Petaluma apartment project approved on appeal

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A 90-unit apartment project proposed for a vacant triangle of land near the Petaluma Marina received the last public approval it needed to go forward on Monday, overturning an earlier denial of the project on grounds that included a desired bike path.

On a duo of split votes, the Petaluma City Council approved the design plan and a special permit for construction of Basin Street Properties’ Marina Apartments at 0 Marina Ave., reversing earlier denials by the Petaluma Planning Commission in July, and setting up a sharp contrast between three incumbent council members running for reelection and their planning commissioner challenger.

The latest version of the project included an offer to secure an easement on a nearby property to provide the right-of-way for a future bike path, a move that Basin Street General Counsel Paul Andronico described as an effort to acquiesce to critics who called for pathway improvements as part of the project.

Basin Street secured the easement last Friday, three days before the council’s public hearing, according to city staff.

“We believe we are paying our fair share, and then some, on the project,” Andronico told the council.

Among those who testified that the easement and other changes didn’t go far enough were long-time planning commissioner Bill Wolpert, a candidate for city council whose sweeping criticism during the hearing was in contrast to the three incumbents running for reelection — Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney — each of whom voted in favor of the development. He argued the city’s long-term development plans should have required Basin Street to actually build the pathway, and that the form of the building itself was out of step with the marina area as a whole.

“I think this project could be so much better,” Wolpert said.

Having emerged as a major point of contention during recent public hearings, the pathway in question would run along the north edge of the marina between the planned apartments and the Rocky Memorial Dog Park. The unbuilt, separated pathway is among those identified as a goal in the city’s long-term bicycle infrastructure plans, and would provide an alternative to travel along Lakeville Highway.

In a letter on Friday announcing the acquisition, Andronico said Basin Street had been working for several months to secure the easement east of Marina Avenue, which involved property under different ownership than the land where the Marina Apartments are planned. The gap between the easement and the Marina Apartments property itself is a city-owned ribbon of land also pegged for a pathway.

While arguing that a requirement for Basin Street to secure the easement on an off-site property as a condition of its approval would be an overreach, Andronico nonetheless said the move was in direct response to criticism from the planning commission. The company also offered $50,000 toward a future pathway or other capital needs of the city, reduced the height of the building by 10 percent and increased the number of electric vehicle charging stations planned for the site.

Councilwoman Miller emphasized the off-site pathway easement as a major gesture by the developer, and lauded the apartment project as a whole for plans to occupy a property that has sat undeveloped for years.

“It’s an infill project – that’s what we want,” she said.

Monday’s hearing was the second time the city council overturned a planning commission action regarding the Marina Apartments – the commission, which reviews many of the city’s major development projects, had also declined on a tied vote to approve an underlying zoning change to allow residential buildings near the marina in December 2015. The council reversed that decision on appeal in April of this year.

Council members Chris Albertson, Dave King, Healy, Kearney and Miller voted Monday to approve the project design, with Mayor David Glass and Councilwoman Teresa Barrett dissenting.

King joined the dissenters in voting “no” on the conditional use permit, arguing that previous talk of requiring construction of a pathway on the city-owned land right next to the apartments, at an estimated cost of between $150,000 and $200,000, was reasonable.

“In this instance, I think in order to get the approval, it is a relatively small price to pay,” said King, who serves on the planning commission as a liaison of the city council.

The building itself will be five stories tall — 59 feet — and sit on a currently vacant triangle of land in the north part of the marina area. The apartments will be market-rate housing, and in a nod to the marina itself, will include storage for small watercraft.

Andronico said Basin Street hoped to begin construction, which would take between 12 and 18 months, this winter.

The Marina development is across Highway 101 from another significant Basin Street project to the west dubbed “Riverfront,” a 35-acre property at 500 Hopper St. planned to include up to 272 housing units, offices, open space and a hotel. Roadway and utility work at that site is currently underway, with El Segundo-based Comstock Homes in agreement to build 134 single-family homes and an application submitted for a 122-room Courtyard Marriott.

Councilman Healy suggested that the city’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee could evaluate how to use the $50,000, and that pathways other than those in the marina area were likely to be considered a greater priority. He was among those to highlight the fact that the land where the apartments are planned has sat vacant for years, casting it as prime for infill-style development.

Speaking in support of the project, Cynthia Murray, CEO of the business group North Bay Leadership Council, said the fact that the Marina Apartments were not planned as affordable housing did not mean that they were unneeded in Petaluma.

“If we can’t find housing for the talent, for the workers, our employers are going to leave,” she said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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