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Nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street?

Posted on November 10, 2017 by Fred Allebach

In his initial staff report on the Broadway Affordable Housing project in Sonoma, Planning Director David Goodison noted that past Planning Commission and neighbor issues have been addressed, “there are no unavoidable significant impacts” and the project is consistent with all relevant parameters.

Abstract of hearing: While Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) had clearly addressed the bulk of the previous Planning Commission requests for the Altamira Family Apartments affordable housing development, and issues like the Lodge loading dock were found to not apply to the project land use decision, commissioners Bohar and Coleman opened up new lines of attack on the project, and sought to further burden the project and continued to object to it. Bohar and Coleman are standing for the “preserve city character” contingent of town that seeks to keep Sonoma the same with grudging compromises for future residential growth.  Commissioner McDonald did not object to project approval, but again had a laundry list of subjective style and design conditions that sought to make the project appear “more traditional”, and conforming to his view of Sonoma vernacular architecture. To McDonald, the appearance of the project on the Broadway corridor, has a direct causal effect on how much tourism money will come in. Apparently commercial growth is OK for some, while residential growth is not for others.

Commissioners Cribb and Sek were for the project and as before, take a different view on style and design, that it evolves and modern twists are good and OK.

While being thoughtful and delving into the multi-tiered issues, the commissioners tipped their hands early in the hearing. Coleman and Bohar were no votes, and McDonald was the swing vote, which he ultimately used to shake down the project for some corollary design conditions.

In the end, this is really all about eight units, the eight above the 40 allowed with no density bonus. David Goodison said, among other things, that those commissioners objecting to the project would have to have written findings to show there were significant impacts, and in staff’s view, those findings were not there.

Coleman made a motion for a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and there was no second. Then a series of motions and back and forth with staff took place, ending with project approval of the mitigated negative declaration and use permit, with some of McDonald’s design conditions included in the motion.

Housing is the city councils top goal, and the furtherance of this project should take a top priority on the immediate future council agenda given any possible appeals and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuits. See following link to detailed notes on the most recent council goals session:

http://sonomasun.com/2017/05/20/city-council-planning-retreat-report/

The upshot for this SAHA project: this is one win in a series of games. I predict SAHA will win the series, but not before the opponents have at least one win too. The opponents are not going to surrender based on a knowledge of certain defeat. People aren’t like that. Once the public policy fight is engaged and positions staked out, there is no incentive to back down.

During initial commissioner questioning, Jim Bohar opened up the context of previous project bids, and how it was that SAHA was chosen over Burbank Housing, who offered 39 units instead of 48? Was it city mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) quotas? Goodison, or DG (the new acronym in town no disrespect intended), answered cursorily and said, “this is a land use decision”, and not about previous bids. Bohar also brought up a state parking provision, and density issues, wherein “local government can apply a higher parking standard.” Like others who find themselves with the shoe on the other foot, Bohar noted that the city appears to be advocating for the project, not the neighbors. This is a “sensitive neighborhood situation.” DG responded: this is simple, the project complies with the state-mandated parking standard.

Bohar also called into question if non-profits were all highly moral do-gooders, and pointed out they are a business and have cash flow. Said Bohar, “this is a business deal as well as a benefit to the community.” DG said all projects cost money. Eve Stewart and of SAHA, and Nick Stewart of the county Community Development Commission later gave a synopsis of SAHA finances and of the project builder selection process that rebutted Bohar’s contention of covert non-profit profit.

Commissioner Coleman also questioned the “viability of the bids”, and said that SAHA profits, and insinuated that SAHA was an inside job by the city and county to meet the city’s RHNA goals. Coleman’s current and past lines of questioning tipped his hand that he was a solid no vote. DG said that no one is making a profit here, and that the selection criteria was not RHNA contingent; all project proposals had pros and cons to work out, and that SAHA had the best balance of design, affordability, community outreach, and track record. Coleman also asked about whether the city had tried to resolve the Lodge loading dock issue?  This even though there was not a motion to this effect at the prior Planning Commission meeting. DG replied that the city attorney advised that this be agendized as a Planning Commission discussion item first, so that any future discussions with the Lodge would have some formal basis.

Commissioner McDonald (sometimes abbreviated as McD only to save on typing and no disrespect intended) focused on the Lodge loading zone, marked parking on Clay Street, if the management plan runs with the property, and if the PG&E gas line vault out front is safe?

Commissioner Sek asked staff about the sewer line issues and DG responded that the issues are north of the city, are being addressed by the Sanitation District, and that there are “no capacity issues.” The project would not contribute to the problems upstream of the city, as it is downstream.

Commissioner Cribb’s initial comments complimented staff and SAHA for their thorough analysis and he believes this project enhances the residential character of the city.

Public comments then proceeded with the standard set of pro-con disputation of the standard set of land use issues: social equity, environmental considerations, parking, traffic, design, character, calls for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), calls to pass as is, and threats of a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit. For a full house of issues, lacking were endangered species and ADA access.

Final discussion proceeded. McDonald made clear he was 100% for the project and thought no EIR was necessary. Nevertheless, McDonald brought out his design laundry list all over again, after he had done the same before at the previous meeting.  Presumably, SAHA had addressed the previous McD laundry list for this meeting, as noted above. McD held out for what he said was “a design that most community members feel is a good and quality design, that fits the vernacular style of Sonoma.” Never mind that who most people are, and what they feel is good, is not necessarily identical to McD’s sense of things. Given that McD is on the Planning Commission, and that gives him a platform to exercise his judgment, he is free to advocate for what he thinks is best. He’s generally fair, thoughtful, and is interested in being sensitive to community concerns, only in this case those community concerns do not happen to match other equally valid subjective style and design community preferences. In this way, McD bled over into the territory of Design Review, and sought to use his platform to impose his style preferences on the project as much as possible. Why not? This might be his last PC meeting.

Bohar said he agreed with McD’s style analysis. He said the project has “issues that need to be reflective of our community and history”, and he mentioned a “tranquil and livable community.” Take those comments and read in the interests of property owning stakeholders. He mentioned the standard set of issues as still needing further review, to “just get to the bottom of the issues.” But, like different alcoholics, some have a high bottom and others have a low bottom; and for low-bottom project opponents, there will never be an end to it. Bohar sees the tensions involved in this larger community negotiation and is advocating for a certain cohort. Bohar, from his profession, sees the world through a commercial and retail lens. He analyzed why commercial rents are so high, and how having some commercial uses in a mixed-use zone would be good for the city. He’s got his foci and particular interests, and like McD, is thoughtful and probing.

Sek was economical in her statements and gave full support to the project, aligning with Cribb in supporting evolving architectural styles.

Coleman again read from a prepared statement against the project, showing that at least for him, the hearing, presentation and public comments were a charade. The whole dance was already done in his mind. To be fair, what public servant does not already have pre-formed opinions? At least you have to pretend the hearing can influence the decision and not have a prepared statement ahead of time. Sometimes maybe public comment does make a difference in cracking the veneer of pre-formed opinions. Coleman bought into all the con arguments and he stated them again.

Final shakedown. Coleman moved for a full EIR….. There was no second…. This was public policy drama at its finest! Cribb made his case factually and referenced the Circulation Element etc. No EIR is necessary he said. He kept his cool and did a great job of mediating a contentious process in an even-handed way. Kudos for Mr. Cribb’s calm and fair demeanor.

Mr. Bohar called for more analysis of mixed uses, and pointed out that parking is a serious need, in spite of efforts and plans to tamp down automobile use in urban areas. Developers always try to get away with less parking and the aggregate effect, said Bohar, is a chronic shortage even with less cars.

At this point, David Goodison jumped in and said that SAHA had responded to the last Planning Commission hearing’s requests and now here we are at more requests? He said it is not enough to say that an EIR will give more info. This can’t be based on desire alone, he said, it has to be based on facts. There is no information presented to show the traffic study is inadequate, he said. “None.” There is no information to show the alleged flaws, no basis in fact. Checkmate.

The project has been changed substantially already, “considerably” he said. Then DG laid out the commission’s possible options. One, continue the process with a new Planning Commission that is about to be appointed. Two, have a special meeting in December with the current Planning Commssion, and have a quick turn-around on the architectural details questions. Three, deny the project, but in order to do that there needs to be written findings supported by substantial evidence. Said Goodison, the design and architecture issues stated do not approach a level of a significant finding. These issues are not land use issues, and are for the Design Review commission to rightly consider.

Commissioner McDonald then made a motion to adopt the mitigated negative declaration (MND) with conditions, with an ensuing back and forth with the city attorney and Planning Director Goodison. McD conditions: traffic and safety committee address Clay Street parking and loading dock area and continue the design issues until a December hearing with this Planning Commission.

The city attorney advised to not separate the MND and use permit. This, she said, would only give 60 days to resolve the use permit/ design issues, and if they were not resolved, then the project would be automatically approved as currently proposed.

DG said a new Planning Commission cannot deal with this in a fair way, to make a call on a lot of idiosyncratic design issues with no previous project background. This is not fair to the process. The circle of possible choices started to narrow. Cribb implored McD to let Design Review handle the architectural details; he would hate to see this project stall out over small design details. By this point, McDonald must have realized that he was the swing vote and that he had the upper hand, and it was only a matter of persisting through negotiating the proper language, to approve the project with as many of his conditions as possible.

This was like the last two minutes of a pro basketball game, fine strategy to gain incremental advantages, with high drama and tension, to eke out a win on the final play.

Coleman asked if story poles could go back in? Because some people had not yet heard of the project and wanted to get a sense of the building heights… DG said that project notification has exceeded state law, and that story poles are to resolve height and setback issues, was Coleman’s request for that? No…

Bohar called to continue the process with the next Planning Commission. DG said again that this is not fair to the new commission, to the project, nor to good public process, to approve the MND but leave idiosyncratic design details (that Bohar had time to study, but did not articulate, and only addressed by supporting McD) to be figured out by a new commission. Circle tightening…

Cribb made a motion to pass the MND and use permit, and strongly urge the Design Review commission to analyze the competing architectural philosophies of the McD and Cribb camps. This failed 3 to 2, with Cribb and Sek in the minority.

This was McDonald Time. He said he does not want to create an unfair process, and wants to “take into consideration the community.” He made a motion to approve MND and use permit subject to the following conditions: traffic and safety committee deal with Clay Street parking and the Lodge loading area, and that SAHA put together a variety of design options, which then restated his long laundry list, down to door frame style and door types. This was, he said, par for the course, and what other projects have had to endure. The public, i.e., the community, has previously drawn out and debated the appropriateness of idiosyncratic architectural styles. For example, the Willers-Marcus project behind Sebastiani theater that has had everybody and his brother weigh in how “it reads” and why.

The Lodge loading dock was not included as part of the motion, as this is not a land use decision germane to the project itself.

The upshot: McDonald shook them down and got a few design concessions; the project passed three to two, with Coleman and Bohar against. The McD concessions will satisfy some portion of the community as to project appropriateness on a visual level, and SAHA can work with that as part of the end-game tactical dance of project approval.



5 thoughts on “Nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street?

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  1. A good friend is someone who gives you constructive feedback to help improve your writing skills…. based not only on the opinion of the good friend but on the opinion of those who try to read the long unedited versions of your experiences. A troll, if you had an editor, which I highly recommend is actually a type of being………A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings. So the fact that I do live part time in the mountains and in caves could give rise to your mis interpretation of my being….. If i recall, you have some Norse in your heritage ???

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