Mission Square project gets final approval

“Fourteen years in the making” sounds like a teaser on a movie trailer. Instead, it’s the amount of time a controversial project now called Mission Square spent going through Sonoma’s planning process.

On Thursday, the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission approved on a 5-0 vote the final piece of outstanding business, the design of a prominent new office building that will be set back 20 feet from Spain Street, in line with several historic buildings.

Mission Square, located at 165 W. Spain Street, is a mixed-use project with 3,514 square feet of office space, 14 apartment units, and associated parking and improvements. It preserves the historic Pinelli Bungalow and includes extensive landscaping.

The Planning Commission approved the Environmental Impact Report and the site and design elements for most of the project in 2013, but left the design of Building One, a two-story 2,434-square-foot office building, to the DRHP Commission. Because the Planning approval was appealed to the City Council – an appeal that was denied – the design approval for the last piece was deferred.

Carol Marcus, of Marcus and Willers architects, made the presentation, saying that new development must respect existing development while being discernible from it. “Our intent is to respect historic buildings, not replicate them,” she said. “This is the direction that comes from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.”

Presented with three options, the Commission chose the second, which lowered the roofline to 26 feet and reduced massing, presenting a more horizontal appearance.

“It looks simple, but it is very reflective of the architecture around the plaza,” said Chairman Leslie Tippell.

Members of the public, who spoke, largely disagreed.

Barbara Wimmer, President of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation, said the building was an improvement, but it didn’t enhance the historic landscape. “Our members are looking for a design more in keeping with the buildings around it,” she said.

Robert Demler agreed, but said the new design, while in keeping with the Development Code requirements, did not speak to the “spirit” of the code. “This building is a reflection of 1914, when architecture was boring. Even if it was stone, glass and steel and well done, I’d be ecstatic. This is a chance to do something exquisite, and I don’t think this is it. Take more time and avoid one of those Cheese Factory moments.”

Commissioner Kelso Barnett said, “I think the real problem is that people like the street the way it is.” While voting with the majority, he said he would be willing to continue the item to look at other options.

The property is owned by Marcus and David Detert, who also own many buildings on the west side of the Plaza including adobes they have restored. The site was first proposed for a hotel, back in 2000, but plans were dropped when it faced well-organized opposition.

The Mission Square project was born in 2005 with 23 apartments and 5,700 square feet of commercial space.

After years of hearings and review of public comments, the project was scaled down to its current size and the business space was designated for office use, not retail.

“This project has come a long way from the first drawings I saw,” said Commissioner Tom Anderson. “The architect listened and came up with responses. There was a good exchange of information and a good spirit of cooperation. It’s time to make a decision.”