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Santa Rosa approves $123 million downtown housing, shelter project

Santa Rosa leaders have unanimously approved the city’s largest housing project of its kind, an ambitious $123 million downtown complex with 126 apartments for low-income renters and shelter space for up to 210 homeless people.

The landmark Caritas Village project slated for Morgan Street north of the Santa Rosa Plaza mall cleared the City Council after a lengthy hearing Tuesday.

Supporters hailed the vision as a major step forward in addressing the local homelessness crisis, which reached a new zenith this winter when more than 250 people set up an illegal camp along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

“I firmly believe that we can move the needle of homelessness in Santa Rosa with this project,” said Vic Trione, chairman of the board of the Luther Burbank Corp. and co-chairman of a $26 million capital campaign for Caritas Village. “It’s the right time. It’s the right project.”

The development, a joint effort of Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa and Burbank Housing, is tentatively set to begin construction in early 2021. It would transform an entire block of downtown northwest of the Santa Rosa Plaza mall that makes up the southernmost part of the St. Rose neighborhood’s historic preservation district, rankling some neighbors concerned about losing links to the city’s past.

Caritas Village would require several century-old buildings to be demolished, including the old General Hospital and a single-family home on Morgan Street that houses Catholic Charities’ drop-in center - a source of complaints for nearby residents concerned about safety and sanitation. City records show a higher relative number of police and fire calls responding to issues in the Morgan Street area.

Residents on nearby blocks recently convinced the city to include their area in a city parking permit program, motivated in part by the prevalence of homeless people sleeping in vehicles there.

“Everybody wants the homeless to have things and get off the street and be their best selves. Everybody wants it,” said Lisa Landrus, a member of the Citizens for Action Now advocacy group, who raised the prospect of litigation over Caritas Village. “But we want it done in a fruitful way that doesn’t impact the neighborhood.”

Others concerned about the project cited historic preservation considerations and urged an alternate project layout to avoid demolishing every building on the block between Morgan, A, Sixth and Seventh streets.

“We would like to see some strong consideration towards that,” said Denise Hill, a longtime St. Rose resident who also called for more oversight of Catholic Charities’ Morgan Street site. “We would also like to see down the road that the city stop putting us at odds with developers, and we continually have to go to bat for our historic district when it is an asset to the city. And one of these days, we look forward to the city embracing it as such.”

Such concerns will continue to surface as Santa Rosa tries to address its lack of affordable housing, said Councilman Chris Rogers. The city has adopted policies designed to encourage developers to build dense residential complexes downtown near the city’s transit mall and the SMART rail station at Railroad Square.

“We are going to have more of these conflicts as they come up,” Rogers said. “We are putting a ton of housing into our downtown area, and that’s where all of our historic districts are.”

Catholic Charities is Sonoma County’s main homeless services provider. It has received $8.6 million from Santa Rosa to run a host of programs, including operating the largest shelter, Sam Jones Hall, over the past five years, according to city records.

The city took the unusual step of scheduling the project for a Planning Commission hearing last Thursday and a City Council hearing less than a week later on Election Day.

Due to board posts that posed potential conflicts of interests, Councilmen John Sawyer and Ernesto Olivares recused themselves from the contentious public hearing that started around 5 p.m. Tuesday and continued for more than three hours until after polls closed.

Holding the hearing on Election Day was not ideal, Mayor Tom Schwedhelm acknowledged. He said the initial aim was to hold the hearing last week, but he and Sawyer were abroad on trips and city staff were waiting for confirmation that Councilman Jack Tibbetts, who is executive director of another homeless service provider, St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, did not have a conflict. Tibbetts was ultimately cleared to participate and Schwedhelm returned in time from a fishing trip in New Zealand, leaving the council with a five-member quorum.

“If I could have avoided it, I would have,” Schwedhelm said of the scheduling conflict.

Santa Rosa planning staff members fast-tracked the project - which gained approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council in less than a week - because it aligned with council goals including downtown housing, affordable housing and addressing homelessness, said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy director for planning.

“We have done an all-hands processing approach on this,” Hartman said.

Also, Catholic Charities and Burbank Housing have expressed their interest in seeing quick approval that would allow them to apply for lucrative tax credits, which are typically released annually on fixed schedules.

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