As we’ve chronicled in this space over the years, New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty has written a series of riveting stories that lay bare America’s housing crisis. He’s done so throughout the western U.S., from Arizona and Idaho to all over California, including a 2020 piece centering on Steve Falk, the former city manager of Lafayette in the East Bay.
Dougherty excels in putting the housing crisis into broader context in terms of its impact on towns and cities, as he did in his 2020 book, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.
Now Dougherty has turned his attention to Mill Valley, specifically longtime local resident Phil Richardson’s long-dormant effort to build a multi-faceted development project on his vacant 575 East Blithedale Avenue at Camino Alto lot. Each time Richardson has gone to City Hall for a public hearing or informal study session since he bought the 1.2-acre property in 2004, Richardson’s faced stiff opposition from neighbor groups that have packed public hearings, hired land-use attorneys and gone back and forth with him via sign wars.
As usual, Dougherty frames the debate within Bay Area-wide, statewide and national conversations happening around housing. But he doesn’t dig into the town’s sentiments on the broader state of housing in Mill Valley, which have indeed shifted in recent years. City officials have put their weight behind the 1 Hamilton Drive project, a multi-unit development that seems to create some affordable housing on city-owned land.
City officials have entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with EAH Housing its developer partner on the site, and allocated funds from the city’s affordable housing trust to support pre-development activities like community outreach, site planning, design and environmental review. They’ve held community workshops on the proposal and held small group meetings with neighborhood groups within the vicinity of the project.
And last month, the city’s housing advisory committee gave the green light to a draft housing report that seeks to leverage a number of strategies to address the housing shortage in town, particularly to create a new Housing Element for years 2023-2031, a long-term, state-mandated process under the specter of ABAG’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation that calls for an eye-popping increase in the number of units to be planned for by the city, from 129 units in the 2014-2022 cycle to 865 units in 2023-2031.
The draft housing element is expected to be available for public review some time in July. The committee has highlighted revised standards and housing overlay zoning districts, which would allow for development with more residences, less parking and increases in building height on the identified sites. The residences would be developed as smaller and affordable under those revised standards.
City officials hope to promote mixed-use zoning in commercial districts, non-traditional housing, micro-apartments, accessory dwelling units and the adaptive reuse of commercial spaces. In addition to the 1 Hamilton proposal, the city is on the hunt for additional locations for affordable housing, as well as using inclusionary requirements on new developments, new fees to support affordable housing, partnerships with outside organizations and potential financial support.
There will likely be studies of a number of prominent buildings in town for possible housing, including parking lots, banks, offices, hotels and other businesses for new housing, like the Comcast building on East Blithedale Avenue, Goodman’s Building Supply on the frontage road, the former KFC/Taco Bell restaurant and the Travelodge.