Early praise for new hotel design

The proposal for a 59-room hotel on West Napa Street near the Plaza is off to a good start, based on feedback given at Thursday night’s city Planning Commission meeting.

Of several local residents who spoke Thursday, and the Planning Commission members that followed, almost no one had a negative thing to say about the new proposal — although some did say they were still concerned about traffic, water and other impacts.

The new proposal is really a revised, and very much scaled-down, version of the highly controversial hotel proposal first floated in 2012. Opposition to that proposal culminated in Measure B, a local initiative to limit new hotels in Sonoma to no more than 25 rooms.

The older hotel plans were shelved until the outcome of Measure B was known. It lost by a slim, 124-vote margin in November 2013.

But developers said they heard and understood the concerns behind Measure B, and on Thursday, the new iteration was about half the size of the old one.

“If I look like a long-lost cousin, it’s because I stood here two years ago to introduce our original concept,” began Bill Hooper, president of the proposed hotel’s developer, Kenwood Investments. (Kenwood Investments is owned by Sonoma resident Darius Anderson, who is also managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, owner of the Index-Tribune.)

With the election long over, Hooper focused on what he called a collaborative effort to arrive at the current design. “We think the process was very healthy,” he said. “And tonight you’re seeing substantial changes that are the direct result of the reoccurring concerns about the project,” most commonly architectural style, size and traffic impacts.

Using the screens overhead, Hooper and the hotel’s architect, Michael Ross, presented commissioners with a “revised design that clearly draws from local examples” of architecture in order to fit in with the historic downtown. Renderings show an unadorned design with peaked roofs, gable dormers and deep porches on two stories.

Comparing the old and new designs, Ross said lot coverage went from 98 percent to 48 percent, reducing total square footage from 132,000 to just under 67,000 square feet.

Ross said the new design – which he described as “Sonoma historical” versus the original “French chateau” – contained multiple courtyards and glass walls among its lobby, rooms, spa, pool and single restaurant. The Z-shaped design wraps around existing buildings along the 100 block of West Napa Street, including the Index-Tribune and Feed Store buildings. Underground parking hides 95 spaces, with another 20 above ground.

As a result, “You’re not going to really see and understand the building as a whole from any one place,” Ross said.

“In terms of how it fits into the town, I think it’s being carefully approached and integrated into the urban fabric,” he said, displaying several before-and-after slides to make the point.

The new design seemed to go over well with observers. “I have to admit I was very uncomfortable with the original design,” said Steve Page during the public comment period. “I’m very encouraged by what I see with this new design, I think it’s very fitting.”

Downtown resident Carol Campbell also applauded the proposal, but she added, “I’ve still had the same concerns I’ve always had though — traffic, especially during construction, and water usage.”

Even Marilyn Goode, known to be a tough critic at Planning Commission meetings, said Thursday, “It certainly looks much better.” Although Goode didn’t love the dormer windows, she said, “I thought the restaurant looked lovely, the mission style.”

Only Karla Noyes stated flatly that she did not like the new proposal. “The scale of the project is still too big for this part of town,” she said, calling for a 25-room hotel at the largest and no underground parking. Noyes said Measure B proponents were “outvoted by only 128 people,” even while being outspent by $100,000.

“You may draw your own conclusions,” she said.

Commissioners did not reflect on Measure B, choosing instead to praise the new design and the process that went into it, and to warn that traffic and water impacts must still be dealt with.

“It’s nice to see so much input from the community reflected in what’s presented here,” said Commissioner Chip Roberson. “I was somewhat supportive of the project before. I’m more supportive now.”

“What we had before was what I felt was a redevelopment project,” said Commissioner Bill Willers. “I think what we have tonight is an infill project as anticipated by the General Plan, and the development code, that satisfies the needs of the developer, I would assume, and also satisfies the needs of the community.”

Commissioner Mark Heneveld brought up the issue of water shortages, as many others did, but he added a suggestion on how to recycle water for the project’s landscaping: “I see 59 tubs in this hotel. And if there was some way to (implement) greywater capture … that would be a nice future source for reclamation.”

Matthew Tippel, chair of the commission, concluded that, “The revised application is a vast improvement.” The underground garage, he said, “must have been a huge decision from a cost standpoint,” but he commended Kenwood Investments for including it.

Early on in the meeting, Tippel noted that Thursday’s presentation was a hearing only, and that no vote would be taken. Planning Director David Goodison also made clear that this was just the beginning of a long review process. Traffic, parking, water, utilities, development logistics — all of these and more will need to be “analyzed and addressed through the environmental review process,” Goodison said.

The proposal will be subject to an initial study, followed by review from the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission, use permitting, and so on.

“There’s going to be many opportunities for public hearings throughout this process,” Goodison said.