San Rafael panel calls for revisions to Northgate redesign

Planners for the Northgate Mall redevelopment in San Rafael have been sent back to the drawing board due to issues with density, parking and general site layout.

The Design Review Board voted 4-0 on Tuesday to continue its public hearing on the mixed-use project that offers 1,320 new residences on the 45-acre site at Terra Linda. The board said it had a long list of concerns too long for a single meeting.

Board members Stewart Summers and Donald Blayney were absent from the meeting.

Board member Larry Paul thanked the developers, Merlone Geier Partners, a San Francisco real estate investment firm, for working diligently with the community and the city on its plans.

“I think we have the potential for a big project here,” Paul said.

However, he said: “It is a very large and complex project. I don’t feel very uncomfortable coming by tonight and making a decision.

Merlone Geier Partners bought the shopping center in 2017. The company proposes two project phases: the construction of 907 residences starting in 2025, followed by 413 housing units starting in 2040. Overall, the project aims to mix transit-oriented housing with community spaces, retail and restaurants.

The project has received mixed reviews from the community, with housing and sustainability advocates applauding the plan. Reviewers, mostly neighbors of the site, said some buildings were too tall for the residential area and were concerned about traffic and noise.

Council members shared their concerns about the appearance of the scheme, but said traffic, noise and other impacts were within the purview of the Planning Commission and City Council.

A major concern was the way the site was laid out and the concentration of parking and residential components.

The board felt uncomfortable with a proposal to build a seven-story apartment building on Las Gallinas Avenue. A shorter building was originally planned with fewer apartments, but the modification was made to accommodate the addition of 85 townhouses for sale on the south end while maintaining the total number of planned residences.

The council said some residences could be moved to the northern end of the site, where there were no planned buildings and only parking spaces. They said it could help distribute the density and also help create a better entry point.

Merlone Geier donated a 2-acre section of the land to San Rafael-based EAH Housing to develop 96 affordable apartments with on-site resident support services, including summer and after-school programs and programs for adults.

Sarah Rege, the council’s chair, called the affordable housing design “unfortunate” from a “social equity perspective”, given the quality of thought and design of the townhouses. The townhouses for sale were inspired by neighboring houses in Eichler to blend in with the community.

Board members were delighted to see the developer expand the central ‘town square’ function to 50,000 square feet, but said it could be bigger and the adjacent parking lot should be moved to the perimeter.

Board member Jeff Kent said the proposed dog park should be moved to another area of ​​the site and more park features for children should be added.

Applicants had designed the commercial area with apartments above using brick and other materials with a variety of architectural styles to give it an organic downtown feel that made it feel like it was was developed over time, rather than all at once, they said.

The council did not like the use of brick and wanted to have a separate discussion so they could comment on each building one by one.

The proposed multi-use path should also encircle the whole site, and more attention should be given to connectivity, perhaps with some sort of transit hub, the council said.

The council also requested a shade study, a lighting plan, a more detailed landscaping plan, and more cohesive, pedestrian-friendly architecture, among other requests.

Tricia Stevens, the city’s project planner, said staff will meet with applicants to digest feedback and decide when they can come back with revisions. In the meantime, the state-mandated environmental impact review has begun, she said.

After the meeting, Stephen Logan, Vice President of Merlone Geier, said the company is committed to working with the community and the city on the design process.

“Northgate’s redevelopment is a delicate balance between creating new housing, public gathering areas and performing commercial space,” he said. “Feedback from the design review board is an important step in the process and we will determine which potential changes are feasible from an economic and design perspective.”

The developers held an event at the mall from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday to solicit more community feedback. More information at futurenorthgatemall.com.

About Joshua M. Osborne

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