West End project should be approved

1628 Fifth Avenue Rendering.png

San Rafael has a history of blended neighborhoods. From Gerstle Park to West End, single-family homes intersperse with offices, shops, and apartments, making them neighborhoods truly for everyone. A proposal for 1628 Fifth Avenue would continue that tradition – despite a bad zoning code.

The details

1628 Fifth is currently vacant, as the previous building burned down. The proposal is 3 stories, 30 feet tall (of 36 allowed), holds 9 homes (of 9 allowed), and 15 parking spaces (of 15 required). This comes to a density of 1.4 FAR or 40 units per acre, depending on how you want to count it. All the homes will be 2-bedroom condos.

The rest of the block contains a church, offices, apartments, and single-family homes, with similar uses on the neighboring blocks. The block is zoned for multi-family residential and is in the middle of the General Plan’s “high-density” residential designation, though this is hardly high-density. [1]

Because it’s on Fifth, the project is eminently walkable. It’s a good place for new homes.

What’s wrong with the zoning?

San Rafael has an acute lack of small homes – studios and one-bedrooms – in part because they are so heavily disincentivized. By placing a cap on the number of homes rather than the floor area, the code makes it vital that developers cut up their floor area into larger homes. The same project could have 28 studios, 19 one-bedrooms, or 12 two-bedrooms. The very high parking requirements make it very difficult to build more homes, too, as every two-bedroom home needs 1.7 spaces.

How much area is dedicated to 1.5 spaces compared to a 2-bedroom apartment. Image from Goodman, Seth.  ‘Residential Parking Requirements’ .  Graphing Parking  (blog), 25 January 2013.

How much area is dedicated to 1.5 spaces compared to a 2-bedroom apartment. Image from Goodman, Seth. ‘Residential Parking Requirements’. Graphing Parking (blog), 25 January 2013.


Tomorrow, on Tuesday, February 12, the proposal will be heard by the planning commission. Because it meets all the zoning requirements, it’s likely to be approved and, because it’s not subject to city council approval, that will be that. That’s not to say there isn’t opposition. [2]

Skag Dukkers, owner of a neighboring apartment building on the same block, was concerned that it would reduce light and privacy. Another opponent, Brad Sears, apparently ignorant of how his neighborhood currently looks, called it out of character. In a NextDoor post, he said the Design Review Board should have stuck to its mandate to look at the building’s design and not tried to deal with the number of homes while also saying the board should have forced the developer to limit the number of homes.

The project has flaws, but only because of poor zoning and a 1950s-era mindset about driving baked into the zoning code. 1628 deserves to be approved.

Works Cited

[1] Alan Montes, ‘1628 Fifth Avenue (Proposed Development Site) and 1634 Fifth Avenue (Site Ceding 745.5 Sq. Ft. for Lot Line Adjustment)’ (San Rafael, CA: Community Development Department, 12 February 2019).

[2] Adrian Rodriguez, ‘San Rafael Condo Plan Riles West End Neighbors’, Marin Independent Journal, 10 February 2019.