S A N   R A F A E L   C A N A L

Team Spirit Builds on Canal Tour –
About Face to the Bay?

By Michael Hunter Adamson

Photo: Kingmond Young, Courtesy RBD

An osprey atop a transmission tower watches as a few dozen people meander out to the edge of the San Rafael waterfront along a narrow levee path. On one side are the marshes and mudflats where the San Rafael creek meets the San Francisco Bay, the osprey’s hunting territory. On the other are townhomes, densely packed on a flat spit of land jutting out into the Bay.

A woman with a phone and clipboard hurries along the stragglers. It’s a sunny day in early October, some of San Rafael’s best weather, and it’s easy to get taken in by the tranquil setting and forget that this particular tour of teams engaged in the Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge has a tight schedule. When the subject is flood control in the age of sea level rise, it’s often a race against time.

The Bay Area Challenge is inspired by the Rebuild by Design effort to rebuild New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. This time, rather than respond to a climate event after the damage is done, the hope is to anticipate the inevitable and prepare communities so that they can manage the coming changes fluidly.

At the time of this waterfront walk at the edge of San Rafael, the challenge was in its collaborative research phase, and the 10 participating teams of designers, engineers and community members were touring San Francisco Bay and isolating the regions most in need of a future-proof facelift. San Rafael was a prime candidate.

Photo: Kingmond Young, Courtesy RBD

Pickleweed Park, where our tour began, is located in the heart of the San Rafael Canal community. While it’s a multicultural community, residents predominantly hail from Latin American countries anywhere from Mexico to Nicaragua. It’s also Marin’s highest density community and one of its poorest, and it sits right on the edge of the canal waterway.

Resilient by Design’s focus on the Canal community was of particular interest to me. I was raised in Marin County and several of those years in San Rafael. As we walked through familiar sights and sounds, it seemed poignant that Pickleweed Park was the site of this tour.

My brother played for the Central Marin soccer team that called Pickleweed their home field. Team members came from different income brackets and cultures. They hailed predominantly from San Rafael, but also from western Marin cities such as San Anselmo and Fairfax. The densely packed Canal neighborhood shares little in common with these forested, sparsely populated towns. They had their own schools and their own local hangouts.

On the field though, few distinctions existed. White kids shouted “aqui” when signaling for a pass. Hispanic kids shouted “here.” Parents tried in their own way to break down barriers as they gathered together at picnic tables and along the sidelines. When a community shares a goal, division takes a backseat to camaraderie.

The Pickleweed tour gave me a similar feeling of unity. While building a city doesn’t have the same “hoo-rah” enthusiasm as a win on game day, simply sharing in the passion and optimism of involved community members and community planners evoked a similar excitement. They are the Resilient by Design teams, after all.

Photo: Kingmond Young, Courtesy RBD

Terrapin Crossroads, owned by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, is a San Rafael hotspot for music and farm-to-table dining, ever popular in Marin County. In BionicTeam’s video introducing their San Rafael proposal, they use the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street as a background track. The song was recorded at the Grateful Dead’s studio on Front Street in San Rafael’s canal district and tells the story of a town given short shrift by its own people. “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart,” they sing. “You just gotta poke around.”

A few months later, at the end of January 2018, the participating teams have been assigned the Bay Area location they’ll study for the remainder of the project and outlined their approach in a formal presentation. BionicTeam, lead by San Francisco-based architecture firm Bionic with Rebuild by Design veterans WXY and PennDesign, will be spearheading the effort in San Rafael.

The team’s presentation begins with a video showing stumped San Rafael residents unable to locate their own waterfront, other than maybe pointing vaguely towards the Bay. “If something isn’t known to be,” Bionic design director Marcel Wilson postulates in an interview, referring to the canal that could bring rising seas to city streets, “then questions about solutions can be avoided.” This sentiment holds logical water. When I was growing up there in the early 2000s, “The Canal” meant the neighborhood, not the waterway. Predictably, people didn’t talk about flooding very often.

BionicTeam’s presentation outlined a comprehensive path to a more resilient San Rafael. Its ideas span from the near term, such as encouraging a more watersports-focused culture or opening up access to a largely closed-off waterfront, to the long term, like floating downtown office buildings and redesigning the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. For the next five months team members will develop these ideas further with input from the community.

Wilson said he also sees San Rafael as a city split in two. Highway 101, the aorta of Marin County’s commerce, runs through the town and divides the city between commerce, industry, and living space, with exits leading into and out of the city that create major travel chokepoints.

Submerging the freeway below ground level, for example, might help improve its resilience to flooding and earthquakes and also connect downtown to the waterfront on the other side. “The answer isn’t a bigger freeway, but changing the way the freeway moves,” Wilson said. “You don’t need to look any further than San Francisco to see what happens to a waterfront when you take a freeway down.”

Osprey. Photo: Rick Lewis

As I was leaving Pickleweed Park to reconvene with the tour at another location, I thought about how the osprey there with us was adjusting to rising waters. Simply by living off the water, creating a lifestyle that ebbs and flows as the tides do, it makes the necessary micro-adjustments every day. Bay wildlife is forever “turned toward to the water,” just as BionicTeam envisions turning San Rafael. And it, too, is resilient by design.