Developer scraps high-density design, questions desire for affordability in Mill Valley

POSTED: 09/26/18

Author: Matthew Pera

Publication: Marin Independent Journal

An illustration shows the nine-unit opiton for a proposed development at 500 Miller Ave in Mill Valley. (Provided by City of Mill Valley)

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.”

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