The idiosyncratic yet lovable 1945 deco landmark on Spain Street, the Sonoma Cheese Factory, earned its second life late last Thursday night when the Sonoma Planning Commission voted 5-2 to approve the application for an extensive renovation, remodel and re-visioning of the business.
It was not, however, a slam dunk.
Consideration of the project had already been continued once – from a March 22 meeting that ended with developer Steve Carlin – known for his bustling Oxbow Market in Napa – essentially threatening to drop the project altogether and leave Sonoma with a boarded-up historical landmark.
And this second meeting, held April 12, almost didn’t happen either. A significant set of documents were submitted too late to be included in the official “packet,” so even before the regular business of the meeting (with its discussions of Sebastiani’s zucchini races, a microbewery license for Mi Ranchita restaurant, and Scooteria’s request for outdoor seating) Chair Robert Felder polled the commissioners to see if they were prepared to tackle the contentious Cheese Factory, given the “late drop of material.”
But the commission, with some reservations from commissioner James Bohar, decided to proceed after the other agenda items had been taken care of.
When they came back to the topic at hand over an hour later, it was the familiar issues that played the largest part in the public debate: parking and traffic. While many applauded Carlin’s involvement with Oxbow Public Market in Napa, a like amount noted that the Oxbow’s popularity was as much a strike against a similar development in central Sonoma.
Sonoma resident Logan Harvey was among several who noted during the public comment period that, although the Oxbow is not in the center of Napa’s downtown, it draws 1.5 million visitors per year.
“The problem for me with this project is I really want to go to it, everybody wants to go to it,” said Harvey. “I think it’s a beautiful idea, but it’s going to choke parking to the point it’s going to make the Plaza completely unlivable.”
Others were skeptical that an Oxbow-style Sonoma Cheese Factory would become a destination of its own, given the Plaza area’s many attractions – historical significant, a state park, winetasting and other tourist-oriented shops, multiple restaurants and a seven-acre park.
By and large the most prominent argument was to rethink parking and traffic in the Plaza area altogether, which some say is problematical now, even before the proposed Cheese Factory remodel.
“What are you going to do about parking?” downtown gallery owner Kaeti Bailie challenged the Planning Commission. “Because none of these businesses in town can do anything about it.”
Bailie, who owns Artifax, suggested off-site parking and shuttles, but illustrated her point by saying, “You can only pour a quart of water into a quart container; when you add more water, it will overflow.”
Kelso Barnett, who was recused from his seat on the Planning Commission due to his proximity to the project, spoke as a private individual requesting a new traffic study. He pointed out – as had others before him – that the Cheese Factory traffic study presented to the commission was based on a traffic survey taken in November 2017. That was just one month after the fires when tourist visitation to Sonoma was markedly depleted.