SMART begins search for builder of key site near downtown Santa Rosa station

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Santa Rosa and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Authority are hoping developers will get onboard with long-stalled plans for a transit village west of Railroad Square, the downtown site of the busiest planned station for the coming commuter rail line.

The rail authority has begun soliciting interest from firms qualified to finance and build a large mixed-use housing project on the highly visible 5.4 acres of vacant property owned by the agency.

The property, when combined with the privately owned 2.1-acre Cannery site next door, represents the largest and, arguably, most economically significant development site in the downtown area.

“This is going to be the front door for Santa Rosa,” said Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman. “For a lot of people, it’s going to be the first thing they see when they come to town.”

To date, none of the previous proposals has come to fruition, with the most recent iterations falling victim to the recession and its fallout. They included one anchored by a food and wine center previous city leaders hoped would finally make Santa Rosa its own destination for Wine Country tourists.

With the improved economy, soaring rents and anticipated arrival of commuter rail service next year, SMART officials are hopeful they’ll be able to partner with a developer who shares their vision for a mix of housing, retail and commercial space that will support rail ridership and generate income for the authority.

“We’re eager to see who these firms are, and once we know who they are, then let the design competition begin,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

The rail authority last week released a 54-page “request for qualifications” to the development community, outlining in broad strokes the kind of development it would like to see on the site and inviting firms to be considered for the project.

The description of the project is intentionally vague, seeking only a project that “capitalizes on the site’s unique opportunity to create a new walkable, transit-oriented residential community within historic Railroad Square.”

SMART officials didn’t want to be too specific about what they would like to see developed on the property, instead seeking to remain open to proposals from experts in the field, Mansourian said.

“We’re trying to be flexible by saying ‘You’re in the development community. Here are the rules. What do you think fits in this market?’” he said.

Officials envision mixed-use buildings with retail and restaurants on the ground floor, multifamily housing units above, and community space for meetings, arts and cultural uses and child care services.

SMART indicated it would prefer to continue owning the property and lease it to the developer, but also made it clear it would be willing to sell some or all of the property under the right conditions.

The goal of the process is to create a short list of qualified developers “who possess demonstrated expertise and experience in similar” transit-oriented development projects and, importantly, to identify those with the “capacity and financial strength to expeditiously develop” the property, according to the document.

The deadline for applications is Sept. 21. While it is early in the selection process, this phase is important because it will determine who is allowed to make a formal design proposal. Those will be due in November and will be reviewed by a selection committee in December. The public will have input in the process, and the winning proposal needs to be approved by both the SMART board and the Santa Rosa City Council, Mansourian said.

Both entities have committed to a streamlined approval process, he said.

“The city manager and I, our job is to make sure the bureaucracy doesn’t take over,” he said.

It remains to be seen how many developers step forward to participate. Local builder Hugh Futrell said he was “probably not” interested but would attend an Aug. 25 pre-application meeting to get more information.

The previous developer who envisioned the project anchored by a food and wine center, Los Angeles-based Michael Dieden, said he had no comment.

And John Stewart, the owner of the neighboring 2.1-acre Cannery site, said he was not interested in developing the SMART property, though he hoped to work closely with the city, SMART and the future developer to ensure the two projects are compatible.

Stewart has previously expressed exasperation that city officials didn’t support the latest version of his project, which called for 93 units of affordable housing for seniors. City Council members questioned whether low-income seniors were a good fit for the site given SMART’s goal of providing housing for people likely to be regular train riders.

Among those expressing early interest in developing the SMART property is Sacramento-based Domus Development. The firm a few years ago completed a similar transit-oriented project in Sacramento, the 81-unit La Valentina. Like the SMART project, the La Valentina property was in a historic neighborhood on a contaminated brownfield site adjacent to a rail station. The project won awards for its innovative design and use of green building techniques, said Meea Kang, president of Domus Development.

There are significant challenges to the SMART site, however, including its relatively small size, height limit of five stories, and complete lack of infrastructure, she said. Overcoming these obstacles is going to take a “nuanced effort.”

“I just hope people are realistic about what it’s going to take to pull this together,” Kang said. “Not any developer is going to be able to just drop from the sky and do this. It’s very complicated.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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