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Santa Rosa aims to speed approval of grocery stores in 'food desert'

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The proposed changes include temporarily relieving community shopping centers of the requirement to develop residential buildings together with retail; conditionally allowing grocery stores to move onto Santa Rosa Avenue; and simplifying the terms the city uses to describe grocery stores. Additionally, at this week's planning commission meeting, senior city planner Erin Morris will recommend allowing large grocery stores—20,000 square feet and more—to move into existing buildings within the area by permitted use. This would allow large grocery stores to skip the expensive process of a conditional use permit (CUP) and "just go for it," says Morris, although the design review and environmental review processes would remain.

Keegan & Coppin real estate agent Tom Laguero is interested in developing the large building Circuit City once occupied on Santa Rosa Avenue, and has asked city council to drop the CUP requirement for grocery stores in southeast Santa Rosa. "Maybe we could help each other out," Laguero writes in a letter to the council, mentioning that he has a grocery client interested in the site but that a CUP would kill the deal. Laguero's client, Smart & Final, is a large 250-store chain.

Large chain stores concern councilmember Susan Gorin, who grilled Morris at the June 19 council meeting about the probability of retailers like Wal-Mart taking advantage of the loosened restrictions and moving in. But Morris says chain-store politics aren't in a city planner's jurisdiction. "We don't zone by brand name," she explains . "We zone by land use."

Still, California grocers remain worried about the introduction of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, a much smaller grocery version of the big-box store. As of February, 13 Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets are planned in the state, set to open by early 2013, with four in the southeast Bay Area.

Beyond the immediate future, Santa Rosa's 2030 general plan includes two proposed neighborhood shopping centers inside the food desert and one larger community shopping center on its border that, when developed, would put a grocery store a mile away at most from every resident of the area. When the USDA eventually declares southeast Santa Rosa a verdant grocery oasis, the CUP exemption will expire. And when the housing market improves, community shopping centers will have to tack on forgone residential units.

Until these policy changes begin affecting the food desert, shoppers at Santa Rosa Liquor and Deli only see three types of fruit, and there isn't much produce at the nearby Shell station either. Santa Rosa Liquor and Deli, then, with nearly as many aisles stocked with alcohol as with grocery, with a smoke shop in the back half of the building, will have to suffice for the larger stores the city council hopes to attract.

For now, "this is their only option," says Thompson.

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