The Ukiah City Council approved the seventh iteration of Redwood Credit Union’s plans for a branch at the corner of Perkins and Main at a special meeting on Friday afternoon.
The plans have been the subject of fierce debate in the community. Opponents have argued the design does not comport with the downtown zoning code, which volunteers created with objectives for a walkable city with mixed-use properties and high density.
But the property, which consists of two parcels with a couple of buildings that will need to be demolished before any work can begin, is not beset with offers of development. Even a last-minute plan to subdivide the property and bring in another low-impact business failed to sway two councilmembers, who remained opposed.
The latest changes include a partial second floor with two small offices. Councilmember Susan Sher noted that these rooms, which can accommodate 4-6 people, were not adequate to host a community meeting, as has been discussed at previous council hearings on the subject. She recalled that the old Chase bank had a room that could hold 20-25. “Usually community meetings are a pretty big group of people,” she noted.
Redwood Credit Union’s Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer Tony Hildescheim did not dispute the point; but, “Would we be able to create a 20-person conference room?” he asked. “Probably not.”
Dennis Crean, a member of the public who remained resolutely opposed to the project, told the council that he’s not satisfied by the lack of detail in the plans to subdivide the property, even though the changes also include getting rid of proposals for a drive-through ATM and an exit onto Perkins. “It’s possible that a new developer could come in and install a driveway on Perkins street, which is what you all were wanting to avoid in the first place…I may be a little more cynical than some, but it could be in the future that with a different City Council, if that’s been sitting vacant for a while, the Credit Union may bring back up again the idea of a drive-through ATM,” he cautioned.
The disapproval of drive-thru ATMs was by no means a matter of consensus. Sher also remained dubious about the proposed subdivision. “It’s a complete unknown,” she said. “To me, it would be like someone who’s wanting to buy a house next to an empty lot, but they have no idea what’s coming into that lot. It could be a cannabis facility, it could be a residence with really nice neighbors, but we don’t know.”
Hildescheim pushed back on Sher’s request that the credit union hold off on building the new branch until it had sold the second parcel and the buyer had submitted a project that met the city’s approval. “You have a lot of lots in this city that you have no idea what somebody’s going to do with it,” he said. “All I can assure you is that we’re going to make sure that the neighbor we pick is going to be commensurate to Redwood Credit Union’s brand, and supportive of the General Plan. And you have a Design Review Committee, a Planning Commission, and yourselves, to ensure that occurs, as well.”
This led to a guessing game about what kind of neighbor the credit union would not select. Sher began on the process of elimination, positing that, “It won’t be a service industry, like a restaurant or a bank where there’ll be a lot of traffic.” Hildesheim assured her it would not be a bank, which led to brief laughter. It also won’t be a check-cashing business, which Hildescheim pronounced “despicable organizations,” or a dispensary. When Sher asked if it would be housing, Hildesheim paused and said that affordable housing is a possibility. “It won’t be a business that has a lot of traffic, it won’t be a business that has a lot of employees, and it won’t be a business that doesn’t lend well into who we are and what we’re trying to offer, and it certainly wouldn’t be competition to the Credit Union,” he offered.
Councilmember Juan Orozco said he’d cast his vote with Sher against the project. The drama of the evening escalated when Vice Mayor Josefina Duenas said she wanted more public input and that she planned to abstain, leaving the project deadlocked 2-2. Mayor Mari Rodin was dismayed. “Vice-Mayor, I implore you that it is a responsibility for you as a councilmember to make a decision, even when it’s hard,” she said, noting that Sher had characterized her own opposition as reluctant. “If you count all the meetings that have happened with the Planning Commission, and with us, there’s been a lot of public input,” Rodin went on. “And now it’s time for us to be grownups and to make a decision.”
Councilmember Douglas Crane likewise implored his colleague to break the tie. “Our community has a reputation for being very negative on development,” he said. “Very negative on moving forward. I think if we don’t act on this, we send a signal to the greater community that this is not a place to even waste your time.”
Then Hildescheim hinted that the credit union has a relationship with a reputable organization it might consider as a neighbor. “There is a not-for-profit housing organization that is known to build nice, affordable housing units,” he ventured; “who we have a relationship with, who is a chairman of the board for Catholic Charities and Santa Rosa Diocese, and the Caritas Center. I happen to have very good relationships with. That is one of the options we’ve spoken to.”
Duenas interpreted this as a commitment to bring in Catholic Charities, and decided to vote, after all. “I think, counting with your promise, I will move ahead and say, yes, let’s do it,” she determined.
After three and a half hours, the council voted 3-2, with Orozco and Sher dissenting, to approve the Redwood Credit Union’s final proposal.