Santa Rosa council signs off on SAY Dream Center

  • Social Advocates for Youth board president John Meislahn, center, takes community leaders and residents from Bennett Valley through a tour of the old Warrick Hospital on Wednesday, August 28, 2013. Meislahn and SAY proponents are hoping to use the space for housing homeless youth. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The Santa Rosa City Council unanimously and enthusiastically approved a plan to transform a vacant hospital in Bennett Valley into housing for at-risk young adults despite neighbors' threats to sue to force additional environmental studies.

The council denied an appeal of the Planning Commission's January decision approving Social Advocates for Youth's Dream Center plan for the former Warrack Hospital campus at the intersection of Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road.

The council's decision came after a lengthy hearing where dozens of supporters spoke passionately about the urgent need to help young people in need, but far fewer opponents spoke out against the project than have at previous public meetings.

Vice Mayor Robin Swinth, who lives a half-mile from the project, said she heard plenty of concerns from friends, family and neighbors about the project. She said she ultimately concluded it fulfilled a profound community need.

"We have a responsibility as a community to take care of our kids and our young adults. That's the opportunity that's before us tonight," Swinth said.

The decision was not unexpected. The Planning Commission unanimously approved the project and little new information has come forward since then.

The Dream Center proposes to house up to 63 residents, many of whom have aged out of the state's foster care system. There would be 51 beds of transitional housing where people can stay for up to two years and 12 emergency shelter beds with a three-month maximum stay. A variety of counseling and health services, as well as education and job-skills classes and SAY administration offices also will be located on-site.

The project has stirred significant and at times virulent opposition from some Bennett Valley residents, many of whom expressed fear that the project would draw homeless young people or criminals to their neighborhood.

Real estate agent Jeanette McFall was one of a handful of opponents at Tuesday's meeting. She said her neighborhood, Summerfield Heights, had gotten used to the peace and quiet of the site since Warrack ceased operations in 2008.

She and others vowed not only legal challenges but political repercussions should the council approve the project.

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