Developer scraps high-density design, questions desire for affordability in Mill Valley
By MATTHEW PERA | email@example.com |
Agustin Maxemin fears nobody will want to build affordable housing in Mill Valley. Though reviews were mixed Tuesday when the developer presented his design concepts for a vacant lot along one of Mill Valley’s main corridors, Maxemin said he didn’t get a clear indication that the city’s Planning Commission was willing to work with him on his vision for 500 Miller Ave. He’s had enough of the headache, he said. “Are they serious about having affordable housing in the city?” he said. “Are they really serious?”
Maxemin said Wednesday he’s already scrapped the designs he pitched this week. Rather than continuing to refine a plan that incorporates higher-density housing and affordable units, Maxemin said he’s giving his crew the green light to build the project that was already approved for the property when he purchased it last year, which has far fewer dwellings. The clock, after all, is ticking, the developer said. Construction crews soon after the lot changed hands began building a retaining wall — which has been widely scrutinized for its aesthetic impact — on the site in preparation for the design approved by planning commissioners in 2010. That project calls for mixed retail and office space in addition to nine condominium units, none of which are designated for affordability. “The Planning Commission went off on the intent of my project,” Maxemin said. “I don’t want to go back to them anymore. They are just completely in many directions.”
Commissioners suggested the developer create a new design that scales back the size of the building and the homes within it. Some said they liked Maxemin’s effort to create a higher-density project, but that the units were too large. The city’s housing element requires variation in home size. Maxemin said the project wouldn’t be financially feasible with smaller units. The larger ones, he said, subsidize those designated for affordable housing.
Jim McCann, Mill Valley’s city manager, said the Planning Commission wasn’t discouraging density, but was maintaining the city’s building guidelines. “I know that’s not exactly consistent with the hopes that Agustin and his group had,” he said. “Their plans reflect a different approach. That doesn’t mean there’s any opposition to the project, it just means he has a different concept.” Maxemin presented renderings Tuesday that depicted his latest designs for the 1.2-acre site, which is zoned for mixed commercial and residential use. His presentation came during an informal study session, where community members were invited to weigh in on the proposals and planning commissioners had the chance to give the developer initial feedback prior to taking any action on the project.
One sketch showed a 28-unit condominium complex next to about 4,000 square-ft. of office and retail space. Another — which Maxemin said was created as a compromise after hearing community concerns that 28 units were too many — depicted 19 condominiums and almost 4,500 square-ft. of commercial space. In addition to an elevator-propelled stacked parking garage, a waterfall and a prominently-featured Greek time-telling device — a clepsydra, which uses water flow to measure the passage of time — both proposals included designating a portion of the units for affordable housing.
Feedback from community members who attended the Tuesday night study session was varied. Richard Owens, a Mill Valley resident, said he didn’t like the design, and was already put off by the bare retaining wall that’s under construction on the property. “I don’t know how this thing got to where it is right now, but it is horrendous what you’re looking at there,” Owens said. “And now we’re basically saying, ‘Well, it’s so ugly we have to cover it up with something. And what we’re going to cover it up with is not something we started with, but we need something bigger to cover up something truly ugly.'”
Aaron Eckhouse, on the other hand, touted the project as a way to fight back against the statewide housing crisis. “This is a tremendous opportunity to add affordable housing here. … Either of these (design) options provide tremendous opportunity for some people to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities living in Mill Valley can provide,” he said. “The alternative, if you reject either of these, would include no affordable housing and fewer homes, and that will worsen the regional and state housing crisis.”
Maxemin said when he purchased the property from Al Von der Werth last year for $2.9 million he intended to build the nine-unit, 32,000 square-ft. project that had already been approved for the site. But in his conversations with potential architects for the project, Maxemin said he was urged to consider a more modern design. Many aspects of the original plan needed to be updated to comply with city building code, he said. The developer met with city officials to discuss the process of revisiting the site plans, and learned that any new design would have to comply with the city’s affordable housing ordinance adopted last year. The developer said city officials told him a new plan would have to accommodate more units and include affordable housing in order to comply with the new rules.
A Mill Valley resident, Maxemin said he jumped at what he thought was a chance to make a positive impact on his community. McCann said city staff encouraged the developer to include smaller units and dwellings designated for affordability in a new design. “The city has been a strong advocate for housing, and particularly for affordable housing,” he said. “We’ve adopted very aggressive standards and we have very clear development guidelines to help property owners and developers put together a winning project. In this case, I think everybody who’s been involved has been very encouraging. We’d love to see a project with more dwelling units and more affordable housing at that site.” Maxemin said he’s received mixed input from community members ever since he announced the proposal for more units this summer. He wasn’t too concerned by the negative community responses he received Tuesday night, he said. “That’s normal,” he said. “You have to expect that. I’m willing to deal with that.” But he’s now concerned his attempt at affordable and higher-density housing — which, at this point, he considers to have failed, he said — could set a precedent for future developments in Mill Valley. The 500 Miller Ave. project is the first major subdivision proposed since the city adopted new housing laws last year, which require developers building projects with more than four units reserve at least 25 percent of those dwellings for low-income buyers — an effort to comply with new California housing regulations and combat the statewide housing crisis. “This is going to be very discouraging for developers,” Maxemin said Wednesday. “Mill Valley says they really want affordable housing, but the way it was yesterday, it seems like, wow, you really don’t want it anymore.”
Caroline Peattie, executive director of the Marin-based Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, said affordable housing is vital for Marin. “Our county is so lacking in diversity that it’s held up as an example of how non-diverse a county can be,” she said. “There’s no diversity not only in terms of economics, but also when looking across racial and ethnic lines. We know that when you don’t have affordable housing, it has the greatest impact on people of color, people with disabilities and people with children. When you take away opportunities for affordable housing, you are basically taking away opportunities for diversity.”
By RICHARD HALSTEAD Marin Independent Journal
Marin County will soon be implementing a “just cause” housing ordinance designed to prevent landlords from evicting tenants without a good or just cause. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed county staff to prepare optional forms of the ordinance for consideration at an upcoming meeting. The three supervisors backing the creation of the ordinance said they intend to exempt small mom-and-pop landlords who rent only three or four housing units.
That decision came after a nearly three-hour evening session attended by about 200 people at the Civic Center in San Rafael. Two of the five supervisors — Damon Connolly and Judy Arnold — dissented. Both Connolly and Arnold said they need to see more data to convince them such an ordinance is necessary.
Just-cause ordinances do not prevent landlords from evicting tenants for valid reasons such as failure to pay rent, breach of the lease or criminal activity. They also allow landlords to evict if they or a family member want to move in, or they want to substantially rehabilitate the unit or convert it into a condominium.
Housing advocates have been calling for the board to adopt a just-cause ordinance for some time. The board began discussing just cause in 2015 but had previously resisted the idea. Instead, county supervisors passed a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against people using Section 8 housing vouchers and funded a new program to incentivize more landlords to rent to people using housing vouchers.
The supervisors also adopted a mandatory mediation ordinance requiring landlords to enter into mediation with tenants if they increase rents more than 5 percent within a 12-month period. That ordinance became effective in January. Housing advocates, however, said tenants are unlikely to seek mediation without a just-cause ordinance to protect them from eviction.
Just cause rule moves forward
By Teresa Mathew
Point Reyes Light
As her rent skyrockets and her neighbors face eviction, Louise Gilbert fears the trajectory she sees for herself as a renter in San Anselmo. “I’m rooted here and want to remain here. If I would have to move elsewhere, I don’t know what I would do,” she said during a workshop on Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors explored the idea of a just-cause ordinance. After three hours, the board voted to direct staff to draft an ordinance.
Yet many landlords protested the idea on Tuesday, saying a policy that makes it more difficult to evict tenants would in turn lead to more stringent background checks and a decrease in the housing supply if property owners opt for short-term rentals instead.
Just-cause policies are designed to ensure that landlords present a reason for evicting tenants. They eliminate no-cause evictions, in which landlords can simply serve a notice to vacate without stating a cause. Should a tenant fail to pay rent, violate the terms of a lease or engage in criminal activity, for example, landlords may evict them. No-fault evictions, in which tenants are asked to leave for reasons beyond their control, such as when a landlord moves into the unit, are also untouched by just-cause policies.
Just-cause eviction ordinance is needed
Marin renters face a housing crisis: rental housing is scarce, rents are rising and renters are vulnerable. Renters do not enjoy the same security that any homeowner enjoys — knowing that if the bills are paid and the property is maintained, they can continue to stay in their home.
That stability allows children to attend school without disruption, seniors to have continuity of care and support, and people from all walks of life to contribute daily to Marin’s quality of life. And housing instability disproportionately affects families with children, people of color and individuals with disabilities (many of whom are seniors). Marin, already lacking in diversity, risks continuing to lose ground.
Marin County has made great strides toward protecting tenants through its mandatory rent mediation program and its ordinance prohibiting discrimination against those with housing subsidies. But rent mediation without just cause for eviction (i.e., having to state a reason for evicting a tenant) is empty protection. Without just cause, property owners who want to raise rent without mediation can do so easily, by serving a no-cause notice to vacate. Discrimination and retaliation, both illegal, are difficult for tenants to prove. In Legal Aid of Marin’s experience, up to half of tenants facing eviction are asked to move for no stated reason.
On Sept. 11, Marin County’s supervisors should take action to protect renters by directing staff to draft a strong just-cause ordinance, and give all Marin’s seniors, families, workers and residents a fair chance at stable housing.
— Caroline Peattie, Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California
— Stephanie Haffner, Legal Aid of Marin