John Young and wife Kathleen Moran first experienced the Redwoods retirement community in Mill Valley when visiting a friend 12 years ago.
“We were very impressed,” Young said. The most appealing aspect was the vibrant community, he said.
Today, Young and Moran, both 79, have been residents for 16 months. They’ve been active community members, taking tai chi classes twice a week, contributing to the community garden — including donating a new greenhouse — performing piano concerts for new friends and walking and biking around town.
The couple is among thousands who have made their home at the Redwoods, a nonprofit affordable-living retirement community that is celebrating 50 years. A gala was held in November to mark the occasion. A cake ceremony for the residents is planned Friday afternoon.
Reflecting on the history of the Redwoods, Hunter Moore, chief executive officer of the nonprofit, was reminded of the famous quote by Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”
“The Redwoods was really founded by some fabulous dreamers,” Moore said. “They created an affordable senior living community for Mill Valley so people in their retirement can stay here.”
“The Redwoods today has become more than anything the founders dreamt was possible,” Moore said.
The Redwoods was founded by the Community Church of Mill Valley. It opened its doors to the first nine residents on Dec. 3, 1972.
The Rev. Bill Eichhorn said the church board voted to call him as the congregation’s pastor on Jan. 10, 1971, and the following week voted to establish the nonprofit retirement community.
After receiving a major donation, the group financed the purchase of the 10-acre lot at 40 Camino Alto, across the street from Tamalpais High School and a short walk from Mill Valley Middle School.
“By the end of the 1960s, it was pretty clear that the housing prices in southern Marin were going way beyond the means of the people who lived and worked there,” Eichhorn said. “The church had the vision for this moderate- to low-income living to provide a retirement facility for the people who were being priced out.”
The site started with more than 90 residences. It was expanded in 1974 with another 150 apartments, an auditorium and arts and crafts rooms. It was then that the Redwoods received approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to subsidize rent for up to 60 low-income residents.
The community grew rapidly as younger Mill Valley residents moved their parents and senior family members from the East Coast and Midwest into the Redwoods, Eichhorn said.
Over the years, the property has seen several upgrades, including a major renovation completed in 2017 that included updating independent living suites, and common areas such as the kitchen, auditorium and library. The project included the addition of a health center with exercise equipment, a therapy pool and hot tub.
In 2019, one wing of the skilled nursing center was converted into “the Grove,” which is Marin’s first and only in-patient hospice care facility.
Today, the Redwoods operates with 120 full-time and 60 part-time staffers and more than 50 regular volunteers on an annual budget of $22 million. More than 340 seniors call the center their home.
“The Redwoods has been an obviously much-loved institution in Mill Valley, very much embedded in the community fabric of the community,” said Stephanie Moulton-Peters, a Mill Valley resident and member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
Moulton-Peters said she’s had a long relationship with the Redwoods, which started when she was a Cub Scout “den mother” who helped organize the group of scouts to go caroling for the community’s residents. Her husband is a former board member, and her mother-in-law lived at the Redwoods for five years until she died recently.
The Redwoods is also known for its liberal activism, which Moulton-Peters said “is needed and much appreciated.”
An activist group called the Seniors for Peace organized in the early 2000s. The group consists mostly of Redwoods residents and hosts weekly rallies at the corner of Miller Avenue and Camino Alto to take on social issues.
Mill Valley Mayor Jim Wickham said his father was on the City Council that approved the Redwoods project in the 1970s. He said his grandmother and great aunt both lived at the Redwoods.
“It’s a great facility, and integral part of the community,” Wickham said.
The local officials also praised the staff and nonprofit leadership for adapting over the years and jumping hurdles to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking to the future, Moore said the reality is, the nonprofit will eventually need to relocate due to the risk of flooding from rising seas. The property is up against the the Bothin Marsh Preserve on Richardson Bay.
He said recent studies have shown that there’s a possibility of the sea-level rise impact being realized in 20 years, a probability in 40 years and inevitability in 60 years.
The board has started looking at options such as partnering with other organizations and scouting potential moves, Moore said.
“I think we will be here for several more decades,” Moore said. “But we will likely, eventually, not be able to effectively operate from here. I would love to stay in Mill Valley, but our concept is to continue serving the seniors in or in close proximity to southern Marin.”