In May 2006, Sonoma County residents got their first look at a master design for the area west of Santa Rosa's Railroad Square — and it was impressive.
In an editorial titled "Wow factor," this newspaper praised the designer for having "lived up to its reputation for innovative transit-oriented developments that reflect community priorities." The project, the product of multiple community brainstorming sessions and a few concrete proposals, included a public gathering space, a food and wine center, a farmers market hall and space for Santa Rosa Junior College's culinary school. It also included 250 units of housing, a child care center, a health club and underground parking. "All of it just steps away from what will be a major stop on the Sonoma-Marin commuter rail system," the editorial said.
Six years later, none of it has been built. In fact, just one part of that master plan is still alive, a proposal by San Francisco-based developer John Stewart to build 93 units of affordable housing on the site of a former cannery near West Third Street and the creek. But even that is now threatened by the governor's plan for eliminating redevelopment agencies and taking the money to plug gaps in the state budget. State Department of Finance officials have already rejected Santa Rosa's petition to keep nearly $35 million in redevelopment funds, including $5.5 million targeted for the cannery project. State officials are expected to rule on an appeal for the housing funding by the end of the week. We hope the governor's people will relent and give this project the green light.
We've noted before that Gov. Jerry Brown had good reasons to eliminate redevelopment from the box of tools available to local governments for sprucing up blighted areas. This system — which allowed the use of tax increment dollars to support targeted projects — had been abused to shameful levels. Money that should have gone to schools was being used to build golf courses, posh hotels and professional sports stadiums.
Nonetheless, weaning cities from redevelopment was not going to be easy, primarily for two reasons: One, cities had made contractual commitments requiring them to continue paying redevelopment funds and two, not all redevelopment projects were alike. Some were worthy projects that provided significant community benefits.
Unfortunately, the governor has shown concern for the former problem but not the latter.
Among those funding requests we consider in the "worthy" category would include the $9.5 million targeted for the Springs project along Highway 12 outside of Sonoma and the $15 million the city of Petaluma has targeted for the Old Redwood Highway and East Washington Street interchanges with Highway 101. We would also include the $5.5 million targeted for the Railroad Square project. Based on the city's promise that those funds would be coming, Stewart spent $1.5 million in preparing the site and doing environmental cleanup.
If the state rejects the city's appeal, Santa Rosa stands to lose $19 million in other state and federal funds that hinged on moving forward on the Railroad Square development.
The result is the city would end back at square one — with a blighted area and a lot of time and money wasted. It also could make the city party to a costly lawsuit.
We encourage the governor to authorize the funding needed to allow the Railroad Square project to go forward — as a demonstration that his commitment to a post-redevelopment California is intended to be firm but not reckless.