Downtown Barsell development decision put off until August
Truckee’s planning commission was unable to make a vote on the Peoria-Sunnyside company’s plans to build a mixed-use complex at the eastern entrance to downtown at the junction of Interstate 80 and Highway 267, postponing a vote until its Aug. 8 meeting.
At its July 12 meeting, the Planning Commission considered that the proposed design of the hotel, commercial and residential complex might degrade the town by being too “highway-oriented.”
The commissioners generally favored the proposed design, which featured a strong pedestrian focus, trolley service to downtown, old west-style covered walkways and a series of lofts above the retail space.
But they questioned what the project would actually look like, and were concerned about the impression that the project would make on potential visitors to the town. Commissioners were concerned that the 10 commercial and residential buildings, two restaurants and one three-story hotel might be too highway-oriented and leave passing travelers with an impression that Truckee is a strip mall town.
Called the Gateway Lodging Center or the I-80/267 Lodging Center, the project is proposed by the Barsell family, which owns the 11-acre site and is developing it through a holding company called Peoria-Sunnyside.
The company’s project manager, Steve Noll, presented plans for a large pedestrian section, which includes 26,000 square feet of retail space in five buildings that will spill onto Jibboom Street. Plans also call for 25 lofts and 35 housing units, an unspecified amount of employee housing, a 625-square-foot information center, 16,000 square feet of office space in two buildings, two 5,000 square foot restaurants and a 120-room hotel.
In spite of criticism, planning commission member Arne Werchick suggested that the proposal was “a thoughtful plan that may need tweaking and tuning,” but other members of the commission and the public voiced other objections.
The commission was especially concerned with the project’s importance to Truckee’s further development, suggesting that it could set a precedent for other downtown projects. However, they felt forced to implement the General Plan, which states that the Barsell property must be zoned for hotel and other tourist-oriented development.
“The massiveness of a three-story hotel – it’s something you’ve got to wonder about,” said planning commission chair Brita Tryggvi.
Community development director Tony Lashbrook said that “we have less development occurring on the property than was anticipated in the downtown zoning,” but added that the proposal has increased the retail and office components of their plan.
Sunnyside developers said they had reduced the size of the planned hotel in exchange for greater retailing space, which exceeds the General Plan’s allocation by 7,000 square feet.
“(The project) is not at all consistent with the vision of the Downtown Plan,” said planning commission member Nancy Richards, who added that “the percentage of commercial places has gotten out of hand.”
Noll justified the commercial emphasis, saying that Peoria/Sunnyside is primarily a retail developer. He also cited his concern that the town needed to supply water to the area.
Commissioners were especially critical of the two restaurants Noll said would frame the entrance to the development. Lashbrook reassured the commission, saying that there would be no fast food restaurants there.
Lashbrook also questioned the plan’s housing component, which he said was not provided for in the General Plan.
The commission was pleased with many details of the proposal, including its effort to revive Jibboom Street with a pedestrian connection, which Lashbrook said is fundamental to downtown development.
Some of the public participants expressed their disappointment.
“This is not what I had envisioned when I worked for two and a half years on the downtown plan,” said Sharon Arnold, of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. Arnold was particularly critical of the development’s potential impact on the neighboring Truckee Cemetery. She asked how the Downtown Specific Plan’s guarantee to expand the cemetery could be realized, and said that she expected cemetery vandalism to rise due to the proposed nearby housing.
“I can’t believe we’re back here working on this problem again,” she said, adding that there were already water shortage and noise problems at the cemetery which would be worsened by Sunnyside’s proposal to tear down trees to provide parking.
The Barsell site has a controversial history of failed projects starting when a drive-in theater was proposed at the location in the 1960s. In the early 1990s, K-mart won its proposal to build a store but lost a lawsuit that the Mountain Area Preservation Foundation mounted against it. K-mart was followed by another failed plan for factory outlet stores also proposed by Peoria/Sunnyside, who subsequently sued the town over what they feel are unfair zoning regulations.
“Looking at its history from drive-in theater to factory outlet, I think we’re gaining ground here,” said Lashbrook. “I think that it helps alleviate our position as a freeway to the Martis Valley,” he added.
At the end of the deliberations, Commissioner Craig Threshe spoke for the general mood when he said that he was not ready to make a decision on the project based on the current information. He said that considering the importance of the decision, he would ask Noll to provide a clearer vision of the development for the Planning Commission’s Aug. 8 meeting.
Lashbrook said that the plan must next be analyzed under the next layer of state and local environmental quality standards.
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