Novato: A Glimpse into Marin’s Development Pressures

The town is a microcosm of what’s going on in the North Bay

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 Novato: A Glimpse into Marins Development Pressures
Photo courtesy of the Novato Visitor’s Center

The North Bay tends to fly under the radar in most discussions about tech and the ever-rising costs of living in the Bay Area. But there’s a lot of change going on in Marin?—?and not everyone, as you’d expect, is a fan of it.

Take Novato, a town just north of San Rafael, where I lived for 21 years. Despite being a city of nearly 56,000 people, it has a look and self-image that have always been very much small town. However, that may be quickly shifting. I’m constantly fielding questions from people who are curious about the feasibility of moving to northern Marin, especially young workers packed into apartments in SF. The commute is unappealing, yes. But a tight-knit community completely surrounded by open space where you can still buy a detached home for under $1 million? That sounds intriguing to a lot of people.

The trend isn’t new; tech workers have been catching on to Novato’s appeal for a while now, given that it’s still somewhat affordable; the schools are excellent; hiking trails (and nature in general) are plentiful; and Point Reyes and Tomales Bay are just a 15-minute drive through the hills and dairy farms of west Marin. The downtown area, Old Town Novato, has a decent mix of solid restaurants you’d expect to find in the Bay Area: sushi, Thai, Indian and Mexican, as well as wine bars and beer joints.

The attractive mix of rural and urban has been catching the attention of Bay Area businesses, too, that don’t want to pay SF’s exorbitant commercial real estate prices. Gaming companies, start-ups and?—?for some reason?—?especially biotech firms are taking over much of the office space and light-industrial buildings around the area, including in Petaluma and San Rafael.

This clash is one taking place throughout the North Bay, and Novato is just one example of a place where these larger forces are at work.

The SMART train, which began service between Sonoma County and downtown San Rafael in 2017, made commutes within the North Bay easier and shorter for many. That added to the perception among locals that the balance between the old and the new is shifting.

Not surprisingly, these urbanizing trends and Novato’s population growth?—?up around 20 percent since 1990?—?are bringing changes that are only likely to accelerate. In recent years, development pressures have sharpened tensions between longtime residents and newer arrivals. Older Novatans, who remember riding their horses through town when Redwood Boulevard was still highway 101, regard the YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) attitude—the favoring of dense housing as a solution to rising rent?—?as unwelcome.

This clash is one taking place throughout the North Bay, and Novato is just one example of a place where these larger forces are at work.

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