The Mercury News
July 25, 2021
By Richard Halstead

The state of California is making five acres of land it owns adjacent to San Quentin State Penitentiary available to two developers who plan to build a total of 230 units of new rental housing there.

Half of the units will be reserved for households with extremely-low to very-low incomes; Marin County teachers and educational staff will be prioritized when renting to the other half.

An income of $54,800 or less is classified as extremely-low for a family of four in Marin; an income of $91,350 or less is considered to be very-low for that same family of four.

Because the units will be built on state-owned land, all  of the entitlements and permitting for the project, including analysis required under the California Environmental Quality Act, will be handled by the state. Neither Marin County nor the city of Larkspur, which includes the area within its sphere of influence, will have any say in the approval process.

The state’s goal is to have apartments available for occupancy within 36 months.

The project is one of ten that the state has initiated following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order issued in January 2019 for the Department of General Services to create an inventory of excess, state-owned parcels where housing development could be expedited.

The order directed the Department of General Services to work with the Department of Housing and Community Development to issue requests for proposals from developers of affordable housing. The state is entering into a long-term lease with the developers at virtually no cost to the developers.

Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, whose district the project will be located in, said he first learned of the project when the state issued its request for proposals in September 2020.

“I am supportive of the idea of providing housing for our education professionals,” Rodoni wrote in an email.

Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools, wrote in an email, “The cost of housing in Marin is one of the greatest challenges we face when it comes to retaining our current staff members or recruiting new staff to our schools.  The development of affordable housing for educators would greatly assist us in attracting the best possible teachers and staff to serve our students and families.”

The state selected two developers for the project: Hayward-based Eden Housing and Mill Valley-based Thompson Dorfman Partners, which work through Education Housing Partners, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation it formed in 2004.

Eden Housing will build 115 apartments with about an even number of studio, 1-bedroom, two-bedroom and three bedroom units ranging in size from 450 square feet to 1,085 square feet.

Education Housing Partners’ 115 units will range in size from 625 square feet to 1,250 square feet. There will be 17 junior one-bedroom apartments, 52 one-bedroom apartments, 35 two-bedroom units and 11 three-bedroom units.

While the two housing components will operate and be capitalized independently, they will share common infrastructure including some amenity areas and a parking structure.

“This is an innovative project,” said Bruce Dorfman, one of the two principals of Thompson Dorfman. “It checks a lot of boxes for Marin, a place where we don’t have much in the way of affordable housing.”

The site where the housing will be built, part of which was once used as a firing range for San Quentin State Prison, is located on the north side of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, between Drake Cove Road and the prison.

David Herr, who will be sworn in as president of the Drakes Cove Homeowners Association’ board on Aug. 4, said Drakes Cove residents have a number of concerns about the state’s plan. These include: impacts on traffic, the density and size of the project, the lack of consultation with local stakeholders and the haste with which the project is proceeding.

“Currently, during the morning and evening commute hours, traffic on Sir Francis Drake between 580 and 101 is horrendous,” Herr wrote in an email. “The (Drake Cove) board is concerned that such a dense project, located where it is, will exponentially compound the problem, and have a negative impact not just on Drakes Cove residents but on all people who have to commute through the Sir Francis Drake corridor.”

Herr said his association is concerned that the state is rushing to develop and with all the permitting decisions being made by one agency worries that the project will not get the full vetting needed.

Herr notes that under county zoning of the parcel no more than 21 single family houses could be built on the site.

“However, the state is not subject to the county’s zoning regulations,” said Tom Lai, director of the county’s Community Development Agency.

Herr wrote, “In short, the state is rezoning the land for 10 times the density, without any public process on that zoning decision separate from the proposed development.”

Linda Mandolini, CEO of Eden Housing, however, said, “I think it is super important that we make room in our communities for the people who are working there. This is a terrific opportunity to get more people out of the long commute coming in and out of Marin.”

Dan Schwarz, Larkspur’s city manager, said he also first learned of the project when the state issued its request for proposals.

“Ultimately if you’re going to have this large a development right outside the city limits,” Schwarz said, “then one of the discussions would be whether it ought to be in the city and receiving city services.”

Right now since the property is in unincorporated Marin, it would be the county’s job to provide such services as police and fire.

Since the site is located within Larkspur’s sphere of influence, however, the city could apply to the Marin Local Agency Formation Commission for permission to annex the property. The Commission’s seven members include supervisors Judy Arnold and Damon Connolly.

Because the property will continue to be owned by the state there will be no property tax revenue available to help cover the cost of providing services to the development.

County Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk Shelly Scott said the new construction would be assessable; but she added that Eden and Education Housing Partners could apply for an exemption that could cover as much as 100% of the assessable value.

Dorfman estimates that the total project, all 230 units, will cost between $160 and $175 million. He said Education Housing Partners plans to form a joint powers authority and issue tax exempt bonds to cover its share of the cost.

In a statement, Eden said its 115 units will be financed with “a combination of low-income housing tax credits, local funds, state funds and housing choice vouchers.”

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