.Marin City group rejected offer to reduce size of housing project

The developer of a controversial Marin City affordable housing project says he will break ground in about 90 days, despite opposition from the local community.

Legal and moral issues are at stake, according to Save our City, the group campaigning to stop the five-story, 74-unit apartment building from going up in Marin City, a densely populated community in an unincorporated area of Marin County.

In fact, Save Our City has filed legal action against the developer and Marin County to reverse the Board of Supervisors’ approval of a $40 million bond issuance for the project at 825 Drake Ave. With the cost for construction estimated at almost $57 million, the bond would pay for most of the development.

Developer Caleb Roope, CEO of The Pacific Companies, maintains that he is obligated to build 74 units of affordable housing because he made commitments to, and accepted financing from, the state, the county and private funders.

Still, Roope told me that he has tried his best to reach a compromise with Save Our City. However, his efforts were unsuccessful.

“I had a conference call with Save Our City and made the offer for a 40-unit project at 825 Drake, and then I would find another location in Marin City or the county for the other 34 units,” Roope said. “I also offered to make it senior housing at the Drake site and provide one-to-one parking on-site. They said no to all of it.”

Rejecting Roope’s proposal was the consensus of the group, their collective position on determining what is built on “the last piece of buildable land” in the community, Marilyn Mackel, a leader with Save Our City, said in an interview.

“The community should have a voice that’s heard and regarded,” Mackel said. “Marin County has got to stop doing what they want to do and then telling us about it afterward. Caleb did that too. ‘Nothing about us without us.’ That’s where we are as a community. It’s quite simple.”

County officials have made plenty of decisions for Marin City, a historically Black community, without consulting its residents. At the conclusion of World War II, Black people who lived in temporary housing in Marin City while building ships for the war effort were prevented from buying property in the county. So, they put down roots in Marin City.

The community remained predominantly Black for decades. However, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the county, without input from residents, approved the development of condos and luxury apartments in Marin City, which resulted in gentrification. More development followed in the ’90s.

Today, Marin City has a population of almost 3,000. Less than 27% of those residents are Black, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The apartment complex at 825 Drake will likely further gentrify the community. Although the units are considered “affordable,” the rent is based on the county’s average median income, which is almost twice as high as that of Marin City’s.

Roope is aware of the community’s history and has repeatedly told me that he has compassion for the residents. Why, then, is he insisting on building all 74 units at the Drake site, when it appears he could build fewer? Certainly, he doesn’t need Save Our City’s approval.

“I asked specifically for Save Our City’s support because they’re the adversary—filing litigation and fighting me at every turn,” Roope said. “There are other community members that are more moderate, but I wouldn’t have gotten forward on the lawsuit. I was disappointed, but on the other hand, it would have been a lot of work to make major changes.” 

For months, Save Our City has asked Roope to abandon the project. The area doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the large development, which will increase Marin City’s population by 6%.

Indeed, the one-acre plot at 825 Drake is in a state-designated high fire hazard zone, and the area is also prone to flooding. Public safety problems are compounded because there’s only one road in and out of Marin City. In addition, the new five-story building perched on the hillside property will cast a literal shadow over the existing two-story, low-income senior housing complex just yards away.

Yet, the 74-unit project is moving forward. Demolition and site preparation were completed earlier this month.

To satisfy an agreement that Roope made with county, he is finishing up some aesthetic design revisions and adding more parking, enough for one spot per unit. The original plan had only 24 parking spaces on the property.

“I’m changing the appearance of the building with craftsman style elements and putting in landscaping to shield the mass of the building,” Roope said. “On the parking, I might not get all the way to one-to-one on-site but I’m very close to achieving it. I might have to lease some spaces off-site.”

As the bond issue winds its way through court, it raises the question of how to prevent another 825 Drake scenario. If state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco gets his way, there may be no stopping similar developments in areas that have infrastructure issues and other problems.

Senate Bill 35, authored by Wiener and passed in 2017, restricts local governments from rejecting multi-family residential developments that satisfy specific criteria. Zoning laws, local review processes and even the California Environmental Quality Act—be damned.

A municipality is subject to SB 35 if it hasn’t built enough new housing to meet the state mandates, aimed at resolving California’s housing shortage. And Marin County hasn’t, which paved the way for Roope’s development in Marin City.

Interestingly, Marin City has more affordable housing than any other area of the county. But SB 35 doesn’t provide exemptions for an unincorporated community when the county hasn’t met its housing numbers.

While SB 35 is set to expire in 2025, Wiener has introduced SB 423 to strengthen the legislation and extend it until 2036. Critics say the new bill is worse, citing that it would allow development in coastal areas and high and very high fire hazard zones.

State Assemblymember Damon Connolly, who represents the North Bay, doesn’t support SB 423, pointing to the recent Maui fires as a reminder that developments in high-risk wildfire zones can be catastrophic.

“Out of thousands of bills, I have heard the most from constituents expressing concerns and opposition to SB 423,” Connolly said in a statement to the Pacific Sun. “I share these concerns, especially after the events in Marin City, where local residents faced racial discrimination from developers trying to jam through a project without input from the community … SB 423 still has numerous flaws that will override local housing plans, disregard community voices and short circuit environmental review.”

Conversely, Sen. Mike McGuire, who also serves the North Bay, supports SB 423. It’s  surprising because he voted against SB 35. In a statement to the Pacific Sun, McGuire noted that SB 423 isn’t perfect, but it will remedy “some glaring issues” in the current legislation.

“For example, all housing projects must receive a public hearing at a Board of Supervisors or City Council meeting, which will ensure the community has an opportunity to sincerely engage early in the process,” McGuire said. “This amendment also stops the unscrupulous practice of a developer, like what we saw in Marin City, of not engaging with neighbors. It also ensures developers can’t bulldoze their way around community members, and it ensures local concerns are advanced.”

Well, not exactly. McGuire authored an amendment to SB 423 that merely requires one public meeting for low- and moderate-income Census tracts, like Marin City, to “provide an opportunity for the public and the local government to comment on the development.”

Save Our City can attest that offering comments to the developer doesn’t necessarily advance local concerns. And that’s going to be a continuing problem if SB 423 passes without some serious amendments.

The bill, currently in the state Assembly Appropriations Committee, is scheduled for a vote on Sept. 1. 

In the meantime, Roope has his building permits for the 825 Drake development and will soon deliver his promised design changes to the county. Roope believes the county will then give him the green light.

“It’s 90 days until excavation and construction begins,” Roope told me last week. “The only way to stop us is if the lawsuit turns into an injunction by the courts.”

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].

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Nikki for keeping the light on Caleb Roope. 825 Drake Ave. will NOT be built. The heavens will rain down and speak for Marin City. Royce Mc Lemore
    said “Never Happen” on that Land. Things aren’t always the way they seem.

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  2. Thank you Nikki for your excellent reporting on this!
    We need that injunction from the courts to stop this injustice in a community that has seen one injustice after another.
    825 Drake in Marin City should be the ‘poster child’ that demonstrates how deeply flawed SB 35 really is!

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  3. Excellent reporting, Nikki. I’m happy to see Connolly acknowledge his constituents’ concerns, as well as his own — on the record. Thank you for providing such insight into the whole of the Drake / Marin City issues — beyond the building itself.

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  4. 1-1 parking is a huge step in the right direction. 2-1 would be ideal, but there is a number in the middle that is probably right. Plenty of other complaints about this project, but so glad to hear the parking ratio is moving in the right direction.

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  5. Nikki, you are the best, you go deep and research at a level no other publications do in Marin. It is a significant achievement to get our leaders at the state level on the record. Stoping 825 Drake would be a very strong signal to a power structure that continues to dump on Marin City and refuses to give them a voice at the table. Yes, Marinites, structural racism is alive and well in County and only you can change that.

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  6. Disregard for residents in Marin City is not new. Bulldozing is business as usual. I do not expect our voices to be respected. Classism and racism operate to silence people who have limited financial power. When this monstrosity is imposed on our overcrowded community I will work to vote out every politician responsible.

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