Patten Street firehouse on the block

The next time the City of Sonoma needs temporary quarters – when one department or another undergoes expansion, seismic upgrading or simply catches fire – the number-one candidate for temporary office space will be out of play.

On April 30, bids from prospective buyers will be opened, the offers will be reviewed and, if everything goes according to plan, the old fire station at 32 Patten St. – right at the corner with Broadway – will be in new hands and off the city’s radar by the end of the year, or at least by early 2015.

And what may have been the city’s most versatile utility player – as buildings go – will be just another piece of history, assuming anything of its current configuration survives new ownership.

Originally built as a combined police and fire station in 1948, after both departments outgrew their allotted quadrants at City Hall, the Patten Street building was pressed into service to house city operations after the bottom floor of City Hall caught fire on a hot August night in 1980.

In 1987, city staff returned to Patten Street while seismic retrofitting was done on City Hall under the dictates of state law and the laws of geologic probability.

By then, the police department had new quarters on First Street East, but in 2007 that space got its own remodel and the police moved back into the now-empty Patten Street fire station while a year of renovation took place.

By 2008, the police department moved out again and the game of musical offices came to an end. The Patten Street property has been more or less vacant ever since.

But since the city had sold it, meanwhile, to the Community Development Agency, when the state forced local governments out of the redevelopment business in 2011, the Patten Street property was suddenly in the hands of the state. Which meant it had to be sold, for the highest use and the most money, according to the State Department of Finance.

The city retains a 12 percent interest in the building, based on the percentage of property tax it gets to retain from the state, but that minority ownership may net Sonoma only about $200,000, not the $1.7 million Ryan Snow says the building should be worth.

Snow works for Cassidy Turley, a commercial real estate company representing the city in the sale. He describes the empty building as being in “really good shape,” with 9,671 square feet of usable space on an 18,375-square-foot lot – or about .42 of an acre.

The building is zoned as mixed use, and whatever it ends up becoming, part of that use must, by law, be residential.

Snow says the building can hold up to eight residential units, but he has received inquiries from people who want to build a retail-residential mix, from people who want to build a restaurant and from one potential buyer interested in creating an exotic car garage and showroom. That use might fit a key design element of the building, since it consists of 3,905 square feet of office space and 5,451 square feet of what fire departments refer to as “engine bays.”

The building still has the cavernous firehouse doors and the two-story interior where the big fire trucks were parked.

When the city was negotiating with another investor prior to redevelopment dissolution, much discussion went into an appropriate “gateway” use that would present an appealing invitation to arriving visitors, while simultaneously luring shoppers down Broadway from the Plaza.

Ideas raised then included creation of a pocket park, perhaps with a water feature, where pedestrians could sit and relax.

At one point, Peet’s Coffee was reported to be interested in the site, but withdrew from consideration and eventually opened a shop on the other side of Broadway.

Interestingly, said Snow, as of a few weeks ago, no one had approached him with a small hotel proposal for the site.

Will the city still be able to exercise influence over the end use and impose city zoning and building standards?

“Absolutely,” said City Manager Carol Giovanatto. “It will go through the same planning process as any other project.”

Once the bids are opened, they will be reviewed by a negotiating team consisting of two members of the successor agency to the redevelopment agency, two members from the post-redevelopment Oversight Board, and others. The city will then decide on a recommended sales deal and submit it to the state Department of Finance.

The decision process could take as long as nine months or more.

“I wouldn’t guess it would be any sooner,” Giovanatto said. “The Department of Finance kind of works at its own speed.”