Speaking as President of the Freeman Park Neighborhood Association, I’d like to share my thoughts about the Richardson Terrace mixed-use development proposal. I want to state from the outset that we are not opposed to the development of affordable housing on the site. In fact, we would support fewer luxury, market rate units and more smaller, affordable-by-design units for our local service workers, the elderly, teachers, and others.
For 18 years, developer Phil Richardson has brought ambitious plans for developing his site at 575 E. Blithedale to city planners and city councils. During those 18 years, our city planners and city council, guided by the Mill Valley General Plan and zoning ordinance, have rejected his plans and neighbors and other Mill Valley residents have objected to the scale and mass of the project and its failure to address the public safety and traffic congestion at the Camino Alto/E. Blithedale intersection.
The objections of the neighbors and other residents remain unchanged. In fact, they have increased because the most recent proposal is larger and more impactful than any of the prior plans.
On January 10, 2023, under the threat of lawsuits from the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and from the developer and because if claims by city staff and the city attorney that they had no real choice, the Planning Commission voted 4-1 to approve the project.
In response, Community Venture Partners filed an appeal to the city council, of the project’s approval as a Mill Valley community-serving nonprofit organization and on behalf of the Freeman Park Neighborhood Association and Mr. Toby Kennedy.
The City Council will hear the appeal on Monday, March 6 at 5:30 in the City Hall chambers.
The fundamental argument in the appeal is that the project is not “consistent” with the Mill Valley General Plan or the Zoning Ordinance. As such, it is not exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or eligible for “fast track” review (no public hearing before the city council) as the developer claims. The intentions of the General Plan and Zoning make it perfectly clear that the site is to be developed, primarily, for commercial use with residential use being a “small-scale” subordinate use.
The Richardson Terrace Project is the exact opposite. The commercial space is only 5.6% of the total square footage.
Most importantly, no environmental impact report (EIR) has ever been done for this project and without it there will not be any assessment of its immediate and long-term cumulative impacts, including traffic and public safety impacts. An EIR needs to be required.
The City Council’s Authority
The details of the legal arguments in the appeal are complex but the bottom line is that there is nothing in any of the state housing laws (except for the “Builder’s Remedy” or the State Density Bonus Law, neither of which apply in this situation) that overrules the city council’s authority to determine what is or is not consistent with our General Plan and Zoning Ordinance. As such, HCD cannot successfully sue the city if the city council requests changes or modifications to ensure that it is consistent with our General Plan and Zoning.
The city council is bound by its duty to uphold the goals, policies, and regulations of our General Plan and Ordinances. Or if the council wishes to amend the General Plan, then there are prescribed steps they are required to follow to do so (public hearings, environmental review, etc.). So, the simple question before our elected representatives is will they use their authority to stand up for the goals, policies, and regulations in our General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, and the wishes of their constituents, or succumb to HCD’s legal threats?
It is understandable for the city to be cautious about the threat of lawsuits. HCD and a host of real estate industry funded nonprofits have turned to litigation first, rather than working collaboratively with communities. And Attorney General Rob Bonta’s “Housing Strike Force” is intent on keeping cities in line.
However, capitulating to the heavy-handed tactics of HCD and the applicant would set a terrible precedent about local control of planning and the sovereignty of the “Constitution” of a city, our General Plan.
Over the next eight years, HCD has demanded that Mill Valley build 865 new housing units (almost a 600% increase over the past 8-year cycle) to meet our inflated and unrealistic RHNA housing quota. If the Richardson Terrace project is allowed to be approved, as submitted, every developer that brings a project forward in the future will argue for approval without conformance to our General Plan or examination of their project’s negative environmental impacts, based on the precedent set by the city's decision.
Because of this, Bob Silvestri, president of Community Venture Partners, has said that this could be a seminal legal case to argue, the outcome of which could influence hundreds of decisions about housing proposals throughout California. The consequences of the Planning Commission’s project approval, under duress, are too important to let stand.
The appeal asks the city council to use their authority to require changes to the Richardson Terrace project, including changing the mix of commercial and residential uses to provide more low-income units, and reduce the project’s aesthetic, environmental, and traffic safely impacts.
We only have one chance to get this right. Here are some things you can do.
- Email the Mill Valley City Council members with your point of view (firstname.lastname@example.org). Urge them to read the appeal.
- Ask for a meeting with them to discuss the project and bring a neighbor.
- Ask the city council to condition any approval with the requirement for further study on the cumulative impacts on safety, traffic, and congestion.
- Suggest a design that provides more ‘affordable-by-design” units to better meet the need of low-income wage-earners.
- Mark your calendar for the March 6 hearing, starting at 5:30.