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Santa Rosa adopts new plan for downtown development

Santa Rosa has adopted a new plan for downtown development that aims to entice more builders and add thousands of homes in larger and taller urban projects, remaking the city’s core after a previous blueprint for the area failed to do so.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted a plan that updates the zoning and design rules — lifting caps on building height and eliminating parking minimums — for about 720 acres of downtown Santa Rosa, forming roughly a half-mile circle around the SMART station in Railroad Square.

The new plan replaces a 2007 document that set a goal of building 3,400 new downtown homes, a mark the city missed by a mile. More than halfway through that plan’s 20-year lifespan, only 375 homes had been built as of 2019 when the plan’s reevaluation began.

“Looking back, without blame, it’s generally accepted that our existing downtown plan has not only failed to achieve its goals but is actually one of the main reasons for not achieving those goals,” said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, speaking in support of the new blueprint.

Councilman John Sawyer, the lone member remaining on the council from 2007, expressed optimism that officials have gained a better understanding of how a future downtown Santa Rosa should take shape.

“We would not have made the same decisions today as we did 13 years ago, and I think that we’ve learned a lot about how downtowns become successful,” Sawyer said.

The new plan is more ambitious than its predecessor. It aims to add 7,000 new homes in downtown by 2040.

The plan appears to ratify the developer-friendly stance the city has sought to stake out over the past few years, said builder Hugh Futrell, whose firm has built eight downtown buildings and has two more under construction. His crews have recently started grading and site preparation work at 888 Fourth St., where Futrell plans a 75-foot building with more than 100 apartments.

“It’s a continued signal that the city is committed to development in downtown,” Futrell said of the new plan.

One of the plan’s more notable changes is replacing traditional building height rules, which set hard caps on the number of floors a building could have based on its zoning.

The new system is called “floor area ratio,” which gives developers more flexibility to build higher, denser complexes of homes. A site with a floor area ratio of 1.0 under the new plan could be developed with either one story on its entire footprint or up to two stories on half of its footprint, while a site with a floor area ratio of 3.0 could be developed with either up to three stories on its entire footprint or up to six stories on half of its footprint, and so on.

Futrell noted the cost of tall buildings remains prohibitively high, making high-rise construction unfeasible in Santa Rosa given the city’s rental costs, which though steep for the nation still come in lower than rents in big cities.

The blocks closest to Old Courthouse Square, including the Santa Rosa Plaza site, have ratios of 8.0, setting the stage for a ring of relatively large buildings in a city without a distinct urban skyline. Other blocks in historic districts and in existing neighborhoods have ratios of 1.0, limiting their development potential in terms of new housing units and raising the likelihood that they’ll remain relatively unchanged.

But some members of the public and on the council voiced concerns that adjacent neighborhoods like the historic St. Rose area could be overshadowed by large new developments along B Street, where about a dozen parcels on the district’s edge initially had a ratio of 3.0.

Councilman Chris Rogers, who is running for reelection to represent a district that includes the St. Rose area, asked for and received an amendment capping the development on adjoining properties, where a floor area ratio would not apply.

Another major change of the plan is its elimination of minimum parking requirements, to give developers more flexibility when designing projects. City staff say Santa Rosa has more than adequate public and private parking space in downtown, and have pushed to preserve space for development and discourage new parking lots and garages. Developers may increasingly find themselves making deals with the city to use parking garage spaces for tenants, as is the case for the 1 Santa Rosa project moving forward south of the square.

The plan also calls for developers to “activate” the ground floors of their buildings to improve the experience for pedestrians. This could mean using ground floors not as lobbies but as shops, restaurants, bars, co-working spaces or art studios, according to city documents.

The plan aims to promote new homes that are either smaller and more affordable by design, large enough for families or versatile enough to function as home-offices, said Amy Lyle, a supervising planner for the city.

As part of developing the plan, the city conducted an environmental review of the downtown area. Developers can cite that review to exempt them from full-blown environmental studies for future housing projects.

“It is a really key tool in state law that we are using here at the city to help streamline development that’s consistent with the plan,” Lyle said.

The city spent spent just over $900,000 developing the plan update, $800,000 of which came from a grant from a regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. A copy of the plan and information about its development is available at plandowntownsr.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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