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North Bay developer advances two housing projects in downtown Santa Rosa

A North Bay developer is advancing two major downtown Santa Rosa projects to transform an old train yard and a parking lot into hundreds of new homes while seeking to convert a one-way street into a pedestrian mall.

Cornerstone Properties of Petaluma, which has generally focused on commercial real estate, is set to present proposals for its first residential projects, which would redevelop about half of the former train yard west of the downtown SMART station and a parking lot at Mendocino Avenue and Ross Street.

Both projects fit into larger sites of potential redevelopment by Cornerstone, as the company owns the other half of the old train yard as well as the office building adjacent to the Ross Street parking lot at 427 Mendocino Ave., rented for now by The Press Democrat. Cornerstone and the city have entered into a development agreement for the site.

Cornerstone also is in conversations with Santa Rosa about purchasing the city-owned parking lot across from the Santa Rosa Plaza mall on B Street, said Pauline Block, the marketing and development director for Cornerstone.

“We just feel it's important to build housing downtown — dense, transit-oriented housing,” Block said, noting that Santa Rosa has little of that housing stock despite being a large city by North Bay standards. “If we want to grow Santa Rosa and we want to grow in a way that's sustainable, this is what we need.”

The city has sent out notices of upcoming Design Review Board meetings, to be held virtually on the afternoon of Sept. 17, and has created websites for both the 556 Ross St. project and the first phase of the SMART site redevelopment, offering early glimpses of the latest wave of higher-rise housing projects in Santa Rosa.

The projects are coming forward as city officials work to craft a new plan for the downtown area, centered around increasing the amount of people living and working near the SMART station and the transit mall. The city has fallen far short of goals set for housing and business activity in the current plan, which was adopted in 2007.

Both of Cornerstone’s impending projects are consistent with the city’s existing downtown plan, but similar projects could benefit from the new plan, which aims to eliminate barriers by decreasing parking minimums and increasing flexibility when it comes to building height and unit density, said Amy Lyle, a supervising planner with the city.

The new plan, which is set to go before the City Council for approval in October, also will look to encourage development at about a dozen “catalyst” sites and along the Prince Memorial Greenway and to foster stronger connections between Railroad Square and Old Courthouse Square as well as between Roseland and downtown, Lyle said.

“It’s really to increase housing capacity,” Lyle said, noting that the new plan envisions the possibility of adding 7,000 new homes — largely apartments — to the downtown area.

The Ross Street project would create an imposing eight-story tower of 109 apartments in a building standing nearly 100 feet tall, dwarfing everything in its vicinity.

The tower would be “affordable by design,” according to Cornerstone, meaning that individual unit footprints would be designed to be small, leading to lower rents. The project also would reserve at least 10 of its units for residents who qualify on the basis of income, and it would include a rooftop deck, outdoor courtyard, fitness center and resident lounge.

The Ross Street development also envisions a day care and a small cafe on the ground floor as part of Cornerstone’s effort to add services, not traditional retail, to its development footprints, Block said.

The Ross Street project also could transform the road itself — currently a one-way, westbound connector from Mendocino Avenue to B Street by the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall — into a pedestrian-friendly throughway.

Concept plans filed with the city outline the potential “pedestrianization” of Ross Street between the existing Brickyard Center and redeveloped property including the parking lot, the Press Democrat building and the city-owned parking lot west of the newspaper. The idea is not to prevent vehicle access on Ross Street but to make it more of a pedestrian alley than its current primary use of getting in and out of parking lots, Block said.

"We just feel like cars won’t need to go down there,“ she said.

Only 11 parking spots would be provided on site, as Cornerstone proposes using vehicle stackers to maximize space and to offer a fleet of shared cars for residents to use off-site parking elsewhere, such as the city’s garage on Seventh Street. That path aligns with Santa Rosa’s efforts to make it easier for developers building housing near mass transit, such as the downtown bus depot and the SMART station, to build large developments without the typical parking space requirements.

"We want to build it to be here for a long time, and in the future, we don’t see a need for everyone to have a car,“ Block said.

Half a mile to the west, Cornerstone’s is proposing the first part of its plan for an old train yard, a 5.4-acre site west of the downtown train station the developer bought from SMART in 2018 for $6 million. The site, adjoining Railroad Square and the West End historic district, has long been considered a prime candidate to provide much-needed housing as well as a boost to train ridership.

The first phase involves about 2.4 acres on the lot’s northern side and would create a six-story building with 110 apartments, 11 of which would be reserved for lower-income residents.

The project would be located at 34 W. Sixth St. and would include amenities such as a swimming pool and a play area. The facilities would be available to residents and open to the general public through a membership system, Block said.

A master plan for the former SMART site envisions 400 to 500 units total in at least two other buildings to the south, as well as connection to the nearby Santa Rosa Creek Trail.

Cornerstone will likely look to add a second day care facility on the old SMART site, Block said.

“We see it as a huge need in the community,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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