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Don’t turn down good projects

Owner/builders Jose Castro, left, and his wife, Ana Espinoza, work on a new residential home at Catalina Homes, by Burbank Housing, in Santa Rosa on Monday, February 22, 2016. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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According to Petaluma’s General Plan, the document guiding the city’s land use decision-making processes, new development should be built on “existing vacant and underutilized sites” in order to avoid urban sprawl.

“The Central Petaluma area … contains extensive vacant land and underutilized parcels, particularly along the Petaluma River,” the plan states.

One such parcel ripe for infill development is the site of the proposed North River Apartments on Water Street just north of East Washington Street. Water Street dead ends into a dirt and gravel parking lot in an area featuring thorny bushes that sprout up alongside the occasional discarded mattress or graffitied boxcar sitting atop rusted railroad tracks. It is not very pretty.

A builder, attracted by the city’s vision encouraging the construction of high density housing on the site, submitted plans more than three years ago for badly needed pedestrian-friendly rental housing and a small amount of commercial space. The city’s planning commission finally approved the project earlier this month, but only after a discussion in which at least one commissioner lamented that the developer was not doing enough for the city, such as paying into a fund for a future trolley that has become a pipe dream.

A.G. Spanos Companies hopes to move forward with its project, incorporating extensive community feedback and adding many new features that were requested in numerous public meetings. The project will rebuild Water Street, including an intersection with an extension of Oak Street from Petaluma Boulevard. The developer will build 184 apartment units, all within walking distance of the SMART station and other popular downtown spots, making a significant dent in the city’s housing shortage.

The company will build new bike paths, sidewalks, a couple hundred new parking spaces, and pay $650,000 into an affordable housing fund to construct homes for the people who are priced out of our community. Yet despite all of these benefits to the city, some commissioners wanted to see more commercial space when the market demand for small retail space is actually in decline.

Why is it that whenever a developer proposes a visionary project to remake a blighted area of Petaluma and add badly needed housing, officials demand the developer do more than is reasonable?

If developers find Petaluma’s planning process too onerous, costly or time consuming, they will simply walk away, leaving the city’s vision unrealized. There are, after all, ample opportunities elsewhere.

We are not going to resolve this community’s unprecedented housing crisis by building a handful of granny units. It will take thoughtful, well-designed infill projects, and city officials need to look at developers of these proposed projects as partners, not as cash cows to extort.

Walkable development, affordable housing and bike paths are sensible ideals long embraced by a large majority of Petalumans and codified in the General Plan. City officials presiding over development proposals need to remember this, and do what they can to achieve those goals.