Periodically opening the hood of the zoning code and performing a tune-up on city regulations is a good thing for any community. This is particularly true when there's evidence that arcane rules may be discouraging businesses from starting or hindering prosperity in the new normal of today's economy.
So it was for Santa Rosa this week, which updated a number of laws in hopes of making it easier for businesses to open.
On a unanimous vote, the City Council approved a series of changes, including one that gives wineries and breweries more flexibility in opening and operating tasting rooms, particularly downtown.
The City Council made two other needed changes as well.
First, it loosened regulations to address a big need in the southeast area: a large grocery store. With stores such as Lola's Market on Petaluma Hill Road and Trader Joe's on Santa Rosa Avenue as well as chain stores such as Target offering groceries, it's debatable whether the southeast area really warrants the federal designation of being a "food desert." Nevertheless, there's no question that that part of town has long needed a full-sized grocery store, and the City Council is justified in moving in that direction.
The ordinance simply allows a large grocery to open in existing vacant commercial building. Given the abundance of vacant space in Santa Rosa and the need for grocery stores in the area, this sounds like a no-brainer to us.
Likewise, we have no beef with the council's decision to change the general plan designation of a 2.7-acre parcel on Yolanda Avenue near Santa Rosa Avenue, a site that had been zoned for medium-density housing. Given the site's proximity to the retail-business corridor, it was never an ideal location for multi-family housing anyway. We noted as much when the site was targeted for a Lowe's home improvement store in 2009.
The changes approved by the City Council Tuesday would allow the site to be used for commercial purposes and possibly could be targeted for another Lowe's-like project, although, according to staff, nothing is proposed at the moment.
Some obstacles, however, are easier to remove than others. For example, the City Council can change the zoning on that site, but it can't ignore the fact that any large-scale project would face the same problem that confronted the Lowe's proposal — traffic. Circulation along the Santa Rosa Avenue corridor remains a nightmare.
The city has long discussed the need to improve the circulation patterns in the area, including rebuilding the Hearn Avenue overpass on Highway 101. Before another big-box store is added to that corridor, addressing the traffic problems remains an imperative. Unfortunately, the elimination of redevelopment agencies is likely to make finding and paying for a solution much more difficult.
Vice Mayor John Sawyer noted how it wasn't that long ago when Santa Rosa was waffling over allowing restaurants to serve alcohol in outdoor areas. "It takes Santa Rosa a long time sometimes to come of age," he said.
True enough. At the same time, there are some issues confronting Santa Rosa that don't go away with time or with simple changes in public perception. Traffic is one of them.