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Petaluma Residents Challenge Regency's Bigbox Project

On Thursday March 11, a suit was filed in Sonoma County Superior Court challenging the City of Petaluma’s approval of the Environmental Impact Report and project entitlements of Regency Centers’ East Washington Place development. The anchor tenant would be Petaluma’s first big box chain store, a 130,000 square foot Target.

The suit was filed on behalf of the Petaluma Community Coalition (PCC) by the public interest law firm of M.R. Wolfe & Associates of San Francisco. The PCC is comprised of a number of Petaluma residents and community groups, including the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, the Petaluma River Council, Petaluma Tomorrow and the OWL Foundation.

“We filed this suit because the City’s approval of the EIR and project plan did not follow the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and because the proposed project will have devastating impacts on our streets, swim center, skateboard park, and nearby neighborhoods,” said Paul Francis, co-founder of the Petaluma Neighborhood Association. “You think getting across town is bad now, wait until this thing is built. People will be furious when they discover the reality- utter gridlock.”

“The design and implementation of this project makes a mockery of our recently updated General Plan,” said former City Councilman Matt Maguire. “We’ve been trying literally for years to get Regency to work with us to make this a viable project with a lot less impacts. They’ve done nothing but stonewall us. We have no other option than to bring suit to prevent this fiasco from happening to Petaluma.”

“Those of us who live nearest the project have a lot at stake, but our larger concern has always been what this will do to Petaluma,” Francis said. “The General Plan calls for a mixed use project with improved pedestrian, bike and transit access. The project as approved doesn’t have that. What we’re getting now is a typical 1970s style big box strip mall that is completely auto dependent. There is no housing. This is not a mixed-use project. It’s the opposite of what’s called for at this site.”

The suit’s intent is to get the City to recirculate the EIR to fully account for the negative impacts that were left out and to include a number of proposed mitigations that would lessen the project’s impacts. PCC also wants the Friedman’s Home Improvement store, touted by Regency as a likely major tenant, included in the revised EIR. Better mitigations of the traffic impacting a number of major intersections and East D St. should be part of the conditions of approval, along with ways to reduce the project’s significant greenhouse gases and air pollution.
“A lot can be done to improve it,” said Paul Francis. “Members of the public have suggested structured parking, reduction of the 16-acre parking lot, and more public spaces would be more consistent with the GP. Two and three story buildings with residential units on the upper floors and better links to surrounding areas would make this a pedestrian oriented project.”

Maguire and Francis note that Regency has been uncooperative with the City as well as neighborhood and citizen groups that want the project to reflect the site’s General Plan vision. The forgery of letters of support that were published in the Argus Courier, the baseless but expensive lawsuit filed by Regency against the City in the middle of the normal public review process, the lack of complete documentation provided in a timely manner, and the resistance to consider changes that would make the project align better with the GP have all made gaining even meager consensus nearly impossible, they said.

“If nothing else, we want to see the multilane roads pulled away from all four sides of the swim center and skateboard park,” Maguire stated. “It’s a shame that Regency has been so arrogant, that they’ve resorted to intimidation tactics, because this could be a pretty good project if they would get a clue for what Petaluma is really about.”

The review process has been skewed by gross misinformation in the press, developer PR ploys and hostility from Target supporters who have unfairly attacked the current council majority for, in their opinion, not approving the project quickly enough. PCC’s members note that more important than haste is to ensure good planning and a full public review, where all the problems are revealed and honestly addressed. This hasn’t been done, in part because of the pressure on the council to satisfy critics, Regency’s threatening lawsuit and the poor financial condition of the city.

The project will have at best a negligible benefit on the City’s finances, but will have serious impacts on its infrastructure and natural environment. Regency’s and Target’s cookie-cutter approach is designed to push their investment risks and costs onto the surrounding community, which will bear the traffic, air pollution and other burdens for years to come. However, both corporations have built far more attractive, community-friendly and less environmentally damaging projects in many other cities. “That’s what we want to see here,” Francis said. “All it takes is four votes and the will to do what’s right for our city.”

Development in Petaluma over the past two decades has been mixed. The Factory Outlet Mall, built in a floodplain, has flooded and the ungainly Auto Mall sign is not what was approved. The Kohl’s shopping center with its empty stores and useless architectural embellishments is typical of obsolete and unsuccessful shopping center design. On the other hand, the Theater District, an outgrowth of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, has received wide acclaim. That project went through more community input than any of the others.

Approving a weak EIR without meaningful or effective mitigations sets a very low benchmark for future large projects that are queuing up. “We need and would love to see Friedman’s back in Petaluma, and we want to help the Council to do this project right the first time,” Maguire said. “Their premature approval and incomplete mitigations fail to serve the best interests of all of us, so we’re proceeding with this suit. We’re hoping a much better result will come out of it.”