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Rohnert Park advances downtown project plan with shorter timeline, conservative cost approach

Initial construction at the former State Farm site in Rohnert Park could start within two years with apartments, a hotel and shops going up in 2025 as the city seeks to fast-track work on its long-sought downtown.

The Rohnert Park City Council this week rejected a plan that would have sought tax increases or reduced services to pay for a more ambitious concept that featured greater density. Instead, the council opted for a project that closely mirrors already approved plans for the property.

That would allow the city to minimize additional investments in infrastructure to meet demands of increased density and speed the construction timeline by bypassing additional environmental reviews.

The proposal, which was unanimously endorsed by council members during a special meeting Tuesday, would balance the city’s vision of creating an urban hub while limiting city-funded capital costs and ongoing operating expenses.

City Hall administrators said the plan honors the shared vision of the community for the proposed downtown and puts it in motion after years of delay.

“I want to move as fast as we can,” City Manager Darrin Jenkins told the council. “We’ve been talking about downtown for 25 years.”

City staff provided the council with an overview of various construction timelines, development costs and potential impacts to taxpayers and other elements of the project.

Rohnert Park purchased the 30-acre State Farm site for $12.5 million in April from San Francisco-based Laulima Development. The city already owned a 2-acre lot on the southwest corner of the site where the city’s Public Works Department is housed.

Purchasing the property is expected to speed progress on the plan and give the city more say in what’s built and how it fits into Rohnert Park’s larger vision for the area.

Laulima bought the State Farm Drive site in 2017 with the intention of building a $400 million housing and commercial development but construction stalled. The insurance company vacated the property in 2011 after relocating employees around the state. Demolition crews leveled the building in 2019.

“The thought that an outside entity has had control over our destiny ... has been a deterrent in advancing this re-creation of Rohnert Park,” Councilman Gerard Giudice said during the meeting. “We have a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves, sn opportunity which is a once in a lifetime opportunity and will forever change our town.”

Rohnert Park will sell or lease the developable lots for construction of the apartments and commercial space. The city will construct streets, install utilities and build a central plaza.

City staff recommends pursuing a project with housing density similar to what is already approved for the site.

Plans for Station Avenue, the development proposed by Laulima, called for 460 residential units on approximately 14.5 acres, about half the site. Anywhere from 185 units up to 947 are allowed on the site under the existing zoning.

The current plan maximizes the sale value of the land for multifamily housing, according to a staff report.

Jenkins said adding more units could require building a parking garage and greater investment in water and sewer capacity to serve additional residents, which would increase construction costs and the city’s financial investment.

Increased project costs likely would mean higher rental rates, which may not be supported by Rohnert Park’s housing market, Jenkins said.

Of the 460 units, 15% or 69 units, would be workforce housing available to households earning up to 80% of the area median income. That’s the minimum number of units required by state law on projects built on former city-owned properties but more than the 15 affordable units Laulima planned, Jenkins said.

The city manager has previously said he envisions less office space than the 130,000-square-feet previously proposed as demand for offices have decreased during the pandemic. There could also be less commercial space, which the city anticipates could be tough to develop because of high construction costs and low rental rates.

According to a staff report, Laulima received strong interest from housing and hospitality developers when it was marketing the site, including letters of interest with sales prices totaling $32 million for construction-ready land with roads and utilities installed. There was less interest in the retail and office space, the city found.

Rohnert Park is in the process of updating the current development plans approved for the site in 2018 and has issued a request for proposals for a consultant who will make revisions. At issue are the number of housing units, amount of office, retail and open space, overall layout of the site, construction phases and proposed code amendments.

The council is expected to award a contract in June and anticipates voting on an updated site plan in October and any needed code changes next February.

After utilities and foundation work, construction could start in 2025 and some elements of the project could be completed in 2027 under staff’s proposal.

That’s about 15 years earlier than under a conservative timeline that would allow for various changes to the site plan and design and the pursuit of grant funding to help offset costs.

While some residents weighing in on the proposal favored taking a slower approach, Jenkins said other large-scale developments in Rohnert Park, such as the University District subdivision and retail development west of Highway 101, have taken 20 years to get built and the city “wants to do better than that.”

“We absolutely want to deliver something sooner,” he told the council.

To pay for infrastructure and help encourage development on the site, city staff recommends pursuing an approach that would balance debt service and operations costs with revenues.

Ongoing sales, bed and property taxes generated at the site would offset debt service or operating costs the city incurs on the project, Jenkins said.

Capital costs to build improvements and subsidize affordable housing and some amenities likely would not be fully recouped, he said.

A more ambitious project with higher density and more affordable housing likely would require raising taxes or reducing services to fund capital and operations costs, which would require resident buy-in, city staff wrote in their report to council.

Jenkins said during the meeting that raising taxes was a long shot. The council sidestepped that option in their endorsement Tuesday.

The approach favored by the council is expected to have a neutral impact on the city’s operating budget — and residents’ tax burden — but will still require an unknown capital investment.

Most of the roughly dozen residents who commented on the plan Tuesday favored the path toward a quick construction timeline that would not raise taxes. A few residents who live in a mobile home park adjacent to the site raised concerns about the impact of noise pollution on residents.

Chris Meyer, who said she has been involved in downtown discussions for years, praised the city’s efforts. While she wants to see a project fast tracked she doesn’t want the city to make any mistakes by taking on a project of this scope too fast.

Still, she said Laulima’s plan is a good foundation for the city to work from and she supported moving forward with the recommendations.

Council members also commended staff for taking on the project.

Giudice said creating a downtown will have an “enormous” economic benefit and will compliment the existing businesses in Rohnert Park while providing a new experience for residents and visitors.

Councilwoman Pam Stafford said downtown is a top priority for residents year after year and residents have waited long enough.

“I think the plan that we have is a really good one and I think people want to see something happen,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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