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Sonoma County scraps plan for government headquarters in downtown Santa Rosa

“I don’t see it going anywhere,” Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said of buying the former Sears site for a future county headquarters.|

Despite eight months spent pursuing property in downtown Santa Rosa for a new government headquarters, Sonoma County officials say work to advance the disputed and costly move now appears dead.

Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton has directed staff to focus on redevelopment options at the county’s 83-acre campus, in northern Santa Rosa, rather than spend more time on the proposed purchase of the former Sears store in downtown.

“I don’t see it going anywhere,” Bratton said of the Sears site.

The county’s pivot from a downtown headquarters comes after the Board of Supervisors twice delayed approving the $21 million purchase of the former Sears site at the south end of Santa Rosa Plaza. It leaves lingering questions regarding the future of the empty Sears site, which sits on a main commercial corridor, and how the county’s new headquarters will take shape 2 miles north.

The high cost of redeveloping the downtown property — estimated to be anywhere from $35.7 million to $55.4 million annually over a 30-year mortgage, in addition to the purchase price — proved intractable for the board in March.

Advancing the purchase required support from four of the five board members. Supervisor David Rabbitt was opposed, citing cost as his primary concern, and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she wasn’t ready to support the project.

“The Sears principals really wanted to sit down and meet with us and understand it more,” Bratton said of the reaction following the board’s delay. “I wasn’t willing to waste time doing that.”

Instead, Bratton has set her sights on finding a cheaper option somewhere on the county’s sprawling campus, north of Steele Lane.

The large parking lot by the county’s permitting office on Administration Drive and Ventura Avenue is promising, said Johannes Hoevertsz, the county’s public works and transportation director who is overseeing the county complex project.

Rough designs for the Sears site envisioned an 18-story building, a four-story building and 779 parking spaces on site. Hoevertsz said a building on the county campus could look similar.

A multi-story building would concentrate county offices, which are currently housed in single-story buildings dating to the 1950s and dispersed across the sprawling campus. But, Hoevertsz noted, costs increase as the building gets taller.

Bratton’s other aim is to propose a project that will get unanimous support from the board — a difficult proposition on what is likely to be the county’s largest capital project in decades.

The board has split over the project, mostly on concerns about costs and the potential fallout with funding for county services.

“Right off the bat we save $21 million by not buying the Sears building,” said Rabbitt, the senior incumbent.

“You can’t ignore the fact that you own this land free and clear,” he added, referring to the county’s campus. “You can build on it.”

Rabbitt has consistently objected to a downtown move, but in March Hopkins joined him in voting against advancing the Sears site acquisition.

“It’s really important to have all the information available, which is challenging and which takes time,” Hopkins said. “For me the fiscal responsibility is important.”

The need to build new county offices has come before the Board of Supervisors over the course of several decades.

The existing complex dates back to the ’50s, with a backlog of deferred maintenance totaling over $300 million — one of the main reasons the board took up the project last year.

“It is the project that never gets done,” said Supervisor Chris Coursey. “... Something always gets in the way, whether it’s the money, or the politics, or the recession or something else. And over that time we’ve rented, I don’t know how many, but I can easily say tens of thousands of square feet of office space.”

Coursey, who has championed the Sears site and whose district includes downtown Santa Rosa, called the board’s failure to move the Sears site forward a “missed opportunity.”

Coursey, along with other Sears site supporters, have touted the property’s proximity to public transit including the SMART stop in Railroad Square and bus lines, the potential to reinvigorate downtown Santa Rosa, and the opportunity to develop housing on the current campus in northern Santa Rosa.

“A lot of folks are disappointed,” said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

The 7.4-acre former Sears store property includes a three-story parking garage and sits near B street to the east and Highway 101 to the west. Before its late 2018 closure, the store was an anchor tenant for Santa Rosa Plaza.

Mall giant Simon Property Group manages the plaza, but SPS Portfolio Holdings had been negotiating with the county on the potential sale.

Though the downtown community had hoped the county’s presence would help revitalize the area, Rumble said the idea that the move would single-handedly transform the area was a bit misplaced.

The real challenge, Rumble said, is the lack of any decision by the county regarding its plans for new headquarters.

“The uncertainty of having no decision or continuing to revisit decisions is a real hindrance, creates uncertainty (for) people who may want to invest in whatever area and frankly is a waste of public dollars,” said Rumble, a former deputy county administrator.

Both Rabbitt and Hopkins said they are committed to prioritizing the project to keep momentum going. But they both also stressed the need for time to thoroughly vet the options.

“The current system where we are trying to maintain buildings and essentially operating at a deficit, I don’t think that’s a sustainable future,” Hopkins said. “But I think we need to look at a future we can afford.”

Hopkins said one of her hang-ups in March was a lack of details regarding the public-private partnership county staff proposed as a way to fund the project.

The partnership would have involved hiring a private firm to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the building for 30 years.

“I had a lot of questions about that model that I didn’t feel were adequately answered,” Hopkins said. “I’m definitely open to it. It just seemed like that was the Cadillac plan in terms of models.”

Bratton said she plans to move away from that model.

“While it’s an enticing delivery method, I don’t think it would work for our policymakers,” Bratton said.

Hoevertsz and Bratton said they hope to bring the project back to the board by the end of the calendar year.

Supervisor James Gore was unavailable last week for comment. Supervisor Susan Gorin did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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