Point Reyes health office plans to expand

06/04/2015

Neighbors of the county’s Health and Human Services outpost in Point Reyes Station protested a tentative proposal to double the size of the building at a public meeting on Monday evening. The expanded offices, the 10 or so residents who gathered in the West Marin School gym said, would be drastically out of step with the character of a neighborhood filled with modest homes, some over a century old.

The roughly 3,000-square foot, two-story services building on Sixth Street, constructed 23 years ago, provides a host of services to West Marin’s neediest: food assistance, mental health services, public health nurses, and child and adult protective services. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous also hold meetings in the building. But the county says the department is severely cramped, and the infrastructure does not comply with disability access or federal privacy laws, hampering the quality of those services. 

“It looks like a house. It kind of functions like a house, which is partly why we’re here,” said Paula Glodowski, the program manager at the West Marin site for the past two and a half years. (The county offers the same services in San Rafael.)

Yet neighbors could not bear the prospect of the proposed expansion. Though they did not oppose the presence of the outpost itself, they questioned whether it might ultimately be better to find another building. “We want the services. We like it. But you hear 6,000 [square feet]… It’s crazy,” one neighbor said.

A design has not yet been created. During Monday’s meeting, county officials, including Supervisor Steve Kinsey, and the project’s architects explained the need for extra space and why they decided that growing onsite was the best option.

Although 3,000 square feet sounds like a lot of space, some aspects of the layout are inefficient, such as a staircase that “gobbles up space,” said Michael Ross, an architect with the Sonoma-based firm hired to evaluate potential solutions.

In the next decade or so, the site’s caseload is not set to rise dramatically. The county department only projects a 5 to 8 percent bump in caseload and an increase from 13 to 16 part and full-time staffers. But even with its current client volume, the building doesn’t meet department needs. 

The fact that intimate conversations can easily be overheard is a particular problem in a building that provides child and adult protective services and assists those with mental health and behavioral problems.

“We’re in violation of federal mandates around privacy concerns,” Ms. Glodowski said. With more space, she added, “we would serve the community better and be in compliance with federal and state regulations.”

The building also does not meet accessibility rules under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. When that is taken into account, “all of a sudden, everything needs to get farther apart and bigger,” Mr. Ross said.

Luckily for the department, an evaluation of the septic system found it could handle more square footage. The septic system for the Coastal Health Alliance, just next door, is maxed out, Mr. Ross added.

The county originally considered four options: repairing parts of the building without expanding, finding another building, constructing another building elsewhere in Point Reyes Station and enlarging the current building. But repairs wouldn’t address the crux of the issue, Mr. Ross said, and finding space in town is extremely difficult. (The health clinic has been looking, too, and has come up wanting.) 

A new building elsewhere, such as on an empty county-owned six acres on Mesa Road, would likely be too costly and the site unnecessarily large for what the department needs. New construction, Mr. Ross added, comes with more “environmental complexity” and attendant costs.

To expand the existing building, there are only two directions in which to grow: to the northeast, where there is a four-space parking lot for the office, or to the southwest, where there is a parking lot for both the office and the health alliance. The latter, Mr. Ross said, is problematic because it is shared and because it contains needed A.D.A. parking, so the architects have proposed a northeastern expansion.

But taking away the four parking spots worried neighbors. Those spots accommodate not only those with appointments at the department, but also serve meetings that can bring well over a dozen cars. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the next block over on A Street, holds meetings that have also increasingly brought scores of cars to the block. (Ms. Glodowski responded that most of their own clients come on foot, bicycle or bus, though she conceded that the parking and noise from meetings was an ongoing issue.)

Yet the incongruity of a roughly 6,000-square-foot building posed the biggest concern. Pamela Bridges, who has lived in a house next door to building for 31 years and sits on the board of the Point Reyes Station Village Association, wrote in a letter she gave to the Light that “[K]eeping our town livable…requires a future vision and historical perspective to put it all together and make sense. There are consequences for our community when decisions are made for efficiency and authority rather than community.”

Her husband, Gordon Bryan, feels the same way. “It would be overpowering to double the size of that,” he said Monday.

After the meeting, Taira Restar, who has rented a home on the block for 18 years, stressed the close-knit ties between the neighbors, who share an apple press and routinely borrow whatever they might need from one another. One time, Ms. Restar said, she came home and her five or so chairs in the living room were gone. As she suspected, a neighbor had borrowed them for a party. And residents take pride in the character of the block. Although Ms. Restar will soon move to Inverness, she said it was crucial to think far ahead on a project that will impact those residents.

Many called for a more serious investigation into a new building. What if the county expanded the Sixth Street building, they wondered, only to need more space later on? Had sites like the Green Barn been considered? Could the county wait to see if the health clinic finds a new space and then take over that building, since it’s right next door? And given that the C.H.A. is also bursting at the seams, why doesn’t the county pursue a true medical and social services campus somewhere else in town?

“Expanding onsite is…kicking the can down the road,” one neighbor said.

Supervisor Kinsey responded that he was willing to talk with his colleagues and the county administrator about a bigger vision. But, he said, pushing for new construction elsewhere could be an uphill battle, considering the costs involved and the fact that the site serves few people, at least compared to offices and the new Health and Wellness Campus in San Rafael. (In fact, he added, the county had once explored the idea of a medical campus in West Marin, but abandoned it during the recession, when it had to make severe cutbacks.)

“They’d love for us to drive [over the hill]” to access these services, Supervisor Kinsey said. “[But] I’m willing to have a conversation in the larger sense. The suggestions tonight are useful. What I’m hearing is that…the scale that they’re proposing is incompatible. I hear you. Should we do something different altogether? I’ve been asking that for some time myself,” he said.