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Joe Castro

Resident Proposes Criteria-Based Approach to Housing Policy

As the City of Mill Valley embarks on an update of its 23 year old General Plan, Mill Valley resident Bob Silvestri proposes a new system for identifying sites for affordable housing development.

In September 2011, I met with City Manager Jim McCann and discussed the Housing Element and a new approach to addressing ABAG/RHNA allocations. It is called the "Criteria Based" method of designating development sites. This approach, combined with the offering of various financial and zoning incentives, could have significant advantages over the simplistic "list the sites" approach that is presently driving so much community antagonism and distorting developers' understanding of "of right" zoning.

Since the City Council is now considering the General Plan and Housing Element, I felt is was a good time to reintroduce some of this information. I urge you to make Mill Valley a leader in affordable housing solutions by building on the strengths of our community, rather than seeing those strengths as obstacles to planning.

As it is presently, we select a very limited and superficially determined list of affordable housing sites, which due to real world circumstances can end up being less suitable in the long run than they appeared to be at first glance. The Richardson site at Camino Alto and Blithedale is a case in point. The is another because the list makers failed to understand the financial staying power of the corporate land owner.

From a developer's point of view, almost all of the properties along Miller Avenue and in other commercial areas throughout the city that are more than 30 years old are potentially developable sites if the terms of purchase and financing are favorable. But there is no way to determine at any given moment which ones those are just by looking at them.

The criteria-based method designates sites with the highest potential for affordable housing development based on a "points" system. Development proposals with the highest points ratings would qualify for the most incentives and benefits.


The "Criteria" that earned points might include that a site is:

* Economically obsolete (there is no longer any rental demand for that type of structure: i.e. a warehouse building in an office / retail area).
* Functionally obsolete (the structure is so far out of code compliance and lacks so many amenities / features that no good tenant will rent it)
* Underutilized (the site is far below its build out potential - allowable floor area ratio)
* Hazardous (a building that is somehow a public danger due to toxic materials, etc.)
* Unsafe (a structure is in danger of collapse or damage to adjacent structures, or is otherwise a public safety problem).

...and that the proposed development:

* Offers significant low and very low income units (the type and count would increase the points)
* Offers a type of housing unit that is presently desired / most needed in Mill Valley (live/work lofts, "starter" studio units, elderly units, etc. - contrary to perception the majority of our population is single household, single parents, elderly and renters)
* Includes a list of desirable "green" building techniques and materials.
* Includes a list of desirable technology and safety innovations.
* Provides a desirable public amenity (a path or lane, a public space, a shelter, parking, etc.)
* Improves public access and safety (pedestrian, vehicular, etc.)

These are just some possible criteria. The list needs input from all sides. The actual allocation of financial and zoning incentives / benefits would not be administerial but subject to the normal public hearing process at the Planning Commission and City Council.


1 - A criteria based method creates a stated public policy objective that developers can respond to with more certainty and creativity than a "list of designated sites" approach. This would save developers a considerable amount of uncertainty, which is presently one of the major cause of animosity and processing difficulties.

2 - This method is responsive to dynamic and unpredictable economy and market forces, whereas a "static list" is not.

3 - Under the existing "list of sites" method problems of fairness and public equity arise if a developer wants to develop a site not on the list but which is actually, based on market conditions, more easily and profitably developed.

4 - We can clearly demonstrate to ABAG how this criteria based system combined with properly aligned application processing and financial incentives (tax and fee deferments / amortization, etc.) satisfies the RHNA numbers many times over.

5 - This method maximizes the number of potential sites, maximizes the potential number of housing units that can be added citywide, and allows market forces and community voices to work together to achieve our goals.

6 - Because this method increases the number of potential sites, it alleviates the pressure for unrealistic density.

7 - The criteria based approach could also be applied to second units and multifamily renovations - i.e. if a rehab was "significant" in that it met enough criteria to earn enough points and/or involved enough change/upgrades, it could earn possible incentives. There might even be different criteria lists (variations) designed for each type of situation - i.e. new construction, renovation and second units.


Adopting a criteria-based approach should be in conjunction with the legitimate push back on ABAG classifying Mill Valley as "urban," which should be changed to "Suburban" to allow 20 units per acre maximum and not 30 units.

Densities greater than 20 per acre are not feasible even with the kinds of unsustainable bonuses we've been giving away. For instance, at 20 per acre is very dense and 3 stories high, and required a variance for 22 off site/on the street parking spaces in the public parking to do even that.

I think this method should be adopted in conjunction with zoning code changes that the public has strongly endorsed over the past 10 years, such as that Miller Avenue should be limited to a maximum of two stories of construction. Please note that this suggestion is backed up by the "Alternative Analysis" that I presented to the city in 2007. That study shows that we already have sufficient developable sites and can achieve ABAG/RHNA numbers by building two-story structures.