The following comment letter has been sent to the Mill Valley Planning Department, in anticipation of the August Planning Commission Study Session.
Dear Mill Valley Planning Department:
This letter is to comment on the newly proposed 28 unit, commercial and residential mixed-use development at 500 Miller Avenue.
I have met with Agustin Maxemin, President of Armax Corporation, and Donna Huntingale, Project Manager, and reviewed and discussed their set of preliminary design plans. I found them both to be very affable and engaging people, who are quite sophisticated in real estate development. After researching their portfolio of work, I would say that this may be the smallest project they have ever done.
Most of their work is on a much larger, more urban scale, which is somewhat reflected in the design approach that I think is problematic in this context. Although I believe that Mr. Maxemin has a genuine interest in doing the right thing in his home town, by their own admission their development goals are driven by their institutional financing partners, who are strictly concerned with the bottom line.
I believe this has likely contributed to the developer’s proposal to maximize density on this very constrained and challenging building site.
Overall design approach
Much like many other schemes presented by Von der Werth over the past ten years, the unbroken, monolithic and un-modulated massing of the proposed 3 story, 28 unit, 400 foot long, commercial and residential mixed use structure is out of scale and out of character with Mill Valley and the Gateway “room.”
The design is essentially a “wall” in front of a wall.
As I will support and cite, this design approach violates many of the basic requirements of our code and certainly the spirit of the Mill Valley “Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & Mixed-use Design Guidelines & Development Standards.”
In addition and apologizing in advance for being blunt, the architectural expression uses a monotonous, post-modernist, Los Angeles strip-center fenestration motif that is out of character with the streetscape and our city, our General Plan goals, and our Design Guidelines. I am all for architectural variety and innovative styles, but those always need to “fit” and be well executed.
What is most troubling to me is that over more than 10 years, three different Planning Commissions and two different City Councils have looked at large, mixed-use proposals similar to this -- in endless iterations by Von der Werth -- and have always responded by saying, “No -- too big -- too massive.”Yet, here we are all over again.
I cannot understand why the Planning Department has not forewarned the developer of these concerns, which are so glaringly obvious in this proposal. That said, it is essential to first establish the overall building/structure size that can be approved for this site.
It is extremely important for this issue to be properly understood, prior to the proposed Study Session this month.
There has already been considerable confusion and misinformation about the total allowable development capacity of the 500 Miller Avenue site. To date, the city has not responded to queries to resolve this question.
The developer has claimed that their allowable development is based on the allowable floor area ratio of 1.0 (FAR), based on the overall size of the site (52,678 sf), while the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce has reported that the total approved building size is 30,600 sf of “enclosed space.”
Neither of these is correct. A proper analysis would need to consider the following:
In his letter of July 23, 2018, Burton Miller noted the City’s obligations to adhere to the Municipal Code, Title 20, Section 20.66.045, Limitations on building size, height and setback, in which it states:
Where a project is subject to Design Review approval and where specific site circumstances or natural or topographic features such as the following are present on the site and indicate that it is appropriate, the City may impose more restrictive size and height limitations and may require greater setbacks and required yards than those specified in the Mill Valley General Plan or this title: [Emphasis added]
This policy is reaffirmed in our “Design Guidelines and Standards.” As noted on the first page of Chapter One, page 7 of the Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & Mixed-Use Design Guidelines & Development Standards,
Each development proposal in Mill Valley is evaluated based on its own characteristics and merits to determine whether the proposed density is appropriate for that site. Factors that must be considered include adjacent uses, the proposed site and building design, traffic and noise impacts, and visual impacts. [Emphasis added]
Design Guidelines. While design guidelines are qualitative in nature and subject to the discretionary review of the approval body, they serve as strict criteria for reviewing projects during the approval process. Design guidelines typically address building elements that cannot easily be measured or quantified. They contain requirements on design aspects such as site and building design, massing, architectural elements, materials, and overall design character.
There can be no question that the 500 Miller Avenue site is a prime example of what the drafters of this document had in mind, when they created these conditions.
Historical approval record:
The record of previous reviews and approvals can be found in the documents, reports and attachments to the 500 Miller Avenue Subdivision (Von der Werth/Upwerth Real Estate LLC) Final Map and Subdivision Improvement Agreement (APN # 048-071-46 - File No. PL16-4497), dated March 6, 2017, including links to the original EIR / CEQA documents, which were approved by the Mill Valley City Council.
Among others, the attached documents include the Staff Report to the Planning Commission, dated December 13, 2010, Amber El-Hajj, Associate Planners, 500 Miller Avenue - Design Review, Special Development Permit and Vesting Tentative Map - Al Von der Worth, Applicant - Upwerth Real Estate, LLC, Owner -APN 048-071-38 & 39 - File D05-3187.
That report recommended the following:
Approve the Design Review and Special Use Permit applications for a mixed-use development involving a 4,948 square foot commercial building and 9 attached dwelling units based on testimony and evidence in the record, the findings in Exhibit A, and the conditions of approval in Exhibit B. ZONING COMPLIANCE -- The proposed project includes two new buildings; a 4,948 square foot commercial building and a 27,369 square foot building which contains 9 residential units and the parking for the project. [Emphasis added]
Further, Page 2 of Attachment 2, dated Dec. 12, 2010, Staff Report to Planning Commission, which was attached to the approval of final vested map, and attached to the Staff Report to City Council, dated Feb 7, 2011, re: Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map, which is ATTACHMENT 5 to… Item 6: 500 Miller Avenue Subdivision: of 03-10-2017.
All of this is attached to the Staff Report to City Council, of March 6, 2017, Subject title: 500 Miller Avenue Subdivision (Von der Werth/Upwerth Real Estate LLC) Final Map and Subdivision Improvement Agreement (APN # 048-071-46 - File No. PL16-4497), establishes that the total lot size is 52,678, but that the total allowable development cannot exceed 32,317 sf. (4,948 sf + 27,369 sf = 32,317 sf).
Those documents note that
In 2007, when the City Council pre-zoned the subject property for annexation to the City, staff recommended, and the Commission and Council concurred, that due to the unusual characteristics of the site, including the steep terrain and existing vegetation, a PD district overlay was appropriate to allow site development that would respect the physical constraints of the site.
However, in those documents under Zoning: Proposed Use: The proposed project is zoned CN-PD (Neighborhood Commercial – Planning Development Combining) Mixed -- ATTACHMENT 2 STAFF ANALYSIS ; Special Development Permit Pursuant to Section 20.57.020 of the Mill Valley Zoning Ordinance, which notes that
A Special Development Permit is required to construct any building in a zoning district with a PD district overlay.
The original special permit would be clearly violated by the newly proposed 28 unit mixed-use development.
In this context, the original approval for a total of no more than 32,317 sf (for all commercial, residential and parking onsite) would have to be viewed as an absolute maximum, which will likely need to be reduced in light of new data and analysis that will be required under our code and a bone fide CEQA process.
Questioning the legitimacy of the original PD designation for 500 Miller Avenue
The existing land parcel at 500 Miller Avenue is shown on the City Zoning Map as a “PD district overlay.”See:
However, it is questionable if the designation and approval of the prior development permit, as a “PD district overlay,” was proper at the time it was approved, or that it can be used to process the new development proposal submitted.
According to the Mill Valley Municipal Code, Title 20 ZONING, Chapter 20.60 General Provisions and Exceptions, 20.60.180, Planned unit development approval, it states
Application may be made for “Planned unit development approval,” called P.U.D. approval, for any district under the following provisions and conditions:
C. Minimum Area. The minimum area of a P.U.D. shall be not less than four acres of undeveloped property, [Emphasis added]
There is no record of the City Council approving the existing PD district overlay as a variance. Since the site is shown as being a total of 52,678 sf, and since an acre of land is known to be 43,560 sf, the site is clearly insufficient in size to have been or to be now considered for PD designation without a specific approved variance.
The City must reassess if the PD designation is allowable for this property and, at a minimum, process any further consideration under the PD designation as a request for a variance to our Municipal Code for PDs. As such, under this section of our code, the City Council is required to make specific findings and take specific actions in order to process any variance to a PD designation.
Design, scale and massing impacts
In support of my previous comments and conclusions, the Mill Valley Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & Mixed-Use Design Guidelines & Development Standards note criteria for design, scale and massing of proposed development.
As elaborated in Chapter 4 (page 61 of the Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & Mixed-use Design Guidelines & Development Standards), under “Building Design”
Exemplary building design considers many facets of architecture, including the placement of windows and entries, mass and scale, proportional dimensions, and the full articulation of building facades. [Emphasis added]
Building articulation, fenestration, roof forms, and other major building elements should complement neighboring development through innovative design solutions.
Under A. Massing and Scale (pages 61 through 62) it notes:
Mass is defined as a three-dimensional form. The way the forms of a building are sized directly relates to the way building elements are emphasized or de-emphasized. Complementary variations or open spaces in the building form can change the appearance and make the building more visually interesting and less imposing. Scale describes the relationship of individual components of the building to each other and to the building as a whole. [Emphasis added]
1.Break up large developments (e.g., sites that have street frontages larger than 100 feet wide) [Emphasis added] into several smaller, compact building footprints with varying heights, rather than one large building. This will provide an appropriate scale...
2.Reduce the building’s massing through a combination of the following techniques:
• Variation in the wall plane (projecting and recessed elements);
• Variation in wall height;
• Roofs located at different levels; or
• Balconies, decks, and bays.
4.Incorporate a combination of one-, one-and-one half-, and two-story units to create visual interest and variation in massing and building height (also see the Multi-family residential and Mixed-Use Development Standards regarding maximum height requirements and upper story step backs). [Emphasis added]
Step back the upper stories of multi-family and mixed-use buildings, where appropriate, to reduce the scale of facades that face the street, courtyards, or open space areas.
These citations lend support for a smaller, less impactful project scope – fewer units – and a reassessment of the architectural design, scale and massing. The requirements of our Design Guidelines and other code requirements noted herein, simply cannot be met by a building of the scale and unit count (28 units) proposed.
In order to comply with appropriate massing, scale and architectural guidelines, the unit count must be significantly reduced, facades must me modulated, and massing must be broken up. In my opinion, the site’s capacity for a mixed-use development that adheres to our Design Guidelines and codes would be approximately 18 residential units.
Reconsidering the viability of commercial / residential mixed-use development
Today, like every other small town in Marin and beyond, Mill Valley faces a challenge to its General Plan’s assumptions about “mixed-use commercial and residential” zoned development. For decades we have been planning for what might be called a “Norman Rockwell” vision of residential units over small retail shops, and we’ve encoded that in our regulations.However, the likelihood of that happening is becoming remote: the world has changed.
In the past 15 years, we have witnessed the acceleration of the greatest change in our economy since the Industrial Revolution. In short, the Internet is rapidly deconstructing every type of business imaginable, many to the point of extinction, and this has a direct impact on how we should plan for growth and development.
One of the biggest fatalities of this phenomena is retail. For all intents and purposes many retail businesses, as we have known them, are gone and never coming back. Shopping malls, big name retailers and mom and pop stores are closing at a rate never seen before. And, this trend will continue.
In addition, even in those places where traditional mixed-use building configurations can survive (e.g., in denser urban locations, such as New York City, where each block has 35 stories of residential above it creating critical demand), retail in particular, has to be clustered together in a walkable way (as it is in downtown Mill Valley) to be viable financially.
It is likely that within the next five years, few traditional retail uses will survive in cities like Mill Valley, unless it is something that we have to get physically and locally. These will mostly be services: massage, yoga, nails, hair, car repair, dry cleaning, etc. and to a lesser extent food.
The future of retail is probably a relatively small physical footprint, some samples and everything is delivered to you the next day… or hour.
The corollary to the decline of retail is the decline of traditional commercial office space. Shared work space, tele-commuting from a home and other arrangements are decimating demand for typical business office space. Even realtors, who remain a strong physical space user, can now downsize due to the benefits of the digital world.
Take for example, 505 Miller Avenue. This project was conceived as a classic mixed-use, residential over shops. But, the reality is that the owner has never been able to find any successful tenants for the retail spaces (the building owner owns the Toy Store). There simply are no takers anymore.
This should make us question the wisdom of requiring the developer to build a significant amount of commercial/retail space at 500 Miller Avenue. If anything, the only space that might have any chance of ever being rented for a profitable rate would be the space closest to Reed Street, contiguous to the Miller Avenue Main Street room.
The City has the discretion to decide how much commercial/retail space is appropriate at 500 Miller Avenue, and I would encourage them to reevaluate those requirements.
Reconsidering our designation for micro units and efficiency units
There is an enormous demographic bulge at both ends of the age spectrum – what I would call a “barbell” demographic – that is not being adequately addressed by traditional real estate developers, particularly in Marin. This demographic consists of young individuals or couples, who are just starting out and would love to live in Mill Valley, and the “active” elderly, who want to downsize but not move away from Mill Valley.
This is reflected in the biggest complaints we hear from housing advocates. And, it is also somewhat true that smaller units are de facto more “affordable.” But, that is only true if those units are very small and efficient.
That considered, our Municipal Code defines an “Efficiency unit” as
Efficiency units (also known as “micro-units”) shall be between 350 and 450 square feet, and shall be limited to 20% of the total units in any individual project site.
I would argue that this definition is completely out of date. In fact, the proposed 500 Miller Avenue development actually includes one bedroom units that are 450 sf, but these are hardly efficiency units nor are they in any way “low income” units or affordable.
The market is demonstrating that the appropriate size for a true micro-unit is more in the neighborhood of 250 to 325 sf of total living space. These are essentially modified studio apartments that are typically only found in major cities. But, these types of units should play a role in addressing our housing challenges here in Marin.
Below, you will find layout drawings of two such units, both of which are from actual projects, and both of which are less than 300 sf of total living space.
As you will see, these unit sizes are perfectly adequate for individuals of all ages and young couples. And, with Marin’s extremely high land and development costs, it is only by getting to this size that one can achieve any significant un-subsidized “affordability” of rental units or units for purchase.
These smaller unit sizes are the only types one can reasonably argue will be lived in by residents who only have one car. I would strongly suggest that any proposal for the 500 Miller Avenue site, include some of these sizes of micro units.
There are significant parking challenges that need to be considered for this site, which will result in all required parking for the project to be contained on the site -- for both commercial and residential users and their patrons and guests.
It is important to recognize from the outset that the total parking capacity of the Gateway room on Miller Avenue has been brokered more times than “beachfront property” in a Florida swampland.
For example, when 505 Miller Avenue was approved, it was granted 22 off-site / on-street parking spaces under a special parking variance. Then, when the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan was approved, it removed 60 existing parking spaces in the Gateway and adjacent Main Street rooms on Miller Avenue.
Other smaller concessions have also been made for Tamalpie and other businesses. Furthermore, the parking directly in front of the 500 Miller Avenue parcel was intentionally intended for commuter parking for those who take public transit to work in San Francisco and beyond.
Mill Valley Parking Code:
Under our Municipal Code -- 20.48 Mixed-use Residential Development Standards in commercial districts: Miller Avenue “Gateway” Land Use Designation (i) Neighborhood Commercial (C-N), it indicates that
Residential parking requires 2 parking spaces per dwelling unit, plus 1/4 guest parking per unit; and parking requirements for a multi-family efficiency unit shall require 1 parking space.
Commercial parking requirements vary depending on the use that leases the space. For example, per 20.60.090, “businesses and professional offices” require 1 space per 225 sf, “restaurants” require 1 space per 100 sf, and “retail stores” require 1 space per 250 sf.
For the sake of discussion, I will use the standard residential parking formula and retail store requirements of 1 space per 250 sf, since retail is the intended goal of the General Plan designation. Therefore, as proposed, this would result in on-site parking for 63 spaces for the 28 units of residential (one bedroom and two bedroom units) and 20 spaces for the commercial use, for a total of at least 83 parking spaces on-site.
The preliminary proposal that I reviewed did not come close to meeting the required parking and it appears that it would be mathematically impossible to do so with 28 units of housing and the proposed commercial spaces.
The City has acknowledged that the new proposal’s review will include a CEQA process. Therefore, the prior development limit approvals, which were based on analysis of potentially significant impacts, appurtenant to the certified EIR, must be acknowledged here as part of the new overall project review. However, they must also be viewed as potentially inadequate due to significant changes in circumstances, since they were undertaken.
CEQA requires that in situations where there have been significant changes in circumstances, since a prior EIR was certified (e.g., the construction of the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan), that the prior EIR cannot be “tiered” off of, but must be re-evaluated and the potentially significant impacts of those changes must be adequately analyzed and assessed.
In addition, it is unarguable that certain specific impacts have only increased since the original EIR analysis was completed (e.g., parking, traffic). Therefore, any previously approved total square footage of development on the site, must be considered an absolute maximum to be further reduced in accordance with new contemporary analysis and data, which must be performed as part of the new CEQA review.
Please also consider that on July 2, 2007, when the City Council certified the Miller Avenue Annexation and Development Environmental Impact Report, that approval of that EIR noted that
These [mitigation] measures essentially require each project to make a fair share contribution toward identified traffic improvements along Miller Avenue at LaGoma, Reed and Gomez. Since the approval of the EIR, the City has commenced the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan that has included significant community input on these and other issues related to the overall design and configuration of Miller Avenue.
Approval of the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan could result in some, or all of these mitigations being rendered as no longer feasible, and, therefore, no longer applicable to these projects. If they do remain as part of the plan, the applicants would be required to make a fair share contribution toward their implementation as defined by the respective measures.
Because the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan has now been fully realized and our local traffic congestion issues have increased dramatically since the original EIR and its underlying analysis / assessments were completed, and because per the sections of our regulations quoted above, any existing mitigation measures that were previously approved are now subject to a new review, the new CEQA process must include the possibility for the need for an entirely new Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in addition to requiring new supporting analysis and assessment of potentially significant, unmitigated impacts.
This new analysis of impacts would certainly include traffic, air quality, water quality (runoff into adjacent streams and waterways), and threatened species, among others.
Thank you for your consideration and this opportunity to submit comments.
Sincerely, Bob Silvestri, Community Venture Partners, Inc.
Cc: Jim McCann, Mill Valley City Council
Bob Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by
individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.