.Developer agrees to reduce size of controversial Marin City housing project

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Marin County struck a deal with an affordable housing developer to reduce the size of a hotly contested five-story, 74-unit project planned in Marin City.

Though not yet inked by the Idaho developer or the county, the agreement calls for no more than 42 units at 825 Drake Ave. in Marin City, with the remaining units to be built at another location in Southern Marin.

While the county claims the revised plan responds to concerns expressed by the community, officials kept residents in the dark about the negotiations. Some in Marin City say they’re unhappy with the outcome.

Save Our City, a local group embroiled in a lawsuit against the county and developer to stop the project, rejected a similar offer last year. Developer Caleb Roope, chief executive officer of The Pacific Companies, proposed building 40 units at the Drake site. The group told Roope they wanted him to abandon the Marin City location altogether.

“From the beginning, Save Our City/Stop 825 has wanted Marin City residents to control the 825 site and its land use,” said Bettie Hodges, a Marin City native and founder of Save Our City.

The county is not in a position to purchase the property from Roope, according to Sarah Jones, director of Marin’s Community Development Agency. Instead, officials have taken a proactive role in working with the developer to decrease the size of the Marin City project and find a second site for the other units.

“This approach was not what Save Our City asked for—they wanted to see no project here.” Jones said. “He [Roope] wasn’t willing to do that, but he was willing to pursue making the project smaller. We think it’s a better outcome for Marin City than a 74-unit project.”

At first blush, an outsider may consider Save Our City’s position a page from the “Not In My Back Yard” playbook—simply a neighborhood pushing back against development and affordable housing. However, Marin City, a historically Black community, is already densely populated and contains far more low-income housing than any other unincorporated area of Marin County.

Digging deeper, this story stems from a complex set of issues. California’s housing crisis has prompted state legislation to mandate development, leaving local authorities with less control. The new laws and attractive financing have encouraged for-profit developers to build big and maximize revenue. 

Taking the brunt of the blame is Marin, a wealthy, predominantly white county that subjected its Black residents to decades of housing discrimination and segregation, and still gives them little agency today over decisions affecting their community.

The current issue began in 2020, when the county failed to inform Marin City leaders that a developer bought the one-acre property at 825 Drake. Soon after, the county approved plans for a five-story, 74-unit affordable housing project on the site and neglected to share that news with the community.

Although not required, the county could have notified the neighbors after approving a project of this size. Marin City’s infrastructure is already taxed—the area is in a state-designated high fire hazard zone, prone to flooding, and served by only one road in and out.

It wasn’t until 2023 that most Marin City residents learned about the project. The Marin County Board of Supervisors had scheduled a hearing on the issuance of $40 million in tax-exempt bonds to develop 825 Drake. Despite community outcry, the board approved the bond issuance, saying it had no choice.

While county officials were obligated under Senate Bill 35 to streamline approval of the project, questions remain as to whether the board had to approve the $40 million issuance of tax-exempt bonds—an amount that will fund most of the development’s estimated $57 million cost.

SB 35, legislation passed in 2017, restricts local governments from rejecting multi-family residential developments if the municipality hasn’t met state mandates aimed at resolving California’s housing shortage. When the county received the application to develop 825 Drake, it had not yet hit the required housing allocation.

But were the county supervisors required to approve the issuance of tax-exempt bonds for the project? That is the crux of Save Our City’s lawsuit, which asserts that county counsel advised the board incorrectly before the vote approving the bond issuance.

Last year, a Marin County judge issued a temporary order preventing the California Municipal Finance Authority from issuing any of the project’s tax-exempt that had not yet been released.

However, that ship may have sailed. Roope says the $40 million in tax-exempt bonds were issued prior to the judge’s order.

“All the bonds have been issued,” Roope said. “It’s all basically funded and set aside for this project.”

Marilyn Mackel, a Save Our City member and plaintiff in the lawsuit, sees the distribution as merely a bump in the road to permanently shutting down the Marin City project.

In February, an expert witness for Save Our City, Jack Chen, stated in a declaration to the court that if Marin County’s approval of the bond issuance is not valid, it “would create a cascade of consequences invalidating every financing agreement related to the Project.”

“In my opinion, the most likely action that Citibank and bond investors would take is to declare Events of Default under the Drake Financing Agreements to terminate those agreements, unwind the structure and seek a return of their capital,” Chen said in the declaration.

For his part, Roope doesn’t seem worried. Last year, he said that he could find other financing if necessary.

But he acknowledges that he needs to provide 74 units in Marin to fulfill his obligations to the state, county, lenders and investors. If push comes to shove, he owns the 825 Drake property, has approval for all the units at that site and will move forward. However, that’s not the way he wants to develop the project at this point.

“I’ve never had this kind of opposition before,” Roope said. “I’m trying to be as sensitive as I can, given the situation I inherited, as well as the financing that we have already. There are all these considerations, and I’m just trying to balance as best as I can.”

Adding a second location significantly increases development costs, according to Roope. Another challenge is finding a site that can accommodate the project because the 74 modular units have already been constructed. It will require a substantial design reconfiguration to fit the modules into two buildings on two different properties.

“It’s really kind of tricky from a real estate perspective,” Roope said. “I have a Rubik’s Cube process to go through.”

In the meantime, details about the new site remain vague. Roope says he’s still looking, while Jones maintains the county has identified a property in Southern Marin.

“First steps have been taken to pursue it,” Jones said. “I say that to let you know this is serious. This is not speculative.”

Save Our City says it will continue with its lawsuit to stop the development at 825 Drake, emphasizing that the community lacked a voice in the project and the county has not advanced their interests.

“The latest 40-unit agreement between the developer and the county continues this pattern and is emblematic of the power imbalance between Marin City and the County of Marin that Save Our City/Stop 825 is hoping to change,” said Hodges. “The deal between the county and the developer does not change our objectives. Our pursuit of that goal continues.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank You, Nikki for always making sure Marin City voices are heard!! We can count on you for well researched articles.

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  2. Thank you Nikki for not trying to put a positive spin on this latest news, as if this negotiated compromise between the county and Mr. Roope is a victory and satisfying to the Marin City community. Mr. Roope states that he has “never had this kind of opposition before.” That’s because he’s never challenged the leaders of Marin City before, who have spent their whole lives fighting for their rights and fighting for the community they love.

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  3. Is it actually true that the size of the project will be reduced? If the developer grades the property it could still have the same footprint and no greenery or common space.

    But thank you for talking to save or city people like Bettie to get their viewpoint. I believe save our city will make an official announcement about it’s position very soon.

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    • Hi Barbara,

      According to the developer, the building may have the same footprint; however, in that case, there would be fewer than five stories. Alternatively, the building could remain five stories and have a smaller footprint, perhaps having less impact on the existing senior center behind 825 Drake Avenue.

      Another benefit of reducing the number of units is that one parking spot for each unit will be provided on the property. In the previous plan, that was a tall–if not impossible–order.

      Best,
      Nikki

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  4. Ultimately – this is the fault of the State’s legislature “off the rails” mad desire to force housing anywhere and everywhere. It also shows the exact reason why I have long opposed such categorical recklessness on the part of our corrupt legislators ( with the exception of Damon Conolly). They too – just like the orange haired monster are peddling an utterly false narrative. This project – is completely dependent upon public financing and our legislators are all too happy to reach ( yet again) into our pockets to pursue their warped political agenda.

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