Is a proposed real estate office at 32 Miller Ave. a step towards the revitalization of downtown Mill Valley in a slow-to-recover economy? Or is it a leap down a slippery slope leading to an office-laden ghost town?
There are no shortage of opinions on both sides of the debate about Alain Pinel Realtors’ proposal to move into 32 Miller, which the City Council will tackle tonight after the applicant appealed the of a conditional use permit.
Many local business owners say that a tenant - any tenant - in the long-vacant space along that stretch would be a good thing. But plenty of others say that a real estate office in an industry now dominated by the Internet would be a passive use of the space that would stifle the foot traffic downtown retailers have long sought.
“From an emotional point of view, it’s going to be a difficult decision,” Mill Valley Mayor Ken Wachtel said. “On one side, to what extent do we have the right to tell a landlord who they can rent a property to? And on the other side, to what extent can we give business owners a say in providing a climate that helps everybody thrive?”
The commission denied the permit application in early November, citing in part the city’s General Plan requirement that the downtown commercial district should be “oriented to provide goods and services to meet the daily living needs of local residents.”
In his appeal of the decision, attorney Riley Hurd of San Rafael-based Ragghianti-Freitas wrote that the General Plan sections cited by the commission “do not provide a basis for the denial of the subject application.” The General Plan was last updated in 1987.
There are two other real estate offices downtown, but because both are smaller than 1,500 square feet, neither needed commission approval of a conditional use permit.
At issue is that although Alain Pinel said it intends to be an active participant in the downtown community, offering to feature products from local businesses in its storefront windows, it also admits that there will only be one full-time employee in the office and likely no more than three real estate agents at a time.
Petitions on both sides of the debate have been circulated among downtown business owners and local residents. An early petition in support of Alain Pinel’s proposal garnered the backing of a bevy of local businesses, including , , , , , theater, and , among others.
The owners of Showroom Mill Valley, which is adjacent to the vacant space, subsequently circulated a petition in opposition to the real estate office. That petition received support from Ruby Living Design, Roots Collaborative, Waterlillies, and , along with a number of local residents, and escalated the debate about the proposal.
The building is owned by the Belinda Rose Trust, and all correspondence with the city has been through San Francisco attorney James Hollander and the Edward Plant Company, a commercial real estate broker based in San Francisco. Those representatives have said that the space, which has been vacant since home furnishings store Greenwood closed in 2007, has received very little interest from viable retail tenants. Thom and Becky Steere's plans to revive the legendary Sweetwater at 32 Miller in 2007 got mired in financial and legal conflicts with the Rose Trust and remain in limbo.
In a letter to the city, Jerrold Moskowitz of Edward Plant said that his firm had been actively marketing the property for three years, and had “only been able to attract one offer from a retailer whose financial strength and lack of retail experience was insufficient to warrant serious consideration.”
“It’s really a difficult issue,” Wachtel said. “You want to do what you can for the success of the business community and you also recognize that there is a landowner who has had a property vacant for three years without a tenant in it.”
For Kristi Denton Cohen, a and owner of 30 Miller Ave. since 1988, the council’s decision comes down to short-term stability versus long-term vitality. She said she’s made every effort over the years to seek out local retail tenants, and worries about the precedent set by filling such a prominent storefront with an office.
“I hope I never have to make the difficult decision of saying ‘no’ to a retail store because a real estate firm or bank can give me a steadier stream of income,” Denton Cohen said.
In a letter to the city in November, she wrote, “Yes, it will be good not to have a vacant downtown building. And what the heck – it broadens the field for me next time I need to rent my building. But how good is it in the long run?”
The 411: The City Council meets tonight at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers upstairs at . If you can’t make it, the meeting with streamed and archived on the city's website.