato, Petaluma, even San Francisco.”
Have you enjoyed M.H. Bread and Butter? While a few San Anselmo eateries have recently closed, this bakery/cafe is thriving. Located on the edge of downtown, it serves breakfast, lunch and an early dinner — and its breads and pastries are in high demand throughout Marin.
Most, but not all, of Marin’s downtowns have what you’d call a draw. For Sausalito it’s the ferry terminal, tourist shops and restaurants. For Point Reyes Station, it’s the National Seashore, although, with clever merchandisers like Toby’s Feed Barn, Epicenter, Vita and Zuma, along with a quality grocery store, bookstore and hardware store, downtown Point Reyes Station is also a popular shopping spot.
What attracts people to go downtown? Tiburon (full disclosure: my downtown), despite its San Francisco ferry dock, the popular Friday Nights on Main and perennially packed Sam’s Anchor Cafe, has long had a somewhat sleepy central district. Is that from a lack of parking? Or not enough advertising and promotion? Or an isolated location?
Tiburon/Belvedere will get a bit of an answer to those questions when Rustic Bakery — with always-busy cafes already operating in Larkspur, Novato and Marin Country Mart — opens a fourth cafe in the Boardwalk Center. Whether downtown business succeeds mainly from pragmatic factors or the appeal, talents and creative energy of the merchant itself is something this newcomer may help reveal.
Keeping a downtown thriving anywhere in Marin is an extremely tricky endeavor — promotions, teamwork and individual effort are all required. And for the most part civic players here are trying their best. Local residents may have to make sacrifices — shop neighborhood stores even if retail prices are higher — for our central districts to succeed. At the same time, many merchants will need to step up their game as they compete for customers with box stores, Amazon and the malls. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.