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Petaluma council supports Corona Station development

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In a 5-2 straw vote early Tuesday morning, the Petaluma City Council voiced support for the controversial east side Corona Station housing project, launching a domino effect among the project’s multiple developers that could result in hundreds of new housing units and provide funding for the second Petaluma SMART station.

The marathon 7-hour council meeting, 4 hours of which was spent on the Corona development, ended without an official vote after council members demanded more affordable housing units from the complex agreement encompassing two proposed developments.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer and Mayor Teresa Barrett cast the dissenting votes. Their colleagues, though visibly exasperated and unenthusiastic about the development, pointed to the project’s promise to build the second SMART station as their guiding motivator.

“The seven of us sitting up here don’t get to pick who buys land and who want to develop in town. At all,” Councilman Gabe Kearney said. “Sometimes we get projects brought to us that we don’t agree with, that we don’t think are best and we are faced with tough decisions.”

Building the second SMART station at the intersection of Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard is one of the council’s stated goals, and council members voting to support the project said it’s the only sure way to lock in the station. The question for council members to consider was whether their grievances over the development’s lack of interface with the future SMART station outweighed their fear of the fickle rail agency’s ability to walk away from Corona and look at other options.

“The second station is really what is driving this for most people on the council, and it’s important to all of us,” Barrett said. “But sometimes the price for something is just too high, and this is one of those cases as far as I’m concerned.”

The Corona Station housing project is proposed as 110 single-family homes on a 6.5-acre plot of land alongside the SMART rail corridor at Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard.

Yet it is also a linchpin in a carefully-woven union between SMART, developer Lomas Partners, the city and two other housing developers. Any decisions made on the Corona Station housing development have become inexorably linked to a proposed 400-unit housing project downtown and the future of the long-awaited Corona SMART Station.

The parcel’s owner, Lomas Partners, entered into a complex and litigious partnership with SMART years ago that resulted in a land swap. Lomas Partners promised the rail agency a sliver of the Corona land to use as parking for the future station. In return, SMART is to sell the expansive parcel behind the downtown station to Lomas Partners for development, giving the rail agency needed revenue to go toward the second station’s construction.

Lomas Partners then plans to sell that downtown parcel to Hines Company, which is proposing a large, multi-story 400-unit housing development.

“There are an extraordinary number of moving parts in this proposal,” said Councilman Mike Healy, who supports the project. “I heard a consensus on the Corona piece from council, but I think there is still some unease about the downtown piece, especially its affordable housing units.”

This “unease” over the downtown parcel’s plan to fulfill the city’s mandate to build affordable housing units has become a sticking point that led council members to push final approval of the Corona Station housing project to Feb. 10, contingent on additional affordable units.

As one of its numerous entitlements, the Corona Station housing developer requested to bend the city’s requirement that 15% of new housing units be affordable and split evenly between the low- and moderate-income level. Lomas Partners instead proposed to built 5% low-income units and 10% moderate-income units on site.

While a few council members expressed displeasure with this element, their primary contention was over the affordable units at the downtown 400-unit project proposal.

Hines Company, the intended builder of the downtown project, requested that they fulfill their 61-unit affordable housing requirement offsite, contracting with Burbank Housing to build 50 units on a parcel along Petaluma Boulevard South near the Quarry Heights development. They proposed paying an in-lieu fee to make up for the 11 missing units, although council members preferred that they build the remaining units.

Of the roughly two dozen members of the public that stayed past midnight for an opportunity to speak, many complained of what they saw as two projects sidestepping the city’s affordability requirements.

“This is going to ensure that the SMART train becomes a ski lift for the rich, and Petaluma becomes a playground for the wealthy,” said Petaluma resident and North Bay Organizing Project representative Davin Cardenas.

The tentative approval comes after denials from the Planning Commission, who rejected Lomas Partners’ contention that the SMART station’s future depended on the project, wanting instead a more transit-oriented development to sit alongside the future transportation hub.

“It’s a big housing package, and when you add it together it’s 560 or 570 housing units,” Healy said. “I think it may be the biggest one I’ve ever seen.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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