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A long-delayed Santa Rosa development project trying to balance the competing goals of historic preservation and high-density housing cleared a key hurdle this week.

The City Council late Tuesday overruled a lower board’s denial of the DeTurk Winery Village project, and instead gave the proposed 185-unit complex its unanimous approval and glowing praise.

“This checks just about every box that we have to check,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “It’s what this city needs.”

The ever-evolving effort to repurpose an underused warehouse complex just east of the historic DeTurk Round Barn has run into numerous obstacles over the years — most notably the recession — but more recently the resistance of the city’s Cultural Heritage Board.

The seven-member board has oversight of the project because the 3.5-acre industrial property along the rail line is in a historic preservation district and includes the original DeTurk winery complex, which dates to the 1870s.

The board rejected the project in November after a series of meetings, in effect saying its members didn’t think the four-story buildings were an appropriate fit for the historic neighborhood of mostly older single family homes.

The developer, Rick Derringer, asked City Council to overrule its lower board, and it was happy to oblige. Council members pointed out the project is precisely to type of development the city wants – high density, close to the train station, mixed-use and including affordable housing.

“We have to act boldly as a council and as a community to satisfy out housing needs and this is a bold move,” Councilman John Sawyer said. “We can accomplish our housing goals with quality projects, and I think that’s what we’re doing tonight.”

The city hopes to build 5,000 new housing units by 2022, nearly half of them affordable. City planners are encouraging developers to incorporate affordable units into their developments with the promise their applications will be prioritized in the plan review process, said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy director of planning.

Developers can still opt to pay a fee to the city instead of including affordable housing in their projects, a fee the city then uses to help such projects get built elsewhere. The fee for this project, depending on the unit sizes, would likely have been several hundred thousand dollars.

The city believes incentivizing developers to build so-called inclusionary housing into their market-rate developments is the fastest, most cost-effective and equitable way to expand the city’s affordable housing stock, Hartman said.

Isaac DeTurk built two brick winery buildings on the property beginning in 1879, later constructing a round barn that has been preserved by the city and serves as the heart of the West End neighborhood. Both brick buildings are eligible for inclusion on the California Register of Historic Places, which means they are protected historic buildings whose essential character must be preserved as part of the project.

Derringer, whose company Odyssey Development has owned the industrial property north of Western Farm Center since 2005, originally won approval in 2008 for 73 condominiums on the property, but the recession hit and the project went nowhere.

At one point, Derringer proposed using the warehouse to assemble three-wheeled Chinese electric vehicles originally developed by defunct start-up Aptera. He now leases space in the buildings to several business, including a fitness club.

In anticipation of the arrival of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit service, the city in 2010 rezoned Derringer’s property to allow higher density housing. The move was part of a plan to encourage more intense development around the city’s downtown train station, a move seen as both wise urban planning and supportive of train ridership. A similar plan was passed in 2012 for the area around the Guerneville Road rail station.

By the time Derringer resubmitted plans in 2015, the zoning on his property three blocks north of the downtown station, had been changed to “Transit Village,” which allowed him to build up to 137 units. Following conversations with city planning staff, however, Derringer found ways to push the number of units on the project even higher.

By adding 15 units of housing for people of very low income and getting the city to turn over a chunk of Donahue Street to count toward the project’s footprint, the project qualified for what is known as a density bonus. A family of four is considered very low income if it earns half the area median salary of $82,600.

The bonus gave Derringer the right to build 35 percent more units than he would have otherwise, or another 48 apartments into the four-story complex, for a total of 185 units in four buildings. That would make it one of the largest housing complexes approved in the city in recent years.

That troubles some residents of the West End, which is made up of mostly single-family homes.

“The whole project is going to loom over the neighborhood,” Gina Stateler-Calhoun told the council.

The objections are similar to the ones raised by residents of the historic McDonald neighborhood near the 20-unit North Street Apartments, which are being built in an industrial pocket around a former rail line.

But that project involves bare ground, no historic structures and is just outside the boundary of the historic district. The DeTurk project, by contrast, includes historic buildings and is within a historic preservation district, though at its northeastern edge.

As such, Cultural Heritage Board members had difficulty seeing how the project blended in with the character of the rest of the neighborhood, something city historic preservation rules require.

In addition to the density bonus, the project is seeking waivers from height and parking requirements. Like the density increase, the waivers aim to incentivize affordable housing.

Even though he’s proposing 185 units and 20,000 feet of commercial space, Derringer would only be required to provide 174 parking spaces. The number of spaces is lower than it would be in another part of the city because planners expect the project’s proximity to the station will reduce residents’ demand for cars.

The proposed parking waiver effectively protects Derringer from being required to provide more than the 174 spaces, Hartman said.

Derringer said he intends to provide four shared vehicles for use by future residents.

The waiver from the height limit is what most bothered some Cultural Heritage Board members. Margaret Purser said at November’s meeting she was “extremely troubled” by the 41-foot height of the building and the fact that, because of the waiver, the issue was “off the table” for discussion.

Preventing review boards from considering the appropriateness of such waivers was effectively a “muzzling of the functions of your boards in a way that sets a very dangerous precedent,” said Purser, an anthropology professor.

This was particularly true given the extreme development pressures the city is under because of the housing crisis, she said at the time.

Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts alluded to that housing crisis in his comments Tuesday strongly supporting the project.

Tibbetts, 26, said he understood the frustration some neighbors felt about the impacts of such a large development close to their homes, but said young people in the city are frustrated, too.

“As a young person, that anger and frustration can’t trump the anger and frustration that some of my generation is experience over housing,” Tibbetts said.

Though succeeding in the appeal was a crucial step, the density bonus and use of a section of Donahue Street for the project must still go before the Planning Commission and the City Council.

There are two other major housing developments planned around the downtown station, including the 72-unit Pullman Lofts project on Wilson Street, which has received design approval but does not yet have building permits, and the 262-unit Water Tower Plaza project envisioned for the SMART property west of the station, which has yet to begin the design review process.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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