Rohnert Park will for the first time impose a fee on developers of rental housing to help spur creation of more affordable units, while exempting one of the single-largest projects in the city — redevelopment of a 32-acre downtown property to create a long coveted city center.
The City Council worked through an at-times contentious discussion Tuesday evening about how its residential mitigation policy will apply to the future downtown district south of Rohnert Park Expressway, in addition to all other new developments moving forward. The construction of the central downtown destination, near the city’s existing SMART train platform, is viewed as a priority among council members and played heavily to exempt San Francisco-based Laulima Development from the new housing fees.
“We have to think of the long-term viability for the city for the downtown area,” said Mayor Pam Stafford. “I just think that this request is really reasonable. It’s not like we’re not doing our part or we’re not helping our community” with affordable housing.
Laulima closed on the former site of the shuttered State Farm Insurance last December for $13.5 million and now envisions a retail and dining hub that also includes 415 housing units, office space and public amenities. Real estate developer SunCal previously owned the property, but the Irvine company sold after it was unable to come to terms with the city on its own large-scale mixed-use redevelopment concept.
The structure of the new housing rules guiding Sonoma County’s third-largest city will require builders of rental housing to pay $3.23 per square foot per project to help fund future affordable units — a fee level which city staff presented as the median cost for the region. Rohnert Park had not charged such an impact fee in the past, and council members debated whether the added expense might produce a chilling effect on future apartments and condos before voting 4-1 to approve it.
Preliminary plans for the State Farm site show Laulima intends to include as many as 270 above-business apartments. Had the exemption from those fees granted in a separate 4-1 vote, the updated policy would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars alone from that project to support future affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
Councilman Jake Mackenzie was the lone dissenter on both votes.
“I just feel that we’re trying to make policy on the fly, project-by-project,” Mackenzie said. “We desperately need to have an overall affordable housing policy for the city of Rohnert Park. I think we have in fact provided housing way beyond other cities, but I also believe that we need to examine the resources we have and look to our ability to continue to excel.”
In Rohnert Park, 485 homes were built within city limits in the past five years, according to city figures reported to state housing authorities. In the same period, Petaluma, the second largest city, saw 632 homes completed. In Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, 1,258 homes were built over the past five years, but the October fires wiped out more than twice that total in one night.
Overall, county officials estimate that the additional supply of houses and apartments needed to comfortably house residents and sustain the economy could be as high as 30,000 units.