Chuck Williams original store gets panel’s OK

In 1956, Chuck Williams opened a 628-square-foot store at 603 Broadway and gave it the name Williams-Sonoma. It sold high-end kitchen products for the American home. It was so successful that it closed after two years and moved to San Francisco.

In 2014, the store will reopen. It will still be 628 square feet and it will still sell items that were popular in the original store – items that revolutionized the American kitchen.

The Sonoma Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the store, making the findings necessary for the required use permit and parking exception. Had the original Williams-Sonoma store been located in the Plaza zone, where formula stores are prohibited, it would have been denied.

“We look at this as a part of our history and we want to tell the story about Chuck’s life,” said Bud Cope, senior vice president of the iconic Williams-Sonoma franchise. “It will not be a formula store. It will be one-tenth the size of our stores today. It will be more of a museum.”

The company purchased the property in 2012 that Williams bought in 1953. It was a hardware store then, according to an article in the Index-Tribune announcing the purchase, but Williams had a new vision for selling kitchenware after visiting Europe with friends that same year. He refurbished the building, creating small spaces for additional businesses while keeping one for himself. He brought in specialized cooking tools for the American cook and high-end pots and pans. He was so successful, his friends convinced him to leave Sonoma and reopen in San Francisco. He did so in 1958.

The new concept, presented by Cope, will be to refurbish the storefronts with a museum and retail shop on one side, entrance to a cooking school in the center, and a cafe on the far side. As numbering periodically changes, the new address will be 599 Broadway. A parking lot for nine cars will be developed on the vacant lot behind the house, along with a garden that will provide herbs and vegetables for use in the cafe. The house behind the storefronts will also be refurbished to accommodate visiting chefs who come to conduct classes. The house is the same place Williams tested many of the recipes that eventually went into his cookbooks.

“Chuck and his mom lived in that house,” said Cope, adding that the entire restoration will be done in accordance with Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic preservation.

Several neighbors spoke in favor of the concept, although Regina Baker, who lives nearby, was the only voice expressing concern about the use, saying she did not oppose the museum-store concept, but opposed the cafe and culinary school.

Patricia Cullinan, local preservation activist, spoke in favor, but urged the commission to pay close attention to the parking.

The parking requirement is 12 spaces, but only nine were shown on the plan, requiring an exception. Commissioners Gary Edwards and Robert Felder asked if they might squeeze “one more” space into their plan. But Commissioner Bill Willers said nine was enough. “I’d like to see the parking lot shielded to the max on First Street West,” he said.

Alternate Commissioner James Cribb agreed. “I think nine parking spaces is a bonus.” He referred to the fact that none of the businesses there now have off-street parking. “There is a restaurant in that location already and there have been retail operations there. I think because this is a gem for the city – to have Chuck Williams’ original store – it’s more of a tourist attraction. People will walk there from the Plaza.” He said he was impressed with how sensitive the design was to the original.

Commissioner Mark Heneveld summed up the feelings of the group. “I like seeing some of the old businesses come back. I’m totally pleased.”

In other business, the commission approved an 80-foot monopine cellphone tower for AT&T to be located on the Sebastiani Winery property, over the objection of many neighbors who were there to speak. Those who opposed it said the fake tree would be an eyesore. Many feared that it would create health problems from radio frequency electromagnetic fields, stating that the technology is too new to know what long-term effects will be.

But in the end, the commission approved it, after a consultant stated that the health risk from cellphones and microwaves was much higher than this tower. The commission also viewed pictures of similar towers in other areas and decided they pretty much blended in with real trees.

Also approved was the conversion of a commercial property at 567 First St. E., back to being a house to be used as a vacation rental. Speaking in favor was its owner, Terrence Redmond. He said commercial uses in the building have not been successful.

A study session on an 11-unit apartment complex on West Spain Street brought out many speakers who opposed the project based on loss of open space, increased traffic and the recent approval of an 18-unit project nearby that will also add density to the neighborhood. The main issue was location of the driveway, a long one that runs from West Spain Street to West Napa Street. While the owner is willing to place it on the west side of the property, which neighbors seemed to favor, his architect, Vic Conforti, said it might not be possible because of the requirement by the Design Review Commission to save an existing house, already on the site, that would be in the way. Commissioners were generally in favor of tearing down the house.