The City Council rejected a Tuesday night, a pitch that began as a straightforward permit application but morphed into a debate about the future of downtown Mill Valley and the intrinsic value of real estate as a business.
In a marathon session that ended in a 3-2 vote, the council denied an appeal by Alain Pinel Realtors, which had hoped to move into the long-vacant space at 32 Miller Ave. but had its conditional use permit application in November.
“I’m really disappointed by the council's decision,” Steve Dickason, Alain Pinel’s manager for Marin County said afterwards. “There is a real misinterpretation of how real estate works and what it brings to a community. It is this community’s loss that all of our great agents won’t be in the downtown promoting this community and its businesses.”
Vice Mayor Garry Lion and Councilmembers Shawn Marshall and Stephanie Moulton-Peters voted to rebuff the appeal, saying that the council had the authority in this case to exercise its discretion about the type of business that should be able to open up in one of the city’s commercial hubs, and that a real estate office wouldn't stimulate the foot traffic that downtown so desperately needs.
The trio backed the commission’s finding that the following section of the city’s General Plan was sufficient basis for the denial: "The city shall preserve and enhance the community and neighborhood serving aspects of each of the four commercial areas of the city while maintaining and improving the diversity and mix of commercial operations in Mill Valley.”
“It’s just not the sort of thing we’re looking for in the downtown, which is multi-stop shopping,” Lion said of the proposal. “The issue with office space is that it cuts down foot traffic and it is detrimental to the business community.”
Mayor Ken Wachtel and Councilman Andy Berman disagreed, saying that there was no legal basis for denying the appeal and that if the council wanted to explicitly prohibit a real estate office from opening downtown, it should alter its laws accordingly. A real estate office is permitted under the city’s zoning ordinance.
“You play the cards you’re dealt at the time, and you take the laws as we have them,” Berman said. “This is a permitted use under our zoning laws. There is a real estate office across the street.”
Wachtel and Berman also said it was unfair since there are two other downtown real estate offices, including a office that at 1,700 square feet should have faced the same permitting process but didn’t. Alain Pinel's 1,800-square-foot proposal triggered the conditional use permit process because it exceeded 1,500 square feet.
“It’s comical to me that we’re here because of that 300 square feet,” Berman said. “It’s a permitted use.”
Attorney Riley Hurd of San Rafael-based Ragghianti-Freitas spoke on behalf of Alain Pinel, pointing out that the city’s planner Tom Zanarini originally recommended approval of the proposal but later sided with the commission’s findings to deny the appeal.
“This 180 degree shift isn’t because staff woke up one day and changed its mind,” Hurd said. “It’s because the Planning Commission put him in a tough spot. This applicant is entitled to consideration under the rules that are on the books now.”
Hurd also noted that the city previously approved a permit at 32 Miller for the Sweetwater Saloon, Thom and Becky Steere’s attempt to revive the old Sweetwater. That proposal would have created virtually no daytime foot traffic, Hurd said.
“It was going to be a daytime dead zone,” he said. “It’s hard to reconcile that if retail foot traffic is the factor.”
Alain Pinel officials insisted that there was a misperception about how integral a real estate office could be to a community. Dickason said the company planned to showcase products of local merchants and local artists in its windows, would support the First Tuesday Art Walk and had a budget to sponsor a film at the .
“I believe in all my heart that we are going to be very good neighbors to the existing downtown businesses,” he said.
But some residents weren’t buying it.
“I try very hard to come downtown to shop, but you don’t add anything to my experience as a resident of Mill Valley,” Michele Egan, a resident of Muir Woods Park, told the Alain Pinel officials in the audience.
Ken Brooks, the former longtime owner of Staccato at 30 Miller, said the office was simply not the right fit.
“Alain Pinel may have misread the Gestalt of Mill Valley to think that it was going to move into downtown,” said Ken Brooks the former owner of Staccato. “They are perhaps getting a lesson that we don’t wear our money on our sleeves.”
Jesse Pearson, a Mill Valley native and a real estate agent with Alain Pinel, said that deciding if a business was a good fit for the downtown mix was a subjective exercise, especially in a downtown with an abundance of women’s clothing stores, banks, and coffee shops.
“We could argue all night how many downtown businesses meet the day-to-day needs of the residents of Mill Valley,” he said. “The value of the business of a community depends on which member of the community you ask about it.”
The decision left few satisfied, as those hoping for a different tenant at 32 Miller are going to have wait a long time, according to James Hollander, a San Francisco attorney representing the property owner, the Belinda Rose Trust.
“You are likely to have a vacancy for a good while longer,” said. “This could sit empty for a long time and it would be dead space.”
Several councilmembers said they hoped that Alain Pinel would consider another space in Mill Valley for its local office.
“I don’t want just another real state office,” Dickason said. “We fell in love with this building, in this location, with our local agents who live here working here downtown. I’m not sure hat we’re going to do now.”