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Richardson Terrace

The Richardson Terrace proposals fails to address Mill Valley's affordable housing needs


The following comments has been submitted to the Mill Valley Planning Commission, regarding the project known as “Richardson Terrace” at 575 E. Blithedale Avenue, Mill Valley, on January 10, 2023.


Dear Mill Valley Planning Commissioners,

I am submitting these comments regarding the proposed Richardson Terrace, mixed-use development at 575 E. Blithedale Avenue (the “Project”), 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 that works to bring the public’s voice to local government agency decision-making.

The facts, citations, and arguments presented in this letter have been reviewed by legal counsel and are intended to provide the Planning Commission with reasonable grounds to request the changes suggested, herein. Our previous comments, submitted on November 10, 2022, are incorporated herein, by reference. Those comments are expanded upon and clarified in this letter.

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Our purpose is to urge you to not approve the project, as submitted, and require changes that conform it to the requirements of the Mill Valley General Plan and Zoning Ordinance and better serve Mill Valley’s affordable housing needs by providing more small, affordable units and a more compatible design, without reducing density, but with reduced height, bulk, and mass, and increased traffic safety (as discussed in detail in the traffic analysis by Pang Ho, which was submitted by Friends of Kite Hill).

In our opinion, the project, as submitted, does not qualify for CEQA exemption or the requirements for streamlining under SB 330 or the Housing Accountability Act.

City staff's warnings of “severe legal consequences” for failing to approve the project, as is, are grossly exaggerated. The staff has failed to clarify that the draconian penalties it is referring to only apply to cities that have either (1) failed to meet their RHNA quota in the last housing cycle or failed to have a certified housing element in place, or both, neither of which is true for the City of Mill Valley or (2) for failing to approve a project that is fully consistent with the city’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, which the Richardson Terrace project is not.

We are supportive of the state’s goals to increase affordable housing (which the project fails to do in any significant way), but we are not pleased to see City Staff misstating and otherwise incorrectly conflating legal terms and language in an attempt to bully and intimidate the Planning Commission.

Please consider that HCD cannot successfully challenge your well-reasoned decisions to request modifications to the project if the number of units is not reduced or if the percentages of low-income units are increased, while development costs remain feasible.

Our analysis indicates all of this is achievable.

Superior mixed-use project options exist that better address Mill Valley’s affordable housing needs

Superior alternatives exist that would increase the percentage and types of low-income and affordable housing units, which the community actually needs. This is evidenced by conversations we have had with local landlords and business owners who wish to secure housing for their employees and seniors.

Regarding the proposed unit mix, consider that 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 low-income housing.

We need to build more housing to address their needs. But California state housing policies fail to address this. Similarly, typical, large nonprofit or for-profit developers are driven by a checklist of unquestioned design ‘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.

Today, many people lead unconventional or alternative lifestyles. They don’t go to an office every day to a 9 to 5 desk job but instead work odd hours or from home or part-time, remotely, or are creative spirits or craftspersons or whose life includes a variety of hobbies, side-hustles, and other activities and endeavors.

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

Demographics have also changed, dramatically. 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 the need for assisted living or nursing care. And their numbers are growing rapidly. At the other end of the ‘barbell,’ there is a largely un-housed young adult demographic that is priced out of every major metropolitan housing market in the state, particularly Mill Valley. But neither of these two demographics needs the traditional floor plans found in the Richardson Terrace proposal.

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

Unfortunately, the Richardson Terrace proposal is mostly catering to traditional, higher-end condo buyers and tenants.

Alternative Project Opportunities

The subject parcel has significant potential for superior design solutions that would be far less impactful (the same or even greater density with smaller and more varied unit types), while better addressing the goals and needs elaborated above and our RHNA housing obligations.

There are very few viable housing opportunity sites in Mill Valley and few sites as visually impactful as this, which is why we can’t allow it to be wasted on building inappropriately designed non-community-serving, out-of-scale, and generally unaffordable housing.

Considering the need to maximize cost-effective construction methods to ensure financial feasibility, this is an excellent candidate for modular, prefabricated construction. Fortunately, we now have a major provider of that product in the SF Bay Area (it is being utilized for the new project at San Quentin).

The result would be similar to Mediterranean hill towns with stores, professional office, and commercial spaces for service providers at street level and a variety of housing unit types set at varying levels, above, gently stepping up the slopes and around mature heritage trees -- rectilinear, stucco and wood forms in muted earth tones with plantings and greenery overflowing from trellised decks and planters: the entire development powered by rooftop solar panels.

The Richardson Terrace project is not eligible for “streamlining” processing under SB 330 or the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), as submitted, because it is not “consistent with the Mill Valley General Plan

In order to be eligible for “streamlining,” a project proposal must be “consistent” with the existing General Plan at the time of its submission. 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: https://www.cityofmillvalley.org/DocumentCenter/View/946/Categories-and-Map-PDF

At the same time, 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: https://www.cityofmillvalley.org/DocumentCenter/View/559/Zoning-Map-PDF

However, “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: 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.

We ask that the Planning Commission please address this inconsistency in their discussions at your hearing on January 10th.

However, for these purposes in determining eligibility for streamlining, our interpretation is that the General Plan supersedes the Zoning Ordinance.

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, which is required to be eligible for streamlining 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 primarily 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 developments on all 4 corners.

However, also note that the limitations under C-L zoning (found in the Zoning Ordinance) are even more restrictive than the CN 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.”

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

Also, 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. Neither do.

This constitutes sufficient evidence to make a “finding” that the project, as submitted, is inconsistent with the General Plan as is required to qualify for streamlining under SB 330 and the HAA.

(Please note that all of this also applies to the claim of CEQA exemption, as discussed, below, and CEQA requires that all determinations of eligibility for exemption must be “evidence-based.”)

Summary of comments on SB 330 and HAA:

A reasonable interpretation of the Mill Valley General Plan (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.

In addition, under SB 330, SEC. 3, Section 65589.5, (d), a city can disapprove or condition approval of a project if it is not primarily “for development for the use of very low, low-, or moderate-income households.”

Per 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 primarily for the development of for-sale, median-income to 120% of median-income and full market-rate housing. Not primarily for lower-income households.

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.

Therefore, the Planning Commission is fully within its authority to find that the Project is “inconsistent with both the General Plan land use designation” and therefore not eligible for streamlining processing under SB 330.

The Richardson Terrace project is not eligible for a CEQA Class 32 categorical exemption, as submitted, because it is not “consistent with the Mill Valley General Plan and Zoning Ordinance.

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

However, the project does not qualify for a Class 32, CEQA exemption because (1) the project is not “consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable General Plan policies as well as with applicable Zoning designation and regulations, and (2) it fails to qualify as “infill” development (See 2022 CEQA Guidelines here).

In this case, as opposed to the claim of SB330 streamlining, the claim of CEQA exemption is not just dependent on the project’s consistency with the General Plan, but by statute, also requires consistency with the Zoning Ordinance.

Please consider that the inconsistencies with the General Plan, noted above, apply equally to this project’s claim of CEQA exemption. Again, 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: https://www.cityofmillvalley.org/DocumentCenter/View/559/Zoning-Map-PDF

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

However, the limitations under C-L zoning are even more restrictive than the CN zoning designation in the General Plan Land Use Element. 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.”

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.

In addition,

The city has failed to make evidence-based findings

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.

The project fails to meet the requirements of the 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]

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 (See the traffic analysis by Pang Ho, submitted by Friends of Kite Hill).

“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 evidence-based findings. The Initial Study simply states conclusions without such evidence, therefore the Project fails this requirement for eligibility for categorical exemption under CEQA.

However, the project also fails to meet the criteria for a categorical CEQA exemption under Article 19. Categorical Exemptions; SECTIONS 15300 TO 15332; 15300. CATEGORICAL EXEMPTIONS, for other reasons.

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:

The Project does not meet the criteria to be designated as an “infill site” because the site has not been “previously developed for qualified urban uses” and because all of the “immediately adjacent” parcels are not “developed with existing qualified urban uses.”

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, with regard to the CEQA Categorical Exemption, the adjacent single-family residential development does not qualify as an “urban use” under the CEQA Guidelines “Definition” noted above.

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]

However, as previously established, above, the percentage of commercial use in the Project is only approximately 5.6%, and therefore, the Project fails to adhere to the General Plan Land Use Element designation and the Zoning Ordinance designation and requirement that it be a “commercial” mixed-use project (not a “residential” mixed-use project) for eligibility for categorical exemption under CEQA under Section 15183.3 (b)(3)(A).

Summary of comments on CEQA:

We respectfully disagree with the staff’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.

It is 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, which it is not and cannot be unless the site zoning designation is changed to residential mixed-use.

Note that the CEQA categorical exemption 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.

This constitutes sufficient evidence to make a “finding” that the project, as submitted, is inconsistent with “the General Plan and applicable Zoning designation and regulations” and therefore fails to meet the required conditions for CEQA exemption.

Therefore, the Planning Commission is fully within its authority to find that the Project is inconsistent with the General Plan land use designation and the Zoning Ordinance and therefore not eligible for a categorical exemption from a robust CEQA process. (Please see the January 8, 2023 comment letter by Burton Miller, regarding the Planning Commission’s discretion to “disagree” with the staff’s CEQA exemption claims.)

Final Comments:

As noted, in this instance, the Planning Commission has full, factually based authority to disapprove the Project in its present form because the Project is inconsistent” with the Mill Valley General Plan Land Use Map and the Mill Valley Zoning Ordinance.

For the Project to be considered, the Applicant would need to reapply for rezoning of the subject property and a concurrent amendment to the General Plan and Land Use Element. As such, it cannot benefit from streamlining or any other provisions under SB 330 nor exemption from a full CEQA assessment process at this time.

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


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.