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The black GMC Denali lumbered like a lunar rover as it dipped and climbed over the broken ground where John Ryan Jr. is guiding an effort to build more than 1,400 new houses and apartments near a stately concert hall in Rohnert Park.

By Sonoma County standards, the next phase of the multiyear construction project is vast. Heavy earth movers rumble around great trenches cut for utilities into a dirt tract roughly the size of three dozen football fields.

When completed, this portion of the University District neighborhood will hold 400 new houses — some designed for young families and others targeted to stair-averse seniors. Near those homes may rise a 100-room boutique hotel, restaurants and other shops directly across the street from the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.

John Ryan builds homes and more. The former Santa Rosan leads a company that constructs not only houses but also the parks, schools and other facilities that will enhance the master communities it develops around Northern California.

Seated behind the Denali’s steering wheel on a tour of the property, Ryan noted that University District is one of the few new residential projects under construction this summer in the North Bay.

“We have very little competition in the (Highway) 101 corridor,” said Ryan, 57, president of Danville-based Brookfield Residential Northern California, a division of a national home builder. Among past local projects, he said, “nothing of this size has been built in years.”

In a county where a lack of housing has been called a crisis, a residential development near a top-notch music venue might seem a diamond-studded business opportunity. But the success of University District has been anything but instant.

The project took nearly two decades to come out of the ground, longer if you count the nine years during which a separate land company gathered up the parcels needed for the 260-acre community. The development was delayed first by legal battles and later by the recession.

“They have hung in there,” Rohnert Park Mayor Jake MacKenzie said of Ryan and his team. Of the work now underway, Mackenzie said, “It’s the beginning of the realization of what we were looking at 20 years ago.”

Only last year did the first University District homes start to rise in the western part of the project off Rohnert Park Expressway. To date, about 170 houses have been sold there by three different home building companies, with the least expensive models starting around $565,000.

Another 100 houses are under construction this summer. Near the homes, a public park recently opened, complete with a baseball diamond and turf for soccer games.

Ryan, an alumnus of Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School and a member of Green Music Center’s board of directors, estimated the project will take at least five more years to complete, longer if the economy slows.

University District is of a scale rarely seen in the county.

The development’s plans include 1,236 single-family homes, more than 200 “affordable” apartment units and 100,000 square feet of commercial space. That puts it somewhere between the 500-home Skyhawk subdivision in east Santa Rosa and the 1,500-acre Fountaingrove residential and business community in the northeast part of the city.

Of note, Rohnert Park has two more substantial housing developments yet to be built, making it the center of future residential development in the county. Mary Grace Pawson, the city’s director of development services, cited the 475-unit Southeast Specific Plan development along Valley House Drive, where first-phase grading work has begun, and nearly 1,900 more units approved at nearby SOMO Village, a former Agilent Technologies manufacturing facility.

Bringing huge housing projects to completion requires an ability to tackle a variety of different building projects simultaneously. Also needed are the skills to correctly forecast the costs of the varied improvements and the profits to be achieved once homes are sold.

Skilled in the industry

Those who know Ryan said he has proven his business acumen during three decades of building homes.

“He has an innate ability to bring together all the different factors and the community input,” said Vic Trione, chairman of the board of Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Savings. Trione compared the skills needed to run Brookfield Residential to those required when managing a political or a military campaign.

The state’s homebuilders also have acknowledged Ryan’s abilities, Trione said. In 2013, the California Homebuilding Foundation inducted Ryan into its Hall of Fame. Past honorees include such county builders as Keith and Brenda Christopherson and the late Art Condiotti.

Trione’s and Ryan’s parents were longtime friends in Santa Rosa. After Trione’s father, prominent businessman and philanthropist Henry Trione, became a widower, he married Ryan’s mother, Eileen, a widow, making the two men stepbrothers. (Henry Trione died in 2015, but Eileen Ryan Trione still lives in Santa Rosa’s Oakmont adult community, where Ryan said his mother regularly beats him at golf whenever the two play a round.)

Brookfield’s portfolio

In its developments, Brookfield is known for building plenty of facilities besides houses. At its Windemere community in San Ramon, the company not only oversaw the construction of 5,000-plus homes, but it also built two elementary schools, a middle school, high school, police substation and community college satellite campus.

And at its current Boulevard project in Dublin — a joint venture with CalAtlantic Homes and the California State Teachers Retirement System — Brookfield is erecting buildings at the Camp Parks Army Reserve base. The construction is in exchange for land for the 1,750-home development near a BART station. Ryan said the new facilities include a maintenance center for Humvees and other military vehicles, a structure he called “the biggest Jiffy Lube you’ve ever seen.”

At University District, Brookfield will build 3 miles of on-site trails and establish two parks totaling 13 acres. It also is adding two lanes to the existing two on Rohnert Park Expressway along the property and soon will expand the intersection where the new four-lane expressway will join Petaluma Hill Road.

Kevin Pohlson, Brookfield’s vice president, said the company also has conveyed land east of Petaluma Hill Road to public agencies for a bike and pedestrian trail east to Crane Creek Regional Park, a spot Mayor Mackenzie calls “an unsung jewel” for its expansive sunset views. As a result, Pohlson said, cyclists one day will be able to ride a trail and bike path system extending some 31/2 miles from the park in the east to Highway 101 in the west.

In 1996, Pohlson and Ryan began the Northern California division of Brookfield Residential Properties, a Calgary- based company that operates in nearly a dozen locales in the U.S. and Canada.

Local roots

Ryan grew up in Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley just over the hill from University District. His father, John Ryan Sr., was in the real estate and mortgage business, which offered the opportunity for his son to work summer construction jobs.

Ryan’s brothers James and Kevin continue to operate the family business, Ryan Mortgage in Santa Rosa.

But after graduating from St. Mary’s College, Ryan went to work specializing in real estate for a large accounting firm. He later spent a decade with Los Angeles-based homebuilder KB Home, including a few years for the company in Paris.

The company he now leads has 83 employees. It builds about 3,000 homes a year and sells another 4,000 residential lots to other home builders.

At University District, while Brookfield has developed the lots and gotten plans approved, it has yet to build homes but may do so in future phases. The first-phase builders are KB Home, Richmond American Homes and Signature Homes.

The prominence of those regional and national builders indicates how home construction changed after the recession. Residential building here for decades was dominated by county-based companies, but many of those businesses didn’t survive the tremendous financial strains of the housing crash, in part because they lacked the deep reserves of the national companies.

“There’s not a lot of local guys left,” Ryan said.

University District

A few years after starting the Brookfield division, Ryan heard about the University District site from his brother, James, who sits on the Exchange Bank’s board of directors. James Ryan had learned of the site from one of the bank’s clients, Clos Du Bois winery co-founder Thomas Reed.

Reed, a former secretary of the Air Force, was a leader in a partnership that had spent nine years assembling eight parcels just north of the university. The negotiations with landowners were arduous, said Reed, but necessary in order to provide the scale needed for a successful project.

“If you do it right,” he said, “you’ve got to have a couple hundred acres.”

When Reed’s Vast Oak Properties partnership began its efforts in 1990, no one knew the land across the street one day would house the Green Music Center. Later, Reed said, the partnership sold at cost to the university the 26-acre parcel on which the center’s Weill Hall now sits.

However, by 1999, the year that Reed’s group entered into a partnership agreement with Brookfield, the university had announced a proposed price tag for the Green Music Center of $47 million and an estimated completion date of 2002.

In reality, the music center cost $145 million and didn’t open until 2012.

Before University District could get a green light from Rohnert Park, the City Council had to write a new general plan, annex the land to the city and approve a specific plan for what would be built there. After the project won council approval in 2006, a Penngrove group filed suit, contending the city failed to adequately study the groundwater impacts of homes from University District and other developments planned under the new general plan.

In November 2008, the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal ruled the city had complied with state law in its study of the water impacts of 4,500 new homes planned for Rohnert Park. However, by the time of the court victory, builders were stopping projects and hunkering down as the U.S. housing market crashed. Soon waves of home foreclosures hit the market at prices far below the cost of building new residences.

Eight more years would elapse before Brookfield and its building partners were ready for the first residents to move into University District.

“They kept on,” said Mackenzie, “and we’re now starting to see the benefits of that persistence.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.