Rohnert Park City Council taking up ambitious proposal to build a downtown

A long envisioned downtown in Rohnert Park is a City Council vote away tonight from finally getting started through a development that promises a lively city center across a sprawling transit-friendly public square and projects hundreds of millions of dollars in annual economic growth.

Council members for Sonoma County’s third-largest city last month signaled unanimous support for the projected $400 million overhaul of a?32-acre campus just south of Rohnert Park Expressway last occupied by State Farm Insurance in 2011.

San Francisco-based Laulima Development paid $13.5 million for the property late last year and now stands poised to quickly move forward with plans to build a hub of restaurants, offices, apartments and a five-story hotel. The project, first floated to the council last December - but in concept more than a decade in the making - has since expanded in scope by 45 housing units up to 460, and the space dedicated to retail shops and businesses for daily operations. It now includes 270,000 square feet for commercial use, as well as a 156-room hotel with adjacent three-story parking garage.

Rohnert Park residents have for years called on city officials to develop a downtown. In the city’s annual survey, participants have consistently placed establishing an urban core in the top three of improvements to enhance the area’s quality of life.

“People are very excited,” said Mayor Pam Stafford, who last week won a fourth term on the council. “That’s been the theme from all areas of the community, that they just want a downtown, and an ability to have a place they can call theirs and be proud. As soon as the State Farm property became available and created the possibility of downtown, it presented a unique opportunity.”

A study commissioned by the developer Laulima released last month by Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler projected $169 million in annual business revenue connected to the planned downtown development that’s been branded Station Avenue, including $11.5 million in yearly taxes for the city and state. The report also estimated the project would create about 3,400 jobs during construction, in addition to 2,000 permanent jobs around the city.

“I’m not surprised by the numbers,” said David Bouquillon, managing partner of Laulima. “It validates what we thought. We’re bringing a tremendous amount of jobs during construction and during the operations, too. I think the draw of this downtown can be for Rohnert Park, and as a regional downtown for other cities as well.”

The location’s ability to seamlessly tie into the North Bay’s year-old Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line via the city’s existing train platform adds to its viability as a pedestrian-focused destination, he said.

“That’s where Station Avenue really, really hit the mark,” Bouquillon said. “If you only have residential around all the SMART stations, the ridership will be affected. I think we’ve done a great job with a strong mix of office, a great mix of restaurants and retail, and a really solid mix of people living there.”

The initial proposal included 150 single-family townhomes for sale and the remainder of more than 400 housing units as above-office lofts in five-story buildings. All of the housing planned was converted to rental apartments in two-story buildings elsewhere on the property due in part to rising construction costs related to the October 2017 North Bay wildfires.

To help prioritize the project, the City Council voted in April to exempt the downtown area from new affordable housing requirements. City staff did negotiate with the developer to build 15 moderate-income apartments targeting tenants earning up to 120 percent of the area’s median income, or about $80,000 in annual earnings for two-person households and $100,000 for households of four.

The developer is also engaged in early discussions with nearby Sonoma State University about whether some of the project’s housing could be committed to its faculty and staff. As part of the development plan, Laulima must include public green space and will pay the city about $1 million of fees toward community gathering areas. The downtown proposal received unanimous approval from the city’s planning commission late last month, putting it in front of the City Council Tuesday.

“Our goal is to have a vibrant downtown for Rohnert Park, and the first priority is to make sure the downtown is brought online as a benefit for all members of our community,” said Councilwoman-elect Susan Hollingsworth Adams, who recently voted in favor of the project as a planning commissioner. “It’s also really important to support more housing for our residents. We need places for seniors to go. We need new housing stock in Rohnert Park to meet the needs of a changing community.”

If approved by the council, the project’s ambitious timeline would see completion of the retail space in fall 2020 - just in time for the start of the holiday shopping season. Bouquillon said roughly half of the housing would be finished by January the next year, with the rest ready for tenants in the spring of 2021.

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