For decades, the vast stretch of vegetation-laden steep hillside at 500 Miller Avenue between Reed Street and the former Taco Bell/KFC building has sat vacant. While longtime residents recount the property’s one-time use as a quarry and a landslide there in 1969 that brought Miller Ave. to a standstill, there have been infrequent indications of its fate since then.
All that changed last year, and what comes next could go a long way toward determining Mill Valley’s housing future.
In late 2017, 23-year Mill Valley resident Agustin Maxemin, who bought the property for $2.9 million with his partners at Forbix Capital, began the permitted work of excavating nearly 11,000 cubic feet of soil to build a massive retaining wall that is critical for stabilizing – and thus developing – the site. That work paused during the rainy season per the City’s grading moratorium and continued in the spring.
Now the project – named Tam’Andari, which incorporates Mt. Tamalpais and the Sanskrit word for “noble community” – heads back to City Hall for a process that presents a significant choice for the community and City officials.
That choice pits an already approved project consisting of nine large condo units and nearly 5,000 square feet of commercial space – one that doesn’t meet the City’s new design guidelines for mixed-used developments or include any affordable units – vs. Maxemin’s new proposal for 28 condo units that vary from small to large and include seven below market rate units, as well as 3,900 square feet of retail space and all of the required parking for the units contained on site.
The project also includes a community space at the western end of the project, featuring a public art component in the form of a Clepsydra, a water clock of Greek origin that operates through the use of water to provide function to the timepiece. Maxemin says the Clepsydra would be unique to Mill Valley and that he hopes to work with local arts and school groups to design a feature that can serve as a landmark to the community.
“We have an already approved project that I inherited, that I will build if I have to,” Maxemin says. “But we think we can do a lot better for this community in terms the quality of the project and the number of units that we’ll have for workforce housing.”
Maxemin and Donna Huntingdale, the Tam’Andari project manager, have been meeting with City officials and various local stakeholders to seek feedback on the proposal, and say they are willing to incorporate that feedback.
So how did we get here? A bit of background:
Public hearing signs and story poles went up at 500 Miller in 2010, revealing then-owner Al Von der Werth’s long-delayed plans to build a mixed-use development of condominiums, retail and office space. A year later, Von der Werth garnered approval to build a project with 30,600 square feet of enclosed space, with nine condos and slightly less than 5,000 square feet of commercial space, on two levels at the western end of the project. The approval ended Von der Werth’s quest that dated back to 2005 and spanned more than a half-dozen study sessions and multiple hearings from both the Planning Commission and City Council.
But 2011 wasn’t exactly a booming economy, and the project stagnated for a variety of reasons. Von der Werth obtained several extensions of his approval as provided by the state for this type of project during the economic recession. He eventually put it on the market.
Like many residents, Maxemin had been driving by the property for years, wondering what would come of it. A local friend reached out to him about buying the project from Von der Worth when it went up for sale, telling him that “I was the logical guy for it given my background,” he says. “I build retaining walls – I’m not afraid of the challenges presented by this site.”
Maxemin’s portfolio under the umbrella of his Armax Corp. includes well-known local projects like DeSilva Island, the 42-acre development of 62 townhomes and single-family homes that sits just northeast of the Richardson Bay Bridge in Mill Valley. But it also spans well beyond the 94941, including award-winning mixed-use projects throughout the Bay Area, including several in San Francisco and in communities like Burlingame, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose.
Upon his purchase of the property, Maxemin finalized his permit with the City for the retaining wall construction and associated grading with the City. Under state law, the City was required to issue the permit for this first phase of site improvements. These site improvements included site excavation, site retaining walls, and drainage improvements. Images and information on the existing approval can be found here.
While the current approved project remains valid, Maxemin wants to move forward with a project that includes 28 condominium units that would distribute the commercial uses throughout the first floor rather than be in a separate building. He says the location is ideal for something that addresses Mill Valley workforce housing needs, particularly given its proximity to a bus stop and location on one of the city’s two main corridors.
Maxemin intends to increase the total project size to approximately 51,500 square feet. He says he’s able to add 19 more units to Von der Werth’s project without a commensurate increase in total square footage by reducing the per-unit size. While the Von der Werth project called for condo units ranging from 1,220 square feet to 1,530 square feet, each with two parking spaces, Maxemin’s project will have six, one-bedroom units between 540 and 690 square feet, and another 22 two-bedroom units between 790 and 1,600 square feet.
Maxemin says the project will have 64 on-site parking spaces, up from 41 on the current approved project, and is not seeking a parking variance from the City. All parking required for the project is provided on-site, he says. He’s done so by creating “stacked parking” for the two-bedroom units and for one of the retail spaces. Other traditional parking spots accommodate the one-bedroom units and the remaining retail spaces, with two spots shared between those two uses.
In going to the City for a new approval, Maxemin’s project must adhere to rules that the City has approved since Von der Werth garnered his approval in 2011. The biggest of those is the City’s September 2017 passage of an affordable housing ordinance that, among other things, requires all multi-unit development to make at least 25 percent of the units below market-rate housing. In this case, that means seven of the 28 proposed units.
Maxemin says it’s important to him that the project “complies with state and local codes that have been implemented since the project’s approval.” That includes the City’s June 2016 passage of Multi-Family Residential and Mixed Use Design Guidelines and Development Standards, rules and design requirements that cover issues such as parking, floor-area ratio (FAR, or allowed building square footage) and density, among other things.
The City created those news rules as part of its 2015-2023 Housing Element, a document that guides all of the City’s policies on development and is contained within the MV 2040 General Plan, the City’s constitution of sorts. One of those design guidelines dictates that development in the Gateway area of Miller Ave. – from La Goma Street outbound to Camino Alto – should have a density range of between 17 units per acre and 29 units per acre. The project site is 52,677 square feet, which equates to approximately 1.21 acres.
Maxemin says it’s vital to have the project “better complement the beauty of the hillside. The hillside must be incorporated into this project in a real way and match the character and landscape of the town.”
To that end, he has retained Mill Valley landscape architecture firm Royston Hanamoto Alley and Abey (RHAA), which has worked on an array of local projects like the Miller Avenue Streetscape Project and the Bayfront Community Garden, along with San Francisco’s Union Square and Mission Dolores Park.
Maxemin also retained Nardi Associates, a Monrovia, Calif.-based architectural firm that has projects all over California and Mexico. Firm founder Norberto Nardi has been invited to exhibits its designs for projects like the San Francisco International Technology Center near the SFO International Airport and the Olympic Tower in downtown Los Angeles at the La Biennale di Venezi’s International Architectural Exhibition in 2018, and Maxemin says Nardo will be including his designs for 500 Miller in his exhibit.
“We’re excited to create something that the community can be proud of,” Maxemin says.
To provide feedback on the proposal, email Donna Huntingdale