Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


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Further Residential Component comment: to the Planning Commission

Posted on April 9, 2017 by Fred Allebach

Comments on Residential Component section of  current staff report, Napa Street East Hotel

Residential Component.

In applications for new development on commercially-zoned properties larger than one-half acre, a residential component comprising at least 50% of the total proposed building area is normally required unless waived or reduced by the Planning Commission (SMC 19.10.020.B.3). It should be noted that the reduction or waiver of a residential component does not constitute a variance or an exception, as this allowance is built into the definition of the Commercial zone. No residential component is proposed in this project and the applicants are requesting a waiver from this standard. As set forth in the Development Code, circumstances in which the residential component may be reduced or waived, include—but are not limited—to the following:

1.The replacement of a commercial use within an existing tenant space with another

commercial use.

2.The presence of uses or conditions incompatible with residential development on or adjacent to the property for which a new development is proposed.

3.Property characteristics, including size limitations and environmental characteristics, that

constrain opportunities for residential development or make it infeasible.

4.Limitations imposed by other regulatory requirements, such as the Growth Management


Fred’s Comment: It seems the Planning Commission has a value judgment choice to make here concerning the residential component waiver. As you may recall, with the Safeway expansion study session, Safeway put forth circumstances #s 2 and 3 as justification to not include a residential component. However, the Planning Commission essentially told them to figure out how to make it work, that conditions (even a wetland) were not incompatible with residential development, and that while Safeway said the property characteristics were not congruent with residential use, the public and the PC said to figure out how to make it work.

This is what architects do, figure out how to make it all work. What seems to be at play here with the Napa Street hotel, is, just like Safeway, a lack of will and creativity to make it work. The applicant just doesn’t want to do it. This is up to the Planning Commission to decide if 50% of the property can be put to residential use. Any architects can say what they think. Given the types of architectural creativity mankind is capable of, it is certainly not out of bounds to think that 50% of this property can be residential use. The will and desire has to be there to do it, however, not to try to avoid it at all costs.

Paraphrasing from the project narrative, the applicants

make the following arguments in support of the waiver request:

•The hotel use, in and of itself, does not lend itself to an integrated residential component and the size and configuration of the subject property make it infeasible to integrate a stand-alone residential component separate from the hotel.

Fred’s comment: This basically says one: a hotel is a hotel, and residential is residential, but provides no rationale or reason why these uses cannot be integrated (they are with the FSE proposal); and two: the applicant appeals to waiver circumstance #3 above, which has been shown to not be a hard and fast rule. The EIR has a provision that feasible alternatives have to be “reasonable.”  Arguments should also and reasonable, and when they are not, pointed out. As such, saying that a hotel is a hotel, and residential is residential, says nothing, and is not a rational argument.

•Sonoma has a limited amount of commercially-zoned property that can generate revenue for the City to support the development of low income and workforce housing through the payment of housing impact fees (currently under development) and tax revenue.

Fred’s comment: As noted in the staff report and David Eichar’s analysis in my initial residential component comment, there is no impact fee or in lieu fee defined as of yet, and even if it were, and the fee were low, Sonoma would still end up losing six affordable housing units by waiving the residential component.

•A residential component would impose size and economic limitations which would make it financially infeasible to develop the project. For example, in order to comply with off-street parking requirements, parking already takes up virtually the entire basement footprint of the

hotel and the subterranean expansion of the basement parking garage would be financially prohibitive.

Fred’s comment: This really only says that size and economic limitations for one set of project objectives, would make the project financially infeasible. The currently-stated project objectives are not cast in stone, although it appears the applicant has staked everything on getting the outcome they want. Most explicitly stated project objectives can still be met with a project significantly smaller. It is not the Planning Commission’s fault that other feasible alternatives have not been adequately presented. As signs at hardware stores say, “Lack of preparation on your part is not an emergency on my part.”

There appears to be no case-closed, apparent necessity, no compelling rationale that shows financial infeasibility for including a residential component. This is a complete value judgement.

And as noted, size and space limitations are not in and of themselves, insurmountable obstacles. What is an obstacle, is will and desire.  

As for parking: if the 50% of the property went for residential, then 50% of the garage can go for residential too. And as we see from current parking plans and proposals, the applicant seems well equipped to lobby for whatever parking any eventuality will call for, and it is ironic that when a use is called for they don’t want, then all of a sudden parking is an issue? This just shows that these are all preferences and not facts, and therefore it is a legit Planning Commission choice to include the residential component.

Higher residential density/ mixed use planning is what urban Bay Area, and Sonoma County needs. This density can be worked in by city planning and architects, because this is where all regional planning is pointing anyway

•The hotel’s normal daily activities will generate pedestrian activity by hotel guests in the Downtown area consistent with the intent expressed in the “Desired Future” of the Downtown area, as set forth in the Development Code.

Fred’s Comment: The actual “desired future” of the downtown area is exactly what is at stake with this proposed project and it is ironic that staff and consultant have not been able to produce an accurate summary of just what the full slate of issues is to the community. What we see instead is a process where community input is minimized, said to be invalid and insignificant, and submerged in 1000s of pages of highly technical language that has the effect of obscuring and delegitimizing public input. The issue of town’s “desired future” has been reduced to a flat out PR campaign, complete with efforts to intimidate the Planning Commission and throw the PC and city council into disarray.

What the Planning Commission needs to do is to cut through the crap and explicitly address how the EIR and use permit/ planning aspects at stake here actually relate to the town’s desired future, as manifested in their entire interpretation in the Development Code and the General Plan. Let’s stop pretending this is some objective application of “the facts”, and get the real cards on the table. There is a lot of room for value judgement and partial presentation of material, by the applicant, by staff, and by the public. And it is therefore reasonable to see that PC commissioners are not robots, and must make value judgments as well, and in no way, can this process be reduced to some sort of mathematical equation, where by simple application of the rules, the only inevitable answer will be deduced.

•The restaurant will offer a ground floor retail component serving both visitors and local residents consistent with Development Code guidelines for the Downtown planning area.

Fred’s comment: Which demographic of local residents will the restaurant serve? If the AMI is $60,000 per year, which AMI residents eat at Four Star restaurants where you pay $16 for a small appetizer and $50 or more for a lunch? I believe that the General Plan says that people who work here should be able to shop here as well. Another luxury retail venue does not meet the needs of “local residents”, because it is the proliferation of luxury hospitality economy venues that, in aggregate, are exactly what is negatively impacting the “desired future” of Sonoma, and that has driven “local residents” to have move out of town for not being able to afford the economy here. Again, the public needs the PC to cut through the crap and make an honest appraisal of this project as a whole, somebody has to put the cards on the table, cards ta represent the view of half or more of the town’s opinion.   

•Sonoma currently has approximately 100 rental units in the development pipeline on sites that are better suited to support a residential component.

Fred’s comment: “Better suited?”  The PC has a value judgement to make here. Better, worse, how the future flavor of a common downtown space will pan out for the whole community

Unlike some other properties where the Planning Commission has declined to waive a residential component, the subject site is not identified as a “Housing Opportunity Site” in the Housing

Element of the General Plan and there is no assumption in the Housing Element that the redevelopment of the site will include a housing component. The request for a waiver of the residential component was highlighted in the initial Planning Commission study sessions on the project and at that time Commissioners did not identify the request as a significant issue. More recently, however, in the hearing on the Draft EIR, the lack of a residential component was identified as an issue by several commentators, including at least one Planning Commissioner, who suggested that the alternatives analysis in the EIR should include a project with a residential component. This question is addressed in the review of the EIR, following. On a related matter, the City is in the process of a developing a nexus study to support a housing impact fee to be applied to new commercial development to assist in offsetting associated housing demand. If adopted, this fee would be tied to the issuance of building permits and would be applicable to the proposed development (see condition of approval #24). Staff would note that under the Development Code the payment of such a fee is not specifically identified as a factor that may be used to support of a residential waiver and, in any event, the fee has not yet been established.

Fred’s comment: No mention is made that the SVCAC recommendation to the Planning Commission, was to give serious consideration to the residential component. Why is this important recommendation left out of this summary? The SVCAC was created to be the voice of the Valley; this voice should be respected and listened to. As well, the SVCAC, owing to the absence of one commissioner, very nearly came to a hung vote on this hotel project, which demonstrates where community objectives stand concerning approval of an unmitigated approval of all project objectives.

As part of the packet for the 4/13 meeting, staff has prepared for the Planning Commission, an approval of a waiver of the residential component, as if this is a fait accompli. The following gives staff’s justification of the waiver.

III. Waiver of Residential Component

As provided for in section 19.10.020.B of the Sonoma Municipal Code, the Planning Commission hereby determines that the Hotel Project Sonoma shall not be required to incorporate a residential component, based upon the following considerations:


The hotel use does not lend itself to an integrated residential component and the size and configuration of the subject property make it impractical to integrate a stand-alone residential

component separate from the hotel.


The hotel’s normal daily activities will generate pedestrian activity and contribute to the economic vitality of the downtown as expressed in the “Desired Future” of the Downtown Planning Area, as set forth in the Development Code in a manner similar to that which would be

provided through a residential component.


The restaurant will offer a ground floor retail component serving both visitors and local residents, consistent with the Local Economy Element of the General Plan.


The subject site is not identified as a “Housing Opportunity Site” in the Housing Element of the General Plan and there is no assumption in the Housing Element that the redevelopment of the site will include a housing component.

Fred’s comment:

A: The size and configuration of the lot is cited as reason to not include the residential component. This in and of itself, as noted above, is not sufficient reason or rationale, as demonstrated by the Safeway example.

B: This is a restatement of the applicant’s aspirations, as noted by staff: “Paraphrasing from the project narrative, the applicants make the following arguments in support of the waiver request:”

The “desired future” of downtown, and “economic vitality” argument are in the citation of the applicant. This line seems to be bought hook, line and sinker by staff. This line is then cited as reason why the PC should grant the waiver. This is not staff making an objective analysis and recommendation to the Planning Commission; this is staff being the mouthpiece of the developer. This is the result of a failure of staff to make any case, derived, from years of public comment, that this project has fundamental community-inappropriate elements that can just as well be elucidated by citing General Plan principles. The residential component has many reasons why it should not be waived. Where is staff discussion that shows any attempt to provide reasons (to acknowledge the SVCAC’s recommendation), and include the residential component?

C. The weasel-word use of “local residents” completely sidesteps known local issues of lack of economic equity, and unsustainable tourism, and lack of triple bottom line planning analysis, and seeks to pass off on the Planning Commission and the public, a J-curve, more-is-better, trickle down, growth biased set of tacit economic assumptions. These assumptions have been challenged by top economists as wrong. Any fair reading of the “local economic element” of the General Plan would surely be able to elicit alternate takes, and infuse this discussion with the balance that has been so conspicuously lacking.

The lack of balance in staff presentation opens up the Planning Commission to be free to insert balance where necessary.

D. That the proposed hotel site is not a housing opportunity site is a red herring. The residential component exists regardless of that designation or not. Housing needs exist independent of zoning classes, and it is the job of the PC to address the housing needs of the community, not to find developer-supplied rationales to avoid complying with an existing policy rule, the residential component.

Furthermore, the public continues to be bludgeoning with 350-page, 900-page, 1000-page documents, that cumulatively justify exactly what the Napa Street West hotel applicant wants. These planning department and consultant documents do not reflect a large portion of public opinion in even the least bit, and as is demonstrated by using the applicant’s own arguments to justify the residential component waiver. This shows, in aggregate, that the current dust up around business-as-usual not being what elected representatives want to see for the town’s future, is exactly what the public, and the applicant is getting from staff itself.

In my opinion, the current controversy around the Planning Commission’s fair application of General Plan and Development Code provisions, seems to be just as wound up in staff biases and partialities, as it does with the purported biases of commissioners and potential commissioners.

This all speaks to how to unwind advocacy from objectivity, and if that is even possible.   



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