Posted on: December 5, 2023
The Mill Valley Planning Commission has endorsed a controversial affordable housing development at 1 Hamilton Drive.
The commission’s unanimous vote on Tuesday to recommend the plan sends the project to the City Council for approval. A hearing date has not yet been set.
“I understand many people would, frankly, not like to see anything at all here but that is not the situation we’re in,” Planning Commission chair Jon Yolles said. “We’re in a housing crisis and the only way to address it, quite frankly, is to build our way out of it.”
The city is working with EAH Housing, a San Rafael-based nonprofit and developer, to use 1.75 acres of the 13-acre property for a four-story, podium-style building with 45 residences — all 100% affordable. About one quarter of the homes are two and three bedrooms, and 40% are one-bedroom units.
Because the project includes rezoning, executing a ground lease, design review and tree removal, the state’s Environmental Quality Act was triggered.
An environmental impact report prepared for the project stated it could have potentially significant impacts, particularly on air quality. Some concerns include asbestos dust from serpentine on the site; rare plants, nesting birds and tree removal.
All environmental impacts can be mitigated to “less than significant” using measures like dust control and daily air quality monitoring, pending the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s approval of the mitigation plan. Two additional plant and bird surveys will be done in the spring, and all removed trees would be replaced elsewhere, according to Steven Ross, a city planner.
Public reaction to the project was mixed. Around 100 letters were sent to the commission; about two thirds in support of the project. Still, residents reacted with concerns about parking and traffic, size and density of the project, and the distribution of affordable housing in the city.
Elizabeth O’Donnell of Mill Valley said she was primarily concerned about the air quality impacts of construction, especially considering the nearby fields, playgrounds and schools. She did not think the environmental mitigation efforts were robust enough.
“Considering the kids are in such close proximity, it would seem to me that it would be better to have a more comprehensive effort to prevent as much asbestos as possible from being released in the local air,” O’Donnell said.
David Scott of Mill Valley wrote to the commission, “The EIR is inadequate. I am a walker and I see close calls with speeding cars and young soccer players, dogs running after balls, cyclists, and emergency response. The 1 Hamilton project will cause more congestion that will affect our safety and quality of life.”
Specifically, city staff asked the commission to adopt resolutions to recommend the City Council certify the environmental report, rezoning the site from an open area to a multifamily residential zone, and approval the overall design review and the removal of 44 trees.
In July, the Commission suggested changes to around a dozen details, such as the design of the entry canopy, lobby and stairway, and roof pitch. The building will now slant down toward the street. Major changes included changing the paint colors to a more gray-green palette, and decreasing the podium height by 2 feet.
Several commissioners asked if the height could be lowered even more by adjusting the location of vents and other equipment in places such as the garage. Project designers said they were exploring all alternatives. The commission added a condition of approval stating the ground floor podium should be reduced to 14 feet high, unless the architect can prove it is infeasible.
Developers requested waivers for the project, included allowing the building to be 55 feet and four stories instead of 35 feet and three stories, the design standard in the city. A concession for private outdoor space was also requested. The project would not provide any private open space, but would provide some through the community courtyard at the ground level.
Ruth Holly of Mill Valley was opposed to all parts of the project, especially the city’s role as a sponsor of it. She said she believes in affordable and low-income housing, but said the way to develop it is through charity.
“Actually I’m opposed to the state laws that led to this project,” Holly said. “I’m completely opposed to the city acting as a housing developer against the interests of my neighborhood.”
Nona Dennis, a representative of the Marin Conservation League, said the league supports the project. While the league is not known as a housing-focused group, it recognizes changing needs and times, she said.
“How rare is this kind of site for this kind of housing,” Dennis said. “This site ticks off all the boxes. What you have here is a site that has really minimal impact on the natural site.”
The 1 Hamilton Drive project was included in the city’s housing element, which was approved in May. A state housing mandate requires that Mill Valley shows it can permit 865 new residences in the next eight years.
Katy Butler of Mill Valley said she believes the project will have a positive impact on the environment.
“Some 30, 40, 50 people are not going to be driving from the East Bay and clogging up the streets and polluting the skies,” Butler said. “I think that should be taken into account too.”
Rick Williams, architect with Van Meter Williams Pollack, the firm working on the project’s design, said the location is excellent for affordable housing because it is close — within walking or biking distance — to community and recreational amenities.
“One of the things that generates a lot of traffic is getting kids to school,” Williams said. “Here, kids will be able to walk to school. It’s the type of site that everyone wants to put an affordable housing development.”
Danielle Staude, a planner with the city, said the project has taken three years so far.
“Trying to find 100% affordable housing sites is hard and we’ve found a site and we’re very happy that we’ve found a site but they’re not very easy to find,” she said.
The final environmental impact report will be sent to the City Council in early 2024, after the public comment period ends on Dec. 15. Developers plan to break ground, pending final approval, between 2025 and 2026.
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