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Barlow project turns idle Sebastopol plants into artisan food center


New steel-framed buildings are rising and old metal-sided warehouses are getting refurbished in Sebastopol this summer in a $23.5 million project that supporters tout as a new public marketplace and production center for local food, wine and art.

The 12-acre Barlow project amounts to the biggest development in Sebastopol in years, as well as the culmination of a multi-year debate over how to redevelop an old apple packing district on the eastern edge of the downtown.

With the 220,000-square-foot project, this town of 7,400 hopes to bolster its reputation as an iconic place for local farm bounty and artisanal foods. The Barlow's 17 new and existing buildings will offer visitors something most public markets don't: the chance to watch coffee being roasted, beer brewed and olives pressed.

"This is the motherland for any epicurean; this is where it is," said Seth Wood, who is preparing with a partner to open the Woodfour Brewing Co. there this fall. Wood graduated from New York's Culinary Institute of America and predicts the development will "change the face of Sebastopol."

The site's existing buildings house a few tenants who will remain, including Bronze Plus Art Foundry and Guyaki, a leading U.S. producer of the South American drink yerba mate. But much of the existing space became vacant late last summer when jar-closure maker Innovative Molding moved from the site to Rohnert Park.

Demolition and construction began last winter, but has become considerably more noticeable in recent weeks.

A two-alarm fire earlier this month caused irreparable damage to one of the project's existing warehouses. That will cause a delay, possibly until next winter, for affected businesses until a new warehouse is constructed in its place.

But other companies are hoping to move into their renovated buildings as early as this summer, with more planning to open in the fall.

Barney Aldridge, the project's developer, has owned the land since 2006 and hopes to start welcoming the public in October.

"I think that we're creating a whole new downtown for Sebastopol," he said. As part of the project, he is building new public streets that will tie into the existing downtown and the nearby skate park.

The current project didn't take shape until the city had spent five years and $500,000 on trying to develop a vision for Aldridge's property and the surrounding land where workers for generations had packed and canned Sebastopol's signature product: apples.

Over the past decade, two big concepts vied for the hearts and minds of city leaders considering the area's future.

The first involved creating new urban spaces with two-story buildings and pedestrian-friendly streets. Petaluma, Windsor and Healdsburg revived their downtowns or nearby districts with this approach, often with a mix of stores and restaurants on the ground floor and condominiums above them.

Around 2003 Sebastopol officials began pursuing a similar approach for the apple district. They eventually proposed 300 residences and more than 400,000 square feet of retail and civic space between downtown and the Laguna de Santa Rosa. But the plan drew stiff opposition and died after voters in 2008 elected a new council majority that didn't support it.

The second concept involved a public market and Sebastopol's expanding role in the sustainable food movement. For examples, supporters pointed to the success of San Francisco's Ferry Building and the Oxbow Public Market in Napa.

To the delight of many, Aldridge is close to bringing together the components of a major food and wine center, including a weekly farmer's market and a wide mix of bakeries, wineries, coffee houses, restaurants and other food outlets.

But what sets the Barlow apart are the many businesses that will process food or make art on the premises.

"This is a producers' center," said Paula Downing, manager of the Sebastopol farmers market, which is negotiating for space at the project. Visitors, she said, are going to enjoy seeing how food is made.

Among the future tenants is organic coffee maker Taylor Maid Farms, which hopes to have its unusual smokeless roaster in place there this summer. Owner Chris Martin said this fall he hopes to open a coffee house on the premises, "which has been my plan for 20 years."

Another is Spirit Works Distillery, a microproducer of gin and whiskey owned by Timo and Ashby Marshall. State law prohibits on-premise sales, but the Marshalls look forward to being one of the few distilleries in Northern California where visitors can watch production.

"It's a great venue for people to come in and see," Timo Marshall said.

Major tenant Kosta Browne Winery will take up three of the Barlow's buildings but won't have a tasting room. Even so, a spokesman said, the long-time and lifelong county residents who own the winery saw a value in taking part.

"We just couldn't be more stoked about being part of the Barlow project and reshaping downtown Sebastopol and really being a part of a project that fuels the local commerce," said Tony Lombardi, the winery's brand and public relations director.

Other slated tenants include Rosso Pizzeria, Village Bakery, Bliss Bakery, Acre Coffee, Mama Tina's Ravioli, OilVery's olive oil, Community Market, Warped Brewing Company, La Follette Wines, Wind Gap Wines and Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery.

Beyond food, The Barlow is expecting to house such businesses as Aubergine Vintage Emporium, Wolfard Glassblowing and Spiral Fusion Glass Art and Design.

The project is about 80 percent occupied, Aldridge said.

Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant who divides his time between Sonoma County and New York City, said public markets have long been a mainstay in Europe and elsewhere. Such venues attract people not only for their natural food but also for their connections with farmers, food producers and the seasons of the year.

The Barlow, Wolf said, "is going to increase the value of everything around it."

Mayor Guy Wilson credited Aldridge with keeping intact the historic buildings and for leasing to local businesses.

He called the Barlow "a vision that the town is really warming up to."

Aldridge, previously the founder and CEO of Benchmark Lending, in 2007 presented city officials with architectural renderings that showed two and three-story buildings on the site for condominiums, stores and a hotel.

On Thursday he said the current project is better than the earlier proposal "because it's what the community wants and needs."

"I think this has been much more fun to build and much more fun to operate than a bunch of condos."

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)