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Legacy Part 3

A Legacy of Flawed Housing Policy -- PART 3: Foreseeable failures

The purpose of this analysis is not to pick on Mill Valley. When it comes to efforts to create affordable housing it is, generally, no better or worse than other cities its size. But its story is illustrative of the dysfunction of the typical, municipal housing development process.

Back in the early 2000s, Mill Valley began working on a plan to transform Miller Avenue, its main arterial in and out of town, into a district that would incentivize mixed-use commercial and residential development. Two contentious decades and tens of millions of dollars spent on consultants, studies, designers, and construction, later, we have seen little housing completed.

Despite the public investment in a beautiful new streetscape, by and large, the “market” has not been interested in investing in mixed-use housing on Miller Avenue. That’s not the city’s fault. However, the city never followed up on the original concept, which didn’t just include building a new streetscape but required a careful review of zoning and incentives to help attract economic revitalization and affordable housing development. In fact, as the city looks for potential housing sites for new projects (to address the current Housing Element quota), it's as if city officials have completely forgotten why we spent all that time and money to upgrade the streetscape, in the first place.

This mistake has had significant negative consequences as real opportunities for affordable housing development have arisen.

Affordable housing opportunities lost

Over the years, private developers have approached the city with plans and ambitions, not all of which were good ones, but the city’s processing of their proposals has been equally discouraging.

For example, about 16 years ago, a local church wanted to donate some of its land to build a dozen, low-income apartments. A good project. But, the development team had an equity shortfall (was short on cash) and couldn’t make the project “pencil.” At the same time, another developer purchased a parcel on Miller Avenue in the commercial zone but wanted to build commercial space, not housing (this was before the “mixed-use” conditional zoning had been implemented). But the City’s head of planning was adamant that she would not approve the commercial proposal.

So, the developer offered the City a six-figure sum not to have to build housing.

At that time, I implored the Planning Director to consider that if a developer offers that much money not to have to do something, you want to pay attention; take the money and put it into a housing trust fund. But the Director could not connect the dots and refused to consider anything but a mixed-use commercial and housing. That project was eventually built (It is mostly market rate with just a few affordable units).

The city officials were bursting with self-congratulations when it was finished. But the developer was right. It was not a good site for housing.

The result was a project that would have gone bankrupt had it not been for the integrity of its local developers, who ‘carried it’ at a loss, for many years. Meanwhile, the low-income church project failed because they never found the equity money they needed… i.e., the money the City could have received from the Miller Avenue developer.

Worse still, today that site is built-out with 4 high-end, luxury townhomes that I was told one family purchased and turned into one gigantic family compound.

The net result, the city lost potential affordable housing units.

Around that same time, a local architect optioned a small parcel, where a Montessori school was located, on Miller Avenue, and wanted to build 8 to 12 small affordable housing units. But the City demanded that he build 24 units on the site (in order to meet the City’s current housing quota), which was not feasible, physically or financially. After more than a year of trying to reason with the City, the developer walked away.

The net result, the city lost potential affordable housing units.

Some years later, a wily developer bought a large piece of a parcel on Miller Avenue and proposed a modest mixed-use commercial/residential project. But the City demanded twice the number of apartments and more affordable ones. So, the developer exploited a loophole in the zoning code at that time forcing the City to approve 9 super luxury townhomes, by-right. That project was then flipped to another developer.

The net result, the city lost potential affordable housing units.

Subsequently, our nonprofit, Community Venture Partners, then approached the new developer and offered to purchase the property to develop a mixed-use, independent senior living and low-income housing for service workers for a local senior assisted living provider, and a ‘grab and go’ eatery where seniors could work to help serve the thriving lunch crowd from the nearby high school.

The developer refused to even consider it.

In the coming months, Mill Valley will be considering the approval of two, so-called "urban infill,’ multifamily housing projects. Richardson Terrace, an over-sized, 60-foot+ high, design monstrosity located at 575 E. Blithedale Avenue, and an uninspired, monolithic, multifamily warehousing block to be built on public parks land at 1 Hamilton Drive.

Both reflect a new host of bad decisions and incomprehensible public processes.

CLICK HERE to read PART 1: The demise of local control

CLICK HERE to read PART 2: People reduced to data

CLICK HERE to read PART 4 - New projects seeking approval; Richardson Terrace, Mill Valley

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO THE MARIN POST AND CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.