By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With a compromise in the works to drop two lawsuits over a Target shopping center in Petaluma, the question now is whether Friedman’s Home Improvement will officially sign on to the development.
The local big-box hardware chain signed a non-binding letter of intent with the developer, Regency Centers, in November to build an 80,000-square-foot store, 20,000-square-foot garden center and a drive-through lumber yard on the rear third of the East Washington Place development.
But as the project makes its way through the planning process with vocal neighborhood opposition, Regency and Friedman’s representatives say the company won’t officially sign on until Regency has final city approvals.
They may be coming soon if Regency and its opponent, the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, can finalize a tentative agreement announced last week.
If all goes well, the store could open in spring 2012, Friedman’s chief operating officer, David Proctor, said Friday.
“We’d love to come to Petaluma,” he said, “but we need to have a pretty good sense of comfort.”
Regency filed suit against Petaluma in January, contending the city subjected the project — which was first proposed in 2004 — to unjustified delays. The neighborhood group filed suit in March, seeking a court order to set aside the city’s approval of the environmental review.
Assuming the tentative deal worked out last week sticks, Regency can pay the required $10.4 million in fees and receive its building permits, Mayor Pam Torliatt said.
“As soon as the settlement is complete, Regency will be moving forward to start building the shopping center,” she said. “They have all the city approvals.”
A Regency spokesman declined to comment, saying he preferred to wait until after the settlement negotiations are finished.
Regency and opponents were scheduled to appear before the City Council June 14 for the neighborhood group’s appeal of Planning Commission approval of the center’s architectural design. But as the meeting was about to begin, Matt Maguire, a leader of the opposition group, announced the two sides had tentatively agreed to drop the lawsuits. Regency agreed to make some changes to the project and pay up to $100,000 in city legal fees.
While opponents said they haven’t gotten concessions from Regency on multi-story buildings, a parking structure or what they consider more pleasing architecture, they said they were happy to reach some compromise.
“I think the things they were looking to change were things the applicant (Regency) would not agree to, and they were beyond the council’s discretion,” said Councilwoman Tiffany Renee, who voted against approving the project.
“That may be leaving the coalition with a bitter taste, but those are what they have to live with.”
Meanwhile Procter, the Friedman’s executive, has been attending the planning hearings and waiting to see if his company can jump in.
“When they get this deal finalized, we’ll begin conversations again with Regency about what it would take to get Friedman’s on the map,” he said this week. “They’ll have to apply to the city to modify whatever plan is out there.”
Further environmental review is likely, but it isn’t clear whether it will be extensive or narrowly focused on an issue such as traffic impacts. Petaluma planning managers couldn’t be reached to comment Friday.
Santa Rosa-based Friedman’s, which was founded in Petaluma, so far has avoided many of the criticisms typically aimed at big-box retail chains, including the contention that they choke out local businesses. One of those big-box home improvement competitors, Lowe’s, also is planning a Petaluma outlet.
Some say the Regency project’s final approval was assured by Torliatt’s efforts to woo Friedman’s.
Maguire said that while he supports Friedman’s, “I and PNA are concerned that any project be well designed and that the environmental impacts get fully reviewed.”