The Petaluma Planning Commission recommended approving a 144-unit apartment complex on Maria Drive Tuesday, saying that, contrary to nearby resident's concerns, it would actually protect the area from over-development.

"There's no doubt that this is a big project," said Planning Commission Vice Chair Bill Wolpert. "But architecturally speaking, it could be a whole lot worse."

Emotions ran high at Tuesday's meeting when San Francisco developer JDA West presented an apartment complex proposal that required a general plan amendment changing the site's zoning from mixed-use commercial to high density residential. The site, located at 35 Maria Drive across from the Addison Ranch Apartments — formerly Greenbriar Apartments — backs up to Washington Creek and is mostly surrounded by single-family homes.

JDA West's preliminary plans include 144 apartments in six, three-story buildings. A community building with a pool and clubhouse would be located at the center of the site. A total of 252 parking spaces and 144 bicycle spaces are proposed, along with 60,000 square feet of open space.

The complex is projected to rent units at about $2 per square foot, equaling close to $2,000 per month for the average 997 square feet unit. Despite the site being marketed as a "luxury" complex, most Maria Drive homeowners were not pleased with the plans.

"I love the peace and the quiet and the serenity of the neighborhood," said Maria Drive resident Susan Roybal, echoing the sentiments of 10 other residents who spoke at the meeting. "I'm also dreading a three-story building. There's nothing like that in our area. And I think the added traffic will bring more pollution and smell."

Ironically, under the city's current general plan, the 5.85-acre parcel is zoned for much denser development than what's being proposed — 500,000 square feet of commercial space along with 176 residential units. But neighboring residents have enjoyed little commercial intrusion at the site, since it is currently home to a medical office building that is only renting about 50 percent of its space.

"It's been like having a house surrounded by vacant lots and enjoying the benefits of those lots being undeveloped" said Wolpert.

Since the commission recommended changing the zoning to remove commercial uses from the site and only allow for a maximum of 176 residential units, development will most likely be less than what it could have been under the old zoning. But Maria Drive residents will see a change in the neighborhood if the City Council approves the project.

"It's not as good for the people in the neighborhood who have enjoyed an office park that's only 50 percent occupied, but that's not what this parcel is designed for," said Council Liaison Kathy Miller. "It's not a question of preserving a half-vacant office park. Something big is going to go there. It's not going to stay the way it is."

But residents remained upset at the changes and the prospect of apartment living coming to their neighborhood.

"We're all part of the community," said Maria Drive resident Heidi Overman. "The people coming into these apartments aren't coming into the city to be part of it. They're not here to raise their families here. We're not an apartment community."

Commissioner J.T. Wick agreed that Petaluma is currently not apartment-friendly, but saw it as a problem, not a good thing. He cited the 2 percent apartment vacancy rate in Petaluma.

"It's almost impossible for our oldest daughter to find a place to live here," said Wick. "To me, with the right components, a project that reduced the intensity of development at this location, balanced with the provision of apartment housing is acceptable. It meets a genuine need."

The project will go back to city staff, who will address other concerns raised, including environmentally sustainable building and Washington Creek maintenance. The proposal will then go before the City Council for final approval, most likely later this year.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)