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Deal for Petaluma housing, Rainier extension moves forward

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A housing development between Petaluma Boulevard and the Petaluma River that includes a portion of the Rainier Avenue extension appears to be moving forward, although city officials said the plan currently lacks specific details.

A majority of Petaluma City Council members on Monday directed staff to work with the developer on a deal that would trade key pieces of infrastructure for incentives to make the project financially feasible.

Southern California developer Warmington Residential has proposed a 148-unit conceptual proposal on land behind the Marin Sun Farms slaughterhouse on Petaluma Boulevard. The parcels, which lack a street connection, would be accessed by an extension of Rainier Avenue and Shasta Avenue.

Warmington has proposed to build a portion of the future crosstown connector for the city in exchange for a break on the developer’s traffic impact fees. The right of way alone for the western portion of Rainier and an adjacent storm detention basin is estimated to cost $4.4 million, according to a staff report. Warmington also said it would provide grading for Rainier, which is needed for a future bridge to take the road over the river and SMART tracks and eventually under Highway 101.

Even in the early stages, the project faces opposition due to its proximity to the Petaluma River floodplain and Rainier Avenue, a controversial road planned since the 1960s that some in the community say should not be built.

“We weren’t sure the direction of the city council,” Mike Banducci, senior director of community development for Warmington, said at the meeting. “This is a complex property. It’s got the river. It’s got the SMART train. It’s got trails. It’s got Rainier. ... There’s a lot of moving parts with this project and staff, as much as they wanted to, couldn’t give us a defined scope of what we could ask for in fee credits and affordable housing.”

Warmington, in a concession to opponents, said it would not pursue development north of the Rainier extension, which is planned as a buffer from the flood zone.

The developer also said it would seek to pay the city’s current affordable housing fee instead of building on-site affordable housing. The fee is estimated to generate roughly $3 million for a city fund that nonprofit developers can tap to build affordable housing elsewhere in Petaluma.

A majority of the council, with Mayor Teresa Barrett absent, told staff to work with the developer to bring back a refined proposal that the board would eventually vote on.

“It sounds like it’s pretty much the consensus that we want to refer staff to work on a project,” said Kevin McDonnell, the vice mayor. “We have trust in staff and sense of accountability of the staff for best performances so, there you go.”

Barrett’s absence was notable since she has been critical of Rainier in the past, questioning the traffic relief it would provide compared to the cost to the city. The Monday discussion was nearly postponed to next month but council members Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Dave King, who asked to put the item on the agenda, along with Gabe Kearney, voted to proceed with the discussion. McDonnell and Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer voted to postpone the discussion.

The item was originally proposed for the Nov. 4 council meeting, which was canceled due to the Kincade fire.

Miller said any further delay to the discussion could hinder moving the project forward. The city has invested $7 million on an underpass for Rainier, which Caltrans expects to complete with the Highway 101 widening project by the end of 2022. Additionally, Warmington has an option to purchase the parcels of land and was looking for assurances from city leaders before it can proceed.

“I do think it’s time sensitive,” Miller said. “I think it’s important that we not drop the ball or miss any opportunities to move forward on this. It’s something that the vast majority of the community wants to see in terms of Rainier and I think we need to just keep moving forward on it.”

Fischer, who was elected to the council last year on an environmental platform, was the strongest voice against the project. She argued that the proposed 64 townhomes and 84 single family homes is not dense enough for the 25-acre site that is zoned for medium density residential development.

“I would suggest, as mentioned by some audience members, that it’s the wrong project in the wrong place,” she said. “I do agree that, given our climate emergency, that we do need more high density development in this area if it doesn’t affect the river and our wetlands.”

Councilman King said he wanted to see if staff could work out a deal with the developer, and he said he didn’t want to start making concessions off the bat.

“If it isn’t feasible, it isn’t feasible, and if it is, I’d like to see what comes up,” he said. “I don’t believe there are any needs for any concessions early on and that staff, through our city manager and planning director, can negotiate directly.”

Healy said the developer has already made compromises to make the project more appealing. He gave them credit for removing the proposed buildings north of Rainier, which were adjacent to the river.

“This is quite an opportunity, I’m actually glad to hear that Warmington is no longer looking at developing on the river side of the Rainier alignment,” he said. “I think that removes an irritant. ... There are still a lot of moving parts, but I want Warmington and city staff to work together to see if there’s a development proposal staff can recommend.”

Seven members of the audience spoke about the proposal at the meeting, and the majority were against it in its current form. Former Councilwoman Janice Cader-Thompson criticized city leaders for advancing the project to this stage without any public input. She said she first read about it in an op-ed Healy and Miller wrote in the Nov. 7 Argus-Courier.

“This is ramming something down our throats without any real public knowledge of this,” she said.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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