The town of Novato is renewing its efforts to transform a former train depot into what could become a gateway to the city center, with early proposals ranging from beer gardens to a pop-up shopping area.
The city-owned property at 695 Grant Ave. sits next to the downtown Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station and leads directly to the main business block of Old Town.
After acquiring the 0.88 acre property from SMART in 2012, the city used it as an overflow parking lot.
The city began exploring potential development opportunities for the site in 2018 in 2019. The effort has been delayed by staff changes and the coronavirus pandemic, according to city staff.
This year, however, the city received three unsolicited proposals for the old depot.
On Tuesday, the board discussed opening a formal nomination process later this year. Several board members have expressed interest in the beer garden concepts.
“I think there has to be real interest in what we’re doing to attract people who get off the SMART train and move to other parts of the community that we want,” City Councilor Mark Milberg said during Of the reunion. “Whether it was the other part of downtown, whether it was Hamilton – anything we can do to continue to generate excitement throughout Novato, I think that would be wonderful.”
Two companies – the Hometown Development Group and the San Francisco Brewing Co. – created separate locations for a beer garden and food court that would use repurposed shipping containers.
Andy Podshadley, owner of Trek Winery in Novato, has proposed a community and commercial area where food retailers and vendors can set up cottages, as well as performance areas and open spaces.
The Novato-based Hometown Development Group offers a beer garden and train-themed cafe called Novato Depot. It would include a kitchen, a music scene, pétanque grounds, a dog park, a foyer and dining rooms for the wagons.
“As a local group, we are invested in a successful design that meets the needs of the city, and we are open to finding something that works for all council members,” said company representative Patrick Wallen to the board.
The San Francisco Brewing Co. also offered a beer garden and food hub using repurposed shipping containers. Company owner Josh Leavy told the board he has experience working at older sites, having previously set up a bar and restaurant in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. The depot site would include four to five food vendors, with the brewing company being the primary tenant.
“It’s a perfect place to build a community around food and drink,” Leavy told the board.
Podshadley proposes to use the site to create a “depot village”, including the potential for small commercial cottages designed after the Novato homes. It also offers an open space with fireplaces, a potential community garden, and a performance space for unamplified music.
“The build will be cohesive with all downtown businesses, so it won’t stand out like a sore thumb,” Podshadley told the council.
The council raised questions about parking, reusing the old depot building, and educating neighboring residents about noise.
Council members also expressed concerns about the use of the site for retail, given that some downtown storefronts are vacant.
City Councilor Susan Wernick and City Councilor Denise Athas said the beer gardens are a popular draw and would be a hangout for both younger and older residents.
“It’s a big draw,” Wernick said. “We want everything that happens there to be successful.”
“I think the only thing COVID has told us is that people really want to come together again and they love the food and they love being outside,” Athas said. She indicated that she had design issues regarding the use of shipping containers.
Pro Tem Mayor Eric Lucan has said he is not favoring one proposal over another at this point. He said he would be most interested in the project having the capital and the team to turn the site into “a viable place to meet in a shorter rather than a longer period of time.”