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Sonoma’s Altamira affordable housing project decision delayed


Sonoma’s Planning Commission gave granular attention to the Altamira Affordable Housing proposal at their Thursday, Sept. 28 meeting, but at the end of the evening – well past 11 p.m. – they decided to continue consideration until their next meeting, Oct. 12, before making a decision.

Introducing the project to the five sitting members of the commission, Adam Kuperman of SAHA – the Satellite Affordable Housing Associates of Berkeley – said the company had 50 years of experience in 60 affordable housing properties with 3,000 residents, including one in Sonoma, Valley Oak Homes at 875 Lyon St. Kuperman and his colleagues have spent about 20 months on the project, including many meetings with neighbors of the 20269 Broadway project, appearances before the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission and the Planning Commission in study sessions.

Despite their preparation, they couldn’t convince the Planning Commission to adopt the Mitigated Negative Declaration and approve the Use Permit to move to the next stage of a lengthy construction process, at least not on first review.

During that research and development phase, their proposal was honed and refined to slightly decrease the number of living units, from 49 to 48, and significantly increase parking allocation, from 61 to 75 spaces. In addition, the entrance to the property was moved from Clay Street – more about that later – to Broadway, all three-story buildings were lowered to two-story, and more one-bedroom and fewer three-bedroom units were described in their current proposal.

“We are very excited with the evolution of this site plan,” Kuperman said, and almost every speaker, commissioner and public alike, applauded SAHA’s efforts and acknowledged the need for more affordable housing in Sonoma. As Planning Director David Goodison made clear, the Altamira project would fulfill the city’s General Plan goal of 47 extremely-low, very-low and low-income homes, and go a long way toward meeting one of the community’s oft-stated goals. He concluded his presentation essentially endorsing the project as conforming to the city’s Development Code and other criteria.

But not everyone thought that alone gave SAHA a pass. Many were concerned about the density of the project – 48 units on less than two acres – and the “massing” or apparent bulk that nine structures on the property presented. The 24-per-acre unit density bonus was accomplished only by drawing upon a “development exclusion” to the city’s Mixed Use density allowance of 20 units per acre.

“Density is reality,” said commission chair James Cribb at one point. “Our community is not a static – it is a growing, vibrant thing. We need to think differently and be doing things differently.” The city’s “infill” policy for new housing is essentially an endorsement of higher residential density, he noted.

Another exclusion – allowed because of the project’s affordable housing goal – was to slip under the parking slot-per-unit requirement of 90 off-street parking spaces for a 48-unit development; 75 is allowed under a state formula of one parking space per one-bedroom unit, two spaces for both two- and three-bedroom units. That would permit 73, so again SAHA’S numbers had a cushion.

But parking continued to be, as it has been throughout the process, a major concern of neighbors particularly on Clay and Bragg streets, to the south and west of the corner lot. SAHA presented evidence that the parking per-bedroom unit was the highest among their projects: Valley Oak Homes, for instance, has 77 bedrooms in 45 units, with 65 parking spaces for a ratio of 1.229 per “designated unit.”

A similarly-sized project in Sebastopol (also 45 units) has a parking ratio of 1.139, and one in Walnut Creek (48 units) has a parking ratio of 1.037. Altamira’s parking ratio would be 1.469, which Kuperman said was the “heaviest parked of any in the SAHA portfolio.”

The numbers, however, failed to convince. The commission heard from Anne Shapiro who lives in a nearby affordable housing project at Marcy Court, which has a two-space per household ratio, but she was one of many who said that is often not enough. Some pointed out that the other SAHA projects were generally in more urban neighborhoods with better public transport than that enjoyed by the Sonoma Valley. (Three SC Transit routes – 34, 38 and 40 – stop on Broadway within a block of the 20269 Broadway.)

Said Kuperman, dryly, “I can attest to parking being an issue in any location, in any project.”

Commissioner Jim Bohar seemed taken aback that the project would draw upon an open application process for prospective residents, and not directly reduce Sonoma’s own housing needs by providing housing for Sonoma residents. Goodison “disputed” that, saying that providing affordable housing would fulfill a community need, regardless of any residence preference; and they were excluded by federal law from taking applications only from city residents.

Bohar was also adamant that trees should line the property to create a more welcoming gateway to Sonoma up Broadway, but again this did not appear to be within SAHA’s ability to control, since the property where trees would be planted are on the Caltrans easement along Highway 12.

Further disagreements on the commission were over a proposed wooden fence between the project and residents on Bragg St., with Commissioner Mike Coleman – back from an absence due to injury sustained as a fire fighter – and Bohar supporting a sound wall border the entire west border of the property line, instead of just at the parking area, if only to mask the inevitable construction noise.

But Cribb was skeptical of the need or precedent for such a construction. “Any project will have 12 to 18 months of construction noise, we’ve never asked any other project to mitigate it with a 12-16 foot soundwall,” he said in his closing comments. “In the long run you’d just have to tear it down anyway. It would be a tremendous inconvenience.”

As in previous reviews of Altamira, an issue over which SAHA has no responsibility or solution became a major source of irritation – the “loading area” for the Renaissance Lodge on Clay St., directly across from the project site. Bohar for one was adamant that the Lodge was “using our public streets for loading and unloading, and interfering with our traffic. It should not have happened,” he said.

Commissioner Coleman went so far as to call for “the mayor, or someone in a position of authority” to contact the Lodge or its owners and “make a formal request that they have to answer, giving a legitimate reason why they can or can’t accommodate the wishes of the Commission.” Those wishes would be, presumably, to move the loading area to inside the Lodge’s property, instead of using public streets and impacting the residents.

In the end, the commission voted to continue the discussion at the next Planning Commission meeting, Thursday Oct. 12, giving SAHA time to do some redesigning of some of the buildings and other factors over which they do have some control.

Diplomatically, Kuperman said later, “The meeting was a move in the right direction – we received some feedback to move the design forward, to do what’s right for the community.”