A social service group's dream of turning a former hospital into a refuge for disadvantaged young adults runs headlong this week into the stark reality that a large and well-organized group of Santa Rosa neighbors remain fiercely opposed to the idea.
The Dream Center, as Social Advocates for Youth is calling the 63-bed transitional housing facility it wants to open in the former Warrack Hospital, has much going for it as it seeks city approval for the project.
It has an inspiring name, a heartwarming mission, well-connected supporters and the sponsorship of an organization with a 43-year record of giving young people "a hand up, not a hand out."
But after more than six months of debate and several changes meant to address neighborhood concerns, hundreds of residents remain vehemently opposed.
The city has received more than 900 letters and emails about the project, an almost unprecedented outpouring of public comment for a land-use application. While many emails express worries about the conclusions of an environmental impact report or increased traffic to the former hospital site in Bennett Valley, others stand out for their hostile "us-versus-them" tone.
This week the controversy lands in the lap of the seven-member Santa Rosa Planning Commission for the first round in a fight that may ultimately be decided by the courts.
One young adult helped by SAY, 25-year-old Zech Engdahl of Santa Rosa, said the alternative to the Dream Center is simply having more homeless ex- foster kids living on city streets.
"They've been doing what they've been doing for 30 or 40years," said Engdahl, a former foster child who plans to speak at Thursday's meeting. "It's definitely a large project, but I feel confident they're able to take it on."
Warrack Hospital operated for nearly 50 years until Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa closed the 69-bed facility in 2008. It has since offered to turn the campus at the intersection of Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road over to SAY at no cost.
SAY originally proposed housing 100 people at the facility, but quickly scaled back plans. The Dream Center as proposed will increase its capacity to a maximum of 63 residents after three years of operation: 51 beds of transitional housing where people can stay for up to two years and 12 emergency shelter beds with a three-month maximum stay. A variety of counseling and health serviceS as well as education and job-skill classes and SAY administration also will be located on-site.
The Planning Commission is being asked to rezone eight parcels, fewer than the 21 parcels originally proposed. As currently constituted, the project will cover 8.7 acres.
It also is being asked to sign off on planning staff's conclusion that the project will have no significant environmental impacts, and to approve several conditions governing the use of the property. The City Council has the final say.
SAY Executive Director Matt Martin said he knows the hearing will be a difficult one, but he's looking forward to the opportunity to speak directly to city decision makers.
"I think the commissioners really have a tough decision on their hands," Martin said. "I absolutely appreciate the process we're going to be going through as a community all together. I look forward to it, but it's going to be hard."