Since its beginnings, Sonoma has been a small town. It once was the county seat, long ago, but that role fell to Santa Rosa and, well, thank goodness for that. From then on Sonoma’s destiny seemed to be an indelible Bear Flag moment of history combined with an urban trajectory of modest, small-town scale and character.
That small-town character is under assault in 2017, and highly vulnerable. America’s penchant for big, bigger and biggest has finally reached our shores, particularly the scenic and ever more popular Historic Plaza. The latest example of the super-sizing of Sonoma is a proposal to rebuild and expand the Sonoma Cheese Factory building on Spain Street (shown above), right across from the Plaza park’s newly installed sculpture of General Vallejo.
In 2015, the owners of the Cheese Factory received approval from the Planning Commission for the reuse and renovation of the existing building, roughly 11,000-plus square feet in size, into a multi-vendor public market, sort of like a mini-Ox-Bow market in Napa. Apparently, this caught the attention of the owners of the Ox-Bow market itself, and they formed a new company with the developer who received approval in 2015. The result of that union is now an updated proposal to replace the building entirely, except for the historic 1945 facade, and by adding a basement level, enlarge it to 25,000 square feet. In their project narrative, they call this revision “modest.” It includes no housing component, of course.
It certainly does not strike me as “modest.” To the contrary, this proposal expands the capacity of the parcel nearly to its maximum potential. 132 indoor restaurant seats plus outdoor seating and the lure of “artisan” (meaning pricey) food and produce vendors is surely going to maximize the tourist-dollar potential of the property and further exacerbate the traffic and pedestrian challenges of the entire Plaza.
This trend towards super-sizing is also visible in the hotel proposal on West Napa Street. In order to accomplish that particular feat of magic, seven individual lots are being combined and aggregated into one “super-lot” which can accommodate the proposed 62-room hotel and 80-seat restaurant. “Super-sized” lots allow a scale of development far larger than any of the smaller, individual parcels could accommodate, and represents a disturbing and destabilizing trend that runs counter to Sonoma’s small-town scale. The historic development patterns in Sonoma are largely the result of the existing lot sizes, and when those lots are allowed to be combined without limit, well, so much for small-scale.
Super-sizing Sonoma does nothing to address the existing infrastructure of streets, sidewalks and parking. The Plaza, a magnet for tourists and tourist-oriented businesses, is already traffic-snarled by cars and pedestrians; downtown is an open-air parking lot disguised as city streets. Super-sizing will simply lure more people, autos and tour busses into the limited confines of our National Historic Landmark.
What’s allowing this to happen is the absence of updated planning. Rules allowing multiple parcels to be combined for development need to be changed, and the effects of cumulative impacts given far greater consideration. What is the carrying capacity of The Plaza? The answer requires evaluation of the historic district as a whole and if we don’t provide that answer we won’t know when Sonoma’s soul is in danger of being super-sized into oblivion.