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Op-Ed: Blithedale Terrace Developer Richardson Responds to Critics

Phil Richardson answers opponents of his proposed 20-unit development at the base of Kite Hill. He refutes claims that he's an "out-of-town developer" and that the project will create traffic gridlock.

When I purchased the Blithedale Terrace property in 2004, I met with the city of Mill Valley's Planning Director to discuss what the community wanted there. She made it clear that a new Housing Element of the General Plan had just been adopted and it called for 20 units of housing ─ four of which were to be "affordable.” As a result of that meeting, we then spent 18 months designing the project utilizing two different architects.

The result is Blithedale Terrace ─ a terraced plan of 20 single-family, two- and three-bedroom townhomes varying in style from 1,100 to 2,000 square feet. The , located at 575 East Blithedale Ave. at Camino Alto, represents the core principles of smart growth: in-fill development, designed for efficiency, green and located within walking distance to virtually all everyday needs, including shopping (, ), restaurants, schools (, and ); the and the . A public transit stop is at the property and it is only three blocks to Highway 101. All units will have views, two-car garages, two decks and a patio and there will be a park.

Opposition to the project came immediately in the form of a letter dated August 2004 to the Mill Valley Planning Commission from my uphill neighbors, which included the following: "...we are prepared to accept residential development of Mr. Richardson's lot as long as it is done in a manner as not to devalue our properties and wreak more havoc with the already difficult traffic congestion on East Blithedale."

As to the notion of property devaluation, Mill Valley is an egalitarian community with all sizes, styles, and ages of housing intermixed. In fact, my neighbors' gated one-to four-acre estates already abut mid-century housing and commercial properties. It’s safe to say that Blithedale Terrace will not impact their multi-million dollar property values.

As to the traffic issue, the city suggested that I pay for an to provide the community with information in evaluating the project. I agreed, and that work, done entirely by the city's consultant, commenced in 2006 and . It states that there are no significant environmental issues, including traffic. This project's only effect on the East Blithedale/Camino Alto intersection is an average one-tenth of a second increase in delay during the peak hours.  

In talking to neighbors, I understand that the , but it has been for years. People are frustrated that nothing has been done to mediate it, but this project does not change the existing situation in any noticeable way.

As I have waited for the standard planning process to begin, I have tried to remain silent. But I have been increasingly concerned about the campaign put on by some individuals in opposition. Deliberately inflammatory statements are being made, such as that the project will create traffic “gridlock,” that the developer is from "out of town," and that the opponents seek to “Save Kite Hill”: 

  1. Traffic was addressed above. Some of my opponents simply will not accept the facts from independent traffic experts.  
  2. Calling me an “out of town developer” because I reside in Tiburon is an interesting negative. I moved to Mill Valley in 1967 and lived here for seven years. I am on the board of the Rotary Club of Mill Valley, a member of the and the Mill Valley Affordable Housing Committee, and regularly participate in land use and transportation planning programs held by the city. We also have sponsored a film at the Mill Valley Film Festival and donated one-quarter of the funding to rehabilitate Freeman Park.
  3. , my property is the last vacant lot on East Blithedale. In fact, it’s the last vacant buildable lot of any size in Mill Valley. And while my property is situated right on East Blithedale, my opponents actually own and live on Kite Hill. They have already “saved” it for themselves.

Aside from what has been clearly stated in the General Plan, it appears that the community needs to do some soul searching. Is this a town where only the wealthy can move in by building large houses on steep lots in our canyons? Why can't the ordinary citizen have an opportunity to live in a 21st Century home in Mill Valley, one that is within walking distance to everything? has had several speakers say that projects similar to Blithedale Terrace are the future of housing in this country, and if you know any Gen X'ers or Y'ers, you understand why.

Mill Valley has a great variety of housing ─ teens and twenties Victorians and craftsman, plenty of mid-century merchant builder housing, and lately, large custom homes squeezed into the remaining space. It would be nice for the city to have one project that represents today’s compact building design rather than conventional, land consumptive development. In the '70's and '80's, multifamily projects were built which resulted in 28 percent of our population living in compact housing.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity of presenting my project to the citizenry in the normal fashion, having discussion and distributing information, and letting our leaders make the proper decision for the city.

It also would be rewarding if we could build something so that our children might have a chance to live in a newly built compact home in Mill Valley. 

Lastly, I’ve included an aerial of our neighborhood with the Blithedale Terrace project superimposed on it. Twenty families will be able to live on the same space as eight in mid-century houses and one or less in 1980's estates. This is 21st century sustainability.

For information on the project, please go to www.blithedaleterrace.com

leah aaron August 14, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Wow, sounds like the worst side of Mill Valley coming out in full force: Leave ME alone when I want to build/upgrade/remodel but YOU? Not so fast.
Tom August 14, 2012 at 10:25 PM
The main issue with these townhouses are their height and mass. Because of their hillside location, the 3 story units would tower over the surroundoing houses. An 8 story building would be out of place in this neighborhood of 1940's single story houses. Attached is a crude mockup to illustrate my point: http://cl.ly/image/2p1E300B1w2p
James Iavarone August 14, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Not so long ago, we used another name for affordable housing. It was called "an apartment building." And that's exactly what this town needs to house our young people and the employees of the town's businesses. Trouble is no one wants apartments built either.
Bob Silvestri August 14, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Actually, Jim. No one has proposed a new apartment building in Mill Valley for almost 20 years. Since the 90's developer profits drove everyone to for sale housing, condos, etc. And since ABAG will not accept apartment conversions or anything less than major renovation towards our RHNA allocations, the City Planning Department also began pushing for mostly market rate housing with a few "affordable" units attached, much like Richardson's project.
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 12:20 AM
The public record shows that the opposition to Mr. Richardson's proposal from the public and the Planning Commission, from the first day it was ever presented, was clear and consistent. The objections are and have always been: It's too big / too tall, it's too dense / too many units, and for the variety of public safety problems created by ingress and egress, it's not the right project for the site.
Rico August 15, 2012 at 01:44 AM
James, Don't you own an apartment building near city limits ? If you do, then you must be aware that there is really not much room for apartment buildings in Mill Valley. What Phil Richardson says is that there are not any more parcels or lots in Mill Valley for condo/apartment multi-family projects besides his. That is true to a sense there are lots that have been available on the market for many years, but they can't accommodate apartment buildings because of where they are, up in the hills. Let's face it James, Mill Valley is not in a place where many apartment buildings can be built, or condos or townhomes, it's not that kind of town. The developers of the Tamalpais Commons on lower Miller Ave lucked out and got their building done before the economy tanked, in fact it was in the works for 10 years before that. If you want more apartments, condos and townhomes to be built, look into building up in Novato or Petaluma, that is where they allow them to be built anywhere, even in downtown areas. They call it Train Oriented Developments (TODs). But sadly, even up in the north bay, there are many vacancies, I wonder why ? It can't be that they are too expensive, like at the Tamalpais Commons apartment building that rent out 1800 sq. ft. apartments for $4000.00 per month !!
HV Majority August 15, 2012 at 02:53 AM
Can you provide links to this public record?
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 03:12 AM
The "public record" is a term that refers to the data and body of information that deals with any particular subject. It's unfortunately not a "link." In this case it includes all the submittals, proposals, meeting agendas and minutes from City Council and Planning Commission hearings and workshops, all the staff reports and consultant reports and PC recommendations and comments, and all the public comments of record at any and all public proceedings. It also includes our General Plan, City zoning codes and other relevant regulations and rules. Many of us who are working for appropriate solutions to our affordable housing needs have regularly attended these public hearings and workshops, and followed this project since its inception. I would suggest that anyone interested in the facts in this situation take the time to go down to City Hall and review all this information for themselves.
John Parulis August 15, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Your drawing doesn't match the plans found on Phil Richardson's web site. What is out of touch with the neighborhood are the three to four giant 10,000 sq ft. or more single family homes to the north of Phil Richardson's project.
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 03:27 AM
Here's the next best thing: If you go to the City of Mill Valley web site and type "Blithedale Terrace" into the search box, you get this: http://www.cityofmillvalley.org/Search.aspx?cmd=search&natlang=Yes&type=all&request=blithedale+terrace&maxFiles=25 There is a list of 85 documents. I have no idea how complete this record is (i.e. if it contains all letters and comments from the public or third parties) but it's a start.
Francine August 15, 2012 at 03:39 AM
First, the most critical thing everyone should note is that the opposition is NOT advocating no building at all. The opposition is saying REASONABLE and BALANCED building in character with the immediate neighborhood. Clearly, this project offers neither. Second, the issue that concern me (and should concern anyone who lives in Mill Valley) is not that Richardson wants to build on that location, but SAFETY in that location. 1) The fire department has already indicated that they do not have the ability to navigate into that narrow location/driveway through a narrow parking lot to three stories of townhouses up an incline. They have also said that they do not have the ladders & equipment to rescue those on the third story up a hill in case of a fire. 2) There is only one ingress/egress & given that residents cannot turn left into the proposed driveway in either direction, should be a HUGE red flag. We know human nature - when someone is rushing, they are going to make illegal left turns putting others at risk. And NO, it isn't practical to have police camped out during high peak hours & weekends unless Richardson pays for that, too. (Continued in next post)
Francine August 15, 2012 at 03:40 AM
(Continued from previous post) I personally do not care whether Richardson is local or not to Mill Valley. What does concern me is that he is trying to cram 20 units in a location that, at the MOST could comfortably hold 5 units, including parking & walking areas within the lot. Since only 2 or 3 of the 20 units would be "affordable housing", I personally do not see this as a philanthropic gesture. It's being done so he can claim he's doing a good thing. He has a right to build, but WHAT he has the right to build is in question. Richardson can claim everything this in walking distance, but I am guessing there will be 1-2 cars for every one of those 20 townhomes. This is about BALANCE. Richardson's proposal is clearly out of balance for this lot.
Daniel Weaver August 15, 2012 at 04:53 AM
Though I'm new to this controversy and not aware of all the subtleties of the record, it does seem that there could be a more appropriate version that addresses the density concerns that opponents raise. What if you flipped the whole controversy on it's head and posed the question: What would be a model development of this site? One that would bring the owner a profit and also satisfy the "environmental" and in some part an "affordable" housing component. Why not scratch some of the two car garages altogether, lower the height, lessen the density and cost to build and provide zip car parking elsewhere (perhaps that is a trade-off for lower priced units). Is there a need for price controlled employee housing in MV? What about live/work units? What about making this a truly integrated, close to net zero project? What if? Go back to the drawing board - smash the developer as "evil" versus NIMBY paradigm, share the risk and create something positive for the community. I have to believe there is a way to do this.
MV Voter August 15, 2012 at 04:57 AM
Consider the Source—Look At the Deeds, Not the Words The above “op-ed” piece is written by a developer who: (1) When the “standard planning process,” as he calls it, did not proceed at the pace and toward the outcome he seeks, he “remained silent” by hiring an attorney and threatening the City with legal action. http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/tension-rises-in-blithedale-terrace-saga (2) Responded to protected free speech by erecting a two panel “spite fence” to block signs opposing his proposed project, justifying his action by arrogantly telling reporters, “I just got tired of seeing the signs.” Speaks volumes about his true regard for the viewpoints/opinions of his Mill Valley “neighbors.” http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/with-blithedale-terrace-project-on-pause-sides-spar-over-signs (3) Falsely claimed on a local CBS news broadcast that he "finally got permission to build" and that he "had documents from the City that say that I'm to build 20 units of housing on that property,” when in fact, he has not received any of the required City permits to build, the parcel is not even zoned for housing, the EIR is not certified, and a Design Review of the proposed project has not been conducted. http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/video/7573355-spite-fence-the-latest-escalation-in-mill-valley-development-battle/
MV Voter August 15, 2012 at 05:09 AM
(4) Is attempting to divide the community and divert debate by advancing the red herring fallacy of a few “uphill neighbors” concerned about property values leading the opposition to his proposed project, while ignoring the fact that 7 MV neighborhood associations representing over 1200 households have come out in opposition to the project. Take a look at the comments of many of the more than 1,100 MV residents who have signed the petition in opposition to the project if you want to see the real reasons why diverse “ordinary citizens” of Mill Valley oppose the project. http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/friendsofkitehill/ (5) Trumpets four “affordable” units, while not mentioning the upper end of the affordability eligibility range is an annual income of $90,000, or that the remaining sixteen units would be sold at whatever price the market will bear--$1,000,000, or more. Yep, sure does sound like “something so that our children might have a chance to live in a newly built compact home in Mill Valley.”
leslie reiber August 15, 2012 at 06:48 AM
To John Parulis -- The plans shown on Richardson's web site don't include elevation drawings of the project as a whole. Only individual townhouses are shown. The pretty street view shows only the street level row of structures, not the two additional rows built up the hillside. Tom's drawing is consistent with the scale model of the project Mr. Richardson brought to his "town hall" meeting earlier this year.
kbf August 15, 2012 at 06:56 AM
Moreover, there are no "10,000 sq. ft. or more single family homes to the north of Phil Richardson's project." Not one.
Suzanne Burrows August 15, 2012 at 07:32 AM
Daniel---what a great fresh perspective. This is exactly what I've been thinking about over the last year as this has been playing out. As someone that has worked in the arena of environmental planning and management on diverse development and infrastructure projects in both the US and abroad for the past 25 years, I think your framing of "smashing the evil developer vs. NIMBY paradigm" is spot on. I personally have been involved with and seen remarkably creative projects that challenged conventional thinking (and often some degree of NIMBYism) with results that meet a range of needs, including affordable housing, which I hope we can all agree we need more of in mill valley .
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Daniel: As you noted, you're new to this controversy but be assured that the problem / solution approach you've identified has been something many of us have been working on for almost 20 years. And it's incorrect to characterize this and other situations like it that have come up in Mill Valley in the recent past as "evil vs. NIMBY" - that's just how media likes to spin it because it sells ad space. Please also know that your idea is not new and there have been many earnest attempts to do exactly what you're saying, and many alternative proposals made for this project and for others in the past (some of us even tried to buy the La Goma property to build a modest live/work loft complex - a project that is now going to be an office building). However, as exciting as "new" thinking is, there are presently somewhat insurmountable structural obstacles to their realization. First people need to understand that the city has no mechanisms or procedures in place to work with alternative ideas. And we have no regulations in place to incentivize new ideas or alternative approaches. This is why it's critical that we get our new Housing Element right this time, and not blindly follow the traditional ABAG methods. There are things we can do. Please read http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/resident-proposes-criteria-based-approach-to-housing-policy
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 02:10 PM
(continued) In addition, the city has no method, other than eminent domain, to impact land use in creative ways. Zoning is too dull an instrument to do that. Design review is just after the fact. So we continue to face an conundrum: We know the types of infill and affordable housing solutions we actually need (see: http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-best-laid-plans-part-iii-affordable-housing) but 99% of the potential infill redevelopment sites that are suitable for this kind of creative development are owned by individual property owners, who by and large are under capitalized or otherwise incapable or without incentive to take these projects on. So all the ideas in the world cannot translate into reality because the problem is essentially a financial one. That is why we get these monstrous (but highly profitable) projects like Richardson. Some of us have been working diligently, off line, to address these fundamental challenges by exploring a public / private partnership solution to work with Marin cities to realize the types of appropriate infill housing solutions that actually address the types of housing we need and incorporate features and technologies that provide public benefits in the process. (See: http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-best-laid-plans-part-iv-public-policy-community-voice-social-equity - on the "venture fund" concept). I welcome you to join our efforts. You can email me personally from the links at the top of my articles.
HV Majority August 15, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Thanks for providing the links to 85 pages worth of documents. However my review of them does not show the planning commission opposed the project from the start. That's why I asked because I thought that comment of yours seemed unsubstantiated since the general plan calls for 20 units at that location to satisfy the housing element. Do you have an actual source of "public record" that can demonstrate your contention? Perhaps I missed it. There were a lot of documents to search through, most of them utterly irrelevant. Surely, if it actually is in the public record it will be available on line, everything else is.
Daniel Weaver August 15, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Hi Bob, Thanks for the background information and update. I appreciate efforts that those of you have put into to help shed new light and bring effective change to the process. I'm not so naive to think my ideas are "new" but some of the suggestions I've seen, though not from you, do get framed in a debate of "Nimby" versus developer regardless of how the media, or at least some in the media, typically portray these struggles. And yes, I emailed you about a month ago after reading of your articles. Alas, I will do so again to learn more and help out where I can and as time permits. Looking forward to meeting you. Thanks, Daniel
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Dear "MV Majority" - From your comments I would assume that the city's record is lacking posting of all the documents that I noted above: the meeting agendas, the meeting minutes, public testimony, public letters and proposals, etc. But I have attended the hearings and PC workshops on this project for years and my assessment is accurate. Lastly, please come out publicly and say who you are, your real name, and not make your remarks hiding behind a fake moniker. This is not a "gotcha" contest. I welcome you to please join those of us who are working together to help really solve our affordable housing challenges.
Bob Silvestri August 15, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Thanks for your comments, Daniel. I look forward to meeting up.
Mike S August 15, 2012 at 06:43 PM
Mill Valley offers a good mass transit options for commuting to San Francisco where there are many jobs even in this poor economy. From this location you can walk out your door and walk to a bus stop in minutes, so you don't NEED a job IN Mill Valley. I am not in favor of as large of a development as is proposed, but I do see the need for more space efficient and more reasonably affordable housing in Mill Valley. That said, even at 20 units, the claims of traffic impact and "daily gridlock" seem greatly exaggerated. Yes - traffic is bad, but other MV residents changing their driving habits would have a much greater impact then 20 new housing units at this location.
David Chittenden August 16, 2012 at 11:23 PM
GREAT OPINIONS ALL OF WHICH I AGREE WITH WE HAVE BEEN HERE IN SCOTT VALLEY FOR 30 YEARS AND THE TRAFFIC GETS WORSE EVERY YEAR. NO ON THIS PROJECT-WE DO NOT NEED GRIDLOCK TO SATISFY HIS PROJECT DEMANDS
Alan Abrams August 17, 2012 at 06:23 AM
Richardson: I’m looking forward to the opportunity of presenting my project to the citizenry in the normal fashion, having discussion and distributing information, and letting our leaders make the proper decision for the city." HELLO?! Phil has been saying, just like our elected politicians, if they just understood my plan, they would love it. Phil...your plan has been before the Planning Commission (PC) and joint PC/City Council meetings, before neighborhood convocations, etc., etc. for YEARS. Phil, the City doesn't want this project. Hundreds of people have spoken against your project at PC meetings, over a thousand have signed petitions, and six neighborhoods have joined forces against your wonderful project. Your project has been presented! We understand it. We're going to take a pass.
Anne Layzer August 17, 2012 at 06:42 AM
ahl In evaluating the traffic impacts of the project, may the city consider the traffic during the construction phase? II would expect very difficult traffic problems from all the trucks and heavy equipment. For how many months would that last?
Ernie Pitz January 04, 2013 at 01:23 AM
I'm against Blithedale Terrace. It seems a 'no brainer'. But, will there be a citizens' vote to determine a go or no go resolution? Or do we have to bike, walk or drive to City Hall in person to cast our "ballot"? Gridlock perhaps Ernie Pitz
David Chittenden January 04, 2013 at 04:51 AM
Well I agree with Dr Ernie The traffic on E. Blithedale is right at the total gridlock point Mr Richardson knew what he was doing when he purchased this property. It is not a matter of the "haves" and "have nots" It is whether or not the residents of MV should suffer from more traffic problems and more pollution so that he can "make a profit" on his bad investment and poor project development!

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