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Vivalon evaluates new downtown site for expansion proposal

Vivalon-evaluates-new-downtown-site-for-expansion-proposalMarin  Independent  Journal (

Nonprofit wants to expand senior center, build housing

By Stephanie Weldy, Marin Independent Journal

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A proposal to expand Vivalon senior center and add housing is on hold as the nonprofit considers shifting the project to a former Pacific Gas & Electric Co. site recently purchased by BioMarin.

“Many people have been asking why can’t we do more housing units for seniors, so we believe there’s a possibility we could do more than the number of senior housing units (we were proposing),” said Vivalon CEO Joe O’Hehir. “We would hope there’s the possibility that at the other site we could increase that number.”

O’Hehir appeared Tuesday before the San Rafael City Council to announce plans to scrap an upcoming environmental review scoping session to consider the new proposal. The original $25 million plan called for a new senior center and cafe, a parking garage, and studio and 48 studio and one­-bedroom apartments at Vivalon’s current site in an old train depot at 930 Tamalpais Ave. A newer design was scaled back to 41 studio and one­bedroom apartments after concerns about size, design and parking. The proposal to rework the old train depot site also was met with some criticism from residents anxious to preserve the city’s transportation history.

Officials will now use the next three to four months to determine whether the 3­-acre site at 999 Third St., which is tented and undergoing environmental cleanup, could be a better fit. Work is underway to remove dirt contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum products and metals left over from an old manufactured gas plant, according to PG&E.

New plans could involve a property swap between Vivalon and BioMarin, O’Hehir said. Specifically, Vivalon could share the Third Street property with BioMarin, with the senior center situated on the western side of the parcel. BioMarin could in turn take over at 648 Lindaro St., Vivalon’s corporation yard, which acts as a holding site and maintenance facility for roughly 50 buses used to transport senior clients.

Mayor Gary Phillips said the proposition appears better for everyone.

“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. “It’ll be more accommodating for residents who will be there.”

A longtime proponent of the idea that the Third Street location would be good for Vivalon, Phillips introduced the idea of joint use to BioMarin officials.

If the new plan moves forward, the Planning Commission and City Council would have to review the proposal and consider rezoning the property, along with other contingencies, to accommodate both organizations’ needs. Phillips said BioMarin will likely ask for a height bonus. Parking at the site also would need to be addressed.

Cleanup at the former manufactured gas plant is expected to take up to 11 months. BioMarin officials have said they will not take ownership of the property until cleanup is complete. If the two groups do not reach an agreement, O’Hehir said the application on file would resume.

At Tuesday’s meeting, community members urged the City Council to discourage demolition of the former train depot building to make way for Vivalon’s planned expansion. After O’Hehir took the podium to share the latest news, one resident broke out into a short burst of applause.

Amy Likover, a San Rafael resident and longtime opponent of Vivalon’s application, said she looks forward to seeing how the new proposal will play out.

“I thank the mayor and Mr. O’Hehir for coming to this conclusion,” Likover said. “What matters most to me of course is the preservation of the historic San Rafael depot building. I look forward to better understanding how that will take place.”

Hugo Landecker, a resident who has led community efforts to encourage Vivalon to move the project, said the news came as a welcome surprise.

“The PG&E site is infinitely better than the Vivalon site,” he said. If the old application is revived, he is prepared to continue to fight to save the depot building, he said.

Liza Wozniak said if the new proposal does work out, she would like to see the depot building used as a commuter center.

“(Like) a mini version of San Francisco’s ferry building, where they can sell newspapers and coffee and have an open area for commuters to move and it could open into a plaza that accesses Fourth Street, which could improve business in the area and provide a friendly pedestrian-­transit environment,” she said.


© 2016 Marin Independent Journal (

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