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Santa Rosa to rethink plan for luring developers downtown

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More than a decade ago, Santa Rosa officials calculated that over the next 20 years the city could create about 3,400 new housing units downtown and develop nearly 500,000 square feet for retail or office use on more than 600 acres near what would become its Railroad Square train stop.

So far, the city is coming up far short on the residential side, with only 375 units created in the downtown area since 2007, while about 300,000 square feet of nonresidential development space has built or approved, according to city data.

The marginal gains on housing have prompted the city to redraw its long-term blueprint for downtown development, with potentially less stringent building standards to drive new projects and draw new residents to the heart of the North Bay’s largest city.

“We had all the right intentions,” said Councilman John Sawyer, lone incumbent who was on the council in 2007 when the current downtown plan was approved.

But the recession delayed the start of SMART service by three years and imposed other economic pressure. Two months after the North Bay’s commuter rail line launched in August 2017, catastrophic fires swept across the region, sucking up most municipal resources.

Today’s Santa Rosa council members find themselves facing old goals that may sound like “terribly optimistic numbers, if not unrealistic,” said Sawyer. A former downtown merchant himself, he called for aggressive moves to spur development downtown and near transit.

“If we set our expectations too low, then we will not be doing our job,” Sawyer said.

On Tuesday, the City Council and the Planning Commission will hold a special joint session to start brainstorming the changes needed to remake downtown into the more bustling, transit-oriented center leaders hoped it would become in 2007.

Options include loosening restrictions on residential density, parking requirements and limits on building height. On Tuesday, the City Council will conduct a hearing on a specific change — a measure meant to allow denser residential concentrations near Santa Rosa’s SMART two stations.

“I think we have come to realize the importance of working with developers to make sure that what we feel or what we hope is enough to spur development truly is what’s needed,” Sawyer said.

An $800,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will fund Santa Rosa’s downtown plan redesign and associated updates to the city’s more comprehensive General Plan and its zoning rules. The City Council in November awarded a contract for downtown planning work to Oakland-based consultant Dyett & Bhatia.

Developers can benefit from much of that groundwork, relying on environmental and traffic studies, and other analysis done for the city to guide and speed their projects throughout review, said Patrick Streeter, a city planner.

“The catch-all is if there’s anything peculiar with the site,” Streeter said. “(Developers) are not completely off the hook. They just have to demonstrate that there’s nothing special with the site that wasn’t addressed in a previous plan.”

Streeter noted that change in the retail landscape over the past decade would lead to shifts in land use. The Santa Rosa Plaza is within the downtown planning area and includes one of at least 10 Sears stores in California slated to close

The council also will consider approving proposed community outreach strategy as part of its downtown planning effort and receive a report on updating a citywide plan that was approved in 2009.

The proposed engagement strategy includes dozens of potential events, including traditional community meetings, more spontaneous “pop-up” efforts and online interaction.

The city hopes to elicit feedback from downtown property owners and tenants, businesses, developers, large local employers, local officials and the wider community.

An advisory panel of community members will be formed to guide the new plan. City staff have requested the council waive certain requirements for appointing members, including mandates that committee members be Santa Rosa residents and fill out formal applications. Under revised rules meant to speed the work, staff members also would be allowed to pick committee appointees. A similar waiver was granted by the council in 2015.

Sawyer said he thought that “councils of late have realized the importance of having a strong and successful downtown.”

The city in early 2017 debuted arguably its most significant downtown investment in a generation, the $10.5 million reunified Old Courthouse Square, restoring a public plaza and event space to the city center.

Sawyer said it was imperative new urban housing be added to sustain the revitalization while still safeguarding the environment.

“We can and we must do both,” he said.

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

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