Planning panel looks at Chateau Sonoma
THIS IS A RENDERING of what the proposed Chateau Sonoma hotel would look like on West Napa Street.
Proponents of Chateau Sonoma, a 59-unit hotel and retail complex one block from the Plaza, will put on their thinking caps to grapple with traffic, parking, design and density issues.
These were the major concerns aired before the Sonoma Planning Commission Thursday, during a three-hour study session that drew a standing-room-only crowd, and comments by 23 speakers.
“All comments are valid and will be taken to heart,” said Michael Ross, project architect, who made the initial presentation.
Chateau Sonoma is proposed to be built on land occupied by The Sonoma Index-Tribune, Chateau Sonoma antique store, a vacant newspaper print building and a large parking lot that wraps behind. It will include a spa, event center, two restaurants, a health club and 2,800 square feet of retail space with a 121-space parking lot to serve the complex. It will front on West Napa Street and will incorporate the three-story Lynch building, which currently houses a bank, offices and apartments. Its developer is Darius Anderson, CEO of Kenwood Investments, who also owns Ramekins Culinary School and Event Center and is a majority owner of the Index-Tribune.
Most of the speakers praised the project, noting the vitality it will bring to the downtown area. “There are loose ends to tie up, but a project like this will transform the square at a time when challenges exist,” said Craig Haserot, a local business owner.
Economic benefits to the city are estimated to be $3.5 million in transient occupancy taxes over a five-year period, at an occupancy rate of 60 percent; $2.5 million in sales tax and $1.8 million in property tax, also over five years. It is also expected to employ 110 full time and 37 part-time staff, recruited locally.
But opponents challenged whether there is adequate parking for guests and staff in spite of the fact that there will be 24-hour valets on duty to park cars, and suggested that there should be additional off-site locations identified so that cars are not pushed onto the streets. The staff report, provided by the city, stated that the parking is “25 spaces short,” but was open to the idea of “managed parking” as a mitigation measure.
Concerns were also voiced by several members of the public about encouraging more pedestrian traffic in an area where people crossing West Napa Street at the Plaza already cause backs ups in vehicle traffic. Some expressed fears that a stoplight would be required at Broadway and Napa Street.
Another issue raised by several speakers was the massiveness of the project. “The project must take into consideration its proximity to the Plaza,” said Patricia Cullinan, who represented the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation. She said it must be compatible in architecture and size with the other buildings in the Sonoma Historic Overlay Zone. She also decried the proposed demolition of three buildings, including the Index-Tribune building, which was identified as historically significant because of its publishing roots and its connection to the late Robert Lynch.
Bill Lynch, former publisher of the Index-Tribune, disagreed, saying the building was always shared with other businesses, and the real historic home of the newspaper is a building on East Napa Street that is being restored.
Another bone of contention for some seemed to be the “French chateau” architecture, which many thought was not a true reflection of Sonoma. Ned Forrest, a Sonoma architect, said he was not opposed to the mansard roofs, but wanted the materials and design and other features of the hotel to be “authentic.” Ross, in his presentation, emphasized the use of “real” materials reflecting various style patterns existing in Sonoma today.
Sonoma resident Bonnie Brown said she is also opposed to the removal of seven downtown housing units. The apartments, currently located in the Lynch building, would be converted to guest rooms under the plan. While housing units are generally required of new commercial projects, the requirement can be waived by the commission, according to David Goodison, Sonoma’s planning director.
At the end of the comment period, members of the Planning Commission gave direction to the applicants, which is the point of having a session in which no decision is made. In general, the commissioners liked many aspects of the project, but said they will be very interested in the findings of the environmental impact report and the studies that will be part of it.
“What I heard was traffic and parking,” said Commissioner Matt Howarth. “I want to know what traffic generation is for a 60-room hotel.” While the applicant has done a traffic study, another study, by a firm selected by the city, will be done to validate or question the findings, and will take into consideration the ancillary uses on the site.
Commissioner Michael George said the traffic and pedestrian concerns are valid. “By bringing this much activity to town, we’ll reach gridlock. We have to think about this.” He said he was also concerned about construction impacts on neighboring businesses.
Commissioner Mark Heneveld said more study should be done of pedestrian impacts.
“I heard three things,” said Commissioner Matthew Tippell. “Architectural style, historic significance and traffic.” He said he wasn’t against the style, thought the historic significance of the buildings was “a stretch,” and was “hugely” in favor of a roundabout to prevent the need for a traffic signal.
Commissioner Gary Edwards said he believes the project will bring pedestrians down West Napa Street, a place where businesses have struggled.
But alternate commissioner Bill Willers (filling in for absent Chip Roberson) had reservations about the project’s intensity, its traffic and architecture. “Nothing should ever be so large that it dominates the other buildings,” he said. He also had concerns about the loss of apartments. “The residential component was introduced so that people who worked downtown, could live downtown.” He also wanted to know how much of the parking was allocated to staff.
Chairman Robert Felder agreed that parking may be under-stated, said the loss of the residential units “concerns me,” and added he was “struggling with the architectural style,” not because of its French influence but because it needs to be “less obtrusive.”
This first look at the Planning Commission will be followed by a formal preparation of an environmental impact report, a review by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, certification of the EIR by the Planning Commission, use permit review by the commission, review of the demolition permit and architectural review by the Design Review Commission. At least six of these meetings will be public hearings.
Proponents hope the project will be under construction by February 2014.