The developer of a transit-oriented development in Railroad Square asked Wednesday to shift the location of affordable housing to make the project financially feasible, saying it could be a catalyst for building in the area as a whole.

"We have the opportunity to kick-start immediately the development," said Jack Gardner, president and chief executive officer of The John Stewart Co.

The company is asking the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District to shift 68 units of affordable housing from its market and housing complex to the Cannery, an adjacent development the company is undertaking.

The apartments would be be built for senior citizens by Burbank Housing, a Sonoma County non-profit tht builds and manaages affordable housing, to take advantage of financial incentives.

"It would allow everyone to move ahead with this development in a time of recession and uncertainty," said John Lowry, Burbank Housing's executive director.

Stewart wants to renovate the Cannery with Club One Fitness Center on the first two floors and with 68 low-cost senior rental apartments on the third, fourth and fifth floors.

The development, which would cost $48 million, would take advantage of $5 million in Santa Rosa redevelopment funding, $3 million in state grants and $15 million in Burbank Housing financing.

The housing had been required by SMART as part of Stewart's plan for a separate marketplace and housing complex on nearby SMART land, a project that could cost $200 million.

SMART planning manager John Nemeth said that if directors approved the switch, SMART could remove the affordable housing requirement on the marketplace complex.

The approach assuaged some of the fears by neighbors, who were concerned that they could end up with even more low-cost housing in their area.

"The devil is in the details," said resident Allen Thomas. "We'd be OK with it."

Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin urged SMART to approve the request.

"We need your help in making his project financially feasible," Gorin said. "This is going to be a catalyst for Railroad Square development."

David Grabill, head of the Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group, warned that that moving from low-income affordable to senior housing might iolate state fair housing laws.

"This feels like a bait-and-switch," Grabill said. "They got our support and then they made it senior housing."

The issue was discussed by the SMART real estate committee in a closed session because it involves real estate negotiations. The committee said only that it gave direction to its staff.