Let’s start with the easy part: Mill Valley residents have a deep, profound love for the Depot Plaza. It gives us yet another opportunity to remind ourselves that longtime local architect and civic leader Richard “Dick” Jessup and others spearheaded the idea to transform the former train station-turned-bus station at the center of Mill Valley’s downtown into the plaza, a community gathering place that remains the home of chalk drawings, fledgling two-wheel pedaling, scooting, eating and relaxing.
The flip side of the community’s abiding love for the plaza is that tensions are high.
After reviewing the results of the survey – City officials received more than 1,800 individual responses to the survey, more replies than the city has received on any issue in recent memory, according to officials – staff recommended that the Parks and Recreation Commission direct staff to explore three options. The first option is simply creating an open space. That space will have some landscaping, but the majority will be pavers like the current plaza space. Staff will also include as an option the cost of two additional picnic tables for the plaza area, that can be moved or removed as needed. Staff also recommends exploring two fixed feature possibilities: The Locomotive “Engine No. 9”, and Outdoor Art.
After a lengthy discussion – Parks & Recreation Chair Vanessa Justice allowed each speaker a generous five minutes to speak on the subjects – commissioners voted 3-2 to empower Arts & Recreation Director Sean McGrew and his staff to further study the three aforementioned options in the coming months.
City staff plans to return in the January-March 2023 timeframe with a report. The plaza extension isn’t scheduled until Spring of 2024.
Stakeholders either for or against the train dominated much of the public comments during the hearing. Mark Chavez, a longtime local attorney and Mill Valley resident whose office is just a few hundred yards from the plaza, sought to quell the enmity. “We need to de-escalate the conflict on this issue. Let’s not allow this process to degenerate further – this isn’t a quest to achieve a victory. The only way the interests of the community can be served is to go through a fair, balanced and open process. That requires investigation of the merits of each of the proposals and that this be done in an unbiased manner.”
For those just catching up on the plaza drama, the City of Mill Valley is in the midst of the latest phase of its Downtown Project, a multi-year infrastructure project that seeks to improve the overall flow and safety of cars, bikes and pedestrian travel in the downtown area. In February 2020, the City Council signed off on a $2 million overhaul of downtown sewers, sidewalks, storm drains and streets, all with a focus on minimizing the impact on downtown businesses, particularly on parking and access.
Phase 2 in 2021 largely focused on ADA access and safety improvements, primarily in the form of 17 new curb ramps and “bulb outs” that sought to narrow the road and shorten the distance pedestrians have to cover to cross the street. Those bulb-outs were installed on East Blithedale Ave., Sunnyside, Throckmorton Ave. and Corte Madera Avenue, the latter of which resulted in an outdoor seating area in front of Mill Valley Market due to the project requirement for a particularly large bulb-out.
The city is eyeing the spring of 2023 for the next phase, with a primary focus on paving and curb ramp improvements along Throckmorton Avenue and Miller Avenue. That is likely to also include an expansion of the sidewalk along the block of Miller between Sunnyside and Throckmorton avenues, potentially freeing up additional sidewalk dining and additional sidewalk real estate for merchants.
City officials previously allowed the the Mill Valley Historical Society to temporarily place within that space a full-size model of the historic Engine No. 9, a 100-year-old steam engine that is the only surviving piece of the once world-famous Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway.