Sebastopol downtown Northeast library and residental podium artist rendering from William Hezmalhalch Architects, Inc.

Redevelopment sketches draw fire in Sebastopol

Key landowner Barney Aldridge wasn't present, but his year-old architectural renderings caused a stir at a recent Sebastopol council meeting after critics unveiled them to show how the retired loan company executive might transform the town's old apple packing district.

The council hearings resume tonight, and the disagreement continues over the significance of the drawings of four-story buildings and tree-lined sidewalks and civic squares.

Critics say the renderings show a massive project that could be allowed if the council adopts its proposed Northeast Area Specific Plan. They also chided the city for failing to make public the renderings after Aldridge had them distributed to council members and other officials in February 2007.

"They all saw this but it wasn't provided to the public. But why not?" asked Guy Wilson, a prospective council candidate who showed the renderings at the June 3 council meeting after getting them from an unidentified source.

Aldridge, founder and former CEO of Santa Rosa-based Benchmark Lending, suggested in a telephone interview that a severe downturn in the housing market and an unexpected level of opposition to "major development" in the town have caused him to modify his approach to the 12.5 acres he owns near the downtown.

"It doesn't make any sense to build those pictures that they showed," Aldridge said of the renderings.

Instead, he insisted he will work "slowly and organically" to develop his property, including bringing in such companies as natural energy drink maker Guayaki to be long-term tenants in the existing warehouses. He said he intends to stay out of the contentious Northeast plan hearings because it is akin to "watching a married couple fight, and you don't want to get in the middle of it."

City officials for five years have been developing a plan to guide redevelopment for the next 20 years in the Northeast area, the land between the downtown and the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Tonight's hearing, the third by the council on the issue, begins at 7:30 at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. No decision is scheduled.

Previous hearings have been dominated by critics who say the plan would allow too much traffic and too many tall buildings for shops and condominiums. Supporters counter the plan is superior to what would be allowed under current zoning rules and would revitalize the area in the most environmentally sound way possible.

Aldridge owns most of the land in the heart of the redevelopment area, the properties bounded by Highway 12, Petaluma Avenue, Laguna Park Way and Morris Street. A rendering from the city's own documents depicts Aldridge's property developed with a civic square and three- and four-story buildings.

Sebastopol Planning Director Kenyon Webster defended the decision not to distribute Aldridge's 48-page presentation, prepared for him by William Hezmalhalch Architects of Santa Ana.

"It's not part of our plan," Webster said. He noted that in early gatherings with critics present, Aldridge or his representative made clear the interest in developing the land.

Councilman Larry Robinson suggested that Aldridge's presentation "plays into the hands of critics" by giving them something specific to focus upon. Nonetheless, he said, the council now must seek to devise the best redevelopment plan with "the least impact to the earth."

Critic Helen Shane said Aldridge's renderings should have been made public because "they show an urbanization policy that is just not Sebastopol."

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

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