Regardless of the outcome of longtime local developer Phil Richardson’s latest attempt to build housing on his 575 Blithedale property at the base of Kite Hill, the guy can’t be faulted for lack of perseverance or enthusiasm.
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, he has 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.
But Richardson has remained steadfast. He’s proposing 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. In doing so, he’s retained award-winning architect Mark Cavagnero, a Mill Valley resident, to re-imagine the original street level design to fit in with the surrounding commercial buildings and draw elements from each of those existing buildings.
And, in am interesting twist that’s been building over the past six years, the legal foundation on which his property stands has moved in a positive direction for Richardson.
“Through boom, bust and pandemic, California’s Legislature has ended each legislative session with a blitz of new laws that aim to make housing more plentiful and affordable, according to the New York Times. Those legislative measures span from local faves like ADUs and a dismantling of single-family zoning rules to a pair of recent measures that aim to turn retail centers, office buildings and parking lots into potentially millions of future housing units — moves that caused many political observers to reconsider what is politically possible.
That shift hasn’t just happened in major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles or even Marin’s larger cities like Novato and San Rafael. It’s come for small towns like Mill Valley, where city staff and its 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 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.
City Hall is required to plan for, not necessarily build, 865 units from now until 2031.
The housing shift hasn’t only been legislative. In 2020, the City of Mill Valley’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force unveiled its full report and recommendations in the form of a 93-page, 28-recommendation, multiple ”wow”-inducing document that spanned an array of topics, including our community’s lack of affordable housing. “As in communities across the nation, housing segregation in Mill Valley has operated to establish and deepen racial disparities in wealth, education and other basic rights and opportunities,” the report stated. “Mill Valley’s soaring housing prices operate—by means of the racial wealth gap—to reinforce the exclusion of Black people and other people of color. Workers in Mill Valley’s service sector, many of them people of color, are forced to commute great distances due to the lack of affordable housing.”
Per City of Mill Valley affordable housing requirements, Richardson must provide 25% of the housing units (6 units) at below market sale prices. The Mill Valley Municipal Code requires the applicant sell three units at an affordable price to moderate-income households (up to 120% of the area median income – or AMI), and three units at an affordable price to low-income households (up to 80% of the AMI). These rates are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); please click here to learn more about qualifying incomes within Marin County.
When asked why he doesn’t just make the project 100 percent affordable, given the City Council’s focus on affordability with its plans to repurpose a portion of City-owned land at 1 Hamilton Drive into workforce housing in collaboration with EAH Housing, Richardson draws a distinction between his project as a private developer and those working with a nonprofit like EAH, which has multiple sources of revenue, or the San Clemente Place affordable property in Corte Madera.
“In order to pay for those affordable units, I’ve got to build something on which I can make some money,” he says.
Richardson actually submitted the latest version of his project in 2020, but city officials had to conduct a number of studies to determine its initial feasibility. City staff and Lamphier-Gregory, the city’s environmental consultant for the project fully evaluated the environmental impacts of the proposed project pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The initial study prepared for the project provides substantial evidence that supports the conclusion that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA as an Infill Development pursuant to CEQA and that the project qualifies as a “project consistent with a Community Plan or Zoning” pursuant to CEQA guidelines.
The proposed property would feature, according to Richardson and his renowned architect Mark Cavagnero, enclosed parking and balconies for all homes; a small park with views; solar power and sophisticated home electronics included; an elevator; and incorporation as an HOA.
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 THE DESIGN REVIEW PLANS FOR THE PROPOSAL.
HERE ARE THE INITIAL STUDY/CEQA EXEMPTION DOCUMENTS.
Here are some additional renderings of Richardson’s project, courtesy Mark Cavagnero Associates:
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I am wondering how this work in the process of building on that land. Of course it would take much and probably if this project were to move forward it would probably be great except what about the additional resources that would be required to support the additional living units and what of traffic? Since I am a older person I would not live long enough to see this finally get done. If it could be done with how the additional resources such as water and traffic with the affordability of the cost to live can be done to benefit those who will be around to benefit than have at it.
It is incorrect to say the city must plan for, but not necessarily build 865 units. by 2031. If the count and income distribution is not exact or exceeding the RHNA, there are serious consequences to a city. But since the building is (largely, not including Hamilton) actually planned and built by private developers, the city is penalized based on what they do, or don’t do, for profit. Fines are huge and there is a housing Strike Force to sue cities into compliance.
There is confusion between the renderings above. Is there one driveway or two? The current plans show a 28.5’ single ingress/egress, the top drawing above shows a garage at the west end with a driveway but obscures whatever us on the east end,