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Council Bans Downtown Storefront Office Space

Ordinance takes effect immediately, but real estate firm Alain Pinel, which had revised its proposal for 32 Miller Ave., moved ahead with its plans before the council’s action.

The , the prominent downtown storefront that has been vacant for nearly four years and was once the prospective new home of the legendary Sweetwater, has ended.

Officials from real estate firm Alain Pinel submitted an application for a building permit at 32 Miller Tuesday, a revised proposal that does not trigger the same public hearing process that led to the last month.

But just a few hours after Alain Pinel moved forward with its plans, the City Council passed an urgency zoning ordinance that banned all office space in downtown storefronts, an area that extends throughout Lytton Square and onto East Blithedale, Sunnyside and Corte Madera avenues and Bernard and Madrona streets.

City officials insisted the move was not in response to the , which had proposed a 1,800-square-foot office at 32 Miller. Because it included more than 1,500 square feet of space that would be accessible to the public, the earlier plan required a conditional use permit (CUP) from the city. The and the City Council , a move that spurred .

Alain Pinel has since revised its plan to include less than 1,500 square feet of public space and therefore did not require a CUP from the city and avoided another public hearing. Planning Director Mike Moore said the company is building a wall across the back third of the space so that section is only accessible to employees.

Steve Dickason, Alain Pinel’s manager for Marin County, did not respond to requests for comment, but Moore confirmed that the company did submit a building permit application Tuesday before the council’s office space ban took effect.

Alain Pinel’s interest in 32 Miller has drawn both critics and supporters, with many downtown merchants welcoming any use of the long-vacant downtown space, which has been empty since Greenwood home furnishings store left in 2007.

But a number of opponents said that office space would create a dead zone downtown and wouldn’t stimulate the kind of foot traffic that would help downtown businesses facing an already tough economy.

“It is what it is,” said Janet Ryvin, the co-owner of Showroom Mill Valley in the adjacent storefront and a vocal critic of the Alain Pinel plan. “Something is better than nothing. But we still think we need retail to drive retail. We don’t really have a choice at this point. We hope that Mill Valley doesn’t become a dead zone.”

At the Jan. 18 City Council meeting, Dickason insisted that ths firm planned to become an active participant in the downtown community, offering to feature products from local businesses in its storefront windows.

Ryvin said she hoped Alain Pinel followed through on those plans.

“We want them to do what they have said they would in adding to the vibrancy of downtown and helping to generate foot traffic,” she said.

The area covered by the council’s ban on downtown storefront office space includes streets containing existing storefront office space, particularly real estate offices for Pacific Union and Frank Howard Allen, but those spaces would be “grandfathered” in until they moved out, Moore said.

Councilmembers Shawn Marshall and Andy Berman expressed concerned that the ban applied to too large an area, and though the ban was approved unanimously, it is good for 45 days, at which time it will come back to the council to be extended for 10 months and 15 days – a total of one year.

“I am concerned about not battening down the hatches too tightly so that we can deal with our vacancy issues,” Marshall said. 

Although it was not originally intended to be adopted with urgency, the storefront office ban was one of the recommendations put forth in November 2010 by the city’s Business Advisory Board as part of an effort to streamline zoning regulations to boost the city’s economic vitality. The other recommendations in that effort, which include removing the 1,500-square-foot trigger for a CUP hearing, will be brought to the Planning Commission in the next few months, Moore said.

“It’s important to not think about this as a reaction to one application,”Moore told the council. “From our discussions with the Business Advisory Board, the idea was to try and reconcile what the General Plan says about downtown with what the zoning code says. There are inconsistencies there, and the BAB’s recommendations try to address those.”

John Adlam February 24, 2011 at 02:47 PM
This was the right outcome, and we wish Alain Pinel Realtors and all of the downtown merchants the very best in the coming years.
Janis Bosenko February 24, 2011 at 03:31 PM
A vacant building isn't a dead zone? The City give prospective businesses such s hard time, I am amazed anyone wants to have a business in MV. Example: all the grief and hurdles thrown in the way ofthe El Paseo project. Florence and Hagar are MV Residents, proven successful businessmen and they were treated very badly, and I think unfairly. Nothing worse than small town bureaucrats on power trips.
Toni Abruzzo-Ramirez February 24, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Time will show that Alain Pinel Agents and Brokers will bring business to their good neighbors.
Chris February 27, 2011 at 09:59 AM
This is a good move. Encourage more retail and also allow people to live in storefronts. All these dead offices at night and on weekends where people used to live in second floor apartments now offices. The real estate industry is dead and dying now that the Bush/Obama Depression is gathering steam. We need local retail and housing, not for debt based businesses.
Soccer Mom March 16, 2011 at 07:38 PM
There is an employee parking problem downtown thus shoppers will be replaced by car using Realtors. 32 Miller Ave last tenant Greenwood was forced out by a rent raise by the landlord ; The Greenwood shop was loved and a beloved part of the downtown shopping experience. There is not enough parking downtown to make it a commercial work zone and I don't know how the city has dealt with the new parking issue created by the Alain Pinel forcing the community to rent the 32 Miller space ; it is sad for the other merchants of the Mill valley downtown who need anchor retail in the square to make it a shopping destination.

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