The Best Laid Plans:
Our Planning and Affordable Housing
Challenges in Marin
by Bob Silvestri
@CVP - The Mill Valley Housing Element Challenge
The Mill Valley Housing Element Challenge
April 20, 2015
Last night, before a standing room only crowd, Mill Valley’s City Council made some history. The Council unanimously and decisively transformed an ill-conceived Draft 2015 - 2023 Housing Element into a workable planning document that better reflects the concerns of the vast majority of Mill Valley residents. By soundly rejecting the Planning Staff’s overly ambitious growth goals, the Council showed the courage of their convictions. Overnight, they have thrust Mill Valley into a leadership position in Marin in preserving all that is good about small towns, while focusing on saving the affordable housing we already have and committing to seek more workable affordable housing solutions in the future.
While most Marin cities have succumbed to dire warnings about the need to buckle under to whatever Sacramento demands, Mill Valley now stands virtually alone among Marin cities in demonstrating how to stand up for “local control” and “get it right.”
I could not be more proud of our leadership.
From the outset, Community Venture Partners has been working with a broad-based coalition of community groups, including Friends of Mill Valley, to bring more substantive arguments to the table to help frame the discussion and to produce more equitable outcomes. CVP’s leadership has been involved in the City’s planning processes for many years and had previously submitted comment letters when the Housing Element was at the Planning Commission review level, in January 2015. We subsequently met with former elected officials, Planning Department Officials and the City Manager to explain our positions. In our letter to the Mill Valley City Council on March 18, 2015, followed by our letter of April 11, 2015, we provided historical context, referenced proven planning principles, and brought legal arguments and analysis that distilled this complex legislation into succinct talking points.
Those points included our requests that the City Council:
Reduce the Housing Element Site List Inventory “buffer” (the number of designated units/sites that exceed the State mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment quota of 129 units) by adding other “filters” to determine eligibility (similar to the ones already employed regarding age, FAR, etc.) in order to eliminate those sites that (a) conflict with the goals and intentions of our General Plan, (b) conflict with clearly demonstrated desires of the community, or (c) would result in over-development that would increase traffic and congestion beyond a level that is prudent in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our residents.Doing this would leave an ample “buffer” to satisfy our RHNA obligation and future planning “flexibility” by a wide margin;
Insert language into the Housing Element, and possibly the Land Use Element of the General Plan, to better ensure that development proposals on Miller Avenue, particularly in the Gateway and Main Street sections (“rooms”) be for mixed-use development. This would better align with our planning vision and it would eliminate a regulatory deficiency that has hampered the Planning Commission’s discretion in the past;
Remove the Mill Valley Affordable Housing Committee’s Supplemental Housing Site List because the sites it included have already been rejected by the official screening process and its inclusion is both confusing (to land owners) and contrary to the overall GPAC public process rules of fairness; and
Remove the proposal to create a Housing Advisory Committee for the reasons noted in our April 18th letter because as proposed, it serves no clearly defined or beneficial purpose.
We are very pleased to report that the City Council of Mill Valley not only agreed with all our recommendations, but went even further.
The Mill Valley City Council Acted Decisively
In a comprehensive presentation, Councilmember John McCauley boldly outlined a list of detailed changes that would reduce the overall impacts of the Housing Element and the commensurate requirements to bring our Housing Element, General Plan, and Zoning Ordinance into conformance. These points were echoed and further refined and even added to by Councilmembers Garry Lion, Jessica Jackson, and Stephanie Moulton-Peters.
Remove all the key sites identified by CVP from the Capacity Analysis “List” by adding new “filters” to make that determination. This is intended to support and preserve important local serving businesses by removing a designation for housing that might help promote their demise as land values skyrocket;
Remove all designated sites along Blithedale Avenue from the Park School all the way to Highway 101, primarily because the current traffic situation has become completely untenable. Removing the sites from the list does not down-zone the sites, does not modify property rights or zoning, or deny a property owner’s right to propose a Planned Development with requested exceptions to zoning. However, developers can no longer argue that the City has identified a property for development and point to a unit number as if it is “as-of-right.” An amendment to the Land Use Element of the General Plan will be required to change allowable uses and the planning goals/policies;
Dramatically reduce the “buffer” in the Housing Element to better reflect and preserve our small town character. The reduction from the originally proposed 185 percent (384 units total) to a buffer of no more than 50 percent (194 units total) is very important. And given that a significant number of the remaining “units” are in increments of one to two, the remaining buffer is reasonable;
Eliminate the Mill Valley Affordable Housing Committee “Supplemental List,” for the reasons noted above;
Redefine the proposed Housing Advisory Committee and remove it from the Housing Element document. Revisit the concept at a later date when the City feels that a well-structured advisory group would be helpful to undertake specific, task-based assignments; and
Add language to the Housing Element and Land Use Element to more clearly state the City’s desire that future development on Miller Avenue, and particularly in the Gateway and Main Street “rooms,” be mixed use.
Now the hard part begins ... solving the affordability challenge.
I would like to place another component of our growth and affordable housing challenge on the table for consideration. I believe that we are witnessing an historic inflection point with regard to housing, affordability, and growth that I think it is important to recognize. We have been planning, building, and financing housing the same way in this country since the late 1930s. Simultaneously, our concept of “growth” has been equally unchallenged in all that time. Unfortunately, our methods and ways of thinking about “problem solving” have reached diminishing returns technologically, environmentally, and in terms of the social and economic justice outcomes. So we find ourselves somewhat adrift in a period of change that is beyond our control, but is clearly inevitable.
“More” is no longer categorically better, at least if it is defined as just more of what we already have. Having a regulatory system that dictates that the only way to get an affordable unit is to allow three or four market rate units or homes to be built is equally unsustainable. Our schools, roads, and infrastructure are either bursting at the seams or breaking down under the weight of our “progress.” Somehow, we need to very quickly figure out how to build differently - more economically to reduce costs of building and rental/ownership - and with much less environmental and community impact and resource depletion. We need to buy enough time to allow our technological innovation boom to catch up with our growth demands. And we need to dramatically innovate how we finance affordable housing development so that it addresses our “tragedies of the commons” regarding diversity.
This is all a very tall order.
However, while we wind our way through all this, I suggest that the better part of valor is to adopt a "slow growth" approach. Call it the “slow food” version of planning. More than ever, we need to ensure that the benefits of any outcomes outweigh the negatives. “Getting it right” has suddenly become far more critical than it used to be. Our margin of error has diminished.
Based on what I heard last night, the Mill Valley City Council has come to the same realizations.
CVP COMMENT LETTERS ON MILL VALLEY HE
CVP has offered the City of Mill Valley its pro bono services to help find ways to preserve our existing affordable housing and develop new affordable housing solutions in Marin.
We want to thank everyone who contributed so much of their time and energy toward helping turn the tide in Mill Valley.
With your financial support, Community Venture Partners can continue to bring community voices to the public process to ensure local control of planning and growth, throughout Marin. Please DONATE TO CVP.