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Appeal to City Council anticipated

SAN RAFAEL – The San Rafael Planning Commission on Tuesday night rejected an appeal of an approved Mi Pueblo Food Center in a shuttered Circuit City store in the Canal area of the city.

The commission voted 4-0, with three commissioners absent, to deny an appeal by Ruth Donohugh, who owns Picante restaurant adjacent to the planned grocery store, of a May 20 approval by the city Zoning Administrator.

San Jose-based Mi Pueblo Foods Inc. wants to convert the the 35,700-square-foot former electronics store at 330 Bellam Blvd. into the Latin American-flavored grocer's 14th location. [See the May 11, 2009, story "Mi Pueblo moving into North Bay."]

Mena Architects filed the project proposal March 30. After a May 19 hearing the Zoning Administrator approved an environmental and design review permit, administrative use permit for outdoor seating and dining, sign permit and finding of public convenience of necessity to allow an off-sale alcoholic beverage license.

Ms. Donohugh, who opened the restaurant at 340 Bellam 17 years ago, appealed the approvals to the city Planning Commission on May 25. In the three-page filing, she questioned whether:

There would be too much indoor and outdoor seating for a grocery store, making the food-service use not ancillary. In a July 8 follow-up letter, Ms. Donohugh called that element of the store a "fast food restaurant," thus requiring a conditional use permit.

The deli part of the store would be more like a "food court," increasing seating and parking requirements.

The allegedly excess seating plus the new County of Marin Wellness Campus next door would create a parking problem.

Traffic would increase.

About a half-dozen recently established smaller markets in the Canal area would be put out of business.

Another alcoholic-beverage license shouldn't be issued for that area.

"It's a snowball effect," she said before the appeal hearing about the potential impact. "This is a densely populated neighborhood and the meter maid is our best friend. As the store is proposed, I think the city, in an effort to secure sales-tax revenue, would rush this through."

The city is expecting Ms. Donohugh will appeal the Planning Commission decision to the City Council. If submitted by the July 21 deadline, the City Council could hear the appeal in August or September, according to project planner Raffi Boloyan. 

The Planning Commission followed the staff recommendation to deny the appeal. The General Commercial zoning for the nearly four-acre site allows both grocery and dining without a separate use permit, but the foodservice part of the Mi Pueblo proposal didn't exceed the city's rules of thumb for ancillary uses, according to the staff report for the appeal hearing Tuesday evening. Two such rules are a use that doesn't exceed a quarter of the floor area or revenue.

As for the concern about inadequate parking, the county has an easement from 2005 for 15 of the 177 spaces at 330 Bellam and until a new tenant arrives is leasing more spaces in the currently empty lot, according to the staff report. The city code calls for 145 spaces for a grocery store of that size with that zoning.

City planning staff said they checked with the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage Control about two license violations in the past three years two other Mi Pueblo locations. The bureau has approved the proposed store for an off-sale license if the city approves the project, according to the staff report.

In a letter to the commission dated July 8, Mi Pueblo Chief Operating Officer Jeff Aldaz said the company toured the site with Ms. Donohugh on June 12 and offered to reduce the proposed seating.

"The appellant has mischaracterized a number of facts about this project in her flyers, which have been brought to our attention by a number of community leaders," he wrote, noting letters and flyers about the project.

The city planning department memorandum to the Planning Commission after receiving Ms. Donohugh's July 8 letter also noted the flyer as well as letters of support from the Canal Alliance and the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. The alliance did note a preference that the store not sell alcohol, according to the documents.

The Planning Commission added conditions for approval that would not allow drive-up or drive-through food sales for the planned outdoor grill and that the number of outdoor seats would be no more than a quarter of the indoor seats.

Mi Pueblo anticipates hiring more than 175 for the San Rafael store. The company's original timeframe for opening the store was August.

In Vallejo, Mi Pueblo plans to open a 15th store in summer 2010 as part of a major renovation of the Solano 80 Center, also known as the Rite Aid center on Spring Road. The developer, Jay-Phares Corp., is on schedule to turn the space over to Mi Pueblo for improvements that spring, according to the grocer.