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City of San Rafael

"Trojan Condos" in West End Village

The San Rafael Design Review Board has expanded its aesthetic and limited function role by approving a mini-Win Cup styled high density condo project at 1628 Fifth Avenue. They’ve moved it forward to the Planning Commission, where its fate will be decided administratively on February 12, without City Council approval. (To see this process for yourself, watch the video of both DRB meetings, 12/4/2018 and 1/8/2019 on the City of San Rafael video archive.)

The DRB approved this behemoth despite comments by one member saying that it was an "insult to the neighborhood" and another member saying, "parking is inadequate". The applicant agreed that the lot was "maxed out". The new chairman, Mr. Summers, went so far as to say that the approach to Sun Valley was "transitional", or would be if such buildings are allowed and neighbors would have difficulty accepting this architecturally incongruous big-box development.

The Board passed it anyway, saying that "the city needs housing", clearly moving past their responsibilities as the design filter. Except for dissenting board member Jeff Kent, the rest of the board chose to expand their design review responsibilities.

The importance of an unbiased Design Review Board, whose focus is limited to neighborhood aesthetics and continuity rather than setting density precedents, cannot be overstated. Moving this kind of project forward negates the DRB's purpose and showcases the sort of moral hazard too common when unelected officials stretch their authority. The City Council is responsible for choosing volunteers, who are not beholden to any particular ideology or industry.

Politics and policy should be separate from design review. The City Council should be required to vote on major environmental changes, but they have an easy out, administratively. The Planning Commission takes no political heat when approving projects that impact neighborhoods.

It is the City Council’s responsibility to choose board volunteers that stick to their duties without reflecting the Council’s fear of state mandates. The City Council should invalidate the DRB decision on the grounds that they overstepped their job description.

The January 10th's IJ editorial, Marin Needs its Design Review Boards, points out the function and importance of the design review process as the first impediment to bad planning. In its purely advisory role, a Design Review Board is limited to looking at how a proposal fits with its surroundings rather than interpreting state-mandated policy. They are judges in an architectural beauty contest. If a project is too big, ugly or in the wrong place, these volunteers send the applicant back to the drawing board with their suggestions, and if all goes well, the neighborhood gets an appropriate asset that blends with its surroundings.

The applicant for 1628 Fifth Avenue came back a second time to the DRB with a faux "Craftsman-esque" front that would surely confuse Julia Morgan and embarrass the Greene Brothers.

Last month's IJ editorial describes the design review process in the best light, but what happens when a board whose purpose is to blend buildings into the environment overreaches? We have all witnessed the results that a lack of character has in politics. What happens when the community character is tested? The DRB recognized that a building of this size is a developmental Trojan Horse. It appears that it decided, outside of its mandate, to max it out in a residential neighborhood as a test case.

The West End Village and Fifth Avenue should maintain its character and not be jeopardized by a volunteer board that has confused its aesthetic chores with that of the Planning Commission. After all, we are talking about expensive condominiums and not affordable housing.

Save the West End Village. Show up at the Planning Commission meeting 7pm Tuesday, February 12 at City Hall. Meet at the Belrose Theatre @ 6:45 sharp.

The developer has maintained that the City forced them to build these "condos" rather than two houses they wanted. The O'Flynn brothers are the owners, developers and builders and are easy to reach at the job site. I find it very strange that they would say that the City strong-armed them. If you watch the videos of the meetings the architect from Chrome intimates as much.

The best case scenario is that the number of units are reduced to six, more planting added and the top floor stepped back. Or better yet for the Planning Commission to allow the two single family homes the applicants wanted originally.