Railroad Square development draws support, questions Railroad Square development draws support, questions
Affordable housing and parking emerged Monday as two key issues that the developer of an $85 million Railroad Square project will need to carefully navigate to win approval from city officials and the transportation agency that owns the Santa Rosa property.
The first public hearing on the plan by Santa Clara-based ROEM Corp. to build 268 units of housing, retail shops and a public plaza on 5.4 vacant acres west of the city’s downtown rail station featured plenty of praise for the proposal.
“What you’ve put before us is what this community has been looking for for a long time,” Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Coursey said.
But it was also clear debates that bogged down previous efforts to develop the site are already re-emerging, potentially threatening swift approval of the project.
How many units of affordable housing would be included in the project? How affordable would those units be? How much would the city or county be asked to subsidize construction of those units? All were questions raised but left unanswered during Monday morning’s well-attended presentation at City Hall.
Alex Sanchez, vice president of ROEM, noted that his firm specializes in affordable housing projects around the state and has built some Bay Area projects where 100 percent of the units are affordable. He said the current project could have no affordable units, 100 percent affordable units, 10 percent as required by city codes, or a different figure, depending on the subsidies at play.
City officials have made it clear they want the high-profile project on land owned by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district to have a significant number of affordable units. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a member of the SMART board of directors, expressed some frustration that such an important component of the project had yet to be set.
“Ten percent I don’t think will fly for any of us,” Zane said. “On other hand, I don’t want to be here a year from now debating this to death, because honestly we probably should have done something 10 years ago on this property.”
And therein lies a crucial challenge for city and SMART officials. The more requirements they place on the project, the longer it will likely take to complete. In response to a suggestion that perhaps 100 percent of the units could be affordable, City Manager Sean McGlynn said such a requirement would delay the project while needed public subsidies were identified or raised.
Sanchez said the company intentionally didn’t propose specific numbers or types of affordable units.
“We wanted to be able to come up with a number that is responsive to the needs of the community,” he said.
The consensus seemed to quickly form that the project would need to be a mixture of market-rate and affordable units, with the percentages worked out later. That would suit Eddie Meisse just fine. The Santa Rosa resident said encouraging people of different income levels to live near one another is beneficial for society.
“I think that segregation of social classes, like segregation of races, leads to problems,” Meisse said.
The number of parking spaces proposed - 410 units for residents and 70 for the retail areas - also quickly emerged as a potential flashpoint.
“This project is so over-parked, it’s pathetic!,” declared Rick Theis, a former Santa Rosa planning commissioner.
He argued that a design with fewer parking spaces would allow for additional units to be constructed and create more residents likely to ride the train, which is one of SMART’s key development goals.
But Railroad Square merchants like the idea of additional parking, as do those who worry the immediate area around the station doesn’t have enough parking.
“Please do not under-park this property and choke it,” said Mike Montague, owner of a Railroad Square appliance business and a member of the Historic Railroad Square Association.
SMART board member Debora Fudge countered that “transit-oriented development,” such as this, “is where you try to discourage car ownership.”
SMART supporter Steve Birdlebough suggested letting the market decide by “unbundling” the cost of parking from the cost of rent, allowing those who want parking spaces to pay extra for them.
Other suggestions floated for the project included ensuring it conforms to the historic district, meets green building standards, has solar panels and electric car chargers, and is built by union labor.
The next step in the project is for SMART to negotiate a development deal with ROEM. Sanchez said area residents will have many opportunities to learn more about the project as it evolves.