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New Petaluma hotel proposed - with rooftop farm animals


A boutique hotel proposed for downtown Petaluma has local tongues wagging, particularly the "agritourism" component that could include live animals in a rooftop garden.

Petaluma resident Ross Jones, an architect, is developing the site at Petaluma Boulevard and B Street, the former location of a Chevron gas station.

He currently is taking the input of local residents about his plan for the four-story, 42-room eco-friendly agritourism lodge to be called To: Hotel Petaluma.

"We are tailoring to the strengths of Petaluma," he said, primarily by highlighting the city's historical dependence on agriculture and the current draw of eco-tourism.

Jones said that about 18 months ago he went to one of the city's planning committees with a different proposal for the lot, which his family has owned since 1963.

But the first idea of condominiums above retail stores didn't pan out, and a second idea for senior housing didn't either, so Jones began thinking of more creative uses for the premier location — on the main drag, just steps from the Theater District, the river and downtown nightlife.

He said he is borrowing a page from travel writer Rick Steves and his "Europe Through the Back Door" model, which eschews generic, pre-packaged travel experiences.

"The more you spend on a hotel, the less you see of the city or country you're in," Jones said of Steves' philosophy.

"So the concept grew. What is important and special about Petaluma? We can't propose to do everything. In fact, it would be the wrong thing to do that," he said.

"We don't have a restaurant because there are already fine restaurants that we don't need to cannibalize. We don't have a spa because there are already spas around that we don't need to cannibalize."

The proposal, which also includes underground parking, has piqued the interest of locals, but one concept — the one involving live animals — has, he admits, become a lightning rod.

Councilman David Rabbitt, an architect himself, said he's excited about the possibilities for that visible corner of downtown.

"From an architectural standpoint, it's going to be great. It will solidify that corner," he said. "I'm intrigued by the whole agritourism thing and further intrigued by the rooftop idea. But I'm not sure to what extent it's practical, feasible or reasonable."

Jones said that Petaluma, being so close to natural areas, may be poised to market itself to the eco- and agritourism travelers, he said.

Bringing eco-tourism into a traveler's experience through visits to Shollenberger Park and trails around the Petaluma River and Ellis Creek are a given, he said. So is a rooftop garden gathering area.

"We always wanted to do a &‘green' roof because that's an eco approach to building. But we thought that's not enough," he said. "How do we bring in agritourism? Why couldn't we bring in the agritourism component there?

"Why couldn't we introduce farm animals, a duck or gaggle of ducks or geese?," he said. "They bring in an element of delight. The element of healthy food and healthy eating could be introduced at that point."

Some online discussions have raised questions about safety, for both the animals and people, and the comfort of animals in a rooftop garden. Others had ethical concerns about using animals as a prop for human amusement.

"I'm asking, &‘Under what conditions might it work? There's no way I'm letting animals jump off the roof. If this one doesn't work, we'll try a different approach," Jones said.

The planned name, too, has raised questions.

To: Hotel Petaluma, Jones said, is meant to be a bit of an enigma. "To" signifies a gift, or the anticipation of giving or receiving something valuable, he said.

"It creates a riddle. Boutique hotels have riddles, mystery, nuance about them," he said. "The name does that. I'm hoping the residents, the Petalumans, will know what it means. Guests will have to learn about it from the locals."

Jones said the hotel would offer valet parking and would assist visitors by picking them up at the planned train station. He said he is exploring offering Segways for touring the city and shared vehicles like Zipcars for guests to explore the county.

Depending on city planning hurdles, he said he would like to have approvals next year and begin construction in 2012. It may come to the Planning Commission in February, he said.