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Santa Rosa City Council rejects appeal of North Street apartment project

A modern-style three-story apartment complex proposed next to one of Santa Rosa’s most historic neighborhoods will proceed after the City Council refused to block the project.

By a 4-2 vote, the City Council late Tuesday denied an appeal brought by area residents who claimed the design of the 20-unit North Street Apartments - with its spare features and signature upswept roof - was not compatible with the historic character of their neighborhood.

“I’ve lived in Santa Rosa all of my life and I love these neighborhoods,” Mayor John Sawyer said. “It’s very difficult to sit here and disappoint people.”

But he and the council majority agreed that the developer, Jeff Luchetti, followed the process established for such projects, made adjustments in response to neighbors’ concerns, and won the support of city staff and the Design Review Board.

“In the end, we’ve set up a process and the developer followed it,” Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said.

The decision was seen by some as a key test of the council’s priorities in light of the city’s acute housing shortage. It set more than 100 residents in some of the city’s most politically influential neighborhoods - the Santa Rosa Junior College and the McDonald Historic Preservation District - against a developer who promised to build 20 new units on a long-vacant lot in an area that was zoned for that exact purpose.

Coursey said he wished the project contained some affordable housing and that neighbors and the developer could have reached consensus on the design. But absent that, he was not willing to block the project over what was essentially a matter of taste.

“I think that if we set these rules and ask people to follow them and then send people back to the drawing board, we send a terrible message to the building community,” Coursey said.

The neighborhood surrounding the project isn’t just Victorian and Craftsman-style homes but is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, said Coursey, who lives about a quarter-mile north of the site.

The property for years has been used as truck and trailer storage for a moving company.

“In this case, I think that the neighborhood folks are asking for this project to conform to a conformity that doesn’t even exist,” Coursey said.

The architect on the project, Design Review Board member Warren Hedgpeth, has said he took his inspiration more from the area’s industrial past - the site was the former home of a Southern Pacific Railroad depot - than the surrounding homes.

Coursey, Sawyer, Gary Wysocky and Ernesto Olivares voted against the appeal. Julie Combs and Tom Schwedhelm voted in favor of it.

Both Combs and Schwedhelm said they believed the project should have done more to take into account the views of neighbors.

City rules call for commercial properties including apartment buildings that are “adjacent” to historic neighborhoods to conform to the more stringent historic guidelines. But the 1.1-acre site on North Street is located a half-block away from the boundary of the McDonald Historic Preservation District, which city staff did not consider adjacent.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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