Rohnert Park finalizes vision for a downtown — but it may clash with developer’s plan

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Rohnert Park’s leaders have formally outlined a vision for a bona fide downtown in a city that’s struggled for decades to identify its central hub.

Following three years of targeted planning, the City Council signed off recently on general plan and zoning changes to guide development in a 330-acre area that encompasses the envisioned city center.

“Finally, after 20 years, we’re getting to the point where we believe we will be able to create a downtown where people will want to shop and walk around,” Jake Mackenzie, the city‘s vice mayor, said this week.

The triangular-shaped development area is south of Golf Course Drive, west of the railroad tracks, east of Highway 101 and north of Avram Avenue and Santa Alicia Drive. Its heart is a commuter rail station being built along Rohnert Park Expressway east of Highway 101 to accommodate Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority trains that are scheduled to begin service later this year, and the former State Farm complex, which is being eyed for housing and commercial development.

One of the general plan changes approved by the City Council allows for State Farm Drive to be shrunk from four lanes to two between the expressway and Enterprise Drive to accommodate more downtown parking, bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks.

That’s among many proposed changes designed to make the nascent downtown area more pedestrian-friendly.

Mayor Gina Belforte said the overall concept, which is formally known as the Central Rohnert Park Priority Development Area Plan, has “all the things we need.”

However, the plan is not without controversy, including ongoing debate over the ideal mix of commercial, retail and housing development that should be included downtown — with apparently conflicting visions put forward by the city and a key developer.

One particular area of focus is the former State Farm campus, where Southern California developer SunCal is proposing to build 400 higher-density housing units, such as condominiums, and a village of mixed commercial use anchored by a restaurant or pub to lure people downtown. The plan also calls for a transit hub, dubbed Seed Farm Square, around the SMART station, and a “Main Street” to replace State Farm Drive, with townhomes lining the street.

SunCal appears to be reconsidering those plans for the 32-acre site in light of recent City Council actions.

“We’re just still taking this all in and figuring out the best way to proceed, or not,” Michael Olson, the project’s manager for SunCal, said this week.

The City Council determined that the “Station Center” site encompassing the former State Farm campus should include 150,000 square feet of “active retail and service uses,” which assistant city manager Don Schwartz described as restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and the like to encourage pedestrian traffic.

“You need a certain amount of retail to get a vibrant downtown,” Schwartz said.

City staff also argued that a minimum amount of retail development is necessary to ensure the city has sufficient tax revenue to cover costs related to new construction and services, as well as in anticipation of a projected population boom in Rohnert Park over the next decade.

The City Council approved a minimum amount of 275,000 square feet of retail development within the entire downtown plan area. Staff determined such development, which would not be built all at once but come in spurts, could bring an additional $400,000 annually into the city’s general fund within a decade.

Belforte said a minimum amount of retail space is “crucial to whether downtown works or not.”

But SunCal’s Olson expressed concerns about the developer recouping its investment in its development, dubbed Rohnert Crossings, if vacancies occur as a result of unfilled city mandates.

“We’re still skeptical of how much square footage (of commercial and retail space) can be accommodated there and be successful,” Olson said. “Our main concern is to make sure what we have works.”

The developer’s current plans include 117,700 square feet of office and retail development on the site, including 27,700 square feet of “flex space,” which Olson said could be converted to housing if other uses don’t pencil out. By his calculation, the developer would be about 33,000 square feet shy of the city’s new standard for development in that zone.

But Schwartz said the city’s new standards for retail development in the downtown area exclude offices and flex space. That means SunCal could be well short of what the city says it wants for the site.

Over objections raised by Olson, a divided Planning Commission on Feb. 25 signaled support for the central Rohnert Park plan, but without the development minimums sought by city staff for the SunCal property.

“I have long been a proponent of having a downtown for Rohnert Park. But the way you do that is with the cooperation and agreement with the people who are going to invest money in it,” said John Borba, the commission chairman, who joined two other commissioners to approve the modified proposal.

Borba referenced a City Council meeting last June when a majority of members on the board had high praise for SunCal’s plans for Rohnert Crossings. The lone dissenter was Belforte, who expressed concerns the development was still short of the retail space needed to avoid creating what the mayor referred to as a “strip mall.”

Belforte this week said she saw no inconsistencies with the council’s generally positive review of SunCal’s plans last summer and the council’s unanimous March 22 vote to approve the downtown concept plan with the minimum amount of retail space for the former State Farm campus intact.

“I don’t think it’s bad faith on the city’s part whatsoever,” she said.

Mackenzie echoed that sentiment, characterizing last summer’s meeting — during which the he praised SunCal representatives for a job “well done” — as only a step in an ongoing process.

“To be very blunt about it, it’s the city of Rohnert Park, through its processes, that determines how the city should grow. Not the developer,” he said.

In addition to general plan and zoning changes, the City Council on March 22 also unanimously signed off on an environmental review that identified increased traffic on Highway 101 as the only significant impact resulting from more development in the nearby downtown corridor. The review found that potential impacts resulting from more traffic on local roads and on air quality, including as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, can be mitigated.

The back-and-forth epitomizes what are sure to be contentious battles in the future over what ultimately should be built in the newly designated downtown area.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Belforte said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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