After 18 years of intermittent attempts to develop to build housing on his 575 Blithedale property at the intersection of East Blithedale Ave. and Camino Alto, Phil Richardson, for the first time in the history of the developer’s quest, has a dose of momentum to continue moving forward.
In a 4-1 vote, planning commissioners voted to continue the public hearing that was halted in a flurry of confusion late at night on Nov. 17; to receive information related to Richardson’s proposed mixed-use, (25-unit and 2,240 sq ft commercial space) development; to consider the project based on the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), SB 330, and Density Bonus Law; to provide determination on a draft resolution related to CEQA Exemption under Sections 15332 and 15183; and to support the project’s Conditional Use Permit, Tentative Map, Design Review & Tree Removal Permit. Commissioner Greg Hildebrand voted against.
The project’s size, scope, impact and possibilities remain front and center, as do the logistics of the busy intersection where it is proposed. It’s the latest chapter in the longtime local builder’s enthusiastic attempt to develop a 1.2-acre property that he’s owned since 2004, facing stiff opposition ever since from neighbor groups that have packed public hearings, hired land-use attorneys and gone back and forth with him via sign wars.
Richardson has proposed a 25-unit proposal that calls for six 800-square foot affordable homes; six 800-square-foot homes designed for seniors, three 1,100-square-foot market rate homes and 10 2,100-square foot market rate homes. It also includes 2,240 square feet of ground floor commercial office space on a 1.2-acre site. Richardson proposes 12 of the housing units above the office space, including 11 two-bedroom units and 1 one-bedroom unit.
Richardson’s architect, award-winning architect Mark Cavagnero, a Mill Valley resident, re-imagine the original street level design to fit in with the surrounding commercial buildings and draw elements from each of those existing buildings.Mill Valley resident Mark Cavagnero, noted that the project’s mass was reduced to 80 percent of what’s allowed and the unit count as 74 percent of what he could build.
Per City Hall, a presentation slide show is available for review, and the meeting video is not yet available but will be posted soon.
For those who weren’t able to attend the Nov. 8th hearing, the planning commission hearing lasted more than six hours.
“I’ve been working on this project for 18 years,” Richardson said in a brief project introduction, expressing his gratitude for city staff and his consultants “so that we can come up with a project that addresses the town’s concerns. I’m here to build some housing for Mill Valley, which I think it needs,” nodding to his pending agreement with the Mill Valley School District to purchase six affordable units for rental units for teachers and staff.
“I’m 87 years old, and I don’t want my wife to have to build this thing,” Richardson said when asked by councilmembers if he’d be willing to consider alternative versions to the project he was proposing.
Eric Phillips, Richardson’s land use attorney, pointed out the litany of key local updates and California state law changes that have occurred since Richardson last proposed a development on Kite Hill in 2006. That includes the City of Mill Valley’s passage of a new General Plan in 2013, which created the land use and density standards with which the project complies. City officials also prepared and certified a full Environmental Impact Report that analyzed all the environmental impacts throughout the city and including at the site.
The bulk of the evening was spent with commissioners hearing commentary from local residents, starting with Jake Moskovitz, who kicked things off with a different tack than the yay-or-nay conversation that dominated much of the evening. “If we need to build as much housing (as is being included in our Housing Element), why are we leaving the opportunity to have even more housing on the site? How is that satisfying the housing needs as much as possible for the city?”
Blithedale Terrace resident Thomas McKlveen also spoke in favor of the proposal, saying that Richardson “has done everything that has been asked of him.”
Melanie Morgan of Altamont Ave. told the commission that she was initially opposed to the project but changed her mind in the intervening time. “I can’t ignore the need for housing in Mill Valley and in the Bay Area and I feel like it is something we need to deal with it.”
Most residents expressed concerns about the project. “You guys haven’t paid attention to what the community is saying to you,” said 40-year Mill Valley resident Carl Arena. “Do not be the bureaucrat who turns away from your constituents, the people who pay taxes here!”
“This housing could provide much-needed affordable housing to our educators,” said soon-to-be Tamalpais Union High School District trustee Emily Ulhorn. “We badly need housing of all kinds in Mill Valley. We are never going to get more housing if we don’t build to scale. We can choose to have more traffic coming down our freeways or we can say that we are committed here to having more housing in Mill Valley. I urge you to approve this as is.”
Nona Dennis, a Mill Valley resident since 1959 and environmentalist and former planning commissioner, said that one of the most egregious changes in recent decades have been “the proliferation of huge houses in the hills of Mill Valley, which don’t in any way satisfy the needs of the community. By all objective planning standards, this is an ideal location.”
Stalwart resistance very much remains. “This project is the most hair-brained thing I have ever seen in my life,” said Spencer Fast, a resident of Kite Hill Lane. “Let’s give (Richardson) $2 million and be done with it.”
As Mill Valley residents know, the property is located near a number of commercial district, including the Alto Plaza shopping center on Blithedale, close proximity to the Mill Valley Middle School, Tam High and several elementary schools and the Mill Valley Community Center. The property is three blocks from the Hwy. 101 overpass.
Here are some additional renderings of Richardson’s project, courtesy Mark Cavagnero Associates: