With the Springs Specific Plan Community Workshop on community design coming up June 29, I believe it’s important for us to understand the background and context regarding our current design guidelines. I’ll also identify a few buildings that were constructed following those guidelines.
The current design guidelines were developed in the mid-1990s in response to the County approving projects along the Highway 12 corridor without considering design quality. To be blunt, it approved bland, ugly buildings with little consideration of visual appeal along Highway 12.
The building on the corner of Lichtenberg Avenue and Highway 12, built in 1991, particularly raised the ire of those who cared about what faced the highway. The fact the building turns its back on the highway with a solid wall, and has siding that resembles corrugated cardboard, was not well received. Reaction to this building was one of the sparks that lead members of the business community, via the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce’s former Valley Improvement Project, to ask the County redevelopment agency to fund creating design guidelines for Highway 12. There was also a need to create a design framework for the proposed sidewalks.
In addition to providing an overall design concept for the corridor, the guidelines’ main purpose was to provide architectural design recommendations for new construction.
Community members worked with a consultant over several months and multiple meetings crafting a design plan that started with taking stock of the Springs’ history and its historic architecture, its location in an agricultural region, and its natural features, such as the creeks, trees, topography, and valley hillsides.
As it states on page three of the document: “It is the intent of these guidelines to preserve and enhance the components that contribute to the special qualities of the area.” Inspiration for some of the design features described in the guidelines included: architectural elements from the old farmhouses and cottages that dot the highway, the Mediterranean architecture of the Sonoma Mission Inn, the vineyards that enclose the Springs, and the views of the hills.
Three relatively new buildings constructed based on the design guidelines are: the live-work units at 17675 Sonoma Hwy; La Morenita Market 2 at 17400 Sonoma Hwy; and the T.A.T. Gallery at 17977 Sonoma Hwy. Each is very different, illustrating how the design guidelines provide options and flexibility while capturing the best features from our historic buildings and local heritage.
The principles that drove the creation of the current design guidelines are just as relevant today as in the 1990s. We are still in the heart of an agricultural area, we still have our old farmhouses, cottages and Mediterranean architecture, and we have our rich history as a hot springs resort area with palm trees that remind us of that era.
We also still have from the Valley floor the distant views of the hills, which the community wanted to protect when we developed the guidelines. My concern right now is that if we’re not careful, we’ll lose the views. Protecting viewsheds when multi-story buildings are considered needs to continue to be a priority.
Building signage also needs to be considered so that we don’t clutter or eliminate the viewshed. Signs that sit above buildings can particularly be problematic and obstruct views. Because of this, the design guidelines specifically state on page 41: “Roof signs or signs which extend above the parapet line of a façade should not be allowed with the exception of the theater marquee.”
This guideline has been followed over the years until recently when The Plain Jane’s/La Michoacana building was allowed new signs above the parapet. I hope this is an exception. If it’s the start of a trend it’ll destroy a natural, visual feature of the Springs.
Bottomline, the Springs isn’t the City of Sonoma and it’s not the Mission District in San Francisco either. The Springs is its own place in a unique location with very special natural features and a rich history worth celebrating. If you agree, please join me at the Community Design Workshop Wed. June 29, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Sonoma Charter School’s multi-purpose room at 17202 Sonoma Hwy.