Walgreens project heads to City Council

After its plans to build a Walgreens were shot down by the Planning Commission in July, the Petaluma Health Care District is appealing to the City Council Monday, armed with what it says is a stronger case for why the development is merited.

"Had the Planning Commission had this information from us when we presented to them, I believe their decision would have been different," said Health Care District CEO Ramona Faith. "They would have seen the community benefit."

The Health Care District has proposed building a 14,500-square foot Walgreens with a drive-through "pick-up" pharmacy window and an adjoining 7,500 square feet of commercial/office space on land it owns across from Petaluma Valley Hospital on Lynch Creek Way.

Just two months ago, Faith and members of Petaluma Valley Hospital and the Petaluma Health Center went before the Planning Commission, asking them to recommend changing the current land designation for the property from business park to mixed-use commercial. But planning commissioners questioned several aspects of the project, including the need for another pharmacy in town and the acceptability of the pick-up window, as the city has a ban on new drive-throughs. They also questioned the district's justification for changing the property's zoning — that more office space is not needed in town, while a Walgreens is.

"It's nothing personal against the district," said Commissioner J.T. Wick, who voted against the zoning change. "The land use designation they applied for — which was mixed-use — didn't support the proposed Walgreens project. What the district is proposing is a small, traditional retail mall, not a mixed-use commercial development."

In July, the Planning Commission voted against recommending the general plan amendment to the City Council on a 3-2 vote, with two commissioners absent.

But Faith — who has used the past two months to gather more specifics about office vacancy rates in Petaluma — said that not only is the proposed Walgreens and adjoining office space a mixed-use project, but that it is a better use for the property than a business park.

"There has been a recent proposal to tear down 16,000 square feet of office building at 35 Maria Drive to build residential units," wrote Faith in an updated proposal to the City Council submitted last week. "This is compelling because the developer is electing to tear down existing office structures and replace them with residential units due to the adverse market conditions for office space."

Faith went on to say that Petaluma has 37 percent more office space based on population than Santa Rosa and 33 percent more than Rohnert Park. She also says there is currently 300,000 vacant square feet of office space along North McDowell Boulevard between East Washington Street and Old Redwood Highway, not including the 16,000 on Maria Drive.

"From a fiduciary responsibility, it would make no sense for the District to develop the parcel as was originally intended," she said.

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