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Sonoma County eyes purchase of Santa Rosa Sears site for government center

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is poised to sign off on buying the former Sears site in downtown Santa Rosa for redevelopment as county offices, advancing what is likely to be one of the costliest county capital projects in a generation.

On Tuesday the board is set to vote on a $20.75 million purchase of the 7.4-acre site at the south end of Santa Rosa Plaza. The property, bounded by B street to the east and Highway 101 to the west, includes a three-story parking garage.

The purchase would mark the most significant step forward for the board’s efforts to leave county’s aging north Santa Rosa complex. That collection of one-story buildings dating to the 1950s has a mounting maintenance backlog, according to the county.

The move has also been touted as an economic boon for downtown Santa Rosa, bringing the bulk of the region’s single largest workforce, more than 4,000 employees, closer to the city’s main transit hub and commercial and civic core.

“I am confident that the board sees this as the right decision, for the county organization, for the community, for meeting our strategic plan and climate goals,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said in an interview. “This is a project that checks a lot of boxes.”

Sears closed the store at the end of 2018. Simon Property Group, the U.S. mall giant, remained tight-lipped about the future of the property, owned at the time by Simon and Seritage Growth Properties. It has been largely vacant ever since.

In July 2021, the board committed to the downtown site, attracted by the property’s proximity to the SMART rail station in Railroad Square, Highway 101 and downtown businesses.

The current campus, located two miles to the north off Administration Drive, is a sprawling expanse of buildings on 82 acres east of Highway 101. Rough plans for the Sears site envision an 18-story building, a 4-story building and 779 parking spaces on site.

The $20.75 million purchase price is a small fraction of what the overall project could cost.

The project is expected to come with a 30-year mortgage estimated to cost as much as $55 million a year. County staff are due to present the board with a financial plan outlining how the county will pay for the project in March.

The purchase of the Sears site is conditional on the county being able to finalize agreements with the city of Santa Rosa and Simon Property Group to lease 500 parking spaces at city garages and 550 spaces at Santa Rosa Plaza.

SPS Portfolio Holdings, LLC, the entity listed as the seller on the Sears site purchase agreement, is one of three partners negotiating the Santa Rosa Plaza parking lease, said General Services Director Caroline Judy, the county’s chief real estate official.

If the board votes to move forward on Tuesday, the county will put down a $500,000 deposit for the start of the 90-day inspection period. The county then has the option to put down an additional $500,000 deposit to extend the inspection period another 90 days if more time to reach lease agreements, according to a staff report.

The county’s deposits are refundable if the inspection period turns up “significant concerns” or the parking agreements fall through, the report said. The agreement also provides two years for the project to pass the state-mandated environmental impact study. If the project fails to clear that hurdle, the county will be refunded its money.

“They are willing to work with the county in recognizing that we need to go through the CEQA process,” Judy said of the seller and the state’s benchmark environmental law. “They understood that it’s a legal requirement that we have to meet.”

Last year, county staff indicated about 2,400 of the county’s roughly 4,300 employees would make the move to the downtown offices, allowing some employees to work remotely. The Sheriff’s Office, detention center and courthouse are expected to remain at the current site.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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