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.