Windsor council votes 4-0 to save sites for more retail-oriented businesses
By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Hoping to foster a healthy downtown in a challenging economic climate, Windsor Town Council members Wednesday night rejected a bid by a well-known real estate company to locate its offices on a prominent corner of the Town Green.
The council on a 4-0 vote decided that offices like Century 21 North Bay Alliance do not belong on the ground floor of buildings in an area envisioned as a downtown shopping and restaurant area.
The concern is that offices do not draw enough foot traffic or fit in with the retail establishments. But there also are a number of vacancies caused by stores that have gone out of business and landlords willing to lease the spaces for office use.
“We have too many inactive uses now,” Mayor Debora Fudge said. “You can go past the tipping point and create the death knell for downtown.”
Council members heard from a dozen or so speakers Wednesday, although Fudge noted there is a majority that wants to protect active retail uses promoted in the town’s development guidelines, specifically along Windsor Road, Windsor River Road and McClelland Drive.
The Town Green Village was designed with a mixture of townhomes built above shops and restaurants adjoining the four-acre Green. Business offices were supposed to be relegated to peripheral areas such as Johnson Street and Emily Rose Circle.
“When I go to Healdsburg Square, Sonoma Square or Kentucky Street in Petaluma, I don’t go there to walk by professional offices,” said Councilwoman Robin Goble, explaining the need to restrict office uses. “We want to have active commercial uses.”
The Town Green is a hub of the community, said KC’s Downtown Grill owner David Culley. “But as an economic hub, we’ve missed the mark unfortunately,” he told the council, in arguing for the need to preserve retail uses before offices.
“Too many prime retail locations are already taken up by service businesses or even offices,” agreed Thomasin Alyxander, owner of the bead store Ubeadquitous.
In a letter to council members, she said that for too long “landlords in Windsor have operated under a ‘fill at any cost’ mentality with no regard to the longterm commercial health of downtown Windsor.”
She said the town doesn’t need another real estate office “cluttering up the streetscape,” and the arrival of Century 21 at McClelland and Windsor Road would put two practically across the street from each other.
But Realtor Bob Santucci said his award-winning Century 21 North Bay Alliance business would have an attractive storefront. He noted that its office in Healdsburg draws plenty of people who pop in just for information.
Other Century 21 real estate brokers said the office would be open seven days a week and bring clients and agents downtown for coffee, lunch and dinner.
Goble said it was a difficult decision to turn down Century 21. “We want places for you to stay and grow,” she told the real estate agents, but added “You picked a spot that was just a lightning rod for everyone.”
Pharmacist Mark Burger, who has a store in the Town Green Village and also lives there, said it’s a free market and market forces should dictate what businesses go in.
Windsor planning officials wanted the Town Council to weigh in on the issue because of recent changes downtown.
For one, many of the properties that once belonged to Town Green developer Orrin Thiessen have changed ownership as a result of his bankruptcy. Prior restrictions on businesses — including offices — are no longer in effect as a result of the foreclosures, according to Planning Director Jim Bergman.
The adoption of Windsor’s Station Area Plan earlier this year also discourages ground-floor offices in prominent downtown commercial locations.
The station plan, which is part of a transit-oriented vision for the future in which people work and live within walking distance of trains and buses, aims to create active uses that are attractive to pedestrians.
While offices may be permitted on an interim basis, the plan calls specifically for stores, restaurants, cafes, markets, bars, theaters, commercial recreation and entertainment, personal and convenience services, tourism-oriented services, hotel lobbies, banks, child-care services, libraries, museums and galleries.
Bergman said the concept of not allowing ground floor offices is not without precedent. He said five of the other eight cities in Sonoma County also have some type of restriction on the establishment of ground-floor offices.
Town Council members a few years ago banned a variety of uses near the Town Green, including tattoo businesses, massage parlors, smoke shops, fortunetellers, bail bonds and check-cashing stores.
Officials said the intent was to avoid a “skid row” appearance that a proliferation of such businesses could create.
The restrictions were prompted by a short-lived smoke shop that opened in a prominent spot of Town Green Village in 2008.
Alarmed by the bongs and drug-related merchandise offered for sale just steps away from students walking to and from the high school, the Town Council ended up restricting new smoke shops to other commercial zones.
(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org)