Rohnert Park, founded 52 years ago as a planned bedroom community, is looking to fill a void at the heart of the city with a much needed central spot for residents to gather, shop, dine and recreate. City Council members got their first look Tuesday at two very different plans for a downtown space that combines retail, parks and transit-oriented housing on the 30-acre site of the vacant State Farm campus in the middle of the city.

The council overwhelmingly preferred a plan from its consultant that included more commercial and mixed-use space, pedestrian access and some high-density housing.

SunCal, the Irvine-based developer that bought the property last year, presented its own vision with considerably more housing, including single-family homes, and a smaller strip of retail shops near the junction of Rohnert Park Expressway and State Farm Drive.

“This isn’t anything that we’re looking for in a downtown,” Councilwoman Pan Stafford said of the SunCal proposal. “When I say that somebody wants to build a bunch of houses there, people tell me that we don’t need more houses. I don’t like the plan.”

Rohnert Park used a $500,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to plan for development around a new commuter rail station being built at the site.

The city’s consultant, Aecom, presented a proposal for a downtown that encourages people to park and walk to shops and parks. Council members preferred that vision, saying it may be the only chance for Rohnert Park to build a downtown long missing from the so-called “Friendly City.”

“This is a great opportunity that is in front of us,” said Councilman Jake Mackenzie. “We have an opportunity to create a downtown. The (Aecom) proposal is a very reasonable beginning of what we need to do.”

The city’s plan is modeled in part on Windsor, which added its Town Green more than a decade ago on the heels of explosive residential growth. That space is now ringed by thriving businesses and serves as the commercial hub of the city, hosting concerts, movies and farmers markets.

Both Rohnert Park’s and SunCal’s plan for the downtown incorporates an open space that could serve as a gathering spot for residents. The disconnect arose with SunCal’s proposed large housing tracts, an approach the developer acknowledged would be more profitable than the plan envisioned by the city’s consultant.

“We won’t go bankrupt,” said Joe Guerra, a SunCal representative.

The sale price for the land that has been vacant since State Farm left town in 2011 was never disclosed, but the deal involved $30 million in financing arranged through New York-based Catlin U.S. Investment Holdings, according to the Sonoma County Recorder’s Office.

The city is currently reviewing SunCal’s application to change the zoning on the property and amend the city’s General Plan. It could take years before any buildings begin to rise on the site.

Guerra said that the company was willing to work with the city on the project, but he cautioned that many elements in the city’s proposal were untenable for SunCal.

“I feel like I’m the bad dad who just got home,” he said. “People have been told … you can do whatever you want.”

Environmentalists and transit advocates addressed the council during the nearly four-hour workshop, with all endorsing the city’s plan.

“We hope that you support the staff recommendation,” said Steve Birdlebough a member of Friends of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. “We much prefer the plan to the one that is being proposed by the developer here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.