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Santa Rosa mixed-use building may become apartments


One of downtown Santa Rosa's mixed-use buildings soon may be converted completely to residential apartments after failing to house a single commercial tenant in seven years.

If granted by the city, the conversion would turn the empty ground floor at 615 Healdsburg Ave. into 12 one-bedroom apartments.

"The market has simply said over and over on this one, this needs to be a residential building," said Rob O'Dea, a spokesman for the owner, the Wolff Company, a housing development firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Both O'Dea and others suggested the conversion doesn't mean mixed-use development has fallen out of favor.

"There's nothing wrong with mixed-use as long as you put it in the right place," said Hugh Futrell, who has developed several mixed-use projects in Santa Rosa. What successful developments have in common, he said, is "they're located in a well-traveled commercial street in a commercial district."

Once known as the Moore Building, the $15 million mixed-use project opened in 2007 a block from College Avenue. The building drew praise from city leaders and advocates of city-centered growth for combining ground-floor commercial space with apartments above.

The development followed large mixed-use projects in Windsor and Petaluma, as well as major proposals that were never built in both Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

The Moore apartments proved popular, but no stores or restaurants ever leased any of the ground floor space, apparently because it was too far from the downtown core. The original owners fell behind in payments to their lender, and the building went through foreclosure in 2010.

The Wolff Company bought the building the next year and renamed it Six 1 Five.

Working with local commercial real estate brokers, the new owner became "very creative and aggressive" in efforts to attract tenants, O'Dea said. Even so, it never found a retailer willing to sign a lease.

Under the new proposal, the building's ground floor would have 12 apartments, each with its own entrance and planted area along Healdsburg Avenue. A nearby building at 631 Healdsburg Ave. would be demolished and a gated parking lot would be developed for the new units.

The neighborhood would benefit from the building's transformation, O'Dea said.

"Nothing does less for a community than having a storefront sit vacant for years," he said.

As to the value of mixed-use, O'Dea noted that the Wolff Company continues to develop or own such projects in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Boulder, Colo.

Mixed-use projects became popular here over the last two decades, said Scott Gerber, a senior vice president with Cassidy Turley in San Rafael. But they aren't easy to pull off.

"It's been successful to some degree in downtown Petaluma," Turley said. The city's theater district benefited from the fact that Petaluma's core retail area is "pretty concentrated."

To work, mixed-use projects need people and street-level activity, said Peter Stanley, a principal with the Santa Rosa architectural and consulting firm ArchiLOGIX.

"Retailers are looking for one thing," said Stanley, the vice chairman of the city planning commission. "They're looking for people with disposable income walking by."

Mixed-use developments provide significant benefits, including offering a lifestyle for residents that relies less on automobiles, Stanley said.

"It's the right thing to do," he said, "but you've got to do them right."