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Santa Rosa officials to review new plan that envisions more of a 'big city' downtown

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Santa Rosa planning officials hope a new 12-page document holds the key to unlocking the future for a city center replete with new, taller mixed-use buildings and vibrant ground-floor commercial spaces that draw in foot traffic.

A draft plan for Santa Rosa’s future downtown will go before the City Council and Planning Commission on Tuesday afternoon in a joint meeting at City Hall. It’s predicated on the idea that Santa Rosa’s “suburban downtown” needs to “grow up” to better accommodate its population of roughly 180,000, according to Patrick Streeter, a city planner overseeing the effort.

“The direction that we got from council was that they want to see us go big and go bold with a new idea for downtown,” Streeter said. “That’s what we’re hoping to deliver to them on Tuesday.”

The plan redesign comes as Santa Rosa has fallen well behind the housing growth goals it set more than a decade ago. The city has slashed fees and tried to streamline its development processes, but a large apartment tower — coveted by officials as proof of concept and a precursor to future tall buildings — has yet to materialize.

Santa Rosa’s “big city” downtown would include new apartments for residents and places to work for downtown employees, aided in part by a new method of determining height limits meant to encourage taller buildings near Old Courthouse Square.

This new method, which would replace the more rigid current height caps, involves city-determined ratios of floor area to lot size. In theory, it could allow for much taller buildings than Santa Rosa sees now, including the potential for a 20-story building with more than 600 apartments and some commercial space on the site of the defunct Sears at the downtown mall, according to city documents.

The Santa Rosa Plaza mall site also could see new access for expanded foot traffic, a pivot away from the more ambitious street eyed to bisect the mall in the current plan. Pedestrians and cyclists on Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues and E Street, three downtown thoroughfares, could be prioritized at the expense of drivers, according to draft documents.

Santa Rosa’s City Hall remains slated to give way to dense housing, and the Maxwell Court area — which the BoDean asphalt plant is set to vacate as part of its planned move to Windsor — is envisioned for redevelopment that features new homes and other uses at the far northwestern corner of the downtown area.

Encouraging the creation of new homes remains a top focus for the city, but the plan also gives a nod to the commercial sector. It envisions that a grocery store may one day occupy a downtown corner once the city core is home to a “critical mass” of new residents and employees, according to city documents.

The plan also contemplates a trackless trolley running a small circuit within downtown. A similar option, the ParkSmart shuttle, met its demise earlier this year because relatively few people used it to get around.

Streeter noted if Santa Rosa’s downtown were to become more dense, the increased population would better support a downtown connector, either as a trolley or simply a re-branded city bus.

The downtown plan has come a long way toward the goal of providing flexibility for future development, said Peter Stanley, a principal at the Archilogix firm and a former city planning commissioner. He wasn’t thrilled with three earlier versions contemplated by city planners.

“I think they’ve done a good job of combining various parts from those three to get to the preferred alternative,” he said. He added that it was “critical from a development side that you have a flexible document that allows you to navigate through this really complicated development process up here in the North Bay.”

Streeter noted that people could still reach out to him to provide feedback (pstreeter@srcity.org) and that Santa Rosa’s new downtown plan would continue to evolve after next week’s joint meeting.

“We’re not done with this plan as of Dec. 3,” Streeter said.

The draft and related documents are available online at plandowntownsr.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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