City of Sonoma’s first cannabis shop will open at former resort hub

There’s finally some movement at the former El Gallo restaurant on Sonoma Highway, which closed over a year ago under financial pressure from the COVID shutdown. The building owners soon found a new tenant in Sparc, the “winner” of the City of Sonoma’s year-long dispensary search process.

In the weeks since the demolition permit was issued in early August, the interior walls are gone, much of the flooring ripped up, and the former Mexican restaurant (which until 2017 was known as Plaza Tequila) is being transformed into the first authorized cannabis dispensary in Sonoma — the city or Valley.

Today, there’s really not much to see. The exterior is unchanged, though showing signs of neglect since the business closed in mid-2020. Inside, the siding and floor are gone, revealing some necessary structural work. Floor beams are broken in several places, and inconsistently repaired. It may take some time.

“It’s not a cosmetic job, there’s quite a bit of foundation (work), things that need to be addressed with the building owner,” said Erich Pearson, CEO of Spark.

He helped found the two of the first medicinal cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco in 2010 – the name originally meant San Francisco Patient And Resource Center, SPARC – but he himself and much of the business has moved to Sonoma County. Here Sparc has opened two dispensaries in the county, the old Peace in Medicine location in Santa Rosa and a new one in Sebastopol.

In 2017 the company began cultivating commercial cannabis in Glen Ellen, off Trinity Road, though much of the first crop was lost in the Nuns fire. But Pearson and his colleagues persevered, and eventually succeeded in landing Sonoma’s first dispensary permit in a year-long process that culminated on Dec. 14, 2020, when the City Council finally approved their application. (Since that time the City has started looking at a similar process to certify a second dispensary, a topic that will be on the City Council agenda on Sept. 8 — see accompanying story.)

As arduous as the permitted process has been, the construction process has been no less so, and it too will take a year. Despite an original goal of an August launch, it now looks likely the Sonoma Sparc won’t open its doors until early 2022. “I think we’ll get our building permit around Sept. 15, but it will be a four-month process to do the construction,” said Pearson.

As often is the case in Sonoma, some things take while. The initial design Sparc presented through their compliance manager Andrew Kramer-Dobbs at the city’s Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission in March borrowed the metal siding look from the Santa Rosa location and added blue-and-white parapet signage above the entrance, with little attention given to niceties. In fact the original Sparc proposal stated, “The existing landscaping in the form of succulents and bushes is not proposed to be modified.”

That didn’t sit well with Sonoma’s review process. Sparc brought their first proposal before the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission in March, and while the commissioners had some questions and quibbles over that design, it passed the plans on to the Planning Commission for their opinions at their May 13 meeting.

But plans hit a bump on the way to final Planning Commission approval. The Historic Resource Survey (HRE), in compliance with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, noted that the former El Gallo and former Plaza Tequila was also the former Sonoma Grove – a prominent area resort and restaurant dating back to 1908, which continued operating under that name until into the 1970s.

Planning Commission - 13 May 2021 - Sonoma Grove HRE.pdf

While the city staff didn’t think the HRE required any mitigation, at least one local historian disagreed. Patricia Cullinan, president of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, argued that the history of the resort did indeed warrant some sort of recognition, if not mitigation.

The historical report made note of what they called the “ca. 1908 building” as the former Sonoma Grove Restaurant, stating that it was a popular place for Italian food, “the restaurant was well-known for its ‘Special Sunday Italian-French dinner’ and also hosted a variety of local clubs as well as dances and dinner parties.” Cullinan – whose organization’s Depot Park Museum has considerable resources on the rich resort history of the Springs area – convinced the City and Sparc that at the very least a historic plaque should be included in the final designs for the dispensary.

City Planning Director David Storer outlined this last step in approving the dispensary. It is Sparc’s responsibility to propose the size, materials, location and wording for the plaque, he said. “At that point, I will contact representatives of our local historical community and ask for their assistance in providing the best way to recognize the ‘Grove’ and this last structure associated with it.”

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