After fires, Sonoma County speeds sale of Santa Rosa property eyed for new apartments

Developers have until Monday to respond to a request for qualifications, and county supervisors could agree to move forward the next day.|

Sonoma County has for several years wanted to sell a vacant building complex it owns in west Santa Rosa, but with the devastating October wildfires having intensified the region’s housing crisis, local officials now hope to get the property in the hands of a private developer faster than originally planned.

The county’s Community Development Commission last week released a request for developers to show their qualifications and interest in building new housing at 2150 W. College Ave. Prospective applicants have until 3 p.m. Monday to respond, and county supervisors could decide to move forward in some fashion the next day.

“We already had a housing shortage, and so every development that can be expedited and we can get out of the way in government to make stuff happen - I think that’s the order of the day,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director.

County officials previously estimated the ?7.5-acre site could support 170 apartments. Van Vliet thinks the property could ultimately house closer to 200 units.

The commission bought the property, which was formerly the headquarters of the county Water Agency, for $4.2 million this summer and then kicked off a process to select an apartment developer. But after the fires wiped out 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock, along with thousands of other homes outside city limits, the county decided it needed to speed up the process as much as possible.

Accelerating the sale may require the county to relinquish some control over exactly what gets built there, including the maximum range of affordable units.

Yet officials see it as an easy opportunity to speedily develop dozens of new units in an area where new housing of all income levels can’t come fast enough.

An exact completion date will depend on which proposal the county selects and how Santa Rosa handles the process, because the site is within city limits.

If the county approves a concept that can be built relatively quickly - such as modular housing - Van Vliet estimated a project could open within the first half of next year.

Interested developers will need to show the county they have deep financial resources at their disposal and a track record of building high-quality housing projects that are successfully managed their properties once completed, officials said.

The county plans to give extra weight to proposals that can be built quickly and efficiently using innovative construction methods.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the area where the property is located, agreed the county needs to move forward with the project as fast as possible, but she cautioned officials not to disregard public engagement along the way. County officials held two community meetings about the project after the commission took over the property, and Hopkins still wants neighbors’ input to be considered, even with the faster development time.

“Even though there’s a sense of urgency, this is also something that they will be living with for decades to come,” Hopkins said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We want to make sure we do it quickly, but we do it right and we make sure that the community is part of that conversation.”

Burbank Housing CEO Larry Florin applauded county supervisors’ efforts to fast-track new housing at the West College Avenue property.

“It’s great that they’re really serious about moving housing development forward, especially in light of the fires,” Florin said. “It’s a great sign and a great message that they’re sending, that they’re willing to expedite new housing sites.”

Burbank Housing, which has built more than 2,800 affordable rental units and more than 800 affordable houses, may seek to partner with another developer on the West College Avenue project, Florin said. The nonprofit has discussed the matter and is evaluating the best path forward, he said.

The county’s earlier estimates indicated as much as 29 percent of the 170 units at the site could be affordable to a family of four making $52,860 or less per year.

A quicker sale may mean a higher share of market rate units, though the city will likely require at least 15 percent of the apartments be made affordable to low-income families.

And if the Community Development Commission holds onto some financial interest in the property in exchange for a reduced sales price to the developer, the county could require more affordable units.

“I will always prefer more affordability - always,” Van Vliet said. “But in this market, there is high value to bringing quality units online quickly, and that’s going to help everybody.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter ?@thejdmorris.

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