Progressive Majority Coalition - Ben Boyce

What defines ‘community character’ for Sonoma?

The mission of this monthly column from Day One has been to answer the question: “What is the Progressive agenda?”  The collapse of New Deal liberalism under the dominant Conservative movement, dating back over the last 40 years, left an ideological vacuum, which was filled wall-to-wall by the corporate-funded 24/7 propaganda machine.

The ideologically diffuse liberal establishment was no match for this concerted plutocratic drive to reshape the terms of American politics.  The Conservative movement won the ideological war.  The only barrier to their taking every lever of power in sight has been visceral resistance to their agenda by those who would suffer the most under their design to redistribute the bulk of wealth to the 1% ownership class.

The Progressive movement arose out of the need to mount a credible counter-narrative to the hegemony of the corporate overlords and their ideological enablers in academia and the media.  Current leaders of the movement are economists like Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Richard Wolfe, and local and regional activists in labor unions, environmental, and civil society organizations (like our local Living Wage Coalition and Sonoma County Conservation Action).  These public intellectuals and community advocates have set to the task of formulating a detailed policy agenda that will help America evolve toward a more humane, just, and environmentally sound society.  Liberalism is a political tendency; progressivism is a fully articulated policy platform.

My work as a community organizer during my tenures with the Living Wage Coalition and the Accountable Development Coalition has included: pass Living Wage ordinances in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Petaluma; enact green building code upgrades around the county; protect established UGB’s (Urban Growth Boundaries); pass a CIR (Community Impact Report) ordinance in Petaluma; advocate successfully for affordable housing measures; and support multiple union organizing drives.  Most recently, I initiated the Sonoma Formula Store ordinance, which is now nationally recognized as a model for other similar cities.  I’m still waiting for the Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer Yankovich, and Joanne Sanders to thank me for helping protect the Plaza from getting junked up with ticky-tacky chain stores during a down market.  It’s a strange season in this town when a left-wing political activist is providing better commercial land-use planning advice than an organization that is supposedly representing business interests.

Against this backdrop of professional accomplishment in promoting sustainability and social equity, I also find it odd that I am being shunned and castigated by many of the liberals who are promoting the ‘preserve Sonoma’ referendum.  My first take, honestly, when I heard about the prospect of a four star hotel near the Plaza, was: “This is exactly what the Plaza needs.  We helped keep it upscale through the Formula Store ordinance, and now it can support a high-end destination attraction.  Excellent!”

I have been subjected repeatedly, often vehemently, to the arguments for the referendum campaign, and I continue to find them uncompelling.  From a public policy perspective, the hotel project is a winner:  the developers are not asking for a dime of public money; it is an in-fill development on a brown-field site; it is being built to silver LEEDS standards; and, it is in conformance with the General Plan.  What’s not to like?

Based on my knowledge of urban planning from sitting through countless land-use hearings, the objections raised on the basis of traffic and circulation issues are mitigable.

The argument for preserving ‘community character’ deserves attention.   However, that evaluation is inherently a subjective, gut feeling, not a policy standard.  Mileage may vary, according to individual taste.  Personally, I would like to have a four star hotel downtown with a well-appointed entertainment venue and fine dining, a first-class destination that will draw the affluent clientele who can support the boutique shops on the Plaza, and provide good service sector jobs for local working class folks.  Our public officials, who have to be responsible for keeping the city solvent, would certainly be receptive to millions of dollars of TOT tax every year to fund city services.  There’s more than one version of ‘community character’.

All that said, there is one piece of the puzzle that is missing in order for me to be publicly supportive of the project.  Until I know whether the developers plan to exercise social responsibility by offering living wage jobs with good benefits, I will withhold final judgment.  That is the most critical piece in all of the considerations on this very hot topic.  I can’t endorse the Wall Street model for the hospitality industry, in which they rake off the profits from the hides of the workers in the community with the $1,000/night room and the $10/hour maid.  That would be a deal-breaker for me.  The ball is in Kenwood Investment’s court now.

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