The construction of the SMART train is moving ahead full throttle. But when the train is up and running sometime in early 2016 and passengers start arriving at Santa Rosa Railroad Square, what are they going to find?
At the moment, the view to the west is pretty dismal.
The propped-up brick facade of the old cannery building and the Railroad Square water tower resting on the ground are testament to the city's threadbare dream of having a thriving transit-oriented, mixed-use project on that site by now.
Specific plans for a food and wine center, a culinary academy, a fitness center, etc. are long gone, casualties, for the most part, of the Great Recession. But one segment of the grand plan — a 93-unit housing project that seeks to preserve the 1908 walls of the cannery — is still alive. That is unless Gov. Jerry Brown and his people at the state Department of Finance snuff it out entirely. A decision is expected by Saturday.
In brief, the housing project is threatened by the governor's decision to eliminate — in abrupt fashion — all redevelopment agencies statewide and seize the money for schools and other purposes. And so far, it is not looking good for the $5.5 million in funds designated for this project.
"They are bayonetting the wounded and stealing their watches," John Stewart, the developer of the Cannery project, says about the process.
The Department of Finance, which is in charge of deciding what few redevelopment projects survive and can proceed because of an "enforceable obligation" to do so, has already given the city project a thumbs down. But Santa Rosa believes it has a good case. So does Rep. Mike Thompson, state Sen. Noreen Evans, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, former Mayor Ernesto Olivares, county supervisors, neighborhood leaders and host of others who have been pressing state officials to rethink the decision.
Evans, Chesbro, Supervisor-elect Susan Gorin, Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison and others met with finance officials in Evans' office on Monday in a last-ditch effort to change their minds.
Gorin was mayor in 2009 when Santa Rosa received an $11.3 million Proposition 1C grant from the state for the transit-oriented development -- the only city to receive such an award in Marin and Sonoma counties. As part of that application, she said, the city made a binding commitment that affordable housing would be included in the first phase of the project and that redevelopment money would be used to make it work. Based on that promise, Stewart said he proceeded with spending
$1.5 million on cleaning up the cannery site and getting the clearances and funding he needs to get started. He says he recently received his final environmental clearance and was ready to go, until he was blindsided by the state's decision to take away pivotal funding.
Stewart said he has invested more than $7.5 million and 13 years of his time in trying to more forward on this first phase of what the city is hoping will be a $200 million project. But everything is now at risk.
"This is clearly economic development in reverse," he said.
"If this project collapses it will take at least a decade to reconstruct another one and move forward on that site," Gorin said.
Let's be clear. Given the historic abuses that have occurred through redevelopment — some of them related to the construction of pro sports stadiums in so-called blighted areas — there are good arguments for why the whole system needed to be scrubbed. But there are also good arguments for why abruptly curtailing all projects and sweeping the funds as a near-term budget-balancing maneuver has been an abysmal failure.
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