San Rafael senior housing project eyed for 2022 opening at site of BioMarin Pharmaceutical expansion

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San Rafael’s City Council next month is set to consider approval for construction of a joint redevelopment proposal from BioMain Pharmaceutical and the nonprofit Whistlestop of a project combining the drug makers’ operations with a senior health center and apartments.

The deal, approved by the city planning commission last month, calls for construction of two four-story BioMarin research laboratory and office buildings at 999 Third St., on the corner of Brooks Street downtown. It's part of an expansion of the company’s existing campus in the city.

In addition, a six-story building would be occupied partly by Whistlestop, founded in 1954 to support independent living for seniors and those with disabilities. Eden Housing would create 67 senior studio and one-bedroom apartments on upper floors of the building.

This property is planned to be the site for the first Whistlestop integrated health services center. It would be built on a one-third acre portion of BioMarin’s existing land. Backers said the center is set to bring medical professionals to the patient at a single location, in most cases without having them travel all over the county to get the care they need.

The Whistlestop portion of this parcel was obtained in property swap agreement. BioMarin made an in-kind donation of $1.2 million to Whistlestop through a land exchange, handing over a 15,000-square-foot parcel valued at $2.6 million in exchange for property owned by Whistlestop valued at $1.4 million, according to Jennifer Golbus, marketing strategist at Whistlestop.

Under terms of a separate building partnership between Whistlestop and Eden Housing, Whistlestop would own and occupy the first two floors of the building. Senior apartments on floors three through six would be owned and managed by Eden Housing. Rents are estimated to range from $770 to $1,650 a month. The flats are designed for low-income seniors age 62 and above who earn less than 60% of the area median income.

“Our goal is to build a healthy aging campus, combining a first-floor integrated health services center and senior housing, that addresses the urgent needs of older adults in Marin County looking for social connections, affordable homes and healthy living support,” said Whistlestop CEO Joe O’Hehir. “This center will be open to all older adults in the county, not just those who live here. It will have three exam rooms and private health services consultation offices.”

He said about 16,000 older adults in Marin County are isolated and currently living alone. O’Hehir estimated that 7,000 county seniors need affordable housing.

“We believe it takes a community solution to address a community crisis — including an epidemic of loneliness — by providing more options for seniors to safely live close to each other under an umbrella of care. Marin is the fastest aging county in the state.”

Last June, the city’s Design Review Board voted to support this project. On Sept. 24, the San Rafael Planning Commission approved the draft environmental impact report and in November held public hearings on the merits of this project.

According to O’Hehir, only one step remains. The San Rafael City Council still has to vote to approve the overall development plan. With positive recommendations from the Design Review Board and Planning Commission, and after conversations with council members, O’Hehir believes a positive decision could come in early March.

“We only need three votes,” he said. “Officials I have spoken with want to see it approved.”

If all goes as planned, this building would open in mid-2022. Van Meter Williams and Pollack LLC of San Francisco is the architect for this project, and Eden Homes will select a local general contractor to construct the building.

On the second floor, Whistlestop is planning to have a community room, auditorium, classrooms, a computer center, exercise studio and two conference rooms. Office space will be provided for volunteer coordinators, those providing information assistance and referrals, along with health, social, nutritional and program services personnel.

Floors three to six will have 50 studio apartments, 16 one-bedroom units and a two-bedroom manager’s unit. The third floor will also have a 1,558-square-foot landscaped outdoor courtyard. Garden plots for residents wishing to grow their own vegetables will be located within a second-floor outdoor atrium and on two 6th floor roof decks.

In March 2013, Whistlestop selected Hayward-based Eden Housing as its general partner for the housing portion of this project. Founded in 1968, Eden manages more than 9,000 apartment homes in 140 California communities.

“We are excited to be part of this forward-looking model project,” said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing. “We’re also looking at ways to work with local housing authorities to obtain rent subsidies for seniors in these apartments.”

The estimated cost of the Whistlestop-Eden Housing building is $48 million. Of this total, some $38 million would be for the affordable housing component and $10 million for the healthy aging center. Whistlestop has already raised $10 million to cover its capital requirement.

The top four floors will be financed by Eden Housing sources, according to Mandolini. Those include low-income-housing tax credits, government grants under California Propositions 1 and 2, and possibly additional debt financing.

“It’s going to be a place where seniors can access a variety of services, amenities and be close to each other as well as nearby shopping opportunities and transportation via bus and SMART,” she said, referring to the Sonoma-Marin rail line. “I want to go to a place like this when I retire,”

Whistlestop is also seeking participation from other local partners and providers to become part of its integrated health services center. Talks have been held with organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, MarinHealth, Marin Community Clinics, The Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Centers for Elder Independence, Sutter Health, Humana, and physicians and other hospitals that may wish to refer patients.

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