On 12/17/2020, Phil Richardson submitted a newly revised application to build 25 homes and some commercial offices for the project at 575 East Blithedale Avenue, now called “Richardson Terrace”.
Over the past decade, developer Phil Richardson has brought forth one failed proposal after another to develop the property at the corner of East Blithedale Avenue and Camino Alto Avenue, as a housing site. His most recent attempt to propose a questionable "mixed-use" project still fails to address the significant challenges to developing this highly visible "gateway" site in Mill Valley.
This property, which is located near one of the most heavily trafficked corners in the City of Mill Valley, has severe development constraints, which among others includes its steeply sloped hillside and significant ingress and egress challenges due to its proximity to the busy intersection and inability to be accessed from both directions (i.e., vehicles exiting the property can only do so by turning east toward downtown Mill Valley and vehicles entering the property can only so from the west on Blithedale Avenue).
It is also important to note from the outset that the proposed development site is zoned CN Neighborhood Commercial. Therefore, mixed-use commercial / housing is only allowed as a “conditional use,” under Mill Valley Title 20, Chapter 20.40.030 V, of the Mill Valley Zoning Regulations.
The granting of a conditional use is discretionary and it allows the City the ability to challenge any and all aspects of a project, including its density, height, and design. The city can also include special, site-specific “conditions” it feels are necessary to grant project approval, and the City’s determination of a conditional use must also include specific findings to justify its approval.
Similarly, note that per State Senate Bill 35, signed into law in September of 2017, the project does not fall under the provisions for streamlining processing nor does it qualify for any state regulatory exceptions noted. SB 35 states that it applies to,
…”a development proponent to submit an application for a multifamily housing development, which satisfies specified planning objective standards, that is subject to a streamlined, ministerial approval process, as provided, and not subject to a conditional use permit.” [Emphasis added].
Also, although recently enacted Senate Bill 330 would limit the number of public hearings allowed and provide for expedited processing under the Permit Streamlining Act, it would not preclude the City from making findings that require changes or deny the proposal. As such, the City is not generally constrained by state housing law and has discretion in the approval or disapproval of the Richardson Terrace proposal.
In July of 2020, when the new proposal was first announced, the Mill Valley Planning Department categorized it as a “new project” and concluded, “a new environmental document will be completed for the project.”
Some of the reasons why this new environmental review is needed, are
- The new project has 25% +/- more units than the previous proposal, and more square footage, which is a significant increase;
- The new proposal is for mixed-use, commercial and residential. The addition of commercial requires a new analysis of ingress/egress traffic impacts. Office uses have greater traffic impacts during rush hour times than residential uses;
- The entire project site is within the designated Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) according to the FireSafeMarin and therefore, subject to impacts from high fire hazards. Planners should place fire safety above all other factors when considering emergency access, unit density, design, and materials. And as it has been presented, the proposal also fails to comply with the Mill Valley WUI ordinance, which requires “ignition resistive construction.”
For more detailed information, please see the designated map of WUI zones in Mill Valley or the FireSafeMarin maps.
Finally, as well-articulated by former planning commissioner, Burton Miller, FAIA, in his letter to the Planning Commission, the City’s ability to process this project as a “mixed-use” project is questionable.
Mr. Miller states,
“To call this a “mixed-use” project strikes me as disingenuous. The CN designation permits mixed-use projects with a residential component. One would expect this to mean a commercial development with residential, not a residential development with commercial space at 3.9% of gross building area. The 2,000 sf of commercial space is second-class space located in the “basement” parking level with poor visibility and access. It’s clear to me that the space is positioned to be converted to owner storage. The project, as designed, simply does not qualify as “mixed-use” in the manner intended. A full EIR should include a credible expectation and demonstration of “mixed-use.”
Interested parties should send their comments to the City and make their concerns known.
The City of Mill Valley contacts are:
City Clerk: firstname.lastname@example.org
City Manager: Al Piombo: email@example.com
Planning Director: Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org
City Planner: Danielle Staude: email@example.com
Mill Valley Planning Commissioners: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to John Palmer and Burton Miller for their contributions to this article.
Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.