Santa Rosa once had ambitious plans for that large area west of Railroad Square known for its dirt, weeds and propped-up brick facades.
In hopes of making the city's vision a reality, San Francisco developer John Stewart proposed a $182 million project that was full of hyphenated descriptors. It was going to be a transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development that would include a food-and-wine center, a 10,000-square-foot retail center and low-income and market-rate housing.
It had it all. Everything except a future.
The project overcame numerous obstacles over the years: ground-water cleanup issues, threats of lawsuits, property battles with SMART, government delays and, finally, it endured a Great Recession that left many facets of the plan in shambles. But only recently, did it face its greatest threat — the loss of redevelopment money following the governor's decision to pull the plug on redevelopment agencies and sweep the funding for schools and other purposes. Yanking those funds would have a domino effect on the only part of the project that remained viable — the development of 93 units of affordable housing on an old cannery site.
That is why, with the city's support, Stewart filed a lawsuit in hopes of getting $5.5 million in redevelopment funds reinstated. But as he hoped to win that battle at the state level, Stewart lost the war on the home front.
On April 16, the Santa Rosa City Council voted 4-3 to drop its support for the project. Why? Because in the end, council members didn't like what was left of the project: low-income senior housing.
"I just can't shake the feeling that we're grasping at straws to try to make something happen under the feeling that something is better than nothing," Mayor Scott Bartley said.
That's exactly why the city should have given its support — because something is better than nothing.
There was hope that the would reconsider its vote, but that was extinguished on Wednesday when Stewart announced he was pulling the plug.
"Financing and construction of this project is difficult enough as it is, let alone without broad-based, top-down support from the city," Stewart wrote in a letter to Bartley, who voted against the project.
Granted, low-income senior housing is not ideal for the site. But it would have been a start. It would have provided jobs, an infusion of government funding in the local economy — funds that some falsely seem to believe could be easily spent elsewhere — and hope that it would be a catalyst for other development to come.
It would have been better than nothing. But given the radical changes that have occurred in the housing and construction industries, the loss of redevelopment money and the dim prospects of new federal grants appearing anytime soon, nothing is what city residents can now expect will happen with that site for years to come.
And nothing but weeds and propped up walls are what passengers can expect to see when they step off the SMART train in 2016.