Nine months after the Marin County Board of Supervisors rejected its appeal to extend a master plan and potentially allow them to redevelop housing and academic facilities on the site, North Coast Land Holdings has struck a deal with a private Christian university to lease most of the 120,000-square-foot academic campus on the property.
Olivet University was founded in Riverside County in 2000 and has had a campus in San Francisco since 2004. University officials describe it as “a Christian institution of biblical higher education dedicated to training ministry bound men and women as biblical scholars and leaders.”
“Throughout last three or four years, we’ve had interest from a number of institutions,” says North Coast spokesperson Charles Goodyear. “Olivet was one of them, and given their footprint in California and their previous alignment with the Seminary – they had some students who also studied there and had some faculty and staff join them from the Seminary – it made sense.”
Olivet moved into the Strawberry campus earlier this month, and classes begin there on Sept. 1. Under the lease agreement, the campus will initially serve 250-300 students, faculty and staff, with more than half the students living on site in two existing on-site dormitories that have been largely vacant since the Golden Gate seminary left, save for a brief stretch when they housed firefighters during the Napa and Sonoma county fires in October 2017, while the rest will commute, according to North Coast spokesperson Charles Goodyear. Enrollment could increase in 2019, he adds.
“We are excited to open a new campus in the beautiful city of Mill Valley,” says Dr. Matthias Gebhardt, president of the school’s SF campus.
The three-year lease allows Olivet to use the academic campus, now known as the Seminary at Strawberry, through August 2021 while North Coast Land Holdings, which bought the property in 2014, “works with the local community on a long-term vision for the site.”
That long-term vision has had several iterations as the property owner seeks to identify a redevelopment plan that garners the supporting of the surrounding Strawberry community despite traffic concerns.
North Coast’s first plan called for Ross-based Branson School to move to the Seminary and triple its enrollment of approximately 300 students, but the community’s opposition to the proposal was vehement from the start, with red “No Branson” signs popping up on lawns throughout the community. North Coast followed up with a plan for a graduate school campus for up to 1,000 students, reconstruction of most of the 211 existing residential units, as well as 93 new units.
In December 2017, the Board of Supervisors rejected North Coast’s appeal to extend the master plan, which dated back to 1984. At that time, Supervisor Kate Sears, whose District 3 includes Strawberry, urged the property owner, nearby residents and other parties “to engage in an honest, open conversation about what’s possible on the property, what’s desirable for a variety of stakeholders, what will benefit the community now and into the future, and what the property owner needs.”
Goodyear says that they will likely continue to host such events as space on the campus allows.
The Olivet lease, the existing businesses on the campus and North Coast’s leasing of some of the apartments on campus to about three dozen residents who work in Mill Valley as postal workers, caregivers, teachers and other fields, are all the subjects of an ongoing investigation based on claims made by the Seminary Neighborhood Association, which has pushed North Coast to find a use that won’t significantly impact traffic in the area.
In a letter send to the Marin County Community Development Agency, Seminary Neighborhood Association President Josh Sale claims Olivet is an illegal use because “the only currently approved use for this property is as a self-contained seminary” that doesn’t have anyone commuting to it. Neighbors have also expressed concerns about the existing catering firm and preschool and the use of the property’s sports fields. County of Marin Planning Manager Jeremy Tejirian says the county’s code compliance staff is investigating those allegations.
Goodyear says that many of the requirements that housing only be available to students, faculty and staff became irrelevant when the county rejected their appeal and allowed the master plan to expire at the end of 2017.
“This interim use with Olivet continues the historic purpose of the site,” he says.
Goodyear also noted the Seminary at Strawberry’s role in generating tax revenue for the County of Marin, as the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary paid zero property tax due to its status as a 501(c)(3) organization and North Coast, as a private business entity, now pays an estimated $1 million in property taxes annually.