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San Francisco's landmark Ferry Building, which placed shops, restaurants and a farmer's market at a major transit hub, inspired a proposed makeover of the west edge of Santa Rosa's Railroad Square.

The Santa Rosa plan adds a food and wine center long coveted by city officials and housing on upper floors to the features drawn from the recently refurbished Ferry Building.

A proposed commuter rail line would run alongside, with a station across the tracks.

The proposal was unanimously recommended Wednesday by a committee representing the city and the North Bay rail agency that owns the 5?-acre site between Third and Sixth streets.

Hugh Futrell, a former Santa Rosa school board member who has other building projects in and around downtown, is a partner in the Creative Housing Associates plan that was picked over two other developers.

Their proposal includes a 46,650-square-foot food and wine center, a white-tablecloth restaurant, a farmer's market, 250 housing units, a child-care center, a health club and an underground parking garage.

A firm cost has yet to be established for the proposal, construction is at least a year off and several possible obstacles remain in its path.

First, the committee's recommendation must be ratified by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency, which owns the land. The proposal also must be routed through Santa Rosa's planning process.

There could be debate over the $7 million in subsidies Creative Housing wants from the city, although the request has been cut from $16 million - a figure that raised eyebrows at City Hall earlier this month.

"When do we say we can't afford this?" Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender asked at a May 9 council meeting.

Affordable housing advocates have pressed the city and rail agency to maximize the number of homes in the area around the rail station. While they're satisfied by the number of housing units in the proposal, they are waiting to see if the prices will be low enough to be truly affordable.

There also have been concerns about the effect of potentially high ground-water levels on the underground parking plan, as well as how the development affects traffic in the neighborhood.

Finally, questions remain about financing the development, which would be one of the largest in Santa Rosa in recent memory.

But members of the committee that recommended the plan were enthusiastic about its chances for approval.

"I feel that they have demonstrated an ability to coalesce some very diverse interest groups and get them all excited about having a magical place," said Cloverdale Mayor Bob Jehn, a SMART board member.

Creative Housing Associates was selected over CMI/Domus of Los Angeles and the John Stewart Co. of San Francisco.

The proposal goes before the SMART real estate committee on June 7. The full SMART board is scheduled to vote June 21, but committee members said Wednesday's recommendation will likely stand.

In preparing their proposals, the potential developers were asked to remember the rail agency's priority: Generating ridership for the proposed train service, which is likely to be the subject of sales tax votes in Sonoma and Marin counties in November.

In addition, there was the city's desire for the food and wine center, the neighborhood concerns about traffic and noise and the demand for high-density, low-cost housing near the rail station.

The developers were asked to meet those requirements while also satisfying calls for green building techniques and living wages for employees.

Determining if and how those demands can be met will take months of negotiations and public meetings, committee members said Wednesday.

"This is just, in a sense, the beginning," said John Sawyer, one of two Santa Rosa council members on the panel. "There will be a great deal more public input as this project moves forward."

The other city representative, Councilman Mike Martini, said the city should be included in SMART's negotiations with Creative Housing.

He said that would reduce the chance of the proposal being rejected by the Planning Commission or City Council.

"The city has the ability to say no, but the city does not have the ability to say what goes there," he said. "We don't have the ability to say, 'SMART, build this.'"

On Wednesday, food and wine center advocates and neighbors cheered the selection of Creative Housing.

"This will transform what was a contaminated rail site into something that is going to have great public benefit to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County," said Tom Peterson, president of the Sonoma County Food and Wine Center. "This is not just a commercial enterprise, this is a community enterprise."

SMART board member James Eddie, a farmer by trade, said he was impressed by the Futrell group's plan for the food and wine center.

"It takes the country to the urban areas," he said, adding that the market will offer farmers "the opportunity to be firsthand to the urban consumer, instead of secondhand through the supermarket."

The West End Neighborhood Association, representing a residential area adjacent to Railroad Square, has kept a vigilant eye on plans for the site.

Allen Thomas, vice president of the association, said the plans are encouraging.

"We are just really excited to finally be validated - that this neighborhood we live in has value outside of the people who live in it," he said.

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