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Walgreens project heads to City Council

Published: Monday, September 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 at 8:47 a.m.

After its plans to build a Walgreens were shot down by the Planning Commission in July, the Petaluma Health Care District is appealing to the City Council Monday, armed with what it says is a stronger case for why the development is merited.

“Had the Planning Commission had this information from us when we presented to them, I believe their decision would have been different,” said Health Care District CEO Ramona Faith. “They would have seen the community benefit.”

The Health Care District has proposed building a 14,500-square foot Walgreens with a drive-through “pick-up” pharmacy window and an adjoining 7,500 square feet of commercial/office space on land it owns across from Petaluma Valley Hospital on Lynch Creek Way.

Just two months ago, Faith and members of Petaluma Valley Hospital and the Petaluma Health Center went before the Planning Commission, asking them to recommend changing the current land designation for the property from business park to mixed-use commercial. But planning commissioners questioned several aspects of the project, including the need for another pharmacy in town and the acceptability of the pick-up window, as the city has a ban on new drive-throughs. They also questioned the district's justification for changing the property's zoning — that more office space is not needed in town, while a Walgreens is.

“It's nothing personal against the district,” said Commissioner J.T. Wick, who voted against the zoning change. “The land use designation they applied for — which was mixed-use — didn't support the proposed Walgreens project. What the district is proposing is a small, traditional retail mall, not a mixed-use commercial development.”

In July, the Planning Commission voted against recommending the general plan amendment to the City Council on a 3-2 vote, with two commissioners absent.

But Faith — who has used the past two months to gather more specifics about office vacancy rates in Petaluma — said that not only is the proposed Walgreens and adjoining office space a mixed-use project, but that it is a better use for the property than a business park.

“There has been a recent proposal to tear down 16,000 square feet of office building at 35 Maria Drive to build residential units,” wrote Faith in an updated proposal to the City Council submitted last week. “This is compelling because the developer is electing to tear down existing office structures and replace them with residential units due to the adverse market conditions for office space.”

Faith went on to say that Petaluma has 37 percent more office space based on population than Santa Rosa and 33 percent more than Rohnert Park. She also says there is currently 300,000 vacant square feet of office space along North McDowell Boulevard between East Washington Street and Old Redwood Highway, not including the 16,000 on Maria Drive.

“From a fiduciary responsibility, it would make no sense for the District to develop the parcel as was originally intended,” she said.

From the perspective of the Petaluma Health Center and the Petaluma Valley Hospital, Walgreens adds a much-needed service to Petaluma: a 24-hour pharmacy. Health Center CEO Kathie Powell said that many of her patients leave town to fill their prescriptions after typical business hours.

“People get sick 24 hours a day and having a 24-hour pharmacy would provide a huge benefit to this community,” Powell said.

The Health Care Center said that more than 8,800 of their written prescriptions were filled at a nearby Walgreens in 2012.

The other major benefit that the district, the Health Center and Petaluma Valley Hospital have all touted as a reason to bring a Walgreens to town is the assistance the business offers to recovering hospital patients.

“Walgreens offers a transitional care program … designed to ease a patient's transition from hospital to home and help reduce preventable hospital readmissions,” said Faith. “The program includes pharmacist consultation and follow-up.”

Petaluma Valley Hospital Vice President Jane Read said at the July Planning Commission meeting that the main reason patients are re-admitted to the hospital following medical procedures is a failure to properly take their prescribed medication. She said that by partnering with Walgreens, the hospital would greatly reduce readmissions.

But even with the suggested benefits, the sheer number of pharmacies already in Petaluma makes Walgreens and its drive-thru window a difficult sell. The Friedman's-anchored Deer Creek Shopping Center — currently under construction on land adjacent to the proposed Walgreens — already has space designated for a pharmacy. Site developer Merlone Geier submitted a letter to the city in July, complaining that it had been forced to work within the confines of Petaluma's no drive-through law. Merlone Geier argued that the Health Care District should be held to the same standard.

Faith contends that the proposed Walgreen's drive-through functions less like a traditional drive through, where cars idle for long periods of time, and more like a pick-up window, where patients quickly collect completed prescriptions.

“The Walgreens pharmacy pick-up window serves a critical and unmet need in the city — easy access to medication and pharmacy health services for seniors, the ill, those with limited mobility and adults with sick children or parents,” said Faith.

The City Council will consider the proposed zoning change and allowing the drive-through pharmacy at its meeting on Monday, Sept. 9. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in council chambers at 11 English St.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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