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Posted on Jul 29, 2015 in Kitchen Sink | 3 comments

The Case For Whistlestop

The Case For Whistlestop

Whistlestop is the largest provider of active aging services in Marin County, serving over 5,000 seniors annually. They are located downtown near the new SMART station. You never heard a harsh word about Whistlestop – until they announced plans to enhance their services with a new building on their property, which they own.

The new structure, called Whistlestop Mission Plaza, includes housing for 41 low-income seniors, updated classroom, workshop and meeting rooms, the Jackson Café, and a new outdoor public plaza. It will allow low-income seniors to remain housed on a site with ready access to transportation and the amenities of downtown San Rafael. Rents are estimated between $600 and $1000 a month. After considering alternative sites, Whistlestop decided that a new facility on their existing property was the best solution for seniors. They have filed for permits and design review will likely begin in the early fall.

A mission-style entry to downtown

Whistlestop has responded to criticism of its early design proposals. The outdoor plaza, additional parking (not for residents), air filtration, sound insulation, and a reduced number of units (to enable façade changes) are all the result of community comments. The new Mission Revival design is attractive and is a huge improvement over the rundown, pseudo-Mission style depot that is there today.

There is endless debate about affordable housing in our County, except when it comes to seniors. Residents largely agree that our low-income seniors need and deserve affordable housing and services. The Whistletop proposal is an ideal solution: rents will be cheap; Whistlestop has a proven track record of providing senior programs and services; and it fits within the City’s Master Plan.

What is the opposition about?

  • “Save our Depot.” The primary complaint is that the current two-story building is somehow a historical landmark for San Rafael. It has been expertly evaluated and determined it doesn’t warrant historical recognition due to the many remodels since its construction in the late 20s. It is just an old building that people are sentimental about. If you look closely at it, it is in need of much repair. In February, Joe O’Hehir, Whistlestop Executive Director, said the building shakes from the SMART construction. “That building probably isn’t going to survive being next to a commuter train,” O’Hehir said.
  • “The building is too tall and massive.” The next argument raised is that we don’t want a tall building blocking the view of downtown. Opponents should read the Master Plan. It calls for taller buildings near the freeway, scaling as you move west into downtown. Why? So that the view of the freeway is blocked when you are enjoying our downtown. This provides an excellent first impression of San Rafael for those who turn on Third or Fourth Street to come Downtown.
  • “The air is bad and it’s too loud for Seniors.” These complaints center around a building being next to the train station. With four trains an hour, and service ending (proposed) by 8:30pm, this is not a huge issue. Having a new, affordable place to live with all the amenities will outweigh the noise factor. We expect a waiting list when this opens for business.

Whistlestop has listened!

  1. The complaints in February focused on the visual impact of a tall rectangular building with little distinguishing architecture. The July designs not only resolve these issues with a multi-level structure that reduces the visual mass, but ultimately provide a classy, Mission Revival look that flatters the SMART train station. It is a great architectural element for those entering Fourth St. Compare these renderings to what is there now. Huge improvement.
Whistlestop and train station

The view of the Whistlestop Mission Plaza from Third St. showing how the building integrates with the SMART station. incorporates a mission styling, and the new multi-level facade that reduces its visual mass.

  1. Concerns were raised about air quality and sound, due to the proximity to the freeway and SMART. Whistlestop responded with air filtering systems, stronger wall insulation and extra soundproof windows.
  2. Public space added. The original design had a covered arcade at Tamalpais and Fourth Streets. The revised design replaces that with a 1250 square foot public plaza.
  3. Parking is another challenge. It has always been the case that seniors cannot own a car if they live there. With the space redesign, additional parking spaces were created. We think the City still needs to address parking in the area to accommodate additional patrons at an upgraded Café and the new plaza.

Tell the City Council to move this forward

This is a win-win for San Rafael, Whistlestop and seniors. This is a good idea. We don’t need to hang onto an old, crumbling building. Let San Rafael move forward and help our seniors at the same time.

Send an email to the Mayor and city council members and say “yes” to Whistlestop.

Download the plans and City of San Rafael Staff Report here.



  1. Whistlestop has been a huge plus for San Rafael seniors, and it follows, for San Rafael. It is hard to take objections to a new building and improved services seriously.

  2. The design has been greatly improved, however it still is a 66′ high building within 8 and 1/2′ of railroad tracks AND LOCATED IN AN ONE HUNDRED YEAR FLOOD PLAIN! I don’t see how the height of the first floor and ramps have been addressed.

    Contrary to what the developers, et al. are saying that “seniors don’t drive THEY DO DRIVE and the project does not accommodate parking for seniors. See Rotary Manor senior parking lot …… full and a long waiting list for more spaces!

    Rich, a concerned 76 year old senior citizen.

    • Thanks for your comments Rich. While I agree that many seniors drive, many do not. That is why Whistlestop had such a great business providing transportation to so many seniors. I am sure they will have no problem finding 41 seniors happy to have a place to live, with activities and other seniors, low rent, food on the premises and close to transportation. There is a need for this population.

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