Santa Rosa greenway design makes room for more housing

A subtle struggle is underway in southeast Santa Rosa between providing housing and preserving open space, and the pressure to provide housing appears to have the upper hand.

The latest design for a 57-acre greenway running on Caltrans right-of-way from Farmers Lane to Spring Lake calls for about 190 units of housing, most of it apartments clustered at the western end of what's being called the Southeast Greenway.

That's a 26 percent increase over the most intensely developed of the three options presented to city leaders late last year. It's also 153 percent more units than the minimalist design favored by the group that's been advocating for a greenway for eight years.

The revisions, made publicly available last week, followed months of public input and direction from members of the City Council and Planning Commission in November, many of whom stressed that the plan should reflect the city's top priority, which is housing, and ensure the project can pay for itself, which more development would theoretically allow.

So Tuesday's follow-up joint meeting of those two city bodies should prove a telling study in where city leaders are leaning when it comes to developing the ribbon of vacant land once eyed for the extension of Highway 12 over Spring Lake.

Will they embrace the new higher-density plan as presented, scale back development out of deference to neighbors hoping for the lightest footprint possible, or set aside even more land for housing near Yulupa Avenue and Summerfield Avenues?

“This alternative does most of the things the council and the commission said were important, and reflects significant community input,” city planner Erin Morris said.

The latest plan, called the preferred alternative, seeks to boost the number of housing units by intensifying development along the western edge of the property, on two parcels to the north and south of the Hoen Avenue on-ramp to Highway 12.

The two largest chunks of housing would now be in this area. The biggest would be about 114 units and 20,000 square feet of commercial space in 4.7 acres of mixed-use development in a triangle between the on-ramp and Hoen frontage road.

Just to the north, between the on-ramp and Vallejo Street, is a 3.7 acre strip of land eyed for 48 units in two- or three-story apartments or condominiums.

Two of the three designs proposed in November had no housing at all in the area along Vallejo Street, but rather open space ensuring the greenway stretched all the way to Farmers Lane.

But the preferred alternative effectively eliminates any green space west of Matanzas Creek, meaning the greenway would only truly begin at Hoen Avenue.

The bicycle and pedestrian pathways would begin where Vallejo Street dead-ends in a quiet neighborhood of mostly townhomes behind the Kelly-Moore Paints building on Farmers Lane.

From there they would head east, skirting the new apartments until they cross the Matanzas Creek and Hoen Avenue.

Such concentration of the bulk of the housing at the extreme western end seems to suit greenway advocates just fine. While it is more housing than the minimal design the campaign originally sought, the strategy will allow the goals of preservation and imposed access to succeed along the rest of the greenway, said Thea Hensel and Linda Proulx, co-chairs of the Southeast Greenway Campaign.

“I think the majority of people in the campaign think it's a good design,” Hensel said. “They preferred it to putting a lot of housing elsewhere on the greenway.”

One problem with this design, however, is that the residents of the north parcel would be somewhat landlocked, hemmed in by the on-ramp to the south. To address this, designers have added two options to improve connections – a passage for bicycles under the on-ramp and a mid-block crossing at the entrance to the on-ramp.

In the middle section of the project, west of Yulupa Avenue, the preferred design calls for designating a 1.2-acre section as mixed use. There is already multi-family housing in the area and a shopping center a block away. Planners see the possibility of about 2,000 square feet of commercial space and 27 units of housing at this location.

The preferred design backs away, however, from a previous proposal of adding townhomes along the northern edge greenway east of Franquette Avenue, where several residential streets already dead-end at the Caltrans property.

Some have suggested developing townhomes in the area because utilities, including part of a city street, are already in the area. But Hensel said building up to 20 townhomes along that area would cut the greenway in half and restrict access greenway for the residents of that neighborhood “seems imprudent.”

The group wants to avoid “pinch points” that lessen the greenway's continuity, Hensel said.

Nevertheless, planners have provided the option to commission and the council should they seek to add units.

The area near Summerfield has no housing or commercial use of any kind under the preferred alternative. The current plan calls for the area east of Summerfield running up to Spring Lake Regional Park to be owned and operated by the county.

The area is not slated for more development in the draft plan, in part because the area has remnants of orchards that some residents want to preserve and a seasonal creek that makes the area west Summerfield “a very constrained site,” Morris said.

It might also be “cleaner” for Sonoma County officials to accept the site without housing slated for it, said Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer of the Sonoma County Water Agency, though he stressed he had not discussed the issue with his board.

County officials have previously expressed interest in creating an entrance to Spring Lake park off Summerfield.

If city leaders want housing at Summerfield, planners have given them an alternative that could tuck about 13 units behind an existing apartment complex, and designate a small area for about 2,000 square feet of retail, such as a coffee shop, on the west side.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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