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Healdsburg second-guessing planned event space, future farmers market home in favor of housing

The Healdsburg City Council is rethinking whether to proceed with its planned renovation of a historic downtown building for a long-envisioned open-air event pavilion and space for a weekly farmers market in its review of city-owned sites for affordable housing.

The council drew a rare standing room-only audience at City Hall when it met last week and discussed the future of the 1920s-era industrial warehouse located at 3 North St., known as both the Cerri and Purity property. Many in the crowd attended to support going ahead with the community event center, emboldened by a $7 million pledge to build it made the week prior by the Foley Family Foundation, the charitable arm of the Santa Rosa-headquartered luxury wine brand.

In May 2017, the five-member council unanimously approved the 5,200-square-foot event space and 6,100-square-foot open-air and parking area makeover - a concept that dates back to at least 2009. But lacking the $3.8 million it was estimated to cost at the time of approval, the project stalled while the city sought a benefactor.

But the city recently threw the 1.2-acre parcel, which it bought in 2004 for $1.7 million, into the conversation of prime locations for building affordable housing. The City Council met behind closed doors in October with Burbank Housing after the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit made what city officials described as an unsolicited proposal to build lower-income housing at the site, which is located just two blocks from Healdsburg’s downtown plaza. A handful of residents showed up to a public meeting two weeks later to question the city’s transparency on the issue and its possible shift away from the promised new home for the popular farmers market.

At the Tuesday meeting, city staff presented new options for the site, including pursuing two different affordable housing developments and relocating the farmers market project elsewhere, as well as considering it for a SMART train platform in a potential land swap with the commuter rail agency. A majority of council members - two of whom previously voted in favor of the community event center - asked that more study be done to decide how to move forward, with preference for the pair of housing proposals.

“I just want to make it clear that, as it stands right now, I’m not in favor of pursuing the pavilion on 3 North St.,” Councilman Shaun McCaffery said last Tuesday. “Where it’s located so close to downtown, and the fact that city owns it, presents an opportunity that we really need to think about a little bit more clearly now that more things are coming into picture.”

A decision to go in a different direction with the property, which has already undergone a lengthy public approval process and hasn’t been occupied since Purity Chemical Supply vacated it in late 2006, risks losing the commitment of millions of dollars to the project, Councilman David Hagele countered. He was joined by Mayor Leah Gold in pushing to stick with the community event space, which was designed to pay tribute to the city’s agricultural roots.

“When you have an offer on the table, it’s important that we take that seriously,” Hagele said. “Right now, we have something that has gone through the public process, has been approved by council and now we have a potential funding option. I think we are not doing our jobs unless we explore that option.”

The Foley family made the $7 million pledge after searching for a way to give back to the community, and liked that the farmers market project had already moved through the city’s public approval process, according to Courtney Foley, executive vice president of business development for Foley Family Wines.

If the event center is again endorsed, the money is there once the foundation sees a funding plan and in exchange for naming rights. If the redevelopment is amended or the family is asked to contribute to a different project down the line, though, there are no guarantees, she said.

“We really liked what we were presented with, and we know how much work went into it and that’s attractive, and we thought it was just a matter of money to move it over the goal line,” Foley said. “I think you get into hairy territory to say the money is there regardless, no matter when a project makes itself available.”

Yet, with the 3 North St. property’s unique position adjacent the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit rail corridor, it could also be an ideal place for the 29-month-old rail system to build a future stop. The council, including Councilman Joe Naujokas, who is a member of the SMART board, directed city staff to explore if a train platform could be incorporated into the farmers market concept.

SMART owns about 11.5 acres a half-mile east next to the future Mill District housing and retail project, and an option to trade properties has been floated in very preliminary discussions, said Stephen Sotomayor, the city’s housing administrator.

However, the rail agency is still about two years away from extending service to neighboring Windsor, and has yet to set a timeline for when it would be able to build the additional 5 miles to Healdsburg, largely because it doesn’t have the $194 million it estimates the project will cost. Many have openly wondered whether the train will ever extend beyond Windsor or finish the system’s originally planned 70-mile line.

Combined with the city’s housing pressures, three council members and some residents voiced their interest in transitioning the 3 North St. site to units priced for the local workforce.

With the possibility of delays in building housing at other locations that the city owns, it might be time to take a harder look at the Cerri property, despite the Foleys’ large donation, they said.

“There’s nothing more that I would like to see than a permanent home for the farmers market. I’m a huge proponent and supporter of local farmers,” said Ari Rosen, a Healdsburg restaurateur and affordable-housing advocate. “I might be the only dissenting opinion that feels like we’re in a housing crisis that’s not being addressed. What I would love to see is a win-win.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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