John Stewart of The John Stewart Company out of San Francisco stands near the old cannery buildings in Railroad Square. (Press Democrat photo, 2004)

Senior housing near Santa Rosa SMART station voted down

A modest plan to kick-start development around Santa Rosa's downtown train station got kicked to the curb Tuesday by the City Council.

The council rejected by a 4-3 vote a developer's bid to build 93 units of affordable senior housing instead of a more ambitious plan he says no longer makes financial sense in the current economy.

The narrow vote pitted council members who wanted to see something move forward on the Railroad Square site against those who worried the scaled-back plan wasn't being true to the city's long-range vision for the downtown property.

"I just can't shake the feeling that we're grasping at straws to try to make something happen under the feeling that something is better than nothing," Mayor Scott Bartley said.

San Francisco developer John Stewart had once proposed a huge transit-oriented, mixed-use development project called New Railroad Square on seven vacant acres west of the future Santa Rosa SMART station.

The $182 million project was to include a food-and-wine center like those in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, as well as 279 apartments aimed at attracting people to live near a downtown train station.

The stagnant economy stalled that plan, but Stewart sought to salvage a piece of it and preserve $4.3 million in state grant funds by building 93 units of senior housing on a site known as the Cannery. He viewed the $27 million project as easier to finance and something that would serve as a catalyst for other development in the area.

Three council members urged their colleagues to allow the change.

Jake Ours warned that if the council rejected the project, the city probably wouldn't see anything built on the property for at least a decade.

"This can be a good project, and it can be something that helps ignite the whole area," Ours said.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares and Gary Wysocky also supported the change.

But housing advocate David Grabill questioned the appropriateness of the site for senior housing, noting that there would be few services for them nearby. He said he sympathized with Stewart's position, but he said it was inappropriate for tax dollars intended for the entire site to be used just for the scaled-back project.

"This is going to have a huge impact on the future of Santa Rosa, on the train and the whole region, so let's do it right, please," Grabill said.

Bartley and three other council members agreed it was more important to do it right than do it now.

"I'd hate to make a short-term decision that could have long-term impacts," Bartley said.

He cited several senior housing complexes that he said haven't exactly ignited lively development around them.

Julie Combs expressed concern that the project was limited to seniors and not low-income housing for families. She also noted that the creekside Cannery parcel was beautiful, wondering if approving only it would be "taking the plum out of the site" and making future development there harder.

Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom said continuing to support such a limited project "feels very much to me like a bailout, and I think the public is rightly tired of bailing out private interests."

Councilwoman Robin Swinth was the swing vote on the issue, and at first seemed to leaning in favor of approving the change. She initially voted in favor of it, then apologized, said she had made a mistake and switched her vote.

David Gouin, the city's director of economic development and housing, said he couldn't say whether the project was dead or not until he spoke with Stewart about his plans.

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