Monahan Development Inc. is proposing to add 41 units of housing and 1,400 square feet of retail to downtown San Rafael at 2nd & B Streets. Although the project is still in its preliminary stages, currently undergoing redesign based on comments from the city’s Design Review Board, what is known is that the building would consolidate four parcels into a four-story building. (Click here for the meeting and attachments.) In whatever form it takes, more apartments would be a boon to downtown, but it is limited by legal barriers and complicated by the presence of a historical Victorian on the site.
The proposal would consolidate four parcels into a four-story, 41-unit apartment building, with two retail bays along B Street and a 57-space parking garage about a half-mile from the Bettini Transit Center, Marin’s busiest transit hub. Two of the parcels to be consolidated are old Victorian houses that have seen better days, the third is a commercial space akin to the other ugly buildings along 2nd, and the fourth is a parking lot that has become a magnet for crime. Given the prime location and the decrepit state of the parcels, it’s not surprising to find that this is not the first time the space has been targeted for development. The Board’s staff report shows that four other proposals since 2005 have been floated and abandoned by various developers and that this is the first without significant commercial space. With San Rafael’s commercial sector so weak, a focus on residential development is a welcome change.
The residential development, however, is severely curtailed by San Rafael zoning laws. The property is zoned for a maximum of 30 residential units, but the developers would receive a density bonus by including more affordable housing. Even with the density bonus, the 41 planned units are only enough to fill out three floors; the bottom is used as a parking garage for the required spaces. While the two retail bays do interact with the street, a ground-floor parking garage is dead space on an already isolated street, and the market is too weak to support more ground-floor retail. In all, zoning cuts about 14 units out of the structure and promotes car dependence.
The complicating factor in this site is a burned-out Victorian-era house at 1212 2nd Street, which is marked as a cultural resource. At the moment, Monahan proposes to demolish all structures on the site, including the house at 1212, but doing anything to the 1212 structure would require an Environmental Impact Report, an arduous and fraught task that makes any construction within the project’s limited allowable scope that much less feasible.
By any measure, downtown San Rafael’s retail sector is weak. Many of the stores that currently exist are transitory, like nail shops, and the streets aren’t exactly bustling. With a new SMART station on the way and the trendiest downtown in the County, San Rafael is primed for the kind of transit-oriented housing Monahan's project could be. Unfortunately, zoning restrictions means that the development will just be better than nothing; it does not start a new path forward for San Rafael or the County. Given the history of failed projects for the site, however, “better than nothing” might be about as good as San Rafael can get.