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The original item was published from 3/14/2023 2:56:00 PM to 11/28/2023 7:35:09 PM.

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Planning & Building

Posted on: December 8, 2022

[ARCHIVED] Richardson Terrace Update – 575 East Blithedale Avenue

December 8, 2022

November 17, 2022, Planning Commission Meeting

Architectural rendering of a proposed residential and commercial development projectOn November 17, 2022, the Planning Commission held a Public Hearing to consider a Design Review application for a Mixed-Use Project proposed at 575 East Blithedale, referred to as “Richardson Terrace.” The project consists of 25 residential units and 2,240 square feet of ground floor commercial office space on a 1.2-acre site. The project applications also include a Conditional Use Permit, a Tree Removal Permit, and a Tentative Map for condominium purposes. Over 50 members of the community spoke on the item. Following public comments, the Planning Commission voted to continue the item to the January 10, 2023 Planning Commission meeting (3 in favor, 1 opposed and 1 abstained). 

Please see the following resources from the November 17, 2022 Planning Commission meeting:

Tuesday January 10, 2023, In-Person Planning Commission Public Hearing

On January 10, 2023, the Planning Commission will resume the hearing to consider the project. The meeting will be held at the Mill Valley Community Center, Cascade Room, 180 Camino Alto, starting at 6:30 pm. 

Housing Accountability Act

Overhead view of a project site of a large proposed residential and commercial development project

State law requires the City to review the Project pursuant to the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) and SB 330. Under these laws, a Project that meets the City’s objective standards qualifies for approval and the City’s discretion over the project is significantly limited. The project is generally consistent with base development standards including maximum floor area, maximum lot coverage, minimum usable open space, allowable density, etc. The Mill Valley General Plan allows mixed-use development with residential densities between 17 and 29 dwelling units per acre on the Project Site. The Project Site has an area of approximately 1.18 acres. This translates to a permitted range of 20 to 35 units. The Project is within the range of allowable density designated for the site. 

The HAA generally prohibits the City from using subjective standards as a basis for denial of the project or conditions that would lower the density of the project or render it financially infeasible. Therefore, the Planning Commission cannot use the subjective intent of the MV2040 General Plan, or the subjective findings for any of the permits, including the Design Review approval under Section 20.66.036 of the Mill Valley Municipal Code, as a basis to deny this project or to condition it to have a reduced residential density. For more detail, please see the staff report provided to Planning Commission. 

Staff met with the Project applicant team numerous times and provided extensive written feedback on a number of issues with the Project that do not relate to the City’s objective standards but which staff feels are important concerns for the community. Staff repeatedly expressed a desire to see changes in the design to ensure that the Project is more consistent with the larger Mill Valley residential community. The applicant’s September 29, 2022, response letter stated that staff had no legal right to raise these concerns regarding the Project’s consistency with the City’s non-objective requirements and standards, and challenging staff’s interpretation of the design guidelines.

Initial Study / Environmental Analysis 

Overhead view of a site plan of a large proposed residential and commercial development projectThe City contracted with the consultant firm Lamphier-Gregory to provide a comprehensive environmental analysis of the current Project pursuant to CEQA.   

The Initial Study/CEQA Checklist prepared for the Project provides information and analysis that supports a determination that the project qualifies as an “Infill Development” project as defined in CEQA Guidelines Section 15332, and is therefore categorically exempt from any further CEQA review. The information and analysis included in the Initial Study also substantiates a conclusion that no exceptions to this CEQA exemption apply to the project. 

The 1.8 acre Project site is located within the Mill Valley City limits, and within an urbanized portion of the East Blithedale Avenue roadway corridor and on a less than 5-acre site. The properties immediately adjacent to the Project site include commercial property to the east at the corner of East Blithedale Avenue/Camino Alto, and residential properties to the immediate west and south. A restaurant is located to the southeast, across East Blithedale Avenue; a bank is located diagonally across the East Blithedale Avenue/Camino Alto intersection, and the Mill Valley Middle School and Mill Valley Community Center is located further southeast. These urban uses substantially surround the Project site. 

A primarily undeveloped hillside (locally known as Kite Hill) is to the immediate north of the Project site. Although the northerly side of the site is adjacent to a primarily undeveloped and non-urban area, the site’s frontage along the urbanized East Blithedale Avenue roadway corridor, plus the urban uses located to the west, south and east of the site meets the statutory definition of being “substantially surrounded” by urban uses, which is that at least 75% of the project’s perimeter is developed with urban uses (see Pub. Res. Code § 21159.25(a)(2)). Based on these characteristics, the Project is consistent with the requirements of CEQA Guidelines Section 15332(b) as being within City limits, on a site of no more than five acres, and substantially surrounded by urban uses. The Project meets the criteria pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15332(b) for an Infill Exemption based on location, size and context.

Furthermore, the Initial Study/CEQA checklist provides information and analysis that demonstrates the project is consistent with the Mill Valley 2040 General Plan and applicable zoning regulations, and therefore qualifies under CEQA Guidelines Section 15183 as a project that is consistent with a community plan or general plan. These provisions of CEQA are intended to streamline the environmental review of certain types of projects, and to reduce the need to prepare repetitive environmental studies. Such projects do not require additional environmental review beyond that conducted for the General Plan Environmental Impact Report (EIR), except as necessary to examine whether there are project-specific significant effects that may be peculiar to the project or its site. The Initial Study/CEQA Checklist provides analysis that supports a determination that the project would not result in new or more severe significant environmental effects than were previously addressed in the prior Mill Valley 2040 General Plan EIR, and that the project will not have any project-specific significant effects that are peculiar to the project or its site. The Initial Study/CEQA checklist fully analyzes the environmental impacts of the project and provides substantial evidence to support a conclusion that the Project is exempt from CEQA under CEQA Guidelines Sections 15332 and is eligible for CEQA streamlining provisions under CEQA Guidelines Section 15183. 

The City’s environmental consultant has produced multiple supplemental memoranda responding to comments from the community with respect to the environmental review of the project.

CEQA Traffic Analysis and Traffic Operations Study (Non-CEQA analysis)

6 architectural renderings of a proposed residential and commercial development projectIn 2010, the City of Mill Valley prepared a Draft EIR for a prior version of this project, then known as “Blithedale Terrace.” The 2010 Blithedale Terrace project was not approved and the prior 2010 EIR was not certified. Analysis of traffic impacts under CEQA has fundamentally changed since the 2010 Blithedale Terrace project was analyzed by the City. In 2013, the State Legislature passed SB 743, which altered how local agencies may measure the traffic impacts of proposed development under CEQA. This law took effect on January 1, 2020. Before January 1, 2020, traffic congestion levels (known as Level of Service, or LOS) were the main measurement to determine the environmental impacts of development. Under SB 743, these effects are now measured according to the overall amount that people drive, known as Vehicle-Miles Traveled (VMT). 

The CEQA Analysis determined that the Project would result in a less than one percent increase to existing VMT levels along the East Blithedale Avenue corridor, which did not trigger the requirement for additional review under CEQA or render the Project ineligible for the Infill Exemption.

For more detail, refer to Initial Study/CEQA Checklist prepared for the Project.

In addition to the CEQA VMT traffic analysis, the City commissioned a separate report, the Traffic Operations Study (TOS) for the Richardson Terrace Project (prepared by W-Trans, subconsultant to Lamphier-Gregory) to address General Plan policy matters related to traffic operations and consistency with LOS criteria. Although LOS is no longer the CEQA standard for measuring traffic impacts, and LOS impacts are expressly deemed not to be CEQA impacts under State law, the Mill Valley General Plan still references LOS as the applicable metric for determining General Plan consistency. The General Plan EIR recognized that the use of unsustainable LOS measures ostensibly favors preserving motor vehicle LOS at the expense of transit, bicycle and pedestrian movements and safety, and could ultimately result in changes or expansions to roadways and intersections that could negatively change the City’s character. Citing the community’s desire to create a safe and sustainable transportation network that balances the needs of all modes of travel, the General Plan amended the automobile LOS policy originally adopted in the 1989 General Plan, to accept LOS E‐plus conditions at the East Blithedale Avenue/Camino Alto intersection, and LOS D at all other signalized intersections. 

Level of Service (LOS) is used to rank traffic operation on various types of facilities based on traffic volumes and roadway capacity, using a series of letter designations ranging from A to F. Generally, Level of Service A represents free flow conditions and Level of Service F represents forced flow or breakdown conditions. A unit of measure that indicates a level of delay generally accompanies the LOS designation.

 The TOS evaluates vehicular traffic service levels at key intersections for consistency with General Plan policies by determining the number of new trips that the proposed project would be expected to generate, distributing these trips to the surrounding street system based on anticipated travel patterns specific to the proposed project, then analyzing the effect the new traffic would be expected to have on the study intersections and need for improvements to maintain acceptable operation. Adequacy of parking was also addressed as a policy issue. 

The TOS evaluated potential impacts to four intersections along the East Blithedale corridor, including the Camino Alto/Blithedale intersection (See Figure 1 of the TOS). Under both Existing and Future Conditions, the study intersections were determined to operate acceptably at LOS D or better overall without and with the addition of project trips so the project’s effect on operation would be considered acceptable. These peak hour volumes would not be sufficient to warrant installation of a traffic signal at East Blithedale Avenue/Mesa Avenue-Hilarita Avenue under the anticipated future volumes with or without Project trips.

Furthermore, the TOS determined that both project driveways are consistent with General Plan Policy M.9-10 and are expected to operate acceptably and in a manner similar to other driveways close to the project site. Finally, the TOS concluded that the proposed parking supply would be more than adequate to meet the applicable City and State requirements.

Guide to Acronyms in this Article
CEQA    California Environmental Quality Act
PDF    Portable Document Format
EIR    Environmental Impact Review
SB    Senate Bill
HAA    Housing Accountability Act
TOS    Traffic Operations Study
HCM    Highway Capacity Manual
VMT    Vehicle-Miles Traveled
LOS    Level of Service

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