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Petaluma apartment project passes key hurdle

A proposal for a 184-unit rental apartment complex in the heart of Petaluma won the approval of the Petaluma Planning Commission Tuesday, a critical first step in moving the long-stalled project forward as the city faces a grim housing crisis.

After three years of seeking community input and altering plans based on feedback from citizens and city officials, representatives from Stockton-based A.G. Spanos Companies now face a yet-to-be-scheduled city council hearing for additional approvals, including granting access across a city-owned parcel for a road that’s part of the North River Apartment project at the intersection of Petaluma Boulevard North and Oak Street.

They must also negotiate with two property owners to secure rights-of-way through private parcels to build a road from the project site to East Washington

Street before the project can advance, Executive Vice President Alexandros Economou said.

Developers of the project have faced large hurdles, including complications with rail easements that took two years and $2.4 million to resolve.

The city’s fire marshal recently tacked on a requirement to develop a road rather than just an access point for emergency vehicles, which further delayed a hearing. A handful of privately and publicly owned parcels span the length of the currently undeveloped street and the property owners need to dedicate their land to use for a road.

“Now that we’ve been given the green light by the planning commission we’re putting (securing rights of way) into our focus and really getting to work on solving coordination issues with the neighbors,” Economou said.

The market-rate project would include two buildings with a mix of 11 studios, 80 one-bedroom apartments and 93 two-bedroom units, with early estimates for monthly rent ranging from $1,600 to $3,000, Economou said. It also features 4,677 square-feet of commercial space and tenant amenities such as a gym, media room and kitchen as well as a leasing office.

It will include 268 parking spaces in a podium-style structure, with the option to convert some of those spaces for retail use should the demand for tenant parking remain low. The addition of the road and associated pedestrian and bike improvements will knock out 174 parking spaces, some of which are currently privately owned, but could add as many as 191 spots, Deputy Planning Manager Kevin Colin said.

Larissa Golitti, who owns property between Brewster’s Beer Garden and the project site, lambasted the commission over the loss of about 20 private parking spots, which she said would negatively impact her tenants.

“We have a horrible, horrible time there with parking and since Brewster’s came in, we’ve had nothing but parking wars,” she said. “That area is already so impacted that parking is a real problem. I don’t know what the solution is and I can’t seem to get anyone at the city interested in discussing this whole situation. I just give up, please help me with the parking.”

The city is not considering exploring an eminent domain agreement to take the private property as public lands for the future street, Colin said.

Economou is exploring ways for companies who create future commercial or residential developments along the road to reimburse A.G. Spanos for the costs of the improvements, with cost breaks for projects with affordable housing units. The development doesn’t include affordable units, and A.G. Spanos will pay more than $650,000 to the city’s affordable housing fund.

In a nearly four and a half hour discussion, the planning commission scrutinized the project, including the design, the percentage of commercial space, pedestrian and bike safety and access and the inclusion of funding for tracks for a future trolley car envisioned to span from Foundry Wharf to the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets. An initial proposal would have required the developer to provide a preliminary cost estimate for construction and design of the trolley tracks and a cash deposit or bond to pay into the future development of the otherwise unfunded project.

Commissioner Bill Wolpert, the dissenter in 4-1 vote to approve the project, expressed frustration with what he viewed as too little commercial space and a lack of focus on pedestrian and cyclists.

“This is a huge project in the center of town,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the number of parking spaces and the street when all the time we’re looking for opportunities to make the town more walkable and bikeable. Here’s that opportunity, but it’s hard and we’re letting it slip away. This calls for a mixed use project … mixed use allows people to get out of their cars and walk places and this is that opportunity and we should take advantage of it.”

Economou said the market can’t currently support any additional retail space. Planners and other commissioners said the project brings with it a major improvement to a messy parking situation and an undeveloped road and will act as a boon to nearby downtown.

“This is so close to downtown, it’s going to help the economy, it’s going to help our small businesses. People are going to walk. It’s so close, they’re going to walk to SMART and the Theater District … it’s going to benefit other commercial properties in that corridor and in downtown. Now is the opportunity to take advantage of that and try to move this forward,” Commissioner Scott Alonso said.

Economou described the apartments as a high-quality transit-oriented project that will act as a catalyst for future development.

“We feel the project is an important project for Spanos and we feel it’s an important project for the city and the community as a whole,” he said. “Obviously, the incredibly high demand for housing in the area is well-documented. But, balancing growth and the city’s overall development goals is important as well. We believe this project as presented does just that.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)