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Whistlestop officials identify new site that could accommodate expansion proposal

Whistlestop officials identify new site that could accommodate expansion proposalMarin  Independent  Journal (http://www.marinij.com)

Whistlestop also plans expanded senior center

By Stephanie Weldy, Marin Independent Journal

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Whistlestop officials are exploring the idea of a new site for their proposed plans to build a five-­story affordable housing complex and senior center in San Rafael.

Officials for the senior services agency said they have identified an alternative to their downtown depot home that could accommodate the project, but declined to release specifics beyond saying they are in talks with a property owner to see if an agreement can be reached.

“Consistently we’ve said if Whistlestop were approached with a viable alternative location that we would consider it,” said Joe O’Hehir, the senior center’s chief executive officer. “A possible location has come up and we’re in the process of reviewing this possibility with the property owner.”

The expansion proposal for the senior center, which has been in the old train depot building since the early 1970s, has drawn criticism from some community members. Residents have said the proposal requires demolition of the depot building to make way for the new development and should not be approved.

“San Rafael Heritage is looking for a win-­win solution for Whistlestop and preserving the historic depot building,” said Amy Likover, community outreach coordinator for the recently formed preservation group.

Because no agreement has been reached, center officials continue working with the city on the original application. A scoping session that will begin the environmental review process is still scheduled to take place later this month.

“We continue to work with the city of San Rafael’s planning staff on our current application and are looking forward to moving the process forward, assuming that’s the way we go,” O’Hehir said.

Public opinion

To prepare a draft environmental impact report, city officials are accepting comments on issues community members would like addressed. The city’s Planning Commission will review remarks received through Feb. 23 — the day the commission will meet and ultimately provide direction to city officials on topics to be included in the review.

“The intent of the meeting is to focus on the environmental concerns you would like to see discussed and

addressed regarding environmental impact — not whether the project should be supported or what not,” said Kraig Tambornini, senior city planner.

Potential environmental impacts that would be studied in the review include air quality, noise, greenhouse gases, transportation and traffic.

Depot building

The review also will study some of the more contentious aspects of the proposal, including whether demolition of the depot building would be a loss of a significant historical resource. Some residents believe demolition of the building, constructed in 1928, equates to a loss of the city’s transportation history.

“There’s a lot of history there,” said Hugo Landecker, vice president of San Rafael Heritage. “I think the bottom line that has to be decided by those responsible for whether this project goes ahead or not — they have to weigh what Whistlestop is offering, in the way of housing and services to the elderly, versus losing a gateway building to San Rafael, which has a lot of significant history.”

But officials with Whistlestop have disputed that claim. Officials with the senior center hired a historical consulting group to study whether the depot building has historical significance. According to the group’s report, dated August 2012, the building “is not eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources (CRHR), or the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and that (it) is not a historical resource for the purposes of CEQA.”

Gateway

The original proposal for the depot building, if it continues moving forward through the review process, also will be evaluated for the visual quality it would bring with its prime location at the heart of the city, Tambornini said. Its visual impact will be evaluated as one of the city’s entry landmarks, as well as the views it could affect.

“It’s an important location for San Rafael, because it’s a gateway location,” Tambornini said. “Coming into town, that’s your first experience of the town. Right now you see the rail depot, which harkens back to a specific time for the city. For designers, if they redevelop it — it needs to be significant to the character of San Rafael.”

Consultant Amy Skewes­-Cox has been selected to prepare the environmental report. For preliminary costs for the scoping review and initial study, the city is paying $12,217, Tambornini said. The full review is expected to cost about $300,000.

If the proposal goes forward, the final environmental review and the project could go before the City Council in August or September.

URL: http://www.marinij.com/government-and-politics/20160206/whistlestop-officials-identify-new-site-that-could-accommodate-expansion-proposal

© 2016 Marin Independent Journal (http://www.marinij.com)

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