Future of Sonoma Truck and Auto Center site draws crowd

The future of the former Sonoma Truck and Auto Center took center stage at the Sonoma Community Center Wednesday night.

About 50 people gathered to present their ideas for the property, which is now in the hands of SunLever Companies, a real estate and development firm from Southern California.

The site, located at 870 Broadway, has East MacArthur Street and a wedge of public open space on its other boundaries. It also has the remains of Cumberland Presbyterian College, a historic building from the 1800s that has been substantially depleted and may or may not be viable for preservation.

The meeting was conducted by Michael Pattinson, of Bull Stockwell Allen, a San Francisco design firm. He said the focus of the meeting was to ask what the community needs and wants on the site, given its zoning and other development code constraints.

Owen Smith, SunLever president, said he was open to any reasonable idea, but wanted people to remember he had investors who hope to make a profit.

Sonomans – not shy about presenting their ideas – gave him a lot to mull over.

The first speaker was a neighbor who said the neighborhood would be galvanized to work against any proposal for a large chain store.

Responding to this statement, Herb Heil, the realtor who represents the property owner, said there was talk about siting a Walgreens or a Trader Joe’s store there when a developer representing those clients came in, but in the end decided on an office complex. “They walked away when they heard they had to include housing,” Heil said.

More recent interest came from Richard Kessler, of the Kessler Collection, who wanted to build a hotel. But he, too, relinquished the option and SunLever now has it, although Smith would not say for how long. A hotel was still on the list of items presented for public discussion, but most speakers said it would not fly unless it was small – certainly not the 80-room hotel Kessler had proposed.

Larry Barnett, the former city councilmember who founded Preserving Sonoma and initiated the Hotel Limitation Measure voted down last November, started the discussion with five points he thought should be considered when deciding on what should be built. Barnett said the city should ask, does the project provide tangible assets that enhance residents; is it carbon neutral; does it support local, organic or sustainable agriculture; does it provide full time, good paying jobs; and, does it provide goods or services needed locally?

The examples he provided were a community pool and aquatic center with affordable housing, or an Oxbow Market-type of space similar to the food facility in Napa. He said the latter would be attractive to both residents and tourists.

The pool was brought up by several people, but Pattinson said he thought the site “too urban” for a pool. “Does the community really want this?” he asked. “In my experience – and we have built many pools for cities – they are a terrible drain on finances.”

Bill Blum, general manager of MacArthur Place, the 64-room luxury hotel just across the street from the site, said he liked the Oxbow Market idea, “a place for local artisans and bakeries.”

Pattinson said the site is large enough for a variety of activities and uses, and could include housing incorporated into a second story.

“The old fire station proposal (on Patten Street) didn’t fly with the neighborhood because it was too dense and out of scale,” said Nancy Simpson. “The Oxbow idea is very appealing.” She suggested micro houses be considered as part of the development.

Carol Marcus said the project should cater to both young and old. Michael Ross, architect for the hotel proposed on West Napa Street, requested that any proposal for the site “observe the context of the Broadway corridor and how your project addresses the street.”

Other suggestions included breaking up the site so it doesn’t look like it is one big project; including rental housing, a huge need in Sonoma; keeping the remnants of the historic school as a historic component; not building anything noisy; including a restaurant; being sure it is water efficient; and providing something that showcases the community.

“You have an opportunity to get community support with the right project,” said Barnett, referring back to the community pool idea. “You might not make money, but you’d get a lot of love.”

Smith said his investors might need more than that.