Downtown San Rafael Community Plan

Client: City of San Rafael, California.

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Courthouse Square

The Downtown San Rafael Community Plan developed urban design principles and site-specific development recommendations for revitalization of the city's central business district. The Plan was prepared during a year-long period of extensive public outreach, citizen participation and series of workshop meetings with a Council-appointed Downtown Citizen's Committee.

San Rafael is the largest city of Marin County and seat of county government. Beginning in the early 1960's, the city witnessed early economic decline of its central business district after the County's government moved from Downtown San Rafael to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Civic Center at the northeastern edge of the city. After several years of inaction, the City, citizens and business community initiated an active effort of economic development and physical design improvements.

Downtown Plan Elements

  • Revitalization and preservation of the Fourth Street retail core. The Plan prescribes an ambitious program of new infill development, public space improvements, facade rehabilitation and redesign of Courthouse Square. Urban design principles emphasize incentives for housing and mixed-use development, pedestrian orientation of buildings, active building frontages and consistent building scale.
  • The Hetherton Gateway, which contains the new Transit Center and historic train depot, is targeted for new mixed-use office development and the strengthening of pedestrian linkages to the Fourth Street core.
  • The Fifth Street and Mission District establish a strong northern edge to the Downtown, focusing on the historic Mission and institutional buildings.
  • Design principles to reverse the automobile-dominated development patterns along Second and Third Streets provide pedestrian improvements and buffers, new infill building patterns that place parking lots in the interior of blocks, and major street tree planting.

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Fifth Mission District

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Fourth Street Retail Core with Courthouse Square at Center

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Design sketch of proposed Pacific Bell building renovation

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West End Village
Completed Pacific Bell building renovation into housing and retail shops

Process Steps

I. Formation of a broad-based Downtown Committee composed of elected officials, leaders of Downtown business organizations, property owners and community members.

II. Assessment of Downtown's social, economic and physical issues, problems and opportunities.

III. Extensive community workshops to discuss urban design concepts and build a consensus on a "shared vision" for the Downtown's future.

IV. Development of strategies and an action program for public-private cooperation to implement the vision. Visible short-term results are targeted with demonstration projects.


Several new projects have recently been completed:

  • The new Marin County Transit Center was completed at the U.S. 101 Downtown Gateway.
  • The vacant Rafael Theater building was renovated as the new home of the Northern California Film Festival, an international film venue that now serves as Downtown's cultural and entertainment "anchor".
  • The Rafael Town Center, a new mixed-use development of retail, offices and housing, has opened in the center of Downtown on Fourth Street. The development is linked to a new public plaza.
  • A new 4-story class "A" office building with ground floor retail was built on the site of the old Marin Independent Journal building.
  • "The Lofts at Albert Park", a new downtown residential development on Second Avenue, was completed.
  • Two new class "A" office buildings have been completed on Second Avenue, on the re-developed site of the former PG&E service yard.

Project Team

Dan Hillmer, Principal-in-charge. Gerald Gast, Participating principal. Keyser-Marston Associates, Economists. David Fairchild, Transportation consultant.

City of San Rafael: Robert Pendoley, Planning Director. Katie Korzun, Project Manager.

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Section. "A" Street axis with San Rafael Mission in background.