A large luxury apartment complex proposed for east Petaluma is raising concerns from residents who worry that big plans for their area will alter the character of their neighborhood forever.

The city Planning Commission recommended approval this month for a general plan amendment and a zoning change to allow the 144-unit complex at 35 Maria Drive, southeast of the Washington Square shopping center off South McDowell Boulevard.

The same area is also the subject of a proposed 16-pump Safeway gas station and possibly the doubling of an existing 224-unit apartment complex.

Neighbors object to what they believe will be excessive traffic, noise, pollution, reduced property values and increased housing density in an area that currently has a quiet office complex.

But commissioners noted that current zoning would allow a much larger development than is proposed by San Francisco housing developer JDA West.

Ultimately, the project will come before the City Council for consideration.

JDA West spokesman Marty Brill said the three-story units, from one to three bedrooms, could rent at about $2,000 for an average 1,000-square-foot apartment.

Homeowner Kathleen Garvey said she didn't feel the commissioners took seriously the concerns of residents.

"I'm afraid and concerned that we're not being heard," she said. With the general plan amendment and zoning change) "they should have a pretty high bar for approval. But all we're hearing is, 'We have a rental shortage, so we need to build apartments.'"

A study done for the project shows Petaluma has about a 2 percent vacancy for rental apartments. In comparison, commercial real estate vacancies are at about 25 to 30 percent. A commercial vacancy rate of about 10 percent is considered healthy, according to a staff report.

The existing office complex is about half-occupied.

Under the existing general plan, the nearly 6-acre parcel could be developed with 500,000 square feet of commercial space.

A staff report for the project concludes that the area isn't suitable for retail or office uses because it lacks visibility from a major thoroughfare. Instead, it says multi-family housing is more fitting.

Brill also said the complex would rejuvenate the adjacent Washington Creek trail into a safer and more usable amenity for all residents.

Garvey and other residents said the neighborhood has dealt with the deterioration of the former Greenbriar Apartments, whose owner lost them in bankruptcy and allowed them to become rundown. They are leery of more short-term residents who may not be committed to the community.

The council will likely hear the proposal this fall, potentially in October.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)