Voices of the Watershed: Shirley Fischer

Voices of the Watershed: Shirley Fischer

It’s a rare thing for a shopping mall to incorporate a pedestrian and bicycle path around its perimeter. But the Northgate Promenade officially opened in 2010, thanks in large part to the efforts of Shirley Fischer and the North San Rafael Vision Committee.

“We wanted a safe place for people to walk and bike,” says Shirley. “We made the community wishes heard,” Other amenities that resulted from Terra Linda residents’ input are a community room and outdoor concerts at Northgate.

Shirley’s decades of work on behalf of Terra Linda began in 1987 with concern over the poorly designed Freitas Parkway freeway interchange. Not only was it a snarl of traffic, it was also dangerous. When Shirley attended a meeting in San Rafael, she was appalled at how the experts were measuring traffic at the intersection. Despite the daily gridlock, the official count rated traffic at service level A—free flowing. And that meant more allowable development in the area.

Shirley and other concerned residents videotaped 12 hours of traffic at the interchange, which opened the eyes of city council members. The result was a revision to the amount of development allowed, as well as modifications to the treacherous intersection.

Out of these early advocacy efforts, the North San Rafael Coalition of Residents was born. Still going strong, the group brings together homeowners, renters, and public officials to discuss out tough issues that affect the community, from the Marin Airport to the redeveloped Northgate Mall.

“At one time, there was going to be massive development at the Civic Center,” Shirley recalls. “We stopped that cold.” Another significant accomplishment of the Coalition’s efforts: It’s now a given throughout the county that developers meet with residents present a project and hear concerns long before a proposal is reviewed by the planning commission.

Shirley, originally from upstate New York, lived with her husband in Philadelphia before moving to Marin. A former public health nurse, she worked as a school volunteer when her kids were young, then went on to get a teaching credential. The amenities drew her family to Terra Linda— a family-friendly neighborhood surrounded by natural beauty—are still present, a fact she’s proud of. “Eichler’s original vision was an ethnically diverse community, a mix of working class and middle class,” she says. “And that’s still true here.”

These days, when Shirley isn’t traveling with her husband, she’s likely to be found in the community garden across the road, where she grows half her family’s food. Looking forward, she’d like to see Las Gallinas Creek freed of its concrete culvert on Freitas Parkway, with a walking/biking path running alongside. And she’s eager for the Promenade to be extended to the Civic Center. A recent visit to Munich reinforced her commitment to make Terra Linda even more walkable. “Munich is a pedestrian paradise,” she says. “Terra Linda has the potential to be that.”

Shirley Fischer’s decades of community advocacy earned her a place in the North San Rafael Oral History Project, soon to be available in the Anne T. Kent California room at the Civic Center library.