The Petaluma City Council was divided Monday between those concerned about the high density and design of a proposed 144-unit apartment complex on Maria Drive and those who believe it would fulfill a need for more rental housing in town.

The Petaluma City Council tabled the proposed development, which the Planning Commission had recommended approving in August. The decision surprised many, as, in the recent past, the Planning Commission has been more inclined to recommend against proposed projects than the City Council, which usually approves the same projects on appeal. But at Monday's meeting, the City Council told developers of the luxury apartment complex at 35 Maria Drive to reduce its size and bring it back for further review.

The land in question, located near a residential area on Maria Drive, is currently zoned for mixed-use commercial. This designation allows for 176 residences and 500,000 square feet of commercial space on the 5.85-acre parcel. Currently, the site is home to a partially occupied medical office building.

Councilmembers Chris Albertson and Teresa Barrett, along with Mayor David Glass, worried about putting such a dense development in a residential neighborhood and the traffic impacts that added homes would bring to the area.

"The problems this project creates are all driven by its density," said Barrett.

Councilmember Mike Healy also expressed density and traffic concerns, but mostly took issue with the design of the project, saying he didn't think it met the "luxury" billing the developers had given it.

"We should not be shy about demanding the highest quality of design on projects," he said, saying that the project lacked many luxury amenities, such as elevators. "These just don't seem luxury in the long run."

Several concerned councilmembers said that a downsized, 100-unit project would be much more favorable to them and asked the developer, JDA West, to rework the project with a lower number of units.

"All of the issues go away with a medium–density residential classification, with about eight to 18 units allowed per acre," said Glass. This would allow for a maximum of 105 units on site. "It would be compatible to what's there now, it would be in the range of the immediate neighborhood and I've got no problem with this if it's…about 100 units."

But Councilmembers Mike Harris, Gabe Kearney and Kathy Miller supported the original 144-unit proposal, saying that the apartments would fulfill an important housing need in Petaluma. The city's rental vacancy rate is currently at 2 percent, making it very difficult for people to find affordable housing.

Kearney also pointed out that if the property were developed to its maximum capacity under current zoning allows, the site would be even more developed, with 32 more residences and an the additional 500,000 square feet of commercial space.

Marty Brill, spokesman for JDA West, said that typically, when developers ask for general plan amendments, they're looking to add more density. In this case, the opposite is true.

"What we're doing is asking for much less density than is currently allowed in the general plan at that site," Brill said.

But Glass said that the general plan does not guarantee that sites can be developed to their maximum density. "There's ranges that are suggested for development, but the maximum is not the minimum," Glass said.

Glass also pointed out that the general plan says the city must reevaluate growth to keep pace with infrastructure needs. Several development projects in the city rely on future road improvements like the Rainier cross-town connector project, for traffic mitigation. The Rainier project, meant to connect the east and west sides of town to each other by extending Rainier Avenue underneath Highway 101 and connecting it to Petaluma Boulevard North, will likely not be built in the near future, as the costly project must still be funded.

Both Glass and Barrett said that projects like the Rainier connector are many years away from being built, and shouldn't be relied on to provide traffic relief in the near future.

Maria Drive homeowners have actively voiced their disapproval of the project since it was first brought to the Planning Commission in August. Neighbor concerns range from increased traffic, the density and size of the complex, and what they call additional noise and lack of privacy issues.

Maria Drive resident Kathleen Garvey, who has been leading the neighbors' opposition, questioned the validity of the traffic study. Garvey said that traffic at nearby intersections has increased since the study was completed due to the East Washington Shopping Center opening. She said that traffic will only increase more after the Deer Creek Shopping Center is finished.

"Though we would like this to stay offices, an acceptable alternative would be something more like the density at Addison Ranch," Garvey said, referring to the complex formerly known as the Greenbriar Apartments.

But Brill said that the complex will be a high-end, "class A development" that will rent the average 1,000-square-foot unit for about $2,000 a month — drawing a wealthier class of renters to the neighborhood.

After a lengthy hearing that lasted past midnight, the divided council told JDA West to return to the drawing board and bring back a less-dense project with a maximum of 105 units.

Brill said during the meeting that his firm had created a project with the least amount of units it needed to build to still be profitable.

"We appreciate the City Council's feedback on our application and we will work with the council and staff to address their comments while ensuring the project remains economically viable," Brill said in a later statement.

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