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Nearly 100 years after his great-grandfather opened Snowflake Bakery at 106 Matheson St. in Healdsburg, star chef Dustin Valette has announced plans to create a 17,000-square-foot multi-use restaurant, retail and living space on the property.

Valette is a third-generation Healdsburger who has a track record of stewardship in the town. But some residents are chafing over the size and scope of the project fronting the beloved downtown plaza.

It’s a familiar story across Wine Country, and especially in Healdsburg, where upscale hotels, restaurants and businesses have transformed a once sleepy ranch and farming town into a world-renowned tourist destination, leaving community members to continually wrestle with how their city is remade: For visitors or residents?

Dubbed The Matheson, Valette’s three-story project would include two distinct restaurant spaces, two penthouse condominiums and two retail stores. It’s an ambitious plan Valette says will preserve the iconic Plaza district building, provide a family-friendly and affordable gathering place as well as attract new tourism business.

“The building is so important for my family,” said Valette, 38, who opened his eponymous restaurant in Healdsburg in 2015. His family owned two bakeries in town in the early 1900s and those deep roots give him a feeling of obligation to bring new life to the historic property.

“It’s really important to me that the building is protected and not torn down for new development. The restaurant proposal will fortify the building and protect it for years to come,” he said.

Detailed plans include new space for two existing stores, Copperfield’s and Plaza Gourmet. Both have occupied the building for more than a decade. The proposal also includes a 98-seat first-floor restaurant and bar called The Matheson, a second-floor outdoor dining patio called Roof 106, significant re-landscaping, a historic façade to blend with nearby tenants and re-pavement of the 43-stall parking lot behind the building. The parking lot will be for the exclusive use of patrons, alleviating some concerns about increased traffic and parking woes.

It’s the latest vision for a building that has been a steady topic of conversation in town.

In 2017, locals were incensed over rumors that the building would become another large hotel project when David Wilhelm announced he was the new landlord. Instead, the building was sold for $7.5 million to tech entrepreneur Craig Ramsey, who is a business partner and in Valette’s 106 Matheson project. Ramsey plans to live in one of the 1900-square foot condominiums on the third floor of the building.

The project complies with current zoning and with the city’s design guidelines, but it remains under consideration by the Planning Commission pending additional public comment this month. The commission, which took input twice last year on the project, will host a third public discussion on Feb. 12.

Many who attended last year’s meetings voiced support for the project in their public comments, but detractors said the size of the proposal was out of scale with the city’s historic look.

“There are a lot of people who are upset about the size of the restaurant, not the restaurant itself,” said Bruce Abramson, a retired mortgage broker who serves on the Healdsburg community housing committee.

“We’re looking at the impact of 231 seats on the Plaza,” said Abramson. “That doesn’t meet the planner’s definition for small-town character on the plaza. I’m trying to protect and preserve what I think the plaza is,” he said, pointing out a city Healdsburg zoning district code that requires Plaza District businesses to be “small-scale” in nature, though it doesn’t define what that means.

“We listened, we adjusted down,” said Valette. “We’ve crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s.”

In the run up to the Feb. 12 commission meeting, Valette hopes to squelch what he says is misinformation about the project and gather more feedback from the community.

“Any other developer would have torn it down and saved a great deal of money,” said Susan Graf, who has owned a clothing store at 100 Matheson for 20 years. In her testimony to the Planning Commission she said that any new restaurant or hotel becomes a new draw for plaza businesses like hers.

Other local business owners also have endorsed Valette’s vision for the space.

“Look, you’re working with someone in the community. Dustin is well known; he’s a solid character. He’s raising his family in this community,” said Will Seppi, owner of Costeaux French Bakery.

“It’s just amazing to see what could be done with that space. You’re going to be able to overlook the plaza with its 180 years of history,” he said. “The plaza is what attracts so many people from around the globe and what keeps people loving being part of the town. This is an opportunity for the preservation of nearly 80 feet of historical plaza frontage.”

Still, some are not convinced.

“No one is objecting to the restaurant … no one is opposed to Dustin Valette’s vision. No one, not one citizen I’ve heard from argues against the project’s aim, which is ambitious, to create a locally affordable restaurant for middle-class as well as upper-class folks to enjoy,” said former Healdsburg Mayor Brigette Mansell who addressed the Planning Commission on Dec. 18 about the project. “What’s at stake is our historical, small-scale plaza.”

Local historian and author Ted Calvert agreed, saying: “My main concern is the historical significance of the plaza park.”

The longtime resident worries that the scale of the restaurant could overwhelm the small plaza. “It should be to scale. We have to be careful with the park. It’s the town’s identity,” he added.

Valette, however, sees The Matheson as a jewel in the plaza’s crown rather than a colossus crowding downtown.

“There will be no change to the plaza, other than the restoration and refurbishment of the facade. There will be no change to the Matheson Street-side of the building and no change in how a pedestrian would experience walking on this block of Matheson,” counters Valette. “The new restaurant respects the plaza and the community by setting the new addition to the building back from the street level. The new addition is designed with a fresh and unifying theme that blends well with the adjacent architecture.

“The economic model is to be casual and affordable, designed to be a natural extension of the Healdsburg Plaza, creating a net positive for all that live and visit here,” Valette said.

“Its location on the plaza is with purpose and will have a positive relationship with other surrounding businesses,” he said. “The Matheson, is a win-win for our plaza and community.”

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