Locals decry proposed 248-seat Matheson Street restaurant, commission to consider comments at future design review

A fervor of opposition descended upon a Healdsburg Planning Commission workshop Tuesday afternoon when commissioners and residents met to discuss and consider a proposed three-story, 248-seat Matheson Street restaurant. Many locals expressed concern that the proposed business is too oversized for the city’s downtown Plaza and would cause a slew of parking, noise and traffic issues. Following the workshop, commissioners OK’d various design changes and agreed to address community concerns regarding the scale of the project by asking city staff to analyze whether or not the project would fit the city’s general plan and Plaza Retail district policies and guidelines.

While general plan and Plaza Retail district policies mandate that businesses in the Plaza be small in nature, they also state that businesses that may not thrive as well in a different location may choose the Plaza as their desired location.

The busy day of hearing comments, complaints and suggestions started when the commissioners got a chance to view the alternate designs and hear resident’s thoughts and concerns.

When the proposed mixed-use project (In addition to the restaurant with the rooftop deck, the project would include two retail units and two owner-occupied condominiums) was first brought to a September planning commission meeting, commissioners could not reach a consensus of support for the project due to a number of issues with its scope and design.

There were concerns that the design was too dark and modern and largely out of scale with neighboring buildings. Other issues included the high number of seats, which was initially set at 318. There were also concerns that the rooftop deck could create noise disturbance and that parking could create more traffic and noise.

Lastly, concerns were expressed regarding the proposed trash enclosure, which some neighbors fear would create a noise, odor and infestation nuisance.

To address the lengthy list of concerns, the project’s lead architects presented several project changes that they hope could result in more support for the project.

“The size has been a concern to many but we reduced the size by 20 percent and it is a bit smaller than some existing restaurants, but (with) size we want to accommodate people and be able to keep our prices down,” said Dustin Valette, a business partner with the proposed project. (Valette and his family currently own and operate the Valette restaurant on Center Street.)

Other changes include changing certain elements of design, such as setting back the rooftop trellis, altering paint colors, creating a glass partition on the rooftop deck as a noise buffer and creating a better trash disposal plan.

What’s more, project applicant Craig Ramsey said the restaurant would work not to overcrowd or de-charm the Plaza, but would instead work to create a sense of place and a gathering place for people to enjoy the best of wine and food that Sonoma County has to offer.

In the project description packet, Ramsey mentioned the overall goal of the project is to create a “place for artisans, craft makers and people to express their passions (with) a focus on the art behind the craft, the doers and makers of our society, with a focus on ‘local’.” He cited the desire to create an open garden area for people to sit out and read a book, wanting to create an experience both residents and tourists could enjoy.

However, despite a noted effort to address community concerns, locals were still adamant that the plan would overcrowd the Plaza and take away from the city’s small town charm.

Overall, around 15 residents spoke in opposition to the proposal while around nine residents spoke in support of the project.

Resident Bruce Abramson and other project critics argue the proposal is not consistent with the city’s general plan, which aims to preserve the Plaza’s unique, small business atmosphere, and does not follow the purpose of the Plaza Retail district to promote small-scale businesses.

“Clearly this project is inconsistent with our general plan and is not to scale. We'd be losing our small town character with this project and our small town community feel. We’re losing what makes us so special with this large-scale project and if built, this project should be scaled back. We are being overrun by tourism, hotels and now restaurant and it is enough,” said resident Jim Winston.

Ron G., another Healdsburg resident agreed saying the project is too large for the area and could affect traffic. He opined that the Plaza is already too crowded and busy with traffic.

One resident, Heidi M., was concerned about the project affecting surrounding trees and the atmosphere of the Plaza.

“The Plaza would be greatly diminished and corralled in so that it would be secondary to the buildings surrounding it and therefore, the Plaza would lose its quality of being a center,” she said. “We need to preserve the Plaza.”

Resident Lucy M., agreed, saying the plans does not fit Healdsburg’s small town vibe.

“This restaurant is not Healdsburg. It is not helping the middle class and it is just hard to think that so much change has happened. This would not be the little Healdsburg… it would be a little Beverly Hills and I don’t like it and … There are too many wine tasting rooms and restaurants,” she said.

Other residents voiced concern that the restaurant would be too expensive, not senior friendly and would not be a realistic solution to housing as the proposed condo units would be too expensive for the average buyer.

In regards to the parking concern, project architects and city staff reminded the large crowd that the restaurant would have its own designated parking.

However, the question of “what is too big” for Healdsburg and “what is small-scale” was a bit more difficult for city staff and commissioners to address as everyone’s definition of small-scale and what is “too big” for the Plaza is different.

Commissioners Jeff Civian, Phil Luks and several other commissioners suggested city staff work to find a working definition of small-scale and look to the city’s general plan and the Plaza Retail district policies to determine if the project would fit in. They also pointed out that despite concerns over the projects size, the project meets all of the design guidelines.

Yet, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the proposed restaurant, which carries a similar mission as the soon-to-close SHED cafe and store.

There were a few supporters who argued that the project would retain the Plaza’s vibrant nature and preserve the building as well as provide a family-friendly place to eat.

Supporter

Supporter -- Ariel Kelley liked the feel of the design and said a mixed-use project of this scale could add a sense of vibrancy to the Plaza.

“I think this is to scale and fits in with other retail areas like the bookstore. I like the different design features and the setbacks,” said resident Ariel Kelley. “To me it does not feel overwhelming driving or walking by. I think the mixed-use element is what I would like to see in this area. Clearly the community doesn’t want more hotels, housing or restaurants but I disagree, I feel the mixed-used concept is what makes a downtown vibrant and it feels balanced and appropriate. I also like the idea of lower cost restaurants.”

Healdsburg business owner, Sam L., also supported the project.

“I am 1,000 percent in support of this restaurant, let us give their business a chance,” he said.

Skip Brand, owner of the Healdsburg Running Company, also voiced his support and said the restaurant could create good job opportunities for locals and high school residents.

Other supporters argued that the project works to preserve the store frontage and is a great opportunity to honor the past and the present. Several residents also like the design changes that were made.

Commissioner Chair Jeff Civian added the new changes seemed adequate for both residents and the applicant, yet Civian, along with several other commissioners noted the need to readdress the design review following the city staff analysis of general plan and Plaza Retail district guidelines before making any sort of concrete decision on the design and the project.

“Right now we are here only to review the design which includes the mass of the building and the condos, but we do hear the community’s concern about the seat numbers,” Civian said.

Commissioner Richard Tracy said of the goliath topic, “To prove this is appropriate for the general plan and Plaza Retail district policy the project needs to bring proof that it couldn’t succeed anywhere besides the plaza. Small scale to nature is hard to answer because everyone has a different definition of small, but I think it is consistent with design guidelines. Is there a sense of continuity with the plaza? I want to know these answers before we affirm this.”

In regards to making changes to the design, commissioners agreed to keep the weathered wood and darkened aluminum. They also supported a 10-foot set back of the rooftop trellis along with the seating.

City staff and the design and architect team will bring back a report of the altered designs and general plan analysis to a future planning commission meeting.

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