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Sonoma to lose a gas station, gain a diner

A 56-year-old gas station at the southern entrance to the city of Sonoma is heading into its final summer, but aside from a few loyal customers, no one is too broken up about it.

Ready to take its place is a family restaurant that already has high local expectations, one big enough for 52 hungry customers, with an outside dining deck and even a “nanobrewery” – and it’ll even look like the old gas station, to boot.

The City of Sonoma Planning Commission last week approved an application for a mixed use development at 899 Broadway, signing off on plans to take down and rebuild the Union 76 gas station to serve instead as an in-town restaurant from the owners of the Fremont Diner.

“We want the kind of place kids can come in after school and grab something to eat,” said Erika Harris who, with her husband Chad Harris, own and run the funky-trendy diner on Highway 121. “We wanted to stay in town because our kids go to school here, and we didn’t want to have to travel too far. We’ve been looking for the right spot for about four years.” They have three children of their own, the youngest not yet 3.

Plans for the new restaurant surfaced in March, when the Planning Commission held a study session on the planned development, which is also to include four apartments on the back side of the lot – facing MacArthur and West First Street – as a housing component of the proposal.

The reception was warm enough the Harrises went ahead with purchasing the .56-acre lot from owner Marie Lambert, and contracted local design firm Strata to architect plans. They presented those plans to the Planning Commission on June 8, which endorsed them in a 3-1 vote.

“When the project is all done, you will not really be able to tell that we tore that thing down,” said Strata’s Brad Johnson, about the retro-looking gas station. “That’s the key piece to the historic preservation, is keeping the look – and trying to save and reclaim as much of the building as possible.”

The classic “white box” look of the gas station was once widely distributed throughout the country, but the few of those buildings that remain are now often thought of as historic, despite their modest origins. The city’s architectural consultant Alice Duffee suggested the current gas station was built in 1961 on the site of what may have been Sonoma’s first service station, dating from 1935 according to anecdotal evidence.

“As a prefab unit, it was virtually identical to other 1960-1961 Signal service stations around the state,” wrote Duffee in her report. “The design elements, colors and materials were standardized to maximize recognition of the ‘Signal’ brand of gasoline.”

“We wanted to keep it running as a gas station,” said Harris. “But the second we would have touched anything, we would have had to upgrade the safety features and everything.”

Johnson and his colleague Bennett Martin of Strata said that current regulations on methods, materials and seismic safety would make using the building as it is impossible, but a historic rebuild is not only possible, but often the preferred solution for historic buildings in California.

The first stage of constructing the new building, then, is the dismantling of the one that’s there – taking it apart piece by piece, reversing the assembly of the original “kit of parts,” in Johnson’s phrase, that turned up at the location in 1961. The pieces would be stored and the site excavated and cleaned up (it was a gas station after all, with the attendant toxic pollutants that goes with the business).

The new building that results, made up of parts of the old one or new parts that replicate the historic station, will have a much different function. Plans call for a 28-seat restaurant. With outdoor seating for 24 under a canopy built to resemble the present canopy over the gas pumps. The entire building would be enlarged and slightly relocated, closer to Broadway, and a new small ancillary building would be constructed to serve as a “nanobrewery.”

“To have a full bar, you have to get a license from the ABA. And in Sonoma county, there are none,” said Johnson. “So you’re only choices are to purchase one from a current license holder, which costs about $175,000, or, if you’re a restaurant and you brew your own beer, you can get one at a discounted rate.”

That’s the path Strata recommended for the Harrises who, even though they don’t have and don’t want a full liquor license for the Fremont Diner, recognize its value at an in-town restaurant. A nanobrewery serves the purpose of making 100 barrels of beer a year for on-site sale and making that coveted liquor license a more affordable expense.

Then there’s the housing component of the development, a proposed four rental units in two buildings to be built on the west half of the lot. It’s on a different time-table than the restaurant – Johnson estimates, best case, the new “gas-tropub” could open by the end of 2019 – and whether or not the units will be included in a city affordable-housing program is yet to be determined.

But once the restaurant project is undertaken, the entire lot needs to be cleaned up from its petroleum products past, and that means the housing project becomes possible. “Right now, there can’t be a residential element on this property, until and unless this site is cleaned up and mediated. This project is going to enable that to happen,” said Planning Director David Goodison in the June 8 meeting.

Johnson pointed out that the restaurant project, including its parking requirements (20 spaces, more than the 19 required) was entirely self-contained on the east side of the lot. So, too, would be the housing half of the mixed-use development.

But the two apartment buildings (“duets” of two units each), and the nanobrewery structure, would be built closer to the street than the 15-foot required setback, and this formed the reason for Planning Commissioner Jim Bohar’s nay vote.

“I think the project is very well-suited to that location and will be a fine addition to the dining options in Sonoma,” said the newest planning commissioner. However, he added, “I wanted the use permit to be approved without granting the setback reduction from 15 feet to 10 and a half feet… I judged them to be too close to the property line and sidewalk to reflect good design and privacy for the residents.”

Exemptions from such requirements can be allowed, however, if they meet certain criteria, and Goodison’s staff report recommended granting the exemptions because the project’s uses are consistent with the General Plan and the Development Code, and will not be injurious or incompatible. That was the reading of the majority, and the project was approved by the Planning Commission.

Next step is a review by the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission, probably as early as next month; allowing a year for demolition and remediation, and another year for construction, Sonoma diners may find a new place for breakfast, lunch and dinner ready for operation before the end of 2019.

That’s about the time Chad and Erika Harris’s youngest will be starting school. She’ll make an ideal customer for her parents’ new family-friendly restaurant at 899 Broadway.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.