• Chamber endorses Whistlestop 2.0 Project

    October 27, 2015

    After learning about Whistlestop’s $25 million plan to build a five-story affordable senior housing and services center in downtown San Rafael, resident Dan Miller said he supports the idea, but doesn’t believe it’s in the right location.

    “This is just not visionary for San Rafael,” Miller said. “I just don’t think this is the right site for it. This is a historic building as far as I’m concerned.”

    Miller was one of about 75 people who attended a meeting Wednesday night at Whistlestop’s Jackson Café to learn about the proposed project. Current plans involve replacing the existing Tamalpais Avenue building with a new senior center, new café, parking garage, 47 senior housing apartments and one apartment for a building manager.

    After forgoing talk of relocating when the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train commuter train rolls onto its doorstep, Whistlestop, a nonprofit that provides transportation, nutritious food and activities to more than 5,000 local seniors, partnered with Hayward-based Eden Housing, an affordable housing building and management company, to bring its housing vision to life.

    Whistlestop CEO Joe O’Hehir said the nonprofit has been looking at relocation options for six years, eventually finding a partner in Eden Housing about two years ago. He said the nonprofit simply doesn’t have the funding to buy a new location near transit.

    “We’re not doing this because we want to, we’re doing it because we want to continue to serve older adults,” O’Hehir said.

    Under the plan, the ground floor would serve as a parking garage with 21 parking spaces for Whistlestop employees and guests. A building lobby with two elevators and a new 1,400-square-foot Jackson Café would also be on the ground floor on the Fourth Street side of the building. The second floor would house the new 14,500-square-foot active aging center, which would feature community rooms and an exercise area. The top three floors would be set aside for one-bedroom apartments and residential community spaces.



    Community members said they are concerned about a lack of parking in the area, the destruction of what some see as a historic train building, the possible 66-foot height of the structure and the building’s close proximity to the SMART train.

    O’Hehir said parking will be tight, but most of the administrative staff will be relocated to the nonprofit’s property on Lindaro Street, which houses its buses. In addition, the building would only rent to seniors who don’t have cars.

    “We will write into the leases that you have to give up your car to be a resident,” said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, adding that this would be the first of their properties with this clause.

    Joseph Cillo, who teaches a Spanish class at Whistlestop, said parking is indeed a concern. He also said he’s not convinced the building’s aesthetics are headed in the right direction.

    “If the center continues to be as successful as it is, you’re going to need more parking,” Cillo said. “If this is the gateway to San Rafael, I wonder if this is the right image for what San Rafael is.”

    Joanne Webster, Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, was one of the handful of people who said she supports the project.

    “You’ve made lemonade out of lemons,” Webster said. “This is a great gateway to the community and a model for a car-less development.”

    During the meeting, project architect and San Rafael resident Rick Williams, of Van Meter Williams Pollack LLP, unveiled three different exterior design concepts for the new building.

    All of the designs have a two-story base clad in brick veneer. The “traditional style” mimics the San Rafael Corporate Center’s design. The “vision style” utilizes flying roof forms and articulated building facades and the “contemporary style” emphasizes simplicity with a roof of solar panels.

    “We’re really trying to recess the building so it’s more like a series of buildings,” Williams said. “One of the things we’re looking at is the potential for artwork to be included.”

    Project officials hope to submit the project to the city’s Design Review Board for conceptual review next month. It’s possible the City Council could vote on the project as early as July, with Whistlestop leaders hoping to break ground in 2017.

    O’Hehir said the project will take about 18 months to two years to construct.

    “We’re basically going to have a distributed campus of our services during that time,” he said.

    Whistlestop still needs to raise about $7 million for the project, but most of the funding will come from grants and financing secured by Eden Housing — which runs the Warner Creek Senior Housing complex in Novato and the Fireside Apartments in Mill Valley.

    Questions and comments on the project can be sent to WhistlestopCommunications@edenhousing.org.

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