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Measure B: The elephant in the room

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, those who reside within the city limits of Sonoma will vote on Measure B, the hotel limitation measure. Stated reasons for supporting or opposing the measure are well known as mailers, door hangers and letters to the editor proliferate.

But the proverbial elephant is still in the room – the hotel project about which Measure B is ostensibly not about, but which arguably inspired the measure and against which most arguments, for or against, are being measured.

Developers of that project would say that they played by the rules, submitted draft proposals to the public, to the Sonoma Planning Department and to the Planning Commission, paid the appropriate fees and the costs of a traffic study commissioned by the city, all the while listening to rooms full of people both in private and public settings. The purpose, they said, was feedback, and feedback they got. On the basis of that feedback – from city officials and local residents – changes were made, the original name was dropped and the project was redesigned.

Those changes have not been aired in public because, once the measure was certified for the ballot, the only hotel project in Sonoma’s pipeline moved quietly to the corner to wait for the decision of the voting public.

Was the West Napa Street hotel proposal just a case of unfortunate timing? Or was it the catalyst for the action that became Measure B, the spur that nicked the psyche of the arbiters of community character, the stimulus for those who believe Sonoma is still part of rural America and should cautiously guard against any change that might upset the delicate balance of small town authenticity.

Measure B proponents say no, this is not about personalities or any particular hotel.

They’ve adamantly denied that the measure is about developer Darius Anderson and his West Napa Street project. But some Measure B proponents insist Anderson’s hotel is one of a number of proposals on the horizon, including one explored by developer The Kessler Collection at the Sonoma Truck and Auto property on Broadway, notwithstanding the fact that Kessler encountered too many Planning Department obstacles for his proposal and withdrew it. Interested parties continue to explore the property for any number of purposes, but no proposal is on file.

Another project alleged by a blogger who has relentlessly attacked Anderson with rumor and innuendo, involves an entirely unsubstantiated claim that Bank of America intends to close its Plaza branch and sell the property to a hotel developer with plans for a three-story hotel and underground parking lot.

But a query to Bank of America by the Index-Tribune prompted an emphatic denial from the company’s vice-president for corporate communications who stated, “We have no plans to close the banking center in Sonoma or to sell the property.”

All of which indicates that, if Measure B is passed by the electorate, the West Napa Street hotel project is the only one that will be affected. That said, even if it is being dismissed as not relevant to the discussion, like the elephant in the corner of the room, it can’t realistically be ignored.

So what are the project’s merits, what are its demerits? Will it harm or help Sonoma?

Fifteen months ago, about 150 people crowded into Ramekins Culinary School and Event Center to get their first public view of the proposed hotel for West Napa Street. It was called Chateau Sonoma, in honor of the French hotel that once stood on the site. In addition to 59 hotel rooms, that project would have had two restaurants, a health club, spa, 2,800-square-feet of retail space, a 180-seat event room and 119 off-street parking spaces in an area fronting the 100-block of West Napa Street. Two buildings – the Index-Tribune building and the Chateau Sonoma Antique store – would be demolished. The Lynch building would remain and be incorporated into the project. The developer emphasized that no variances were needed and all code requirements, except for parking (25 short) had been met.

Major concerns raised by attendees included vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic, design issues, the proposed building demolitions and the parking shortage. And, perhaps, above all hung the question of whether Sonoma needs another hotel and, if so, would it “fit” the character of the community.

Similar issues were raised a week later at the Planning Commission study session on Aug. 23, 2012, and four weeks later at the Design Review Commission. Supporters pointed to the economic boost it would give the city. Opponents found fault with the architecture, massing, materials, scale and other design features, finding it heavy, unauthentic, and “just not Sonoma.”

Understanding that this is how the process works, the project architect, Michael Ross, said he would go back and make changes. He hoped to be ready with new submittals by spring.

But in March of 2013, former mayor and councilmember Larry Barnett announced the formation of Preserving Sonoma, a group launched to oppose the construction of hotels with more than 25 rooms until overall occupancy in existing hotels and inns reaches a yearly average of 80 percent or more.

The project waiting in the wings, with changes in-hand, was withdrawn and its owners made a conscious decision to wait until the ballot measure was resolved before proceeding.

But what were those changes? On the Hotel Project Sonoma website, under the heading “we listened” the changes are outlined. First, there is no more Chateau Sonoma. The architectural style is now Sonoma historical, with elements of Sonoma Hotel and Blue Wing Adobe.

The event center was reduced to 128 seats, one restaurant was eliminated, all seven private apartments in the Lynch Building were retained, square footage was reduced by 7,000 square feet, trees and landscaping were enhanced, and the buildings were set back. Unchanged were the number of rooms and the 120 on-site parking spaces, but with the addition of 24 off-site spaces and the reduction of restaurant and event seats, the hotel conceivably met the parking requirement.

If Measure B fails, the changes will receive the same level of public scrutiny as the previous project and further changes could occur, as has been the case with the Mission Square project on Spain Street, which started as a hotel and is now proposed to be offices and apartments.

Traffic impacts are difficult to predict and subject to criticism since most people drive a car and have firm opinions about traffic. But W-Trans, a traffic engineering firm sometimes used by the city, has already completed a study at the request of the applicant, and found that the hotel with spa and retail would generate 552 trips a day. To put that figure in perspective, the study looked at MacArthur Place with similar amenities and a few more rooms, finding it generated 562 daily trips.

And by further comparison, the West Napa property once housed a full-service Sonoma Index-Tribune with a commercial printing plant, 65 employees who parked on site, large trucks that drove in and out on a daily basis and a service station with tow service. And the W-Trans report concludes that current uses of the property, which no longer houses a printing plant or a gas station, generate 681 trips, meaning that the proposed hotel would result in a net reduction of traffic on the property.

Another issue raised by the public was pedestrian congestion clogging the sidewalks and meandering across Plaza streets. The issue is not new and has also surfaced in Healdsburg, where, in the words of Healdsburg Chamber Executive Director Carla Howell, “A town of 11,000 couldn’t support all the incredible things we get to enjoy. An extra five minutes to let someone cross the street is worth it.” But while merchants, speaking at public meetings last year, supported the pedestrian traffic generated by a new hotel, not everyone agrees and no studies have been done to address the issue.

And then there are economic impacts.

Would the hotel-in-waiting positively impact the city’s economy? The hotel’s applicants say yes: it would generate $3.5 million in transient occupancy taxes over a five-year period at an occupancy rate of 60 percent, along with $2.5 million in sales tax and $1.8 million in property tax, also over five years. It planned to employ 110 full-time and 37 part-time staff, recruited locally, and would pay a living wage, according to standards set by the Living Wage Coalition.

Are these realistic figures? One must look at the past to get beyond projections. When the Lodge at Sonoma opened it had twice as many rooms as the proposed West Napa Street hotel. The city’s transient occupancy tax jumped by $1.3 million over a three-year period. The average room rate at comparable hotels today is more than twice as much as it was in 2001. Therefore, the figure given over a five-year period is probable.

The property tax figure can be calculated almost to the penny once the value of the new construction is determined. The only unpredictable number is sales tax, which continues to go up as the economy improves. In Sonoma, 26 percent of sales tax comes from restaurants, according to Laurie Decker, economic development manager. And people on vacation don’t just eat, they shop.

The 2012 Tourism Report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board says tourism is a $1.35 billion business in the county. Sonoma experiences its share, enough to drive occupancy to a yearly average of almost 65 percent and to fill hotels during the crush months of August, September and October nearly to capacity. TOT records also show that finding rooms on weekends is difficult from spring through fall.

If the hotel-in-waiting gets its chance, the probability is it would fill its rooms in the same months as other lodgings, and perhaps better than some properties that are not as close to the Plaza.

But if Measure B passes, would it be possible to reconfigure the West Napa Street project as a 25-room hotel and still be economically viable? Bill Blum, manager of MacArthur Place, says no. “A full service luxury property needs to offer food and beverage, room service, bellmen, evening turn-down service, concierge and other amenities, and a small size makes it very difficult to have all of that labor for under 25 rooms.”

Dan Parks, who built the 19-room Inn at Sonoma pre-recession, has since added eight rooms to help the bottom line, since he does not have on-site amenities, but operates more like a bed and breakfast.

The Hotel Limitation Measure Impact Study, done by members of the Preserving Sonoma committee, discusses the viability of hotels under 25 rooms, challenging numbers presented by the Keyser Marston Company, consultant to public agencies. But it lacks any mention of whether or not it is feasible to construct a hotel under 25 rooms in this market of tight loan regulations, site-scarcity and viability of investor returns. One indication of the financial challenges inherent in lodging properties is the recent example of the lease awarded by the City to a local group to renovate the Maysonnave Cottage for use as a vacation rental. The investors needed a 20-year lease to get back their $700,000 investment and still make a profit on a one-bedroom unit.

The owners of the West Napa Street property the proposed hotel sits on have not said what they might do if their project cannot go forward. They have commercial zoning and could build 134,000 square feet of building area on the land, and still provide required parking. That could theoretically provide 20,000 square feet of retail and 31 apartments, producing far more traffic trips a day than a hotel. Or they could use the property for 10,000 square feet of retail, 10,000 square feet of office, and 31 apartments.

For now, the elephant in the room sits and waits. Many votes are already cast, and many more will be cast on Tuesday before Sonomans will know what happens to that elephant, even though, rhetorically at least, the election is not about him.