Former Planning Commissioner, Burton Miller, sent his comments to Members of the Mill Valley Planning Commission, regarding the proposal for the mixed-use development project known as Richardson Terrace at 575 East Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley.
I am writing as a former Planning Commissioner and as a member of the MV2040 General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC), the Zoning and Design Guidelines Advisory Committee (ZDAC crafted the Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & Mixed-Use Design & Development Standards), and as a member of the Objective Design and Development Standards (ODDS) Stakeholders Group. I’ve participated in four (4) Housing Element Updates. I’m also a member of the Friends of Kite Hill Steering Committee and President of the Tamalpais Park Neighborhood Association.
I have reviewed the Staff Report and associated documents and offer the following critical perspective.
The project has a lengthy history of ignoring both community and City concerns. Former Planning Director Vin Smith stated emphatically in a meeting attended by the then City Manager, City Attorney, John Palmer, and me, that the City had informed Mr. Richardson that his recurring proposal (recurring meaning the same proposal resubmitted and resubmitted without change) was unacceptable because it was too large and impactful, and that he had to come back with “something different.” However, in appears that Mr. Richardson simply waited for a change in Planning Director, a change in City Manager, a change in City Council, a change in Planning Commission, and changes in State housing law, only to submit a “new project” still larger in size (floor area and density), more impactful, and even less responsive to City and community concerns.
The Initial Study/CEQA Checklist “supports a determination that the project qualifies as an Infill Development project as defined in CEQA Section 15332 and is therefore categorically exempt from any further CEQA review.” This fundamental determination is propped up by a number of subjective statements – opinions, not objective findings of facts.
Staff works for the community. Unfortunately, in this case, the applicant has been first in line and allowed to advance the project and promote opinions rendered by the applicant’s “experts.” And those subjective opinions have been granted objective status by default.
Staff isn’t armed with an objective basis to challenge those assumptions/claims because the City has failed to compete and approve its Objective Design and Development Standards (ODDS) due to the pandemic.
One can’t easily prove an opinion wrong, especially when privilege is granted to the project sponsor expressing that subjective opinion. The process is deeply flawed, bowing to the applicant’s benefit to the community’s loss.
The goal of this critical analysis and commentary is to make 575 East Blithedale a better project – a project responsive to Mill Valley’s true housing needs; a project that “fits” in both size (height/bulk/mass, as distinct from density/number of units) and character; and a project that respects our General Plan and Housing Element values, goals and objectives, policies, and programs.
The majority in opposition to the current plan fully supports housing on this site. Density is not the issue. The issue is the housing type(s) and unit sizes – the “product,” i.e., large, multi-story, market-rate townhouses, and not the much-needed “smaller-scale housing stock that is attainable or affordable by design” (Housing Element Goal 1.0, C. Diversify Housing and Enhance Affordability).
Following are well-reasoned positions that challenge/”prove” incorrect the efficacy of several findings used to underpin the proposed Categorical Exemption:
Flawed findings for CEQA Categorical Exemption bow to the Applicant
Subjective Opinions Granted Objective Certainty
- Infill Development - 75% Qualified Urban Use Finding
The finding that the project is an “Infill Development” and therefore exempt, in part, hinges on the determination that 75% of the adjacent properties are “qualified urban” uses. However, at least 50% of the site is bounded by single-family homes and wildlands. The site itself is designated as being within the Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) which is decidedly not “urban.”
- C-L Zoning Designation - Mixed-Use as Conditional Use Finding
The project site’s General Plan designation is “Neighborhood Commercial (CN).”It is zoned “Limited Commercial – CL” which allows mixed-use residential buildings with a Conditional Use Permit. The underlying, foundational zoning is clearly “commercial,” yet the project is irrefutably “residential” with a token 5.6% of the gross building area designated for commercial use. And that space is inconsequential, poorly suited for commercial success, and positioned to be utilized as resident storage or property management/marketing space. Therefore, the project does not qualify as “mixed-use.” The mix fails the zoning intent and should not qualify for the Conditional Use Permit in its current configuration.
- Consistency with General Plan, Housing Element, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning and Design Guidelines Finding
The Project was conceived in 2004 and, as noted, has failed to evolve in any measurable way. The planning and design are stuck in 2004 and have failed to acknowledge or respond to changes in the General Plan, Housing Element, Zoning Ordinance, and other regulatory documents and community needs.
The qualifications for streamlining review under SB 330 and for CEQA Class 32 Categorical exemption, both of which the applicant claims to be entitled to, require that the Project is “consistent with both the jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance and general plan land use designation as specified in any element of the General Plan.” It is decidedly not consistent.
I would also argue that the Project is non-responsive to current Housing Element goals, objectives, policies, and programs. It is simply another maximum-build, market-rate, formulaic development devoid of creativity, invention, and merit.
For your reference:
General Plan Overall Goals
- To protect and enhance the natural beauty and small-town character of Mill Valley; and
- To encourage continued diversity of housing, income levels and lifestyles in the community.
Housing Element Goals and Policies
Goal 2.0: Provide opportunities for a range of housing types suited to residents of varying lifestyle needs and income levels.
Policy 2.2Diversify Housing by Creating a Variety of Housing Choices
Encourage diversity in the type, size, price and owner/renter tenure of residential development in Mill Valley, including non-traditional housing types. Strive for a balance of unit sizes provided through new development.
Goal 8.0:Coordinate with citizens, community groups, and government agencies to address housing-related issues in Mill Valley.
Policy 8.3Public Review of Development
Encourage public awareness and involvement in housing development proposals to facilitate the design of new housing that fits within neighborhood context.
General Plan/Housing Element Values, Goals, and Policies are aspirational, expressive of spirit and intent, and cannot be reduced to “objective standards.” The Project fails to acknowledge or achieve small-town character, diversity of housing (size, type), and new housing that fits within the neighborhood context. The Project seeks to shut-down public involvement.
The Project is a repeat of other “pipeline projects” - 500 Miller, 505 Miller, and Simon’s Way – all large-unit, expensive townhouse developments with a minimum to no affordable units. All fail to address Mill Valley’s housing needs. Richardson Terrace can be a better project - more diverse in unit type and size, affordable-by-design, attainable, and with less impact visually and physically.
I urge the Planning Commission to challenge the finding that the project is consistent with the General Plan and applicable zoning regulations.
- Traffic Analysis Finding
- Peer Review prepared by PHA Transportation Consultants dated October 30, 2022, of: W-Trans Traffic Engineering Consultants “Transportation Impact Study for the 575 East Blithedale Project” and “Traffic Operations Study for the 575 East Blithedale Project.”
- “Comments re: traffic issues and problems, 575 East Blithedale project, “Richardson Terrace” letter dated October 30, 2022, submitted by Bingham and Elizabeth D. Kennedy.
- Letter submitted by John Palmer, dated November 10, 2022, concerning traffic analysis.
The above-referenced documents make a compelling case that the W-Trans Traffic Studies and finding of “no significant impact” were reliant on outdated data – data collected during the pandemic, at a time when traffic volumes and patterns were disrupted and reduced. The analysis must be redone and informed by proper data.
- Fire Access Plan Finding
As an architect and planner, I have broad professional project experience with Fire Marshals/Fire Officials in 15 countries internationally, an equal number of states domestically, and in dozens of California jurisdictions. I reviewed the Fire Access Plan for Simon’s Way, currently under construction, with then Fire Chief Jeff Davidson. He explained the departments approach and requirements. In my opinion, the Richardson Terrace Fire Access Plan is being held to a far lesser standard.
The Lamphier-Gregory report states: “Based on these Project designs, the Project appears to meet MVFD standards for fire access. ”“Appears to meet”? – benefit of the doubt bending to the applicant. In my opinion, while the plan may satisfy minimum dimensional criteria, the maneuvering area, turning radii and turn-around provisions are marginal at best. I question the inconsistent measure of safety - Simon’s way held to one standard, Richardson Terrace held to another.
I urge the Planning Commission to consider fire safety and to challenge the finding that “appears to meet” is an acceptable standard to apply to this project and site.
“Award-winning architect Mark Cavagnero”
There seems to be a trend among developers of contentious projects – hire an “award-winning” architect to placate Design Review Boards and Planning Commissions. If there’s an “award-winning” architect, the project must not be so bad.
Mark is an accomplished architect. However, his hands are tied. He has responsibility for one component of the larger project and that component is highly constrained by the rest. He can’t overcome the fact that the overall project is a mash-up of completely divergent design sensibilities and vocabularies – a “dog’s breakfast”, in professional terms.
As an aside, Mark’s piece would be far better if it were simply set back further to align with adjacent building setbacks.
School District Letter of Intent to purchase Six Affordable Units
This announcement reinforces the point that the need for alternative, affordable housing to serve others than the wealthy, market-rate demographic is real. Potential partners do exist – the School District, senior housing providers, etc. Six (6) affordable units are not enough. As noted above, the project is stuck in 2004, if not the 1970’s. The unit plans are the same. School Teachers, seniors, and single-person households (young and old) have different housing needs. Unit types need to be responsive to those needs/lifestyles and not limit those diverse dwellers to an archaic model.
Alternative housing types could achieve an equivalent or perhaps greater density, i.e., number of units, in a building envelop two-thirds the size of that proposed. The visual and physical impacts would be greatly diminished.
The School Districts announcement should sponsor support for rethinking the mix and not looking the other way. The project will not be built for some time. Mr. Richardson’s intention is likely to secure entitlements adding value to the land and then sell the entitled property to another developer.
This provides the time to get it right.
Planning Commission Purview and Responsibilities
- Design Review – Advisory to the Applicant
The Planning Commission will be instructed that it cannot conduct discretionary Design Review, but only comment in the context of objective development standards.
I respectfully ask that the Planning Commission do its job and offer design review as advisory, for the Applicant’s benefit to improve his project. It is important that your thoughts are recorded. The Planning Commission works for the community and would be remiss in fulfilling its duties should it look the other way and fail to offer constructive criticism.
- Make findings and cite evidence compelling the Planning Commission to disagree with the conclusion that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA:
- The project does not qualify as an Infill Development.
- The project does not qualify as a “project consistent with a Community Plan or Zoning”. (Housing Element, Mixed-Use)
- The project may have a significant effect on the environment – e.g., cumulative traffic impacts.
Note that the Project Description posted by Staff on the City’s website states: “If the Planning Commission and/or City Council disagrees (with statements made in the Initial Study/CEQA Analysis, prepared by the City of Mill Valley as Lead Agency), that circumstance would trigger preparation of a Mitigated Negative Declaration or an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project.”
In light of challenges raised herein and articulated in letters submitted by Community Venture Partners, PHA Transportation Consultants, John Palmer, Bingham Kennedy, and others, it is incumbent upon the Planning Commission, and within its proper purview, to disagree with certain assumptions, claims, opinions, and findings supporting the CEQA Categorical Exemption, move to continue the matter, and to instruct Staff to re-examine those assumptions, claims, opinions, and findings.
Given the volume of Staff Report and attachment documents (800+ pages) and all associated complexities, it seems unlikely that Planning Commissioners have had the time to read, absorb and process the content and all its facts, subjective assertions, and implications – another reasonable cause to continue the matter.
Please do so. This is a matter of vast importance to the community. You represent us.
Thank you for your consideration.
Respectively submitted, Burton Miller, FAIA
Burton Miller is a Design Principal of Hornberger + Worstell and a former Associate Partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and as Principal, Director of Architecture at ROMA Design Group, He has specialized in the master planning and design of mixed-use projects and master planning. In 2010, he was elevated to the College of Fellows by the American Institute 0f Architects (FAIA) in recognition of his achievements in urban design and
for his contributions to the larger profession and society.