20 Sunnyside proposed renderings via Geiszler Architects.

On the heels of a pair of major steps forward – an approved Housing Element by the State of California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) through 2031 and unanimous City Council approval of a new development of 45 apartments that are deemed 100% affordable – both city officials and local developers hoping to build more housing are coming to grips with the complexities of that Housing Element and the designs standards associated with it.

Longtime local resident, developer, Barn Owl savior and former Mill Valley Planning Commissioner Steve Geiszler is at the heart of the latest complexity.

In a Planning Commission Study Session earlier this month designed to allow commissioners and applicants to have a back-and-forth exchange without yet committing to a public hearing and thus a verdict on the proposal from the commission, Geiszler learned that his target is a moving one.

“You’re the guinea pig,” Commissioner Jon Yolles said.

Geiszler is proposing a mixed-use multifamily development on an 11,571 square foot lot occupied by an existing 2-story, 7,390 square foot office building he’s seeking to split into two separate lots (5,730 square feet and 5,840 square feet). The project seeks a separate 3-story building with 5 units over a parking garage at the rear of the property. Two of the five units would be affordable to lower or moderate-income households pursuant to the City’s affordable housing requirements. The project requires modifications to development standards, as allowed through Density Bonus law, as will be discussed during the Study Session and further assessed as part of a complete application submitted by the applicant at a later date.

It became clear quickly that the city’s intent to balance the need to build a whole heck of a lot of new housing and its need to hold firm on it Multi-Family Residential, Downtown Residential, & mixed-use Design Guidelines & Development Standards are in conflict with one another.

“This is a moving target,” Geiszler told the commission and staff. “You are moving the goalposts constantly on us. I’ve got to express the incredible frustration this brings. The amount of time that it takes to do all of this and make the changes and then walk into a meeting and then (and then present) new design standards.”

“I get that this is a new thing for Mill Valley,” Geiszler said. “We are trying to have a little patience, but this is pretty brutal. If this gets into BMRs, it’s not going to work financially and this project is going to be a zero. What I’m really worried about is that we went from originally 12 units to six units and now we’re at five units. If this site can’t handle residential development, and we need 865 units in Mill Valley, where are you going to get them? “You’re not going to get them anywhere.”

The state’s mandate for Mill Valley is 865 new residences in the 2023-2031 planning cycle. The city has outlined space for 969 homes at various income levels. The city established three overlay zoning districts, which keeps the base zoning but eases restrictions.

Geiszler initially filed an application in 2023 for a project at 20 Sunnyside Ave. for five two-story townhomes in two buildings that would sit atop the parking garage, with home sizes ranging from about 750 to 1,000 square feet, including two deemed affordable. The proposal initially involved a 12-home project, but it was reduced to six and then five based on community comments.

The back and forth made for an engaging conversation.

Commissioner Jon Yolles called the project viable and “conceptually, exactly what the city is looking to do, to try to build more housing and try to build it at varying income levels, which is part of our housing element.” 

The site is in the downtown commercial district, which has a small-lot housing overlay. The 11,571-square-foot parcel currently has a two-story, 7,390-square-foot office building. 

The project requires modifications to development standards through the density bonus law. The modifications would include reducing the 15-foot setback requirement to 3 feet along south property line for the garage wall, according to Steven Ross, a city planner.

Yolles said he thinks it is a “very attractive” project, and that he wishes more residences were possible.

“It’s not going to be possible to solve everything and still meet our goals, and I think we’re not going to have a choice but to be flexible,” Yolles said.

One week later, the Mill Valley City Council gathered to talk about the balancing act of encouraging and incentivizing housing while adhering to the rules associated with its Housing Element. “There is a lot changing,” Mill Valley Planning Director Patrick Kelly said. “That is what we’re experiencing in light of our Housing Element. Meanwhile, we are obligated to upload our inclusionary housing requirements under the code and state law. If we are ever going to meet our housing requirements under our housing element there must be affordability provisions in our project.”

“The way this project can move forward is through the benefits of the density bonus,” Kelly said said of the Geiszler proposal. “With respect to waivers, this project does not meet the development standards. The benefit of the density bonus and the affordability components that comes with it are the waivers to make a project like this work from a development standpoint. But this project does not meet several development standards

“One option for us is to do something that we didn’t want to do which is to go with fewer units that are bigger and conform to all the standards but we lose the opportunity for more housing,” Geiszler said. “They codes are pushing against each other.”

“The rules and standards are changing and as we move and your timing makes you among the first if not the first to go through this, we are figuring this out  as we go,” Commissioner Eric Macris said. 

“You started with 12 (units), changed it to six and the neighbors made it five,” Hildebrand said. “I think we need to be accepting of the five. We have been talking a lot out in the community about housing that is affordable by design.”

“We’re under a lot of pressure and every community is struggling with the same thing and there are only so many places to put housing,” Yolles added. “The reason this project is taller is because it is concealing the parking. That is why it needs to be taller. The way we grow in Mill Valley is that we have to go up. We can’t sprawl out. We don’t want to be one of those communities.”

“And here’s the first case where now we are preventing someone from being able to build affordable units and in some way we need to encourage them to take advantage of this other overlay which doesn’t give them a chance to design some nice, smaller units,” Hildebrand said. “We’re building the ship while we have a project here underway. Our commitment is to work with the applicant and bring a viable project.”

At a separate hearing one week later, Mayor Urban Carmel acknowledged the ever-shifting, iterative dynamic to the process of creating a cascade of new housing in a town like Mill Valley.

“We’re eating the cake while we’re making it,” Carmel said.

“You’ve got two standards that are in conflict with one another,” City Attorney Inder Kalsa said, noting that the city’s ADU Ordinance could serve as a path forward to carve out a discretionary process and acknowledge that it will be an iterative process. We could build a carve out, and we could look at a discretionary process. We can adjust the objective standards on an individual project basis without ruining the intent of what the state is trying to create.”

We are trying to turn an entirely discretionary program into an objective one,” Carmel said. “These developers have to make decisions. We’re making changes based on what is finally coming in with proposed projects that are coming through to us. We’re making changes based on what is finally coming in with proposed projects that are coming through to us.”

“We have such a unique and difficult environment and anything that we can do as a city to encourage appropriate and thoughtful development is really important to get to more than the 50-yard line on this state mandate,” Vice Mayor Stephen Burke said.

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