By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A rundown auto lot at Sonoma’s southern limits is being eyed for a development that would include a marketplace akin to downtown Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, housing local artisans, farmers and other food purveyors.
The 1.86-acre property at 870 Broadway, priced at $1.9 million, has been in and out of escrow for nearly four years as a parade of developers considered projects ranging from a Walgreens or Trader Joe’s, to an office complex, to a high-end hotel.
Now a Southern California company is proposing a mix of retail uses and housing. The marketplace concept, which was proposed by residents at a January public forum, “is still the centerpiece of the project,” said Owen Smith, president of Del Mar-based SunLever Corporation.
“It’s a great location and a great city,” said Smith, formerly an executive with the company that considered building a hotel on the property but then pulled out and dropped its option on the property.
A “small boutique hotel is an option” but, as yet, just one of many, he said.
Both city officials and residents consider the corner lot at Broadway and East MacArthur Street a key location at one of Sonoma’s main entry points.
“It’s an eyesore now,” said Larry Barnett, a former mayor. “It’s not officially designated as a gateway zone in the city’s general plan, but it’s a large piece of property obviously in a state of transition.”
The project is not yet on the city’s official agenda. Smith said he hopes to meet with planning staff soon and present his plans. The project is not fully fleshed out, he said, which means that investors also are still being lined up.
“One depends on the other to some degree,” Smith said. “We’re working on the options and trying to get the best investor group and best concept together.” He said some “local groups” are interested in taking part in the project. He declined to share names.
City leaders said that to the degree Smith’s plans are known, they appear to have potential.
“The idea of having something like that in town seems like a win-win, for residents and for visitors,” Councilman Steve Barbose said of a public marketplace.
“I think it’s something that’s uniquely Sonoma and would add to what the town has to offer,” he said.
Smith used to work for the Kessler Collection, a hotel operator that unsuccessfully pursued a hotel in Healdsburg. The company relinquished its option to the Broadway property after a ballot measure that aimed to limit the size of hotels in Sonoma to 25 rooms failed by 124 votes.
“They were nervous that they would get a lot of resistance or pushback from the community,” said Herb Heil, the real estate broker for the property. “They felt they might not be able to get something that was economically viable for them approved, so they decided not to fight that battle.”
Barnett led the fight for the ballot measure, but said this week he wouldn’t be against a boutique hotel at the Broadway site.
“I and my group have never been opposed to small hotels,” he said. “Certainly, anyone who comes forward with a proposal for a small, modestly-sized hotel is not going to run into any serious objections.”
SunLever has until May 30 to close escrow on the property, Heil said.