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Update: Von der Worth Project Eyes Finish Line

Developer's nine-unit condo proposal with office space and ground-floor retail on a steep hillside above lower Miller Avenue is ready to seek city approval.

A massive mixed-use project on Miller Avenue — after seven study sessions before the Planning Commission over the past five years — is ready to take its final exam.

Al Von der Worth's proposal for a residential, office and retail development on a steep hillside at 500 Miller Ave. was presented to the commission yet again Monday night. After more than two hours of discussion with the commission, the project's new architect said he had sufficient feedback to take it to its next phase and seek the city's approval.

"We can take a stab at it," said Corte Madera architect Steve Wisenbaker.

The latest revisions stem from a September 2009 study session on the project, after which Von der Worth and his partner, restaurateur Steve Upson, hired Wisenbaker. Upson declined to share digital copies of the proposal until the project officially seeks commission approval, citing the five years of trying to get the project approved as reason for his hesitation.

The current iteration proposes nine residential, prefabricated condominiums of about 1,300 square feet apiece, with garages and landscaping at the street level and a ski chalet-esque roof line receding back towards the steep hill as it goes higher. The two-building residential section, connected by an entry courtyard, is primarily two stories but jumps to three stories in the middle. The project also includes a separate commercial building of more than 4,900 square feet with office space on the second floor and retail at ground level.

The project is complicated by the steep hillside it sits on, requiring the developer to excavate more than 10,000 cubic feet of soil to build. The project has evolved considerably over the years, however, and the four planning commissioners at the meeting indicated substantial progress has been made in addressing their concerns.

"We probably won't answer everyone's questions, but at this point if we don't have something that is acceptable to everyone, it seems possible that we could get something approved with conditions attached to it," Wisenbaker said.

Commissioners remained concerned about the project's overall mass, height and bulk, particularly without the ability to use story poles, which would be required on the site once the project seeks commission approval, to visualize its overall size.

Commissioner Heidi Richardson said the size, coupled with that of the Tamalpais Commons mixed-use development across the street at 505 Miller Ave., would serve as a jarring entrance to Mill Valley.

"I'm worried by the gateway of Mill Valley being anchored by two three-story buildings," she said. "It's very hard for us without the story poles and tape. We really want to believe you, but we can't see it."

"I want to reserve judgment until I can see the story poles, but it would go down a lot easier if it was a two-story structure," said Commissioner John McCauley. "We're not totally comfortable with the three-story size, but not willing to throw it out."

The project was first proposed in June 2005, and the first study session occurred two months later. It was the subject of six study sessions before the Planning Commission prior to Monday night.

Concerns from the commission and the public were not limited to the project's size.

McCauley and several members of the public called Von der Worth's inclusion of nine residential units a sly attempt to shirk the city's requirement that any development of 10 units or more must include affordable housing.

Alan MacDonald, who lives on the hillside above the proposed development, said the project had made tremendous progress in many respects, but urged the developer to avoid putting a restaurant on the ground floor of the commercial building.

"I'm already being treated to the odors from Kentucky Fried Chicken below, and the last thing I'd want to see is another kitchen below my house," he said. "And don't tell me that the hills block the odor, because they don't."

The meeting concluded with divergent opinions on the commission about the future of development along Miller.

"We will see more larger buildings on Miller," said Commissioner David Rand. "Are we prepared for the fact that Miller has a future of larger buildings? I don't think that 505 [Miller] will remain unique. This project will not remain an exception."

"That is one view," McCauley said.

"I really do think this project will be the biggest thing I'll ever see on Miller," Utzman said.

If the project does garner approval later this year, Moore suggested that the commission could attach a condition whereby the developer would need to make any street improvements deemed necessary by the eventual passage of the Miller Ave. Streetscape Plan, which is expected to finish the planning stages by the end of 2010.

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