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August 16, 2016 | From the Marin Independent Journal

Whistlestop is moving ahead with a plan to relocate to a former Pacific Gas and Electric Co. site near the senior center’s downtown San Rafael location.

The nonprofit that serves seniors hopes to move to a 3-acre site at 999 Third St., which it would share with San Rafael biotech company BioMarin, said Joe O’Hehir, the senior center’s chief executive. The new quarters are expected to be about the size of Whistlestop’s present location at 930 Tamalpais Ave.

Whistlestop and BioMarin have signed a non-binding agreement with Eden Housing to work together to make the land transfer, O’Hehir said. BioMarin acquired the property at the end of last year and environmental cleanup is presently underway. The site, which is being confined by a large white tent for about a year, was a former gas plant with contaminated soil containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum products and metals.

Eden, a Hayward-based affordable housing building and management company, “would manage the housing component,” O’Hehir said. Affordable housing of about 50 studio and one-bedroom apartments has been proposed.

“The housing would be atop our center,” O’Hehir said. “That’s the beauty of the project. It means seniors can live above our center and enjoy the services, but live in a safer downtown setting.

“We plan on filing a joint pre-application with the city by the end of August,” O’Hehir said. The chief executive said the project is “right at the very beginning.”

The pre-application “provides the city with a written description of what the proposal is for the property, what Eden Housing and Whistlestop and BioMarin want to do,” O’Hehir said.

Whistlestop had originally pitched a $25 million expansion plan calling for a new senior center and cafe, a parking garage, and 48 studio and one-bedroom apartments at its existing site in an old train depot.

A newer design was scaled back to 41 studio and one-bedroom apartments after residents raised concerns about size, design and parking. The proposal to rework the old train depot site also was met with some criticism from some who wanted to preserve the city’s transportation history.

“We have been meeting with them (the three entities) informally for the last couple of months because they are looking to collectively come up with some sort of plan for the PG&E property,” said Paul Jensen, the city’s community development director.

After the group files its pre-application, “city staffers will scrutinize it and return it with any suggested changes,” Jensen said. The group might also request a conceptual review, “a preliminary review by our Design Review Board,” he said.

“The next step is a formal application that is reviewed by the city’s Design Review Board, then any other applications that might be needed,” Jensen said.

Next is a review by the Planning Commission, then the City Council. “Right now that seems light-years away because there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen.” For example, “There’s environmental review. Some environmental review takes up to 12 months,” Jensen said.

Mayor Gary Phillips has gone on record in favor of the 999 Third St. location.

“It’s more attractive, it’s closer to the downtown, it’s away from the SMART station where trains will be coming and blowing their horn and a lot of commotion with buses and pedestrian traffic,” Phillips said in February. “It’ll be more accommodating for residents who will be there.”

BioMarin officials said the company does not comment on nonbinding private agreements, but referred to a previous statement that said officials were “excited about the possibility” of including the proposed Whistlestop Mission Plaza project into the company’s potential future expansion of its BioMarin headquarters in central San Rafael.

“We would not take possession of the property at 999 Third St. until PG&E completes the substantial environmental cleanup project on the property,” officials said in February. BioMarin bought the property from PG&E at the end of last year.

Andrea Osgood, Eden Housing’s director of real estate development, said, “Eden is committed to building affordable housing all over the Bay Area.

“Now more than ever, communities more desperately need affordable housing, particularly in Marin,” Osgood said. She said many of Marin’s seniors are struggling to find housing they can afford.

“A lot of people think Eden is trying to build housing that is not necessary,” Osgood said. “People who need these kinds of homes are generally your neighbors or people you see at the store. People don’t realize it could happen to them.”

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