Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away, you pretty quickly realize that Princeton is as different from this little town on the ’Frisco Bay as the East Coast is from the Left Coast. Imagine sitting in a coffee shop on Nassau Street and looking out across the glimmering water, filled with a kaleidoscopic array of houseboats (or “floating homes”) and cabin cruisers. Imagine that the big bus lumbering out of town toward Trenton or New Brunswick instead is a ferry headed toward the San Francisco skyline, clearly visible five miles away.
Just back from a long weekend in Sausalito, a town of 7,000 residents (including my college roommate and his wife), I can’t help but compare it to Princeton. Like Princeton, Sausalito has its tourists — lots of them. In Princeton we occasionally gripe about the buses disgorging groups of 60 or 70 visitors onto Nassau Street. In addition to motorists and bus passengers, Sausalito on good days can attract as many as 3,000 bicyclists, who begin their journey at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, pedal across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, and then largely coast down into Sausalito. Emphasize “down.” The return trip, which would be up if by road, instead is often taken by the ferry.
The town’s smart parking meters clearly spell out the options for cars (and welcome your credit card), and it even has corrals for bicycles (at $3 a day). The town is eminently walkable. Visitors can stroll past dozens of art galleries, gift shops, coffee houses (with the option of slightly more expensive “pour overs,” brewed on the spot), and gourmet restaurants. If you want to see marvels of modern architecture you need only look up, to the steep hillside that rims the bay, into which houses have been ingeniously inserted. Some feature mechanical inclines (“hillovator trams” in Sausalito real estate parlance) that will pull their owners from street level to living room with floor-to-ceiling views.
Or you can check out the houseboats, floating homes, more than 400 of them moored in a half dozen marinas. The free-form boats, and the idiosyncratic people who live in them, are a key ingredient in Sausalito’s secret sauce. Beginning as makeshift, rent-free lodging in the post World War II days, the boats attracted the beats and the hippies of the 1950s and ’60s. Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac made their way over from San Francisco to party there. Writers, artists, and mystics — Shel Silverstein, Jean Varda, and Alan Watts — joined the party, as did actors, including Sterling Hayden, Rip Torn, and Geraldine Page. And in 1967 Otis Redding wrote “Dock of the Bay” on a houseboat in Richardson Bay off Sausalito — yes, I cribbed from that song in my opening lines above.
Eclectic types with money to burn soon followed: Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog, environmentalist Paul Hawken, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and Bill Cosby, whose name is not mentioned much these days.
You would learn a lot about the boat community by reading — and viewing — the 240-page coffee table book, “Floating in Sausalito” (Kerber Verlag, $45.95), written and photographed by Lars Aberg and Lars Strandberg, Swedish collaborators who visited the town while working on a book about the American west. They were so enthralled by Sausalito that they returned in 2013 to document the scene in words and photographs.
And you could learn a lot about the history of the town by allowing me to make a shameless plug on behalf of my college roommate Gary Diedrichs’ 2006 novel, “The Earthquake Shack.” Still available on Amazon, the novel offers a colorful drama set in 1950s and ’60s Sausalito, with real life characters Jerry Garcia, Alan Ginsberg, the Kingston Trio, and many more darting in and out of the narrative.
You can also learn a lot by just visiting the place. Compared to Princeton Sausalito is downright visitor-friendly. California is known for its pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, but if you feel that you might not be visible to motorists (or bicyclists) in the evening, many crosswalks have a clutch of orange flags in a holder attached to the light post. Hold one up as you cross and leave it in the bin on the other side. No worries.
Like Princeton Sausalito has to expend some money to clean up after its visitors. But the little town by the bay has a leg up on Princeton — the inevitable leaf blowers wielded by the clean-up crew are electric instead of gas, and are much quieter and less noxious. The town even has public restrooms, immaculately maintained, near the ferry dock.
Like Princeton Sausalito is a hot real estate market. Those architectural marvels sited on the steep hill overlooking the bay now run well into the seven figures. The average listing price is around $1.7 million. Based on a random sample of recent listings, you can figure on $1,000 per square foot, or more. (In Princeton Zillow put the recent average listing price at $400 a square foot.) And — good news for all of us who disdain yards and the maintenance they demand — most of these hillside homes are sited on plots that are only slightly bigger than the house itself.
And those houseboats: Some of the “floating homes,” as the real estate people refer to them, are also in the $1,000 a square foot range. You can think of them as affordable only because they are so small. One real estate website recently showed an average listing price of just under $700,000 (though there were only six on the market). The state even nicks the houseboat owner for property taxes, in addition to the monthly fee to the marina owner that will feel like a property tax. In addition, there are costs to pump out the on-board holding tank that functions as the septic system.
It’s all heady stuff and a great opportunity if you are an up-and-coming homeowner, with an eye toward buying and flipping a few houses as you climb the mountain of prosperity — literally in Sausalito. But if you are committed to the community and eager to maintain its eclectic and heterogeneous population, if you are a parent hoping that your kid has a school teacher who is also a neighbor, you may be not so sanguine.
During our visit California was weighing one of the most progressive bills in the country to kickstart new housing, including affordable housing, in areas close to major transit stops. The bill would have paved the way for developers to build condominiums and apartments near mass transit stops where local zoning codes might otherwise prohibit such development.
But the California bill never got out of its first committee hearing. It was opposed, as one might have predicted, by people concerned about losing local control of the number and type of new people in their midst. But also among its critics: Folks concerned about gentrification in neighborhoods that would be affected by the new development. Such additional development might increase property values near transit hubs, already increasing in value, which in turn could spill over to adjacent areas. Gentrification could beget more gentrification.
I wonder if both Sausalito and Princeton are caught in an upward death spiral, with constantly rising real estate prices closing the door on young people, middle class people, older people on retirement incomes, and all the odd and quirky characters who make the sidewalks of both Sausalito and Princeton an open air, experimental theater.
Both towns have a few things going for them that might forestall this process. Princeton has a steady and revolving stream of students and young faculty who add vitality to the mix. And its housing density is still relatively low compared to that of Sausalito. Garages on larger lots could be converted into accessory structures, which could become income units for older homeowners trying to meet their ever-increasing property tax bills.
Sausalito, and the rest of California, have the benefit of Proposition 13, which limits property taxes to around 1.25 to 1.5 percent of assessed property value, and curbs the increase in property tax relative to the increase in property value as long as you own the property.
And then Sausalito has another factor that will not be erased for a long time: The quirky architecture of all those houseboats. My guess is that the offbeat and outlandish will continue to make Sausalito a delightfully different destination. But what do I know? Here on the dock of the bay I’m just sitting in the morning sun and, if I recall the lyrics correctly, I’ll still be sitting when the evening comes.