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Santa Rosa design board pans proposed 7-story downtown apartment building

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The largest proposed housing project in downtown Santa Rosa came in for heavy criticism Thursday before a city panel of architectural experts, who voiced such serious qualms about its design as to cast doubt on its future — before the developer agreed to try to address their concerns.

The unusually intense online hearing before the city’s Design Review Board called into question the look of a seven-story, $50 million structure that would overlook Old Courthouse Square from the southwestern corner of Third Street and Santa Rosa Avenue.

The four-hour session was a key step for the 120-unit 1 Santa Rosa project, which would rise from a currently vacant three-story building and would be the single largest new housing project in downtown.

The board members raised numerous concerns about its appearance and layout, including the gray exterior many found dull, the choice of a cafe on the ground floor instead of a different type of business or additional housing units, and the absence of on-site parking.

“My first impression of this project is that the applicant had a desire to cram the site full of residential units without providing additional amenities or vibrant options to activate the building at a greater level,” said board member Drew Weigl, a Santa Rosa architect.

Weigl later said he’d never voted no against a project before but would do so if 1 Santa Rosa would have been up for a formal decision instead of Thursday’s preliminary review. Most others on the seven-person board appointed by the City Council detailed substantial issues they had with the project.

1 Santa Rosa was represented by Napa developer Keith Rogal, who is working with longtime property owner Marty Winter, a Marin County real estate investor. Rogal made the case that the 1 Santa Rosa team aimed to be a good neighbor, complementing existing nearby developments while bringing in an influx of tenants they said would infuse life into the downtown.

“We recognize fully that the site at 1 Santa Rosa is important vis a vis the square and the downtown, very important, and we feel challenged by that responsibility,” Rogal said.

His tone changed sharply, however, after the board weighed in with its criticism and recommendations.

“I need to state clearly that while we clearly have differences of taste with members of the board, you do me an unwarranted disservice by asserting that this was a design born out of haste or pure economic pressure or lack of respect for the town,” Rogal said.

Sensing the tension, city supervising planner Bill Rose jumped in from his spot on the sidelines of the virtual meeting.

Rose said he didn’t want to discount the board’s comments or expertise but made a point of noting the “considerable investment” to date on the part of the developers. He asked the design board to put together a list of complaints and suggestions that Rogal and his team could try to address in a bid to allow the project to advance.

Otherwise, Rose said, “we could potentially lose this project.”

Most comments that came from members of the public earlier in the meeting expressed at least a measure of support for the project, even if they had concerns of their own.

A couple residents wrote into the city to ask about the development’s unusual parking arrangement: no on-site spaces, with parking spots for residents leased in the nearby garage on First Street. A senior planner for the city, Andrew Trippel, replied to those concerns before the meeting, saying that the city’s downtown parking capacity was “more than adequate” for current and projected future needs and that the garage in question is rarely more than half-full.

Hugh Futrell, a prominent Santa Rosa developer with several downtown projects, said the site — next to his Museum on the Square building on Third Street — represented another opportunity to improve the vibrancy of downtown. But 1 Santa Rosa’s design is not consistent with city guidelines that favor more visually engaging exteriors, Futrell said.

His comments were later echoed by multiple Design Review Board members.

“This building is an extraordinarily important site, and if a relatively blank use of the street-front along Santa Rosa Avenue … is imposed, the impact on the urban fabric is going to be greatly harmed,” Futrell said, encouraging the board to demand a “superior design.”

But Rose noted that city design guidelines were advisory and that City Hall officials are more focused on whether the project met the standards of the city’s zoning code. The apartment building “essentially complies with those,” Rose said.

And Rogal, while responding to concerns about the building’s proposed gray palette, zinged the exterior appearance of Futrell’s building next door, the hulking former AT&T building that was remodeled more than four years ago for office space.

“We were attempting to be respectful and deferential to the absolutely monolithic building next to us, to Mr. Futrell’s aluminum screen—” Rogal paused. “And concrete. So we were trying not to show that up, make that look unduly cold and dreary by having a really warm building next to it, but to try to find a balance.”

After that clash, the board compiled the list of suggestions and improvements requested by Rose, who signaled that the project would be able to move forward.

Rogal, in his concluding remarks to the board, thanked the members for their meticulousness, but he also pointed out that one of Santa Rosa’s lures to downtown developers has been its pledge to streamline the approval process — a key reason the project has advanced as far as it has, he said.

He pledged to try to address the board’s concerns but added, “We may not fully agree on the design solutions to each.”

“We are very serious about not just having a building, but having a building that I and our team are really proud of,” Rogal said, “and that we’re welcomed in Santa Rosa and people are happy that we did it.”

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

This story has been updated to correct the title of Bill Rose, who is a supervising planner for the city of Santa Rosa.

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