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Save Friends Field at the Mill Valley Community Center

This is the first in a series of articles investigating a misguided and ill-fated proposal by the Mill Valley School District (MVSD) Board to break its time-honored shared-use and maintenance agreements with the City of Mill Valley and eliminate the most important public, outdoor team sports and public events space in the City; Friends Field at the Mill Valley Community Center.


On Thursday, February 1st, with just 24 hours of advanced notice, the Mill Valley School District Board convened a meeting to announce a massive, multi-year development proposal to demolish the Mill Valley Middle School buildings (except for the gym) on Sycamore Avenue and build a new an entirely new middle school on Friends Field.

This demolition and redevelopment project will eliminate 80% or more of Friends Field and use that remainder only for school purposes. It also proposes to flatten the land where the Middle School now stands, reconfigure roadways, eliminate most of the existing school parking, and build a smaller sports field at the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Camino Alto Avenue, almost ¼ mile away from the newly proposed Middle School and the existing Mill Valley Community Center, separated by bridges over federally protected wetlands.

On this basis alone, how is this a sensible idea?

The scope, environmental impacts, community impacts, and the associated costs and logistics of the MVSD proposal are staggering. It would arguably be the biggest and most expensive public agency project in the city’s history. Yet, the justifications for the project provided by MVSD and the proposal information available to the public have been sketchy, incomplete, contradictory, misleading, and generally incomprehensible.

The preliminary schemes, construction phasing plans, and redevelopment cost projections offered by MVSD’s well-paid consultants are amateurish at best and wildly optimistic to the point of being naïve, at worst. Our preliminary estimates suggest that the actual costs will likely exceed MVSD’s estimates by more than 20%, particularly because the proposed timeline through construction is impossibly optimistic (CEQA assessment, draft circulation, and comment periods, and arriving at an approved remediation plan alone will take at least 1 1/2 to 2 years, while construction costs continue to rise. And that assumes no legal challenges are filed, which will add another 3 years).

We say this because MVSD’s estimates also fail to properly account for the potential time and costs of numerous, inter-related, significant environmental and construction challenges at this location. And the public bond financing scheme that MVSD is relying on to fund the project is, frankly, aspirational and ignores the realities of the public debt markets.

From an environmental standpoint, one of the major redevelopment challenges here includes the need for toxic soils remediation at the existing Middle School site and, potentially, also at the Friends Field site. As reported in a Marin IJ article in October of 2023, the EPA has already indicated that such is the case for the existing Middle School site and the Community Center's Friends Field site already has a "cap" over its toxic soils that cannot be violated without triggering remediation. (Both were the locations of city dumps in the past.)

The associated time/costs of structures’ demolition, soil excavation and removal, off-haul, import of clean fill, compaction to Federal Standards, the multi-agency testing/assessment studies’ requirements, remediation monitoring, completion approvals, 404 Clean Water Act permitting, and sign-offs by BCDC, the Army Corps of Engineers, the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Region 9 EPA, and others, in addition to the need to address the short-term and long-term impacts of ongoing subsidence, flooding, and sea level rise on all of the properties included in the proposals are sizable and prone to outsized cost overruns and contingencies.

Oddly, MVSD has used the demonstrated need for remediation at the existing Middle School site as a rationale for building on Friends Field. However, whether the existing Middle School is renovated and expanded or it is torn down and the site is re-landscaped for a playing field, soils remediation is required. In fact, the less expensive remediation option is to renovate and expand the existing middle school because then only the portions of the site that are disturbed by that new construction require remediation. And, if the renovation is vertical, adding more floors, the remediation costs would undoubtedly be minimized. In either case, this will involve further, more comprehensive, EPA-supervised assessments, testing, and borings to establish an approvable remediation plan, none of which is correctly budgeted for.

It is alarming that MVSD is rushing headlong into an extremely complex, multi-year proposal of this magnitude so precariously without even seeking the cooperation of and coordination with their most important civic partner, the City of Mill Valley.

The City was blindsided by MVSD

In response to MVSD’s 24-hour notice, Todd Cusimano, the Mill Valley City Manager, wrote an urgent letter to the MVSD Board. In that letter, he noted the following:

“I am writing to address my concerns related to the proposal to place the new Middle School campus on any portion of Friends Field, and the potential impact on the community, including the Mill Valley Community Center. I believe it is crucial to revisit our collaborative history, understand the current situation, and explore viable solutions for the benefit of our community.

“Understanding the importance of our ongoing collaboration between agencies, in 2019, former City Manager Jim McCann, former Recreation Director Jenny Rogers, former Superintendent Kimberly Berman, and current Assistant Superintendent Michele Rollins engaged in drafting a Joint Use Agreement to formalize and provide clarity on the City's responsibilities in programming, using, and maintaining District property, including Friends Field. …Unfortunately, despite five years of discussion, negotiations, and numerous public meetings at the Parks and Recreation Commission, the revised use agreement between the City and District was not finalized.”


“Since the 1960s, the City and the District have shared a long history of cooperation, utilizing the land around the Middle School and Community Center for the community's benefit. Collaborative efforts between the City and District led to the optimal placement of the new Middle School, with the City agreeing to swap what is now the Public Safety Building site, then owned by the District, with the current site on Sycamore Ave. This swap was beneficial to the school as it made it closer to neighborhoods and increased the ability for children to walk and bike to school.

“The District’s property, now known as Friends Field, was a former landfill that was converted to a grass playing field. The District struggled to pay the high costs of maintaining the field, leading to an agreement that the City would renovate the field and charge fees for afternoon and weekend use to support field maintenance and upkeep. The initial renovation cost the City around $1 million, and over the years the City has dedicated substantial funds from its own budget, along with those raised by the Friends of Fields and user fees, all for the benefit of the field. In all, the City estimates that it has contributed over $3.5 million for repairs and maintenance, including a significant renovation in 2019.

“The history and significance of Friends Field are intertwined with the adjacent Community Center, which was constructed with a combination of public and private funds. It was built at a cost of $12.8 million in 1997 (equivalent to $25 million today), with $6 million ($11.7 million today) from community donations. Community members involved in the fundraising effort shared stories of hundreds of children who brought their piggy banks to contribute to this cherished community asset.

“Current Use and Impact of Proposal:

“The Mill Valley Community Center was meticulously designed not as a standalone building but to seamlessly integrate with the pool, playing fields, and the neighboring Middle School and The Redwoods. The Center's design blends into the surrounding environment, with buildings oriented to form a crescent facing the open space of Friends Field.

“Friends Field plays a crucial role in our community, acting as a scenic venue for sports, entertainment, and various community gatherings. Serving as a central hub for local youth and supporting organizations such as Mill Valley Soccer Club, Southern Marin Lacrosse, Mill Valley Little League, Southern Marin Youth Football, and Mill Valley Girls Softball, the field fosters community engagement. With over 2,500 registered participants in youth sports organizations using Mill Valley's athletic fields, Friends Field also hosts City-sponsored events, drawing in hundreds of families. Notably, the Mill Valley Music Festival attracts 5,000 attendees per day over a two-day festival, while the KIDDO Memorial Day Carnival sees thousands of participants over the Memorial Day weekend.

“Friends Field provides dynamic usage for a wide range of sports and activities, with quick drainage after adverse weather, a large parking lot for safe drop-off and pick-up of players, wide accessibility, and access to outdoor restrooms. Its adjacency to the Community Center is a vital element in the area's success. Placing the new school campus on Friends Field would have a considerable impact on the Community Center and would significantly alter its function and financial viability.


“While the City and District function independently, each with its administration, board, and tax revenue, we have consistently collaborated. Mill Valley is a unified town, and its beauty and success stem from the enduring partnership between the City and the District. Continuing this partnership maintains a tradition of working together for the common good. Our aim is to uphold this long history of collaboration for the benefit of the community, ensuring its continuation into the future and for generations to come.

“We have diligently worked for many months to offer the District assistance in exploring alternative solutions to address the challenges your team is facing with the renovation project. We extend an offer to continue working together to find a workable solution to the renovation project and challenges.”

Despite this detailed, reasonable, and very respectful plea by our City, the MVSD Board has summarily ignored it and pushed forward. And at their Thursday night meeting the disrespect for the City was on full display. When our Mayor, Urban Carmel, got up to make comments on behalf of the City and all its residents, the Board notified him that he would only be granted one minute to speak and they cut him off the second he exceeded that time limit!

The hubris and demonstrative arrogance of the MVSD Board are shocking and completely unacceptable and should not be tolerated by Mill Valley residents, whose taxes pay for MVSD’s privileged fiefdom.

Subsequently, CVP received personal notes from two individuals who attended the meeting, recapping the discussions and decisions made. Both of these individuals are prominent Mill Valley residents, both of whom have contributed decades of public service for the betterment of our town, and both of whom are highly respected experts in real estate development and finance.

I will end this article with their comments and observations.

First Meeting Recap

“Frankly, the School Board's consultants are wrong about a lot of the issues. There were several people there last night who could have explained that to the board, but were given only one minute to speak. Strictly performative - the board wasn't interested in the slightest to learn of the history of the field site, to hear from the good people who funded, privately, the construction of the fields, who are expert builders, and know very well the conditions of the site, etc.

“Of course, the current building can be renovated and expanded in situ; the rebuild of Edna Maguire is a perfect example. The Board demonstrated in their questioning that they were not knowledgeable about construction, and their unnecessarily rude treatment of the current mayor and his predecessors was the worst treatment of a fellow public official I have observed in my 45 years of dealing with city governments.

“They gave the community one day's notice of the pivot from earlier plans to renovate the existing property, [Mill Valley Middle School] and the notice itself contained a link, which was non-functional, to purported supporting documents.

“The new plan is poorly thought-out, but the board doesn't know that yet because they didn't listen to anyone but their consultants who failed to advise them of several troublesome aspects of the new plan. They are about to hear what they don't know, namely that their new plan is a terrible idea, both for objective as well as subjective reasons, from a well-informed and concerned community. The whole evening was an object lesson in bad governance.”

Second Meeting Recap

“30 speakers in total and discussion was limited to one minute per speaker with a timer running. In all my time in Marin County I have never seen a one minute speaker limit. The Mayor spoke first and asked for additional time and he was denied so he was limited to one-minute as well to speak officially on behalf of the City.

“The decision to move forward was clearly a done deal as Board discussion was limited to demonstrating why this was a prudent decision to move forward with building on the school site.

“There are $70M+ in soft costs planned. This is extraordinary.

“The MVSD is short $20M on the planned budget. They intend to receive the shortfall IF the State bond measure passes in November and only if it does will they receive the money in 2027 or 2028. So they are moving forward with the expectation that they will receive the funds without any assurances and without planning in the event that they do not. This leaves no money in the bond for ANY construction at any other MV schools despite assurances that were made in the bond campaign.

“They plan on obtaining a “bridge loan” if the funds run out and no State bond issue – who issues these and at what terms? Consultants suggested that the contingency budget can be used for some of these costs – using that before the project starts is hardly what contingency funds are designed for.

“The consultants said that the field site is no different from the school site when dealing with BCDC. This is hardly accurate as the school site is already developed and the field site is not.

“There has been no discussion of logistics as to how kids and parents will come and go to the new proposed site. Obviously, this will be through the MVCC parking lot and buildings, none of which were designed to handle numerous cars and traffic throughout the day. How can this possibly be controlled or monitored? Will parents/kids really come up Sycamore, across the bridge, through a new parking lot, and then to school? [There was] No discussion at all.

“This proposal will destroy the heart of the design and feeling of our community center.”

To be continued.

The MVSD Board's next meeting on this proposal is February 8th. We urge everyone to submit comments.

Also see: Friends of Fields Files Demand Letter to MVSD to suspend expenditures of Measure G funds

Bob Silvestri is a long-time Mill Valley 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.