The Coastal Post - October, 1997

Will "Progress" Destroy Or Save Marin City?

By Don Deane

This is a story about Marin City, the county's only predominantly African American community, which is in the process of fading away.

The fade started with a dream, an opportunity, to make the community real with local shops to augment the only store-Hayden's Market; housing, affordable enough to rent and buy; and jobs with locals having the first chance at getting them. The Community Development Corporation was formed to conceive the plan, to solicit developers, to give the dream form.

It began with 42-acres of land owned by the Tamalpais Union High School District in the bowl below the high rises in the center of the community-minutes from the county's main 101 artery, next to Richardson Bay, 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco. Location? It had location.

The dream started to become a reality with funding from the Marin Community Foundation to purchase the land from the high school district. The Bridge Corporation was selected to develop the housing element of the project; and its parent corporation, The Martin Group, became the developer for the shopping center.

Today, some twelve years after the community grasped hold of the dream, the Gateway Shopping Center fills the bottom of the bowl with new apartments and condominiums around the edges. The new housing is renting and selling at a fast clip. Overall, it is a $106 million development to bring economic vitality to the community.

There are local jobs for locals, not as many as hoped, but jobs. There are shops and stores, not run or owned by those in the community who hoped they would part of it. Mostly they are chain stores and franchises.

Major tenants in the shopping center include FoodsCo market, PetsMart pet store, Longs Drugs, Ross Dress for Less, Blockbuster Video, and fast food outlets. It's just about a minute off the freeway.

The face of the community has changed. The dream has taken on a life of its own and left many of the dreamers in the dust of progress, development, and change. Where there were open fields there is now a dense, $100 million development. Where there were open areas punctuated with piles of fill and parked dump trucks, there is now a growing population of new residents who will represent a 30 percent increase in the town's population over the course of the first year.

There is a grand, new library and daycare center. But the spectacular baseball field has been squeezed down to something that seems squashed. The income to the Community Services District is considerably less than the proceeds which came from the Flea Market, admittedly a cash cow for community activities. There is no money for the recreation programs for kids in the Manzanita Center. The Senior Programs are being discontinued this fall.

Redevelopment is, more often than not, a beast which destroys the fabric of a community, displaces its residents and crushes the soul of a neighborhood. But Marin City's building boom is not so much redevelopment as just plain development. It's about construction and making money for the movers and shakers, the contractors and developers. It's about compromising goals and sacrificing bits and pieces of the dream for residents, the neighborhood, values, because "this is the real world and there's a lot of money at stake."

The David Martin Group-the developer of the Gateway Retail Center-has been taken over by Burnham Pacific, one of the largest shopping center owners in the west. David Martin has become chairman and CEO of Burnham Pacific. The price: $22.3 million.

The Community Development Corporation (CDC) appears to be in the process of absorbing the only publicly elected board in the community, the Community Services District (CSD). Employees of the CDC are on the CSD, the administrator of the CSD is being dumped, the administrator of the CDC has his eye on the job. The Community Services District doesn't even have a representative on the Land Corporation which with the Community Development Corporation and the David Martin Group govern, guide and monitor Marin City's development boom.

There are CSD board resignations. Complaints of conflict of interest, allegations of Brown Act violations (public meeting laws), and accusations of public property theft have been filed with the Marin District Attorney's Office.

District Supervisor Annette Rose observes, "What do you think will be left behind with all of this development, three generations of welfare families? These jobs are giving some an opportunity to break out of this. To the extent that locals are moving into the new housing, that remains to be seen. In the long run, what would have happened if this hadn't been built, or if there were less housing?

"It wouldn't have happened if the community didn't want it to happen. The only persistent negative voices I have heard are the ones that have been negative all along."

The supervisor pointed out the collateral benefits of the development: a community garden, new playgrounds, a new ballfield, a new police and fire building, and the new library.

Community activist Karen Ashby says, "A lot of people here have a false sense of reality and security. They believe we're being looked out for. No one has really prepared people for the jobs or helped people to establish businesses. We have such a dysfunctional thing happening here. The school is in trouble. People are apathetic. They are not thinking about tomorrow or next year."

She observes, "The Gateway gives the community a place to spend money. Kids can go to Burger King. What we had hoped would happen hasn't happened, that 50 percent of the jobs would go to people in Marin City. There isn't one black business that I know of. I wanted to see somebody from the community with a business. I wanted a bookstore and coffee shop but I didn't have the money to start a business."

Community Development Corporation Executive Director Al Fleming, the lead advocate and local administrator for Marin City USA from its inception, comments: "Coming from my biased point of view, things are happening. Maybe not as dynamic and exciting as I would want, but it's happening. We need to spend much more energy on the human potential. In the retail center there are probably 200 jobs. Out of those, 95 to 99 are Marin City residents. We need to work with lifeskills for people who are coming into the employment market."

He observes, "It has changed the nature of the community in terms of diversity. Some people don't like it. Some feel the old way is better. Many of the retailers don't have a sense of Marin City. It's going to take blending. We are moving towards a chamber of commerce.

"People have to understand that you can't sit back and see the community grow by itself. More people need to be involved. To keep Marin City the jewel we need to be involved in these decision making processes. Be involved, serve on boards, volunteer."

Royce McLemore, a community service agency director, has been disappointed with the project as it has evolved. "As far as I am concerned, the development didn't live up to any of its promises. The Gateway Center is not generating the projected income. It is not a thriving shopping center. Because the rent there is so high-higher than downtown Sausalito-there has been no opportunity for local businesses. What had been an African-American community has no ethic food, but lots of fast food. The "Incubator Center," designed to get small, local businesses started, was abandoned."

McLemore says the number of local jobs are fewer than Fleming's estimates and observes few locals can afford the "low income" housing which is for rent.

"Local people have been shattered. Nothing has really come to the community at all except the collapse of programs for kids and seniors and the disintegration of the Community Services District," she concludes.

Frank Phillips, a community leader and resident of Marin City since World War II, says, "It's a long story about the history of Marin City. We had a post office, drug store, market and other shops during the war. They were all torn down with redevelopment in the 60s. Never got replaced. I don't see much future for the young people being able to exist here. People can't afford the rent with low paying jobs.

"The training programs haven't accomplished much. We need some changes over the next few years. The development up on the hill doesn't have more than four or five Black families. If people come together and see the problem, the community can be saved. It's going to take some time to overcome.

"We're looking at Sausalito annexing Marin City once there's a tax base here. They tried it in 1947 and we voted it down," Phillips says. "There are no black businesses in the shopping center. To a certain degree all of this was designed to eliminate the poor people here."

In the long run, the community will share in 50 percent of the net profit from the shopping center and housing development. Right now it is guaranteed $200,000 a year from Gateway for three years. Will Marin City evolve and grow from it's rich history and African American roots or will it become something very different with displacement and change, an abrupt severing with the past? That is the question that has yet to be answered as "progress" marches through this community.