For those of us in the Santa Rosa City Council chambers the night of Sept. 1, when business leaders and environmentalists came together in to challenge the proposed Lowe's Home Improvement store, we knew that the ground under our feet was shifting.
(A video of the meeting is available at http://ci.santa-rosa.ca.us/doclib/agendas_packets_minutes/Documents/20090901_CC_Item11.2.pdf).
We witnessed an unholy alliance, a rare instance where business, labor and environmentalists joined together to argue what would be lost to Santa Rosa if it decided to trade a faceless corporate Lowe's for a local Friedman Brothers home improvement store.
The point was made that in this recessed economy home improvement sales in Sonoma County are a zero-sum game. The impact of a new corporate Lowe's could drive Friedman Brothers and Mead Clark out of business because there is only so much market share in a community like Santa Rosa.
It was quite emotional to realize that our local business owners had their hearts in Santa Rosa. It was clear that the locals had emotion while the Lowe's consultants did not.
The headline of a recent Press Democrat editorial ("After Lowe's," Thursday) asked, "Santa Rosa Council said what it doesn't want, but what does it want?" It went on to say that "the general plan and zoning code should be used to ensure good planning, not protect certain businesses." What if we took this stunning moment of consensus in Santa Rosa to re-write Santa Rosa's planning goals? What if we decided together that we wanted to make Santa Rosa a model green city for California, both in terms of its planning and economy, and take a step away from auto dependency?
What if we decided to create a zoning district that would foster complete and diverse neighborhoods in Santa Rosa? These diverse communities would encourage local entrepreneurs to open neighborhood-serving businesses, thereby reducing car trips. These neighborhoods would ideally be served by planned bus rapid transit and SMART train stations.
The Lowe's site, in fact, has all these attributes. But instead of being zoned for a complete neighborhood, it has three separate zoning designations: light industrial, commercial and medium density residential. The ingredients for a fabulous meal remain separated in the refrigerator instead of being slow roasted together. The commercial uses would come in the form of yet more soulless strip commercial on Santa Rosa Avenue. The light industrial would face onto Yolanda Avenue, barricaded by fencing. The medium-density residential would be separated from both, with no access to its neighbors.
The timing for this new consensus is ideal in that the City Council is scheduled to review the draft general plan on Sept. 22. The Planning Commission has already recommended that a new zoning district be created. This new district would set planning standards to regulate the basis of walkable neighborhoods — a network of streets that have continuity in terms of building frontages and heights.
These standards are necessary to connect the different uses that are required for a truly sustainable and walkable city. These new neighborhoods would have buildings brought up to the street and parking would be placed behind them. People on foot would walk by porches, stoops and shopfronts instead of parking lots.
Buildings would be a minimum of two stories in height to allow residential and office space to be above the shops. Historic, pre-carbon neighborhoods are great examples of how uses can be elegantly mixed as long as the overall form of the buildings and streets are in harmony.
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