Golis: Santa Rosa’s housing future rests on success of downtown plan

As Santa Rosa prepares a new downtown plan and reimagines what its downtown can become, we are reminded that cities must confront what came before.

Routing a freeway through the middle of town, burying Santa Rosa Creek and putting City Hall on top, promoting a shopping mall that walled itself off from downtown - to the people in charge, they seemed like good ideas at the time.

Now, decades later, planners must cope with old decisions that complicate efforts to create a more unified and livable city center.

In an interview, Assistant City Manager David Guhin acknowledged these obstacles, but he quickly added, “They're all opportunities.”

Don't judge this proposal only by what is possible now, he said: “This plan is more than today. It's a vision, a blueprint, for the next 20 years.”

The new and ambitious draft plan wants to be a road map that spells out how downtown Santa Rosa would welcome the best of urban living. Imagine a space that includes housing, shops, restaurants and cafes, offices, transit and bike lanes, art galleries and public spaces.

Most of all, of course, the plan hopes to become a solution to Sonoma County's urgent need for housing.

The transformation would be made possible by permitting more intensive development, promising flexibility to home builders and strengthening neighborhoods near downtown.

Building height limitations would be replaced by standards that permit buildings with smaller footprints to grow taller. Someday, Guhin believes, the tallest buildings might reach 14 to 16 stories.

Parking requirements would be waived for buildings near transit corridors and shared parking.

Santa Rosa Creek would be brought back to life. (The new plan proposes to “daylight” the creek, a euphemistic way of saying the city wants to recreate what existed for eons - a stream that wends its way through the middle of town.)

A new bicycle and pedestrian corridor through the downtown mall would connect the area around Old Courthouse Square with Railroad Square and beyond.

By the year 2040, city officials hope, maximum build-out would produce 7,000 new housing units and 2,540 new jobs.

It's ambitious, to say the least, and much is riding on the plan's success. In a city with growth boundaries, a chronic shortage of housing and a history of housing proposals mired in controversy, there aren't many other options.

When it comes to new housing, Guhin noted, downtown emerges as the one location where business and environmental leaders can find agreement.

Much depends on the city's ability to create public-private partnerships and on builders and lenders who become convinced they can build downtown for a price the market will find attractive.

The city hopes to prove there is a market for downtown housing by supporting a demonstration project on city-owned land. A mixed-use project could be built on the current site of a city parking garage, City Hall or even the Central Library.

People want to live downtown, said Guhin, “but nobody wants to go first.”

A housing development on the site of the downtown library would depend on an agreement that led to a new location for the library. (Since library design and functions have changed dramatically in recent years, a new, more modern library would serve as an additional benefit).

History tells us ambitious blueprints for downtown Santa Rosa are nothing new. Over the years, smart ideas came and went without much progress. The one exception might be the reunification of Old Courthouse Square - finally accomplished after more than 20 years of promises that went nowhere.

City officials who know this history will be challenged to produce a different outcome.

The city's draft preferred plan concept incorporates the comments of 850 people over the past year. You can read the plan and make your own comments at

Additional public comments are being accepted during November, leading up to a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, scheduled for Dec. 3. If the council green lights the proposal, work would begin on an environmental review, aiming for adoption in the spring of next year. Yes, the timeline probably is too optimistic.

Many Santa Rosans have been slow to warm to proposals to reinvent downtown, but there is no shortage of reasons for them to reconsider.

A scarce supply of housing and the resulting high price of housing threaten to stunt the local economy. With so many people retiring in place, it's not clear where the next generation of workers will live.

Downtown housing means less pressure for sprawl development and the associated environmental and financial costs of sprawl.

And a vibrant downtown is what separates the best cities from all the others. Even if you seldom visit downtown, its vitality dictates how people perceive your city. Which means it also influences the value of your property, even if you live miles from downtown.

Guhin disagreed with the suggestion that significant housing developments won't be built in other neighborhoods but, he acknowledged, “I think it's safe to say there's a lot riding on this.”

No one can guarantee that this latest downtown plan will work. What we do know is there is inadequate support for other alternatives, and doing nothing is not an option. For Santa Rosa, downtown may not be the only game in town, but it's close to being the only game in town.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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