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San Rafael board conditionally clears BioMarin, Whistlestop project

San Rafael board conditionally clears BioMarin, Whistlestop projectA proposal to expand the downtown San Rafael BioMarin campus and build a senior community center and housing complex cleared design review this week with conditional approval.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the San Rafael Design Review Board supported the project on the 3-acre site at 999 Third St., a former Pacific Gas and Electric Co. property. The project calls for two four-story laboratory and office buildings for BioMarin use, and a six-story, 67-unit senior housing and activities building for the nonprofit Whistlestop.

The board requested that the applicants use the most mature trees possible in its landscaping plan throughout the project. Board members asked for more trees or planters at the Third Street and Lindaro Street corner of the BioMarin complex, where there is a public plaza proposed, to buffer street noise.

The board also requested design changes to the senior complex, including “a better sense of entry” and a more cohesive arrangement of windows along the building elevations.

“Other than that,” said Stewart Summers, chairman of the board, “I think that this is just an extremely successful application for both buildings. We’re excited to see it move ahead.”

The application will return to the board as a consent calendar item before advancing to the Planning Commission.

BioMarin donated about 15,000 square feet of the northwest corner of the property, valued at $1.2 million, to Whistlestop.

The nonprofit plans to relocate its “active aging center” from its 930 Tamalpais Ave. site and rebrand it as a “healthy aging campus,” which will double its current space from 9,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet. It will feature a cafe, a community center and an integrated aging center for medical needs, all on the first two floors of the new complex.

Eden Properties of Hayward, an affordable housing developer, is working on the housing portion, which will offer 66 studio and one-bedroom units that will be age- and deed-restricted 100% affordable to residents 62 and older. An additional unit will be reserved for an onsite property manager.

The project is being billed as the first car-free community in San Rafael, offering transportation and walkability to downtown shopping, eating and mass transit. Rooftop decks, a courtyard and other amenities are part of the plan. The senior complex is estimated to cost $46.5 million.

At the BioMarin campus, applicants are proposing 3,500 square feet of retail space, 6,000 square feet of landscaped plaza open to the public, enhanced pedestrian safety with improved crosswalks and sidewalks and a bike lane on Lindaro Street from Third to Andersen Drive, among other benefits.

When asked about the estimated project cost, Debra Charlesworth, spokeswoman for BioMarin, said the company does not publicly disclose that information.

All three buildings will be approximately 70 feet tall, requiring a 20-foot height bonus approval for lab and office space and a 4-foot height bonus for the senior housing and activity center. The senior housing planners were able to add 13 units by adding the extra floor.

The applicants are also proposing a general plan amendment to allow higher density and to blend parking so that they can apply the existing BioMarin campus parking to the proposed total. BioMarin will be adding 29 parking spots. The two new buildings would be approximately 207,000 square feet.

“All three organizations, BioMarin, Eden Housing and Whistlestop, have important health and human needs missions to improve, enhance and extend the lives of thousands of individuals young and old that need our help,” said Joe O’Hehir, CEO of Whistlestop.

“Our proposed campus expansion confirms BioMarin’s long-term commitment to San Rafael,” said Shar Zamanpour, director of campus planning and development for BioMarin.

Zamanpour said the company is performing soil clean up of a brownfield, or a site that was contaminated.

The community has shown strong support so far.

“This is going to take San Rafael to a new level,” said Joanne Webster, president and CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. “In addition to providing housing and economic benefits, it’s really going to beautify the downtown area.”

Linda Jackson, program director of the Aging Action Initiative of Marin County, said a recent study by the Marin Commission on Aging found that more than 7,000 residents over the age of 60 are overpaying for rent.

“This is desperately needed, it’s an innovative project, it’s a creative model, and it’s what can be used for a model for the rest of housing in downtown,” she said.

The project environmental review is underway and expected to be completed this summer. The City Council is expected to consider the project and certification of the environmental review by the end of the year.

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