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.
"The opposition is large and upset and well-funded, with the ability to take it to the next step if our appeal is denied," McFall said.
But the vast majority of speakers expressed strong support for the project. Supporters included a long list of community leaders, including Connie Codding of Codding Enterprises, Bill Friedman of Friedman's Home Improvement, Victor Trione of Luther Burbank Savings, former Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm,and Willie Tamayo of La Tortilla Factory.
SAY has run the 25-bed Tamayo Village with a similar mission to the Dream Center for the past nine years with few complaints from the community. Tamayo said the need to expand services is great.
"A harsh reality is that there are nearly 1,200 homeless youth sleeping on the streets of Sonoma County each and every night," Tamayo said. "This statistic is unacceptable."
Several speakers emphasized the Dream Center would not be bringing struggling young adults into the community, but rather serving those who are already here.
Others praised SAY's leadership, its work in the community for 43 years, and its willingness to make changes to the project to address neighbors concerns. The changes included reducing the size of the project, beefing up screening procedures and limiting activities that could generate nighttime noise.