A group of local business partners who bought the former bowling alley on South Stewart Street in downtown Sonora will be able to move forward with their plan for renting out indoor self-storage units inside the long-vacant building.

The city’s planning commission voted 4-0 on Monday to approve a conditional use permit for the project, with Commissioner John Richardson absent, despite objections from two men who felt the building could be put to better use.

“A lot of people had chances to do something with it and didn’t do anything,” Commissioner Ron Jensen said of the building that has been empty since Sonora Family Bowl closed in July 2010 after 50 years in business.

The permit will also allow the owners to develop a vacant, overgrown lot next door to the alley into a parking lot with three spaces that would provide side access into the building. The lot would also be gated and accessible with a key given only to people renting storage space.

There would be roughly 100 storage units based on a preliminary layout included with public documents released prior to the meeting on Monday.

Mike Baker and Gabe Thompson, both of Sonora, each briefly spoke in opposition to approving the permit prior to the commission’s vote. Sharon Marovich, chairwoman of the Tuolumne Heritage Committee, voiced support.

Baker said he was not opposed to having storage in downtown Sonora, but believed there could be other places for it that aren’t located directly off Washington Street. He also said he counted 17 storage facilities throughout the county, which the owners of the bowling alley have said are in high demand.

The city previously did not allow self-storage businesses until after the Sonora-based PWM Properties, LLC, purchased the bowling alley in December for $375,000 and requested a change in zoning laws that would allow such facilities in certain nonresidential districts.

Both the commission and City Council later approved the change to allow self-storage facilities in limited manufacturing and commercial districts with an approved use permit.

Thompson said he believed the building could provide more value to downtown Sonora if it was used for a different purpose. Some of the possibilities he suggested included a gathering space, theater for plays, or housing rentals.

Commissioner Kevin Anderson said he also had similar thoughts about the building’s potential, but he voted in favor because he felt the project would improve the property and only make modular changes that could be removed later if another idea comes along.

Brian Wahlbrink, Joe Pluim and Lee Moyle, three of the partners in PWM Properties, attended the meeting on Monday as well.

Wahlbrink said he and his partners have also had thoughts about whether the self-storage concept was the best use of the building, but determined that it would be after exploring several other ideas.

“We’re struggling with vacancies in downtown Sonora right now,” he said. “We think this storage facility will help bring more value and business to the area.”

Several individuals and groups have looked at the building over the years as a possible location for a variety of potential businesses, ranging from a dance club to an indoor farmers market.

However, none of the ideas panned out due largely to the size of the building at about 15,000 square feet and requirements for parking that could double the cost.

Pluim also noted that most other concepts would likely require extensive demolition and renovation to the 1960s-era building, whereas the changes they are proposing will only require minimal work to the interior.

The building’s “Googie” themed architecture, inspired by Space Age aesthetics at the time, was popularized in Southern California during the mid-20th century.

Marovich applauded the new owners’ “visionary and unique” plans on behalf of Tuolumne Heritage Committee because the project would preserve the historic building while also putting it to use after nearly a decade of sitting empty.

All of the bowling equipment was removed after the alley shut down.

The owners will next be working on a timeline for construction work on the project that they hope will begin by sometime in summer. They are also working on a proposed project in East Sonora near the Micro 7 industrial park to construct a self-storage facility with hundreds more units.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.