By MELODY KARPINSKI
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Cotati is considering easing its cap on fast food-type businesses.
The potential change is sparked by a high vacancy rate in the city’s commercial spaces, said Assistant City Manager Micah Hinkle, who oversees City Hall economic development efforts.
Hinkle said that the rate is as high as 40 to 70 percent in some city shopping centers, including the Apple Valley Center and the Grapevine Center.
“It’s an alarming vacancy rate,” city manager Dianne Thompson said. “I think a number of changes need to be made.”
A 2012 fourth-quarter report from real estate company Keegan & Coppin found the combined commercial vacancy rate in Cotati and neighboring Rohnert Park was 8.1 percent, compared to Santa Rosa’s 4.8 percent and Sonoma’s 1.5 percent.
Because the report combines Rohnert Park and Cotati’s numbers, it is not a true reflection of the city’s vacancy rate, Hinkle said.
“I’m concerned that the number is actually higher,” said Hinkle, who is working with Keegan & Coppin to produce a more definitive report on Cotati.
The vacancy problem comes in part because of the city’s cap on fast food restaurants, which has prevented or deterred chain-type businesses from opening within city limits, Hinkle said.
“You really need a balance of local, regional and national businesses,” Hinkle said.
Michael McCullaugh, one of the owners of Redwood Cafe in downtown Cotati, agrees with Hinkle. “I would like to see Cotati evolve out of the mom-and-pop image,” McCullaugh said. “I don’t think we need another McDonald’s, but bringing quality restaurants into Cotati is something I would welcome.”
McCullaugh said he is unopposed to “corporate America” if it will generate income for the city, noting the success of the recent addition of Peet’s Coffee and Tea.
The city’s cap on fast food restaurants is set at eight, and five of the spots already have been filled with Burger King, Peet’s, Papa Murphy’s Pizza, Starbucks Coffee and Subway. The three remaining spots are on Gravenstein Highway west of the 101 freeway.
“Formula Fast Food Regulations (FFR) has been identified as a deterrent to leasing existing commercial space and development of vacant lands,” Hinkle wrote in his report to the commission.
While cities such as Sonoma have similar formula regulations, the rules exclude shopping centers, which allows for some leeway, Hinkle said.
Businessman Marc Mezzetta acknowledged that uncapping formula businesses could cut into his deli business, but he said Cotati needs to become more welcoming to the business community.
“How can a city in this (economic) atmosphere afford to alienate businesses?” Mezzetta said. “They should be doing everything they can to help businesses.”
Steven Keeler, the deli manager, also questioned the city’s attitude toward businesses. “This town is the worst town for business,” he said. “It took almost 15 months to get a permit to build a patio at the deli, but in Marin, it only took me 90 days to get a permit to build my house.”
Hinkle said the city’s goal is to fill the empty spaces and support more businesses.
“We want to try and help all businesses,” Hinkle said.
The Cotati Planning Commission asked Hinkle to produce more studies about the city’s commercial vacancies before voting to change the cap.
Staff Writer Melody Karpinski can be reached at 521-5205 or Melody.Karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.