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120-unit downtown Santa Rosa apartment building gets approval to move forward

A seven-story, 120-unit apartment project immediately south of Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square that was panned by city appointees this spring over its design has cleared hurdles that will allow developers to move forward with the roughly $50 million project.

Dubbed 1 Santa Rosa, the development would include ground-floor commercial space, 4 units of affordable housing, a rooftop deck and off-site parking in the city’s First Street garage. It sailed through a late September meeting before the city’s zoning administrator, who oversees lower-level planning decisions.

The administrator, senior city planner Andy Gustavson, granted his approval to the project on Sept. 23. No appeals were filed within the following 10 days, and developers are now free to seek building permits, according to city staff.

The project’s progress last month sharply differs from a May hearing before another Santa Rosa planning entity, the Design Review Board. In a four-hour hearing, the board voiced major concerns with 1 Santa Rosa’s aesthetics, including its dark-gray exterior and an appearance that panel members described as dull.

Those stinging comments came with Napa developer Keith Rogal's acknowledgment that any development on long-vacant site would be both highly anticipated and closely scrutinized, given its visual prominence and potential to bring more housing downtown.

Given Santa Rosa’s focus in recent years to entice new, dense housing near transit hubs, the cold response from the design board surprised some observers. Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, let loose his frustration with the Design Review Board in an email to members of the City Council shortly after the May hearing.

“Over the last several decades, we have rejected denser development over dubious aesthetic objections that resulted in sprawl or a project ― such as in Railroad Square ― languishing as a vacant lot for what has literally been a generation,” Rumble wrote in the email, which The Press Democrat obtained.

“This was the first opportunity to change that history and to show that our city is serious about housing,” he continued. “We failed.”

In an email Friday night, Rogal said he and his team had made “significant refinements” based on the board’s feedback and credited city staff for their hard work helping adjust the plan.

“There is no question the staff are doing their part to support the council’s goals of streamlined processing for projects which conform to the city’s downtown development goals,” Rogal said.

Santa Rosa is set to finalize a new, more development-friendly downtown plan later this year, as several projects in the area move forward. The city’s stronger push for housing comes after years of little or no progress in public-private efforts geared to support projects like 1 Santa Rosa, exacerbating the local affordable housing crisis.

Still, several sizable housing projects are moving forward in downtown. They include Santa Rosa developer Hugh Futrell’s 21-unit Art House project on Seventh Street, and an 89-unit apartment building on Fourth Street just across from Fremont Park.

Other developers are pursuing large apartment projects on Mendocino Avenue, Ross Street and in the vacant former train yard near the Railroad Square train station. Combined, that range of projects could add more than 400 units of downtown housing in the next several years.

Speaking at last month’s hearing, Rogal emphasized that a key design goal for the 1 Santa Rosa project was to slot in alongside other buildings on Old Courthouse Square, including the adjacent remodeled AT&T building, which Futrell’s company owns. He described 1 Santa Rosa as “nodding” across the square at the historic Rosenberg building and said it had been envisioned with a design of not being an “alien intruder” among its neighbors.

“It doesn’t stand alone,” Rogal said during the September hearing. “We think it’s part of a fabric that exists and that we hope will be further stitched together.”

Rogal responded to the Design Review Board’s critique by adding more architectural detail on the facade facing the square, revamping the cornice area near the top of the building and expanding the landscape along the building at the pedestrian level. New renderings show more visual detail in the form of an overhang and additional plantings near the top of the building and more trees and shrubbery on the corner of the building closer to the square.

Rogal stood firm on other areas, sticking with the dark gray exterior and rejecting a suggestion of decorative balconies, a suggestion that he said would add unnecessary “visual busy-ness.”

“We feel it will be appealing to prospective renters, and we feel it provides a handsome backdrop to the square,” Rogal told the Design Review Board, adding that the project could help signal “that this is a downtown where development can happen and where people really can enjoy living.”

Next up for 1 Santa Rosa formulating the necessary construction documents, an effort Rogal said Friday he hopes to complete by late spring with a goal of beginning construction in summer or early fall.

Public comment at the September hearing was light. Rumble, the chamber executive, was one of very few to comment. He called the development “beautiful” and “precisely the thing that many of our large employers are looking for in our downtown.”

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

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