For more than a decade, the leaders of Sonoma County’s largest city have dreamed of transforming a cluster of vacant properties along the railroad tracks in downtown Santa Rosa into a vital new village filled with people opting for lower-impact urban living.
Time after time, proposals to develop the western side of Railroad Square have fallen apart, victims of political infighting, neighborhood opposition and economic slumps.
But the impending arrival of a $428 million regional rail system is breathing new life into efforts to create high-density housing around the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit platform in Railroad Square.
SMART has narrowed its search for a development partner as it prepares to start trains rolling through Santa Rosa later this year. Next month, SMART and the finalist in its quest for a development partner will present a detailed plan to build out the property.
As early as next summer, construction could get underway on a complex of market-rate and affordable apartments, retail spaces focused on food and wine, and a public plaza on a 5.4-acre site just west of the Railroad Square station.
“The market is now ripe for this project to reboot,” said Deborah Fudge, a Windsor city councilwoman and SMART board member active in past efforts to develop the property.
City and SMART officials have long been concerned that high-density housing around the rail station — viewed as a key to the success of the 43-mile rail line — has failed to materialize to date.
When riders get off trains at the downtown Santa Rosa station later this year, they’ll be greeted by a landscape virtually unchanged in a generation.
To the east, they’ll find the historic Railroad Square district, with its cozy coffeehouses, quirky antique shops and trendy restaurants. To the west, they will see debris-strewn vacant lots.
Mayor John Sawyer said he had high hopes that by the time SMART began operating, the housing and retail developments around the stations would be well underway.
“It was always my hope that when the trains arrived, they would be met with an attractive and thoughtful development on the properties around our station,” Sawyer said. “It’s clear that will no longer be the case.”
But after years of focusing on the herculean task of building a rail line, SMART is turning its attention to building housing. The rail authority is focusing on a single developer as it narrows its search for a partner to help it develop the high-profile Railroad Square site.
ROEM Development Corp. of Santa Clara, one of five firms to express interest in the project, is now the sole finalist left in negotiations with SMART. A second finalist, The Wolff Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., which recently completed the 270-unit Annabel apartment complex south of Coddingtown, pulled out of the running last month.
The company’s president, Tim Wolff, said he was concerned that uncertainty about the affordable housing requirements of the project and the city’s design review process made the project too risky. Wolff asked SMART to pause the selection process and the city to define the affordable housing requirement for the project.
“Our experience informs that to leave such a critical and socially sensitive matter open until late in a public process does not make it easier to resolve,” Wolff wrote to the agency.