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Cavagnero and Associates

Community Venture Partners challenges the legitimacy of the Richardson Terrace approval process

This is PART 4 in the series, "A Legacy of Flawed Housing Policy." Although its topic is a local project in Mill Valley, the issues discussed are relevant to the review of other projects that are being submitted throughout the state. And it is indicative of the aggressive over-reach by the state Department of Housing and Community Development in local planning matters. (In this instance, HCD staff wrote a threatening, personal letter directly to unelected, volunteer, City Planning Commissioners, circumventing normal communication channels with our locally elected City Council members, government officials, and staff.)

The following comments have been submitted to the Mill Valley Planning Commission in anticipation of their upcoming hearing on Thursday, November 17, 2022, to review the proposal for the mixed-use development project known as Richardson Terrace, located at 575 E. Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley, CA.


Dear Mill Valley Planning Commissioners,

I am submitting these comments as a resident of Mill Valley and as President of Community Venture Partners, Inc. (CVP) a 501(c)(3) California nonprofit, community-serving organization located in Mill Valley, regarding the proposed Richardson Terrace, mixed-use development at 575 E. Blithedale Avenue (the “Project”).

The Project documentation states,

“The initial study prepared for the project provides substantial evidence that supports the conclusion that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA as an Infill Development pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15332 and that the project qualifies as a “project consistent with a Community Plan or Zoning” pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15183.”

The City has also determined that the Project is eligible for “streamlining” under the terms and conditions of State Senate Bill 330, the “Housing Crisis Act of 2019.”

This comment letter will address the following:

1. Is the Project eligible for streamlining approval under Senate Bill 330?

2. Is the Project eligible for a CEQA Class 32 categorical exemption?

3. Do superior mixed-use project options exist for this location that would better address Mill Valley’s affordable housing needs?

Preface

As a prologue to our comments in this letter, it is important to first comment on the letter received by the Mill Valley Planning Commission from the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), dated November 2, 2022, re: “Blithedale Terrace Mixed-Use Project – Letter of Support and Technical Assistance.” In that letter, its author, Shannan West, makes a number of incorrect statements and somewhat audacious threats against the City of Mill Valley regarding state housing law and the authority of HCD that demand a response.

From the outset, as we explain, below, the Richardson Terrace Project is not consistent with and does not conform to the city’s General Plan or its Land Use Element or its Zoning Code. The HCD letter to the Planning Commission fails to acknowledge the primacy of these facts, as elaborated, herein. Therefore, the arguments presented and positions taken by HCD with regard to the Richardson Terrace Project application, as submitted, are not applicable nor actionable. [1]

That established, there are other statements in the HDC letter that misrepresent the facts. For example, HCD states,

“The Planning Commission should remain mindful of the City’s obligations under the SDBL and HAA as it considers the Project. HCD would also like to remind the City that HCD has enforcement authority over the SDBL and HAA, among other state housing laws.”

This is a blatant attempt to intimidate the city. The Planning Commission should be aware that the power to “enforce” (their interpretation of) the law is not vested in HCD (an unelected, state agency). Under our legal system, enforcement is adjudicated in our courts. In the event of a disagreement on a legal interpretation of state regulations or requirements, HCD can bring a legal challenge against the city just as a city can bring a legal challenge against HCD. HCD has absolutely no authority to dictate its interpretation of any regulations, unilaterally.

Their letter also makes statements that are not fully explained and, in our opinion, are designed to mislead the reader to reach conclusions that are incorrect. Note that HCD has been doing this with increasing frequency, and has unfortunately not been challenged, legally.

For example, the HCD letter states,

“By providing at least 10 percent LI units1, the Project is entitled to one concession and a potentially unlimited number of development standard waivers via the State Density Bonus Law (SDBL) (Gov. Code, § 65915).”

Although it is correct that waivers of “development standards” may be allowed under the State Density Bonus Law, the HCD letter fails to clarify what constitutes a “development standard.”

The State’s Density Bonus Law only authorizes waivers from development standards, not a waiver from permissible/prohibited land uses or inconsistency with the General Plan or Zoning Ordinance.

This definition is particularly relevant in this case because “zoning” and all of the requirements of a zoning category designation are not “development standards” and are therefore not subject to waivers or bonuses.

Per (Gov. Code § 65915(e)(1).) Under the DBL, a “development standard” is defined as:

“…a site or construction condition, including, but not limited to, a height limitation, a setback requirement, a floor area ratio, an onsite open-space requirement, or a parking ratio that applies to a residential development pursuant to any ordinance, general plan element, specific plan, charter, or other local condition, law, policy, resolution, or regulation. (Gov. Code § 65915(e)(1).)”

As such, a land use designation or restriction (i.e., zoning) dictates what type of uses can and cannot be put on a property, while a development standard dictates how each of those types of uses is to be developed, built, or improved. The preeminent California land use treatise, Miller & Starr confirms these basic principles: zoning ordinances regulate both “allowed uses of specific parcel of land [aka land use designation] and . . . the requirements for the development of improvement in accordance with the specific zoning designation [aka development standards].” (7 Miller &Starr, Cal. Real Est. § 21:3 (4th ed.).)

In sum, we ask that the Planning Commission set aside the HCD letter and carefully consider the more fundamental issues raised in this comment letter.

1. Is the Project eligible for streamlining approval under Senate Bill 330?

The preponderance of evidence in the historical record and the requirements of the Mill Valley General Plan and the Mill Valley Municipal Zoning Code indicate that the Project fails to meet the tests required to be eligible for processing under SB 330 and is therefore not eligible for “streamlining” approval. Please note that the city has the authority to disapprove the Project in its present form because the Project is inconsistent” with the Mill Valley General Plan and Zoning Ordinance.

SB 330, SEC. 3, Section 65589.5 states,

“(d) A local agency shall not disapprove a housing development project… unless it makes written findings, based upon a preponderance of the evidence in the record, as to one of the following: [Emphasis added]

“(5) The housing development… is inconsistent with both the jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance and general plan land use designation as specified in any element of the general plan as it existed on the date the application was deemed complete,” [Emphasis added]

To properly interpret the city’s authority in this instance, it is also important to note that there are, presently, unaddressed ambiguities and vertical inconsistencies in the Mill Valley General Plan and The Mill Valley Zoning Code (Title 20) regarding the zoning of the Project parcel. These inconsistencies also require remedy.

Consider the following:

Inconsistency #1:

According to the Mill Valley General Plan, Table 2.2, “General Land Use Categories,” and as shown on the General Plan Land Use Map, found on pages 24 and 25 of the Mill Valley 2040 General Plan, the Project is located on a parcel of land that is zoned “CN – Neighborhood Commercial.” (See ATTACHMENTS “A” and “B”)

See: https://www.cityofmillvalley.org/DocumentCenter/View/946/Categories-and-Map-PDF

However, the Project documents state that the parcel zoning is “Commercial Limited – C-L” zoning, as it is shown on the Mill Valley Zoning Map. (See ATTACHMENT “C”)

See: https://www.cityofmillvalley.org/DocumentCenter/View/559/Zoning-Map-PDF

But “C-L” does not exist as a base zoning designation in the Mill Valley Municipal Code, under Title 20 Zoning, 20.12.010, Districts designated and named. (See ATTACHMENT “D”)

See: https://library.qcode.us/lib/mill_valley_ca/pub/municipal_code/item/title_20-chapter_20_12-20_12_010

This unresolved vertical inconsistency in the city’s General Plan and its Zoning Code creates ambiguity with regard to the Project and is subject to multiple interpretations and therefore open to legal challenge.

Inconsistency #2:

The distinctions made between primary and secondary uses found in the Mill Valley General Plan (and its Elements) and the Mill Valley Zoning Code (Title 20) are particularly relevant in this instance. As such, the correct finding is that the Project does not conform to (is “inconsistent” with) the requirements of either its CN or C-L zoning designations, as required to be eligible for processing under SB 330.

Regarding the Project’s CN zoning designation, according to the CN zoning designation shown in the Mill Valley General Plan, Figure 2.4: General Plan Land Use, “residential” is allowable as a ‘conditional use.” Those conditions, among others, include,

Table 2.2, General Plan Land Use Categories, describes CN Zoning as follows:

“Lower Miller Avenue area from 1989 General Plan, plus P-A zoned areas on East Blithedale Avenue and Camino Alto; personal, business, and medical services; local-serving retail; and residential units above or behind the ground floor.” [Emphasis added]

Based on this and as otherwise referenced in the General Plan and Zoning Code, approval as a conditional use for residential development on the Project parcel is clearly intended to be determined in the same manner as it is on all other CN zoned parcels throughout the city. As shown on the General Plan Land Use Map, this includes parcels on “lower” Miller Avenue (in the “Gateway” room, Reed Street to Camino Alto Avenue) and on E. Blithedale Avenue for several blocks near downtown, all of which are intended to be developed as one to two stories of apartment units “above or behind the ground floor” of commercial/retail community-serving businesses.

Note that at the time that the 2040 Mill Valley General Plan was created, the Richardson parcel was the subject of extensive discussion and deliberation on just this subject. The evidence of this is abundant in the historical record of hearings, meetings, and workshops.

Having personally participated in the 2040 General Plan hearings and discussions, I can attest to the fact that the clear intention of the City in designating the Richardson parcel as CN zoning was for the parcel to be developed as a commercial use in order to “complete” the character and uses of the E. Blithedale Avenue/Camino Alto Avenue intersection, which was and is one to two-story commercial development on all 4 corners.

In addition, note that the limitations under C-L zoning are even more restrictive than the CN zoning designation.

Regarding the Project’s C-L zoning designation, under 20.36.010 Purpose and Intent, of the Mill Valley Zoning Code, it states,

“The Limited Commercial (C-L) districts can accommodate residential and mixed-use land uses at densities in accordance with the adopted Land Use Map, and accommodate mixed-use with offices or commercial and small-scale multi-family residential developments. (Ord. 1278 § 12, July 18, 2016)” [Emphasis added]

Here, the code makes the specific point of stating that residential multifamily development should be “small-scale,” clearly indicating that residential uses shall be secondary, ancillary uses, not the primary use on a C-L zoned parcel. This stipulation about “residential” conditional use is consistent with the intentions of the General Plan’s CN zoning designation and other sections of the Mill Valley General Plan and related regulations.

In determining the Project’s qualifications to be deemed consistent with C-L zoning, consider that the Project documents indicate that it includes a total of 36,614 square feet of developed space of which 34,550 square feet is residential use (94.4%) and 2,046 square feet is commercial use (5.6%). It is therefore inconceivable that the Project, which will also rise more than 5 stories from the street entrance level, can be reasonably found to be “small-scale.” (Please keep in mind that your findings must be “evidence-based” under CEQA.)

It is therefore incorrect to claim that the Project is “consistent” with the city’s General Plan and Zoning Code because it is primarily a residential project with only very minor, ancillary commercial space included.

Finally, the “preponderance of evidence” found in the record and minutes of public workshops and Planning Commission and City Council meetings for the Project clearly indicates that the subject parcel was intentionally not zoned “multi-family residential” with commercial uses being an ancillary, conditional use but rather, was intentionally zoned for commercial use with multifamily residential being a secondary, conditional use.

If the city’s intentions had been otherwise, both the Mill Valley General Plan and the Zoning Code would reflect that.

Summation:

The only reasonable interpretation of the Mill Valley General Plan and the Zoning Code (at the time that the Project’s application was deemed complete by the city) is that the Project parcel is intended to be developed primarily for commercial, community-serving uses, with some, “small-scale,” ancillary residential development, not vice versa.

Therefore, the city must find that the Project is “inconsistent with both the jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance and general plan land use designation as specified in any element of the general plan” and therefore not eligible for streamlining processing under SB 330.

In order to be considered under any circumstances, the Project, as submitted, would first need to apply for rezoning of the subject property and, perhaps, approval under Mill Valley Municipal Code Section 20.57.010, Planned Development Combining District, concurrent with an amendment to the General Plan and Land Use Element, and as such, would not benefit from streamlining or any other provisions under SB 330 nor any exemption from a full CEQA assessment process.

Please be aware that among the provisions that allow the city’s Planning Commission and City Council to reject/disapprove a project submitted for processing, under SB 330, SEC. 3, Section 65589.5, (d), a city can disapprove a project if it is not primarily “for development for the use of very low, low-, or moderate-income households.”

Once again and despite the claims made by HCD, there is a reasonable argument that the Project does not qualify for consideration under SB 330 because it does not contain a significant number of very low and low-income units. It is also important to be aware that numerous interpretive conflicts were created by the passage of SB 330, particularly as it relates to CEQA, that have yet to be tested in the courts. And it is somewhat obvious that, in the interim, HCD has been doing everything it can to claim otherwise.

Also, as a matter of public policy and adherence to the Goals, Policies, and Programs of the General Plan and the Housing Element, regarding Mill Valley’s affordable housing needs, it is important to consider that the Project is predominately for-sale, median-income to 120% of median-income to full market-rate housing.

According to the latest U.S. Census, the current median household income for Mill Valley is $170,946. The qualifying income for 120% AMI is therefore $205,135 per year. It is simply insupportable to argue that the Project adequately addresses our city’s affordable housing needs.

2. Is the Project eligible for a CEQA Class 32 categorical exemption?

The Project does not qualify for a categorical Class 32, CEQA exemption under Article 19. Categorical Exemptions; SECTIONS 15300 TO 15332; 15300. CATEGORICAL EXEMPTIONS of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and fails to qualify as “infill” development. (See 2022 CEQA Guidelines here)

The Project developer and the City of Mill Valley are claiming that the Project is exempt from CEQA assessment under Article 19. Categorical Exemptions; SECTIONS 15300 TO 15332; 15300. CATEGORICAL EXEMPTIONS of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The City’s “CEQA Analysis,” the city fully acknowledges, on page 3, that its claim of “CEQA infill Development Exemption” / “Class 32” Exemption is based on its determination that the Project meets all of the following conditions:

[Note that for a Project to qualify for a categorical CEQA exemption, it must satisfy all of these conditions]

The Project, as submitted, fails to qualify for a categorical CEQA exemption, because it does not satisfy all of these conditions.

Failure to meet condition #1:

Similar to our comments on the first question -- “Is the Project eligible for streamlining approval under Senate Bill 330?”-- and for the reasons enumerated, herein, the Project is “inconsistent” with “all general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations” and therefore fails to meet the required conditions for CEQA exemption.

Failure to meet condition #3:

The city has not made adequate, evidence-based findings that “the project site has no value as habitat for endangered, rare or threatened species” as required under CEQA. The city’s and its consultant’s claims of CEQA exemption with regard to habitat and species are made without supporting evidence and as such represent an “opinion,” not an evidenced-based assessment, and are therefore invalid.

Failure to meet the requirements of 2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183, (a).

The 2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183, (a), states,

“CEQA mandates that projects which are consistent with the development density established by existing zoning, community plan, or general plan policies for which an EIR was certified shall not require additional environmental review, except as might be necessary to examine whether there are project-specific significant effects which are peculiar to the project or its site.” [Emphasis added]

As noted above, the Project site falls under this provision and thereby fails to qualify for CEQA categorical exemption. CEQA provides that claims of exemption are “inapplicable” if other CEQA criteria apply to the Project. (Page 296 of the 2022 CEQA Guidelines. For the Richardson Terrace Project, these would include but are not limited to;

“Cumulative Impact. All exemptions for these classes are inapplicable when the cumulative impact of successive projects of the same type in the same place, over time is significant.”

These impacts can include traffic impacts.

“Significant Effect. A categorical exemption shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.”

These impacts can include impacts on water and air quality, and others.

As noted above, evidenced-based findings must be made to determine the extent to which these requirements are applicable. Neither the city nor the applicant has made such findings. The Initial Study simply states conclusions without such evidence, therefore the Project fails this requirement for eligibility for categorical exemption under CEQA.

Even though it has already been established, above, that the Project does not qualify for a categorical CEQA exemption under Article 19. Categorical Exemptions; SECTIONS 15300 TO 15332; 15300. CATEGORICAL EXEMPTIONS, as claimed by the city and the developer, which makes the following discussion moot and unnecessary, the Commission should be aware of the Project’s additional CEQA challenges.

Failure to meet the requirements of 2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183, (b).

CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183.3(b), Streamlining for infill projects, states,

“Eligibility. To be eligible for the streamlining procedures prescribed in this section, an infill project must: (1) Be located in an urban area on a site that either has been previously developed or that adjoins existing qualified urban uses on at least seventy-five percent of the site’s perimeter.” [Emphasis added]

CEQA Guidelines, Section 15191,(e), Definitions, notes,

“(e) “Infill site” means a site in an urbanized area that meets one of the following criteria:

  • at least 75 percent of the perimeter of the site is adjacent to parcels that are developed with existing qualified urban uses at the time the lead agency receives an application for an approval; and
  • the remaining 25 percent of the perimeter of the site adjoins parcels that had been previously developed for qualified urban uses.”

The Project does not meet the first criteria to be designated as an “infill site” because the site has not been “previously developed for qualified urban uses.”

The Project does not meet the first criteria to be designated at an “infill site” because all of the “immediately adjacent” parcels are not “developed with existing qualified urban uses.”

The Project site does not meet the third criteria because the “remaining 25 percent of the parcel [or less per the “at least” 75 percent criteria stated] is not adjacent to “parcels that had been previously developed for qualified urban uses.” The adjacent parcel to the northeast is and has always been undeveloped wildlands / open space.

Additionally, it is questionable if the single-family development that is adjacent to the northwest of the property qualifies as “urban”/a “qualified urban use.”

2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15191,(m), Definitions, notes,

“(m) Urbanized area” is defined as,

“1. An incorporated city that either by itself or in combination with two contiguous incorporated cities has a population of at least 100,000 persons;” [Emphasis added]

The City of Mill Valley has a population of approximately 14,102 residents. Therefore, although some state regulations may consider single-family development as a qualified urban use, with regard to the CEQA Categorical Exemption claimed by the city and the applicant for this Project, the adjacent single-family residential development does not qualify as an “urban use” under the CEQA Guidelines “Definition” noted above.

In addition, it is also arguable whether the residential development adjacent to the Project, on the northwest side, qualifies as an urban use, in this instance, where the adjacent single-family residential use and the Project site are both designated as being wholly within the Wildlands Urban Interface (the “WUI”).

The Southern Marin Fire District Map designates all the parcels north of the E. Blithedale Avenue / Camino Alto Avenue intersection as being in the WUI, and applicable Mill Valley Regulations fully acknowledge that the WUI designation carries with it heightened fire hazard risks. As such and considering that Mill Valley is a box canyon with extremely limited access and egress in the event of a wildfire emergency, how can the city make a reasonable, evidence-based, finding that the adjacent single-family housing is a qualified urban use?

In our opinion, the city cannot credibly make such a finding.

Failure to meet the requirements of 2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183, (b)(3)(A).

2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183.3 (b)(3)(A), notes that in order to qualify as an “infill” project,

“…a residential infill project must have a density of at least 20 units per acre, and a retail or commercial infill project must have a floor area ratio of at least 0.75.” [Emphasis added]

As previously established, above, the percentage of commercial use in the Project is approximately 5.6%. Therefore, the Project is a “commercial” mixed-use development, not a “residential” mixed-use development (as defined in the General Plan and the Zoning Code under CN and C-L zoning), and, as such, the Project fails the requirement for eligibility for categorical exemption under CEQA under Section 15183.3 (b)(3)(A).

Failure to meet the requirements of 2022 CEQA Guidelines, Section 15183, (d)

CEQA Guidelines Section 15183.3 (d), notes,

“Procedure. Following preliminary review of an infill project pursuant to Section 15060, the lead agency must examine an eligible infill project in light of the prior EIR to determine whether the infill project will cause any effects that require additional review under CEQA. Determinations pursuant to this section are questions of fact to be resolved by the lead agency. [Emphasis added]

“Such determinations must be supported with enough relevant information and reasonable inferences from this information to support a conclusion, even though other conclusions might also be reached. (See Section 15384.)” [Emphasis added]

In this case, there is no “prior” project EIR of record. An EIR was drafted when a different version of the Project was submitted, years ago, but that EIR was never adopted or certified, so it has no relevance to the current application process.

Summation:

We respectfully disagree with the city’s conclusion and the 575 E. Blithedale CEQA Checklist, Appendix A-1 contentions that the Project is categorically exempt from a full CEQA impacts assessment process or that it qualifies under CEQA as an “infill” project.

We have clearly established that the Project is inconsistent with the General Plan and Zoning Code. It is located in a CN commercial zone and with C-L designation and is therefore required to be primarily a commercial project. Also note that the CEQA categorical exemption cited, under Section 15183, only addresses exemption for “residential projects” that are “consistent” with the existing General Plan and Zoning Code, not for commercially zoned projects with non-conforming residential uses.

Again, in order to be considered under any circumstances, the Project, as submitted, would first need to apply for rezoning of the subject property and, perhaps, approval under Mill Valley Municipal Code Section 20.57.010, Planned Development Combining District, concurrent with an amendment to the General Plan and Land Use Element, and as such, would not benefit from streamlining or any other provisions under SB 330 nor any exemption from a full CEQA assessment process.

3. Do superior mixed-use project options exist for this location that would better address Mill Valley’s affordable housing needs?

We believe opportunities exist for alternative projects that would be far superior to what is presently being proposed and that would better address the number and types of low-income and affordable housing the community actually needs. We also believe there is sufficient community interest to assemble a capable team of development professionals and secure the financing required to realize alternative proposals.

This is evidenced by the School Board’s interest in purchasing/ leasing housing units at this location and conversations we have had with other local business owners who have also expressed interest in securing housing for their employees and seniors at this location. We also believe this is a unique opportunity for the city to engage in a public/private partnership and lease commercial space for public uses that are presently under-served in our community.

All this begs the question of what the parameters of such a project would be and what types of local commercial businesses would the project target and, in particular, what types of housing units would best address the community’s needs.

Developers are building housing for a population that no longer exists

Some of the more obvious deficiencies of the Project that is currently being proposed are its inappropriate scale, its generic, unimaginative design, and its failure to adequately address Mill Valley’s real, affordable housing needs.

Consider that currently only 42% of California’s adult population is married and only 2/3 of those have children living with them. The other 58% are single, divorced, separated, widowed, or something else. Many of these are single parents or in cohabitation arrangements.

Recent studies suggest that 22% of working adults in California work remotely and another 15% have a mix of working remotely and working outside the home. Many are gig workers, sole proprietors, small business service providers, entrepreneurs, and ‘working people’ who do manual labor and trades and need trucks, equipment, and tools to make a living. And the vast majority of this group qualifies for affordable housing.

We need to start building more housing to address their needs. But California state housing policies utterly fail to address this. For the politicians who are promoting statewide housing mandates, these demographic groups are just statistics, not real people. They are to be “housed” (warehoused?) but it is not acknowledged that they have real lives and real needs.

Similarly, typical, large nonprofit or for-profit developers are driven by a checklist of rigid, unquestioned, statistical ‘norms’ dating back to the 1970s that define what a ‘family’ is and what ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ mean: prevailing ideals that end up being no one’s experience in real life, but rather something apartment tenants settle for in the hope of someday living in a ‘real’ home.

Most housing developers have little interest in people's lives and dreams nor do the state agencies that subsidize developers with taxpayer money. Heaven forbid, a person leads an unconventional or alternative lifestyle, or doesn’t go to an office every day to a 9 to 5 desk job but instead works odd hours or works from home or part-time, remotely, or is a creative spirit or a craftsperson or someone whose life includes a variety of hobbies, side-hustles, and other activities and endeavors.

None of this is considered in multifamily housing proposals such as the Richardson Terrace Project.

Demographics have changed, dramatically, in the past few decades. For example, there’s a new class of seniors who could be called the ‘active elderly,’ who fall somewhere between old enough to retire but not nearly ready to consider senior housing communities or in need of assisted living or nursing care. And their numbers are growing rapidly.

At the other end of the ‘barbell,’ there is a largely unhoused young adult demographic that is simply priced out of every major metropolitan housing market in the state, particularly Mill Valley. But neither of these two demographics needs the same floor plans and amenities that the other does, or what their contemporaries did in the past.

The active elderly singles and couples want better kitchens and open floor plans for leisure and entertaining, a home office space and a small guest room (for when the kids visit), and perhaps more usable, private outdoor space for plants, pets, and gardening. They are also candidates for well-designed studio apartments.

The young adult demographic—singles, couples, single parents, and cohabitants--are more focused on adequately sized individual rooms (better for cohabitation, having young children, and working remotely), compact layouts, state-of-the-art technological features, multi-purpose areas, and more storage for all their sports equipment and stuff. They are good candidates for live/work opportunities, lofts, micro-units, and other, more flexible/adaptive living spaces.

Generally, these demographics also want somewhat different amenities.

The active elderly might look for things like concierge assistance, shared dining opportunities, exercise classes, a ‘business center’ for copying, faxing, public computers, etc., and locations close to shopping and healthcare providers (which this site location provides).

The young adult demographic might also value some of these things, but to a lesser or a more robust extent, with more emphasis on indoor and outdoor socializing spaces, shared remote working areas, hardcore workouts, and proximity to fast food and health-conscious options, and easy access to Highway 101 and nightlife and entertainment (i.e., in San Francisco, which this site location also provides).

Green construction and energy-saving/cost-saving design, appliances, and fixtures are also becoming a high priority for all.

Unfortunately, the majority of developers in Marin County, including the current Project applicant, are still building the same old multifamily housing designs using the same old apartment floor plans and building “styles” that have been used since the 1970s, and generally catering to traditional, higher-end tenants. Yet, very few are building housing to address either of the growing, non-generic demographic groups mentioned, above, particularly housing that is actually affordable for them.

(Remember, the current median household income for Mill Valley is $170,946. The qualifying income for 120% AMI is therefore $205,135 per year. And “market rate” is for tenants who make a lot more.)

Alternative Project Opportunities

The subject parcel has significant potential for superior design solutions that employ a collaborative, public/private partnership team approach, with the participation of local business owners and housing developers/managers; A solution that would be far less impactful (the same or even greater density but smaller and more varied units), while better addressing the goals and needs elaborated above and our city’s RHNA housing obligations.

Its design would respect and compliment the shape and topography/slope of the site and optimize the opportunities for community-serving retail/commercial businesses to thrive. And it would maximize the number of affordable housing units while maintaining an appropriate scale and character.

In sum, we believe this is achievable.

We would all be wise to remember that we have very few viable housing opportunity sites in Mill Valley and few sites as visually impactful as this one, which is why we should not allow it to be squandered on building inappropriately scaled, generic, non-community-serving, “unaffordable” housing.

Community Venture Partners and concerned community leaders are available to discuss this in greater detail, upon request.


[1] Footnote: Re: Letter from HCD to Planning Commissioners:

As a matter of law, an opinion by HCD staff, while arguably informative, is by no means binding on any court, and therefore is of limited utility in addressing the Richardson Terrace project. (See Yamaha Corp. of America v. State Bd. of Equalization (1998) 19 Cal.4th 1, 11, “[b]ecause an interpretation is an agency’s legal opinion, however “expert,” rather than the exercise of a delegated legislative power to make law, it commands a commensurably lesser degree of judicial deference.”


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.