Debating mixed use in Petaluma

As eager shoppers flock to the recently opened Target shopping center, some city officials wonder what the site would look like if mixed-use development was more clearly defined in the city's general plan.

"There are lots of examples on the West Coast of how to do a mixed-use development and completely utilize a site," said newly appointed Planning Commissioner J.T. Wick. "The (Target) center doesn't do that. It's traditional retail — nothing else."

Obviously, not everyone agrees. The shopping center was approved by the City Council as a mixed-use development.

Councilmember Mike Harris, who voted to approve the project, pointed out that the city's general plan definition of mixed-use does not specify how much retail, housing and office space a site should have. "The Target shopping center has retail and office space, making it mixed-use by definition," he said.

Mixed-use is a term that has been bandied about in building and zoning plans for decades. For the average Petaluma resident, it dictates what types of buildings go where. It decides if that open plot of land down the road becomes a Starbucks, a home, an office building or a shopping center. For city officials, planners and staff, it's a zoning designation that requires developers to combine retail, housing or office space together. For the city overall, it decides how Petaluma will look for decades to come.

But disagreement over how it's defined has affected some of the city's biggest land-use debates in recent years, including the Target-anchored East Washington Place and Deer Creek Village shopping centers. And until its definition is put to rest, the battles are likely to continue.

Just last month, the Planning Commission denied a proposed joint Walgreens-Petaluma Health Care District venture at Lynch Creek Way on a split 4-2 vote. Though the property is currently zoned for a business park, the developer presented plans for a mixed-use commercial site — plans Wick said were not actually mixed-use.

"Obviously, the definition needs to be better explained," said Wick.

Due to what many of Petaluma's elected officials call a lack of clarity over what constitutes mixed-use, the City Council will be studying the topic at a special meeting at the end of September.

Upcoming projects that could be affected by the zoning designation include the Basin Street Properties 120-room hotel, retail and housing development adjacent to the Petaluma River, future developments in the SMART rail station area downtown and the Lynch Creek Walgreens that is set to come before the City Council on appeal later this year.

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