Sonoma County may seek development proposals for former Sutter Hospital site

A mixed-use housing development that could potentially bring hundreds of new units to the hills of Santa Rosa is one of the options eyed by the Board of Supervisors.|

Sonoma County supervisors are eyeing a major transformation of the former Sutter Hospital site in the hills of eastern Santa Rosa into a mixed-use housing development that could potentially bring hundreds of new units onto the market.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a plan Tuesday seeking development proposals for the 117-acre county-owned property on Chanate Road, vacated last year when Sutter Hospital relocated its campus north of Santa Rosa.

“We need housing, and we need it now,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the property. “We’re in a dire housing crisis, so we’re not going to sit on this site and wait for two years to do something with it. We want to get a shovel in the ground as soon as possible.”

Development of affordable housing on a swath of prime county-owned real estate is seen as critical - especially in Santa Rosa - as soaring rents threaten to displace working-class residents and low-wage earners.

“We’re in desperate need for housing for low-income and middle-income families,” said David Grabill, an attorney and housing rights advocate based in Santa Rosa. “That land is ideal to meet those needs.”

County officials are weighing two proposals, including whether to sell the property or lease it under a long-term lease of up to 99 years. The idea is to create a “village-type neighborhood with varying levels of affordability.”

Zane and other supervisors have voiced support for designating a portion of the units as affordable for low-income renters and buyers.

“We want to be able to house people who can’t afford half-a-million-dollar homes - I’m talking about people like teachers and social workers, younger adults and seniors,” Zane said. “We’re excited to do something really creative with that beautiful piece of property.”

Housing costs throughout Sonoma County have reached a boiling point. Rents have risen 30 percent in the past three years, and vacancy rates are extremely low. Affordable housing developers pointed to another measure highlighting local housing needs: the waiting list for open affordable units.

“We have 7,000 people waiting on our list for affordable housing, and we only have one slot opening per day,” said Pascal Sisich, director of housing development for Burbank Housing Development Corporation. “At that rate, it would take 20 years just to clear our current list.”

In response, some cities are taking action. The Santa Rosa City Council next month is set to consider rent control and other measures to increase affordable housing opportunities, and the Healdsburg City Council last week issued a nonbinding recommendation that landlords limit rent increases to 10 percent annually. Supervisors also vowed last year to increase funding for affordable housing.

County housing laws require commercial and residential developers to set aside 15 percent to 20 percent of housing as affordable for low- to moderate-income earners (or pay into an affordable housing development account). For example, a family of four earning $65,000 per year or less qualifies as low-income, and a couple earning $52,000 a year is considered low-income.

Under county rules, the family of four would pay $1,239 per month in rent for a three-bedroom unit, and two people living in a one-bedroom would pay $992 per month.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said the county should aggressively seek proposals that enhance open space and provide a mix of low- to moderate-income housing.

“It’s important to provide housing available to a range of income levels, and our lower-income workforce has to be part of that mix,” Gorin said. “It’s a beautiful campus, so there are also ample opportunities for open space.”

County staff, who are recommending that supervisors approve the option to lease the property to a developer instead of sell it, said the area is a prime location for families and young people. Hidden Valley Elementary School is just up the hill; the site sits along public transportation routes; and it’s within walking distance to businesses along Mendocino Avenue.

The hilly expanse, dotted with oak woodlands, is viewed by some as an ideal location for affordable housing, and neighboring residents appeared to welcome the idea.

“My personal preference would be for multi-use housing,” said Don Rowell, who lives in the nearby Cobblestone neighborhood.

Jim Barnes, vice president of the Cobblestone Homeowners Association, said the board of directors hasn’t taken an official position, but the neighborhood is mostly concerned about homeless encampments.

“A lot of us were concerned about it being used as a homeless shelter,” Barnes said. “But it’s a nice piece of property, so I can understand wanting to use it for housing.”

David Miller, who moved to the area last year with his wife and two kids, said he also supports housing on the property.

“I don’t have a problem with affordable housing,” Miller said. “As long as it fits the neighborhood.”

Supervisors are expected today to authorize $92,000 in spending for staff time to solicit proposals for the site. In addition to housing, officials floated other ideas, including some commercial uses such as a market or health center, as well as an outdoor performing arts venue and a network of new walking paths throughout the property.

At present, the sprawling Chanate property houses various county health offices, including mental health and public health, as well as the county coroner. The county also leases some of the properties to nonprofits, including the Bird Rescue Center, Community Action Partnership and Goodwill’s Wellness Center, which provides mental health treatment for veterans, parolees and others.

Such uses could be relocated, officials said. Zane said that besides the upfront staffing costs, the project would be funded by developers selected through a robust request-for-proposals process.

At least a portion of the former hospital, originally constructed in 1936, must be demolished due to inadequate heating and cooling infrastructure and hazardous materials on site. Total cost to demolish the hazardous sections of the building is estimated at $5.9 million, according to county building officials. Repairing and seismically retrofitting the existing structure would cost an estimated $94 million.

“We might be able to salvage parts of it,” Zane said.

Future plans could also include development of walking paths to link with other trails in the area. Some of the property, owned by the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, could be preserved for open space. The waters of Paulin Creek would not be disturbed, and a reservoir on site would stay in place. The Chanate Historical Cemetery also would remain.

The biggest challenges are that the former hospital sits on two seismically active areas - the Rodgers Creek and Hayward faults converge on the site. The property also would have to be rezoned from its current zoning as a public institutional land use to accommodate residential and commercial development.

Sisich, the developer with Burbank Housing, said finding the funding is also a huge challenge.

“It’s not terribly difficult in Sonoma County to get planning and entitlement approvals,” he said. “It’s all about finding the funding.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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