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Try and try again. That was the message the Mill Valley Planning Commission sent to the developer of 500 Miller Ave. this week when he returned before the commission with a reworked version of a project that calls for 15 residential units and 3,000 square feet of commercial space on lower Miller.
"We told him the project is still too big," said commission Chair Chuck Utzman. "We wanted a reduction in square footage and a reduction in the mass of the project."
The project, frequently referenced by the name of its developer, Al Von der Werth, has been through a number of revisions since the Planning Commission held a study session on it in December 2007. An early proposal called for 22 residential units, which was then culled to 20 units, still with 3,000 square feet of commercial space. (The latter would most likely house a deli, cafe or other business, although the initial restaurant proposal has been ruled out.)
When Von der Werth returned before the commission last January, the commissioners refused to hear the reworked proposal on the basis that the changes were too minor to warrant another hearing. That decision outraged Von der Werth, who proceeded to rail against the commissioners for several minutes.
A more temperate Von der Werth was on hand to hear the commission's feedback this week, but its downsizing message was much the same. The commissioners struggled, however, to agree on how much smaller the project should be.
The three-story series of attached units would be built on a steep hillside, requiring it to be backed by a 400-foot-long retaining wall that would be up to 37 feet tall. Commenting on the length of the buildings, Utzman said, "It just looks very massive. He's gone a long way toward breaking that up, but still the building looks too big."
The property at 500 Miller Ave. is among a number of parcels along lower Miller that have been recently annexed from the county of Marin to the city of Mill Valley.
The proposal Von der Werth submitted would satisfy city code by including 44 parking spaces, up from a previous total of 39. The reworked proposal also eliminated small studio and one-bedroom units, turning them instead into two-bedroom units. Although the reconfiguration allowed the developer to more easily satisfy parking requirements, the move didn't please the commission, which asked him to replace some of the smaller units.
Although 15 percent of the development is required to be designated as affordable, Utzman said the commission will likely ask for at least 20 percent in light of the variances the project is requesting.
The reworked proposal also fenced in an area previously designated as a public outdoor gathering area with a fountain at the corner of Miller and Reed. Plans replaced it with a fenced-in tenants-only space, with private bike parking. The commission asked Von der Werth to put aside fears of loitering Tam High students and un-fence the space.
The architects on the commission also requested a number of design changes that included enlarging the entry space between the two main buildings and make it accessible to the public.
But the changes are unlikely to appease Mill Valley residents like Trisha Farrow. "We think the project - even 10 units - is way too large and cumbersome," she wrote in a note to the Planning Department.
But despite the commission's smaller-is-better message Monday night, Utzman suggested the project's size likely won't get much smaller. "No matter how we nibble at it, it's still going to be a big project," he said.