The noted architect and planner is in for the long haul on the controversial 304-home Seminary project.
OVER THE PAST 20 years, architect Mark Cavagnero has master-planned the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, designed the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and been featured in Architectural Record, California Home and Design and The New York Times. His local projects include the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, College of Marin’s Academic Center, Marin Horizon School in Mill Valley and Sava Pool on 19th Avenue in San Francisco.
Cavagnero is founding principal of Mark Cavagnero Associates, a 45-person, 23-year-old architectural/planning firm on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. In addition to the above, his firm has designed the Oakland Museum of California, Park City Museum in Utah and corporate headquarters for Whole Foods Market in Chicago. The 58-year-old lives in Mill Valley and is the father of two: William, 18, a senior at Marin Academy, and Jane, 22, a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
For the past three years, Cavagnero has been planning, designing and advocating for the Seminary, a clustering of 304 new rental homes adjacent to a planned private high school on 127 scenic acres in the southern Marin community of Strawberry. Cavagnero fully expects to see the project through to its completion, which he envisions taking five to seven years.
More than a few Strawberry residents hope that day never comes.
In your own words, please describe the Seminary project. To date, this project represents three years of the developer, Bruce Jones of North Coast Land Holdings, and myself working to study and dream about what would be the ideal project for this site. We both live in Marin; Bruce was raised here. The owner of the land, the Fasken family, has long ties to the Branson School in Ross, and they are drawn to execute a project that would have high-quality education as a community benefit.
There are 211 units on the property that were built 50 years ago and are currently in poor condition. A 1984 community plan, approved by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, allowed for 304 units to be built on the property. Our plan is to replace the existing 211 units “bedroom for bedroom,” meaning for every one-bedroom, we’ll build a new one-bedroom unit, and for every twobedroom, a two-bedroom unit, and so on. These will be two-story homes and none will be over 1,200 square feet in size. As for the 93 units that were approved in 1984 but never built, we will primarily be building two- and three-bedroom units, consistent with the 1984 community plan that called for larger homes for families with children.
People in Strawberry have expressed a preference for single-family detached homes; however, these will be attached single-family homes clustered in threes and fours into buildings that appear similar to the singlefamily detached houses that now border the project. Still, the density of the project will be 2.47 units per acre, somewhat less than Strawberry’s Ricardo Road at 4.9 units per acre and Richardson Drive, which is 3.2 per acre, and considerably less than the nearby Strawberry Point apartments, which are 17.7 units per acre. When completed, the Seminary will have 75 percent open space, and 60 units, scattered throughout the project, will qualify as senior affordable housing.
Will this be individually owned or leased housing? The owners are a group out of Texas and Northern California and they like the idea of keeping their property in perpetuity, not selling it. Their vision is akin to the setup of San Francisco’s Presidio, where homes are leased and the landscaping, trails and streets are carefully maintained. They don’t want leaky gutters or someone painting a house pink or neighbors suing over a tree blocking someone’s view. They want a rationally thought-out development organized over big meadows and a certain cohesive style and sense of community and longevity. They are thinking, 30, 40, even 50 years down the road.
What are the plans for Branson School’s campus? Most of the existing Golden Gate Baptist Seminary structures — administration, a library, a cafeteria and several classroom buildings — were constructed at least 30 years ago, many over 50 years ago, and Branson has agreed to keep all of them. So we will renovate them, make them ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and improve their appearance. We feel it’s better to do that than add to the local landfills. We also want to rip out asphalt and concrete areas, replace steps with ramps and dying trees with healthy ones, and build four new buildings, all of which were approved in the 1984 community plan. These would be a 1,200- seat auditorium, a much-needed gymnasium, a 12,000-square-foot student center and one additional classroom building. At its present location in Ross, Branson has an enrollment of 320 students; over time this campus would increase that to approximately 1,000 students.
So far, the reaction has been all about the traffic. One critic has labeled it “a nuclear reactor in our community.” Agreed, traffic is the big sore thumb. The Branson School has got to develop a traffic management plan that limits traffic to what was approved back in 1984 or better. They have a combination of ways to do it, and they have new leadership coming in that hopes to accomplish this. One approach is staggering the starts of the school day, with a third of the students starting at 7:30 a.m., a third at 8 a.m. and a third at 8:30 a.m. That spreads traffic over an hour instead of just 15 minutes. Another way is to have shuttle buses and an off-site location where parents drop their children off. Many San Francisco schools, as well as Marin Country Day School, do that now.
Another approach involves not allowing students to park on campus unless they are carpooling with two more students and, in deference to the neighbors, not allowing any students to park along neighboring streets. So there are many possible solutions, and it’s possible Branson School could seize the moment and be the most progressive traffic-controlled school in the Bay Area.
How do you react to the criticism that’s already been leveled at this project? I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I totally appreciate the concerns, as these are my neighbors and I share their frustration over traffic. And sometimes people say things that may upset other developers, but they don’t upset me. I realize these are heartfelt concerns and anxieties. And I wish I could answer all their questions completely and accurately — but I can’t because this is an ongoing process. I can’t personally control the traffic plan Branson School will develop, or how the development’s overall use-plan will play out, such as determining when the school will be hosting a lacrosse game or staging a drama. I wish I could grab the whole thing and make it what everyone wants. But I can’t and that’s my frustration. I bump into these people at the coffee shop or grocery store and sometimes it’s awkward. They’ll voice to me their intense anger about the project and I’m just standing there trying to get a latte after a Sunday morning bike ride. This happens often; I don’t like it but I understand it.
At the same time, I do feel we have a group of local people who really care that this project comes out well. The developers are homegrown and intend to stay here. I live nearby; Bruce Jones, the developer, was born and raised in Ross, and Branson School is a Marin institution. What I also know is that I’ve been through so many of these projects — and at the end of the day, regarding every development I’ve ever worked on, the surrounding public has been extremely happy with the end product.
What is the timeline for development? By early spring, the county wants to see Branson’s traffic plan analyzing every intersection surrounding the project. The county is being very methodical — which is good. This is the most impactful project Marin has seen since the county civic center was constructed over 50 years ago. And before the county does anything, our application has to be complete. We’ve filed it, and the county has said it appears complete, but items still need to be clarified. Can a large fire truck turn around at a particular intersection? Is that a lane or a driveway? Will residents park there? If so, it has to be two feet wider. Things like that.
All kinds of questions have to be answered before the EIR (environmental impact report) can be submitted. Civil engineers, landscape architects, geologists, hydrologists, biologists all have to file reports, and neighborhood noise and shadow studies have to be completed, and rare birds, butterflies and plants have to be identified, all of which probably won’t be completed until the end of 2016, maybe early 2017. Then the county planning commission will review the EIR and start holding public hearings that could easily take another six months. So it could be well into 2018 before the Marin County Board of Supervisors holds hearings and makes decisions, and 2019 before any construction and/or demolition gets underway.
What motivated you to take on this project? Sure, I’m getting kicked around now, and yes, I’m getting paid for the hours I put in — yet that’s not what motivates me. I live just across Highway 101 from this project, I’ve raised two children here and I’ve done considerable architectural work in Marin. However, the bulk of my work is elsewhere — we now have four projects in Europe and several underway throughout the Bay Area. And to be honest, for such a sophisticated, well-educated and affluent county, I’ve always felt the quality of development and architecture in Marin has been disappointing. Sure, we have buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and I. M. Pei, but we haven’t handled residential development well, and I would like to do something exemplary in the way of housing. I’d like to be the first example of a community that clusters its development and preserves its open space and puts housing in a parklike setting. Right now, that doesn’t exist in Marin; the nearest example I can think of is the Presidio across the bridge in San Francisco.
I want to do exemplary work in housing and in education. I would like to push Branson to be exemplary in every way — traffic management, obviously, but also in its design of buildings, its sustainability as a campus and its handling of the landscape. There are over 120 acres in this project that haven’t been properly maintained in over 50 years, brush that is a fire hazard, beautiful oaks that are dying. I honestly feel that when this project is done, every nearby resident will see an uptick in property value, a raise in Strawberry’s status. Branson has certainly not hurt the community of Ross — the most expensive homes are the ones nearest campus. I believe young tech types will love the idea of buying a home in Strawberry so their children can bike or walk to school at Branson — and they will be willing to pay dearly for doing it.
No one is focusing on that now, they’re focusing on traffic. But if we get the traffic issues resolved — which we will — Branson will be, in every way, the most state-of-the-art high school in the entire Bay Area, and thanks to the infusion of culture, playing fields and walking trails this project will bring, Strawberry will be a very desirable place to live. I firmly believe that.