Mission Square appeal denied

Mission Square, a mixed-use development many years in the making, went forward Monday when the Sonoma City Council denied an appeal brought by Simon and Kimberly Blattner, neighbors of the proposed project.

The 4-1 vote, with Steve Barbose voting no, came after two hours of testimony by neighbors, historic preservationists, and design professionals who believe the project does not reflect the importance of the site, which is steps away from the historic Blue Wing Inn and the Mission.

The Mission Square project, at 165 E. Spain St., consists of 3,514 square feet of office space, 14 apartment units and associated parking, spread among seven buildings. It will be constructed on a site slightly larger than one acre, located on the south side of East Spain a half-block east of the Plaza. The mostly-vacant site is occupied by the 1922 Pinelli bungalow, which will be rehabilitated.

Kimberly Blattner, who spoke on behalf of the appeal, said nine years of amendments have led to the philosophy of “settling,” on a project now being “good enough,” but not superior.

“Project documents say it is adequate, and we object to that word,” she said. She added that it should not just meet minimum standards. It is in a two-block area that represents the beginnings of the city and the state. “The site deserves respect.”

A series of speakers joined her. Their main concern was the architecture, although some addressed other issues, including zoning, traffic, and impacts on surrounding properties. The site is owned by Marcus and David Detert, who also own historic buildings on the Plaza.

Local architect Ned Forrest, representing the appellants, said there should be better planning for the entire historic area. “You could correctly say a mixed-use project is too much for this property,” he said, adding that, a “good community” attracts visitors, is compelling to walk through, should not be so repetitive that it is larger than its neighbors, is subordinate to the landscaping and provides attractive openings.

Carol Marcus, project architect, countered that the design is sensitive to its historical context. In addition to meeting city requirements, the colors, landscaping and materials have all been scrutinized and approved by the Planning Commission. Only the office building that fronts on Spain Street has been forwarded on to the Design Review Commission.

“This project has a 14-year history,” she said. The Planning Commission wanted substantial changes and we made them. In addition, we supplied them with extra information.”

She said she understood that the needs of the site would be different because of its sensitivity, and instead of making their buildings stand out, they are creating a backdrop for the authentic historic buildings nearby. “We are not making a stand-alone statement, but are creating a blend of what is there.”

The development has come a long way since it was first submitted in 2000. The project began as a hotel, but the idea was dropped when it appeared to have little, if any, support from approving bodies or the public. The current project was submitted in 2005 as 5,700 square feet of commercial space and 23 apartments. Over time, it was changed to office space and a reduced number of apartments. On July 13, after three years of environmental review, the project’s environmental impact report was certified.

“I’m not a design professional, but from day one I’ve thought it an attractive project,” said Mayor Tom Rouse. “It is a simple project and in this case, simple is better.”

Making similar comments was Laurie Gallian. “To me, the project is respectful of the natural elements of the setting.” She said the true prize on the street is the Blue Wing Adobe. “The project is in the background. It is not prominent, and that must be a prime consideration.”

Steve Barbose, who voted no, said his main concern was the office building, which will be going to the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission for final approval. He said he wanted to forward other design issues to the commission, and would also like to give neighbors and the developer a chance “to talk.” But the rest of the Council didn’t agree.

“While we don’t want to mimic historic buildings or take on a Disneyland faux look, something is missing,” he said. “This is the most significant street in the city from a historic point of view. This project can be better.”