New Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm supports dense downtown, spending on homelessness

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Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm will have the next two years to guide the city’s efforts to curb homelessness and spur downtown development, and has already staked out his support for more density and taller buildings in the city’s downtown core.

“We need to increase the density, and quite frankly, I think we need to go up,” Schwedhelm said last week.

A former Santa Rosa police chief who sought and won public office in 2014 a year after his retirement, Schwedhelm was re-elected without opposition in November, this time to represent the city’s newly formed 6th District, in the northwest. He was unanimously selected to be mayor by his council colleagues earlier this month.

In interviews last week, Schwedhelm expressed his interest in joint efforts in which Santa Rosa and Sonoma County pool resources to build more housing and create permanent shelter for chronically homeless people.

He emphasized the importance of being a team player, but said he recognizes that he is uniquely positioned to reach outside of government to partner with large employers and developers, particularly when it comes to investing in Santa Rosa’s downtown.

“I’m not going to be sitting on the sidelines waiting for other people to do that,” he said.

Schwedhelm’s career experience and organizational development studies at Sonoma State University inform his approach to local government and his belief that, as an organization, Santa Rosa’s government needs to have fixed objectives and clear direction from its leaders. The methodical former cop emphasized the importance of having the City Council on the same page, pointing to two days in late February when the council will set its targets.

“Role clarity is huge,” he said. “I want us all swimming in the same lane with mutually agreed-upon goals.”

Schwedhelm also is the chairman of the new Home Sonoma County entity, a collaboration between local government and housing officials and advocates seeking to tap $12 million in emergency state funding for homeless programs in the county.

Barring a miracle, it will be virtually impossible to end homelessness within two years. By then, Schwedhelm said he hopes the city will be able to replicate the success of the former Palms Inn in south Santa Rosa by finding another motel to convert into permanent shelter and services for dozens of chronically homeless people.

Schwedhelm does not support the idea of sanctioned camps which are favored by some homeless residents and advocates, instead preferring long-term efforts to develop housing and service hubs.

He also is keen on a new regional approach to housing development, a two-year partnership that will allow Santa Rosa and Sonoma County to pool their resources to attract projects.

Schwedhelm credited Santa Rosa’s planning staff members for continuing to come up with creative ways to spur new housing development. In August, for example, the City Council approved an incentive program to waive certain fees for downtown apartment buildings four stories or taller. The move has been part of a pro-growth shift in city policies, but there is still much work to be done, Schwedhelm said.

“There’s not one panacea for all of our housing needs,” he said.

Other challenges and initiatives await the City Council when it reconvenes Jan. 8. Schwedhelm said he wanted to turn some attention to the city’s climate policies and was interested in a discussion of the benefits of a public bank that could underwrite local businesses, including those in the cannabis industry.

He said it was important to engage residents in Roseland, who will have direct representation on the City Council after 2020, and to balance the city’s budget without overburdening employees.

And then there’s the rebuild, the most daunting single challenge facing Santa Rosa.

Schwedhelm, who lives near Coffey Park, can still see the lingering damage from the Tubbs fire when riding his bike or walking his dog. He’s seen the fallout affect his family and neighbors, putting names and faces to statistics, and his wish for the next year is that rebuilding efforts in Santa Rosa’s burn zones can advance unabated.

“My hope for 2019 is that we don’t experience a fire or earthquake, to just continue with our rebuild or recovery process,” Schwedhelm said. “We are seeing so many positive efforts. Let’s not have another disaster.”

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

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