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Sonoma County supervisors select Sears site for future county offices

Sonoma County will be moving operations to downtown Santa Rosa.

Tuesday the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to house a new county complex on the 7.4-acre Sears site, which stretches from B street to Highway 101 and includes a Santa Rosa Plaza parking structure.

The Sears location was one of three being considered for a new county complex. County staff also presented the supervisors with options to build on two parcels at Third and E streets or remain in their current site.

Faced with an aging complex built in the 1950s and a backlog of maintenance, the supervisors agreed in January to take a closer look at options for a new home.

Painting a rough vision of what a complex at the Sears site could look like, Director of General Services Caroline Judy told supervisors the complex would hold an 18-story building, 4-story building and 779 parking spaces on site.

Eager to attract the county downtown, Santa Rosa has offered to lease the county as many as 500 spaces in existing city-owned parking garages, for free for three years and then at market rates for the next seven years. In exchange the county is committed to designing the complex in keeping with Santa Rosa’s downtown master plan.

Supervisor David Rabbitt voted against selecting the Sears site over concerns the board had not received enough details regarding how the county would pay for the project, which is expected to come with a 30-year mortgage estimated to cost as much as $55 million a year.

“I don’t see us having a land use decision today I see us having a financial decision today and I don’t know that we’ve seen enough of the financial information today,” Rabbitt said, referring to a hypothetical funding plan outlined by staff.

The hypothetical plan posed covering the mortgage with funds from multiple sources including a deferred maintenance fund, capital project funds, savings from pension obligation bonds, hotel and vacation rental tax revenue and potential state and federal reimbursements.

Deputy County Administrator Peter Bruland prefaced the financial plan’s presentation by noting the county does not yet know what the final cost of the project will be.

Ahead of Tuesday’s decision, the county signed a nonbinding agreement with the property owners, Simon Properties, for a purchase price of $20 million.

Of the three site options, Sears is the second-most expensive option for the county, according to Judy. Building a new complex on the county’s current 82-acre campus could be the least expensive option as the county would not have to deal with the high-rise premiums, parking leases and delay costs associated with potential state requirements for environmental reviews.

Last week, county officials said rebuilding on the existing Administration Drive site could cost between $37 million and $46 million a year over 30 years. Building on the Sears site and Third Street site would cost as much as 11% more annually.

Under any scheme taxpayers are likely to spend well over a billion dollars.

Not all employees would relocate to the downtown office under current plans for the project. The Sheriff’s Office, detention center and courthouse would remain at the existing site and about 30% of employees are expected to work remotely.

Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins joined Supervisor Susan Gorin in stressing the need for neighborhood service centers which the county is also exploring. Located in more rural parts of the county, these centers would provide health and human services, family and youth services, and other functions like building permits.

Hopkins’ and Gorin’s support for the centers aligned with officials’ broader calls Tuesday night for a re-imagined, forward-thinking approach to government.

The Sears site, supervisors said, would offer the opportunity for such an approach because of its proximity to SMART and the transit mall, the opportunity to create an energy efficient building, the potential boost to downtown businesses and the opportunity to connect the Railroad Square Historic District with Old Courthouse Square.

“I would offer to my colleagues and to the community that we have an incredible opportunity in front of us. I am a supporter of the downtown site with a strong regional center, neighborhood centers connecting to the community,” Gorin said. “It’s not going to be cheap, its not going to be really thrifty to do that, but it is absolutely the way to go.”

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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