YOLO SUN INVESTIGATIVE NEWS REPORT :

 

Woodland’s Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) was presumed by this community to help provide identity and invigoration for the downtown area, through heralding its history with development of a unique “primary gateway.” “This key aspect of the downtown plan has apparently been squandered by injurious and unsatisfactory leadership for our downtown on the City Councll,” exclaims one disappointed Woodlander.

______      History of Woodland’s Downtown Specific Plan      ______

The DSP was created in 1993, after a half-dozen years of slowly emerging civic recognition, understanding and evolving community consensus, for the purpose of initiating a crucial revitalization program within the core area of the City, which was suffering from decades of retail sprawl following ill-considered demolishments and modifications within the City’s inventory of historic buildings.

Woodland’s Redevelopment Agency was also created during this time period (1988), with a zone that encompassed the downtown area. Significant private investment related to a few key buildings on Main Street was accomplished during the prior few years, as a vanguard of eventual political progress on reviving the downtown area. Property owners such as Gary Wirth, a local architect, and Tom and Meg Stallard were intent upon establishing key models for preserving and utilizing the downtown’s distinctive resource of historical architecture.

Updates of the DSP are mandated to occur at five-year intervals. During 2008, the fifteenth anniversary revision is due to be accomplished.

______      The Rite-Aid Project      ______

One action occurring under the current (2003) DSP and drawing much critical attention is recent development of a Rite-Aid store upon what is perhaps the key entrance (”primary gateway”) to the downtown area, the northwest corner of Main and East Streets.

Developer Paul Petrovich represents Rite-Aid for this project, which vaulted over the DSP’s well announced and prominently detailed “vision” of this “primary gateway” for Woodland’s historic downtown, using the DSP’s (potentially unintended) legal inconsistency (loophole) of an excessively broad categorization of allowable land uses, while also counting on excessively narrow interpretations of DSP “requirements” relevant to this project by the City’s community development director(s).

Under the land use matrix of the 2003 DSP, there is no difference between a Rite-Aid and a Corner Drug, while of course the retail profile of the former has a vastly broader commercial spectrum, a “drug store” (mini-box variety store) as distinguished from a simple, basic “pharmacy.”

An abrupt irony in this situation is that a land use of “Liquor sales” (a liquor store) requires a “conditional use permit,” while the practice of Rite-Aid regularly featuring dramatically discounted liquor for sale is being “allowed” without any basis or power of municipal review. This matter is significant because the Rite-Aid will be in close proximity to Freeman Park, which endures a long history of problems associated with liquor. [Editorial note: please see associated Yolo Sun opinion column.]

The City’s community development director is delegated responsibility by the City Council for interpreting application of various key aspects of the DSP, such as the precise meaning, scope and nature of its legal “requirements” regarding various land uses.

______      The Vision for Downtown’s Primary Gateway      ______

The “vision” for this (”gateway”) component of the DSP was to have been “continuation of the old Rice Mill design, carrying the agricultural heritage reflected in this design directly onto Main Street.” The Rice Mill complex of buildings, occupying the northwest corner of Court and East Streets, and running to North Street, was restored and renovated in the early 1990s, using a vibrant, mixed-use development theme. Its major architectural feature is an attractive, three-story, brick mill house.

Within the Policies and Standards section of the 2003 DSP, under the heading, “‘Rice Mill’ Expansion,” can be found clear and firm policy assurance that “[t]he City shall continue to support mixed-use developments” on this specific location, “with a similar style and scale of the historic rice mill building.”

The western corners of the intersection of Main and East Streets are described within relevant planning district elements of the DSP as being the “Primary gateway to the Downtown.” Indeed, city signage has recently been installed on the northwest corner of this intersection declaring “Welcome to Historic Downtown Woodland.” This signage will now stand directly in front of the new Rite-Aid store, rather than before the envisioned, mixed-use theme with a “continuation of the old Rice Mill design.”

______      The Downtown Gateway That Got Away      ______

A severe aesthetic imbalance now exists at this “primary gateway,” between the large, multi-story Wiseman building at the southwest corner of Main and East Streets, and the routine, one-story, cookie-cutter Rite-Aid store. The DSP’s “vision” of a balanced architectural theme upon the “style and scale of the historic rice mill building” has swiftly vanished, seemingly only a mirage. The downtown gateway got away.

How did the interpretation of inconsistencies and contradictions within the DSP resolve in a manner which permitted significant violation of one of its key components, and what steps and options may be available to the City (especially within the updated, 2008 version of the DSP) to recover its ability to create a meaningful “primary gateway?”

The first part of this question involves the policymaking role delegated by the City Council to the community development director(s). The question’s latter element will be addressed within an associated opinion column by Yolo Sun.

The DSP is governed by several legal elements. Policy statements (above) articulate the basic contours and design of its program, while key, detailed specifics are contained within its “land use matrix.” This matrix has three basic levels of regulatory scrutiny and control, overlayed upon all potential land uses (commercial – with numerous subcategories, industrial, institutional, office and residential). Each allowable use is given one of three designations of regulatory process: “allowed, conditionally allowed,” and subject to “conditional use permit.”

The “allowed” designation proscribes that “Development can proceed subject to the project meeting the other requirements specified in this Specific Plan and other applicable City requirements and permits.” The “conditional use permit” designation involves a full public hearing before the City, wherein all relevant characteristics of the land use are examined and various conditions and mitigtions made imperative if the development and use are accepted.

The “conditionally allowed” designation is described as follows: “Projects in this category will be reviewed by the Zoning Administrator to determine if the project meets the appropriate performance standards, complies with the other requirements of this Specific Plan and applicable City regulations and does not pose any design or operational features that would require or warrant further public review.” A “conditional use permit” may be required, based upon the outcome of these determinations.

A land use of “drug store” at the pertinent location (within a particular “planning district”) is presently governed in the matrix by the “allowed” designation. However, even this lowest level of process still demands an interpretive finding by the community development director that “the project meet[s] the other requirements specified in this Specific Plan,” etc..

Apparently, the numerous and bold references to this item / context within the DSP, including use of mandatory language (”the City shall . . .”) in the DSP’s section on Policies and Standards, are entirely ineffectual toward achieving any meaningful modification or mitigation regarding this situation / project, according to the community development director.

Designating either this location (as a sub-district) or such a land use within the DSP as being subject to a “conditional use permit” process would have sufficiently elevated the level of public review and authority toward successful attainment of the “vision” outlined in the DSP.

______      Absence of Attention by City Council      ______

The fact that this “gateway” location was designated as “allowed” for such a land use may, in context of this greatly conflicting policy and planning language in the DSP, be an unintended error and oversight, for which timely correction might provide a viable solution.

Or else, a more robust interpretation of the “requirements” of the DSP by the community development director could have provided such a proper avenue of municipal policy intervention to preserve this “vision,” through requiring a “conditional use permit.”

On either basis of municipal process, this Rite-Aid project might have been required to conform in some appropriate manner to the clearly stated and valuable policy objectives of the DSP.

Decisions by two different community development directors are involved in this matter. The previous director approved the original siting of the Rite-Aid store, several years ago, while the present community development director made the current determinations regarding the specific design (style and scale) of this store.

Alerted for several years to the fact that such a potentially serious deviation from the DSP was in the process of erupting, the City Council gave it no attention and no action. It is clearly within the City Council’s basic authority and clear responsibility to influence such adverse decisions and determinations by its community development director(s), who serves at its will and discretion.

Failure of the DSP to achieve its key goal of creating an appropriate “primary gateway” is directly attributable to the abject failure of responsibility, leadership and action on the part of Woodland City Council.

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