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Santa Rosa City Council endorses extra density for new housing projects near transit

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Developers seeking to build housing developments near Santa Rosa’s two train stations could soon build up to twice as many market-rate apartments as would otherwise be allowed by promising to construct additional affordable housing.

The incentive was advanced Tuesday when the Santa Rosa City Council gave initial approval to a local expansion of California’s 40-year-old density bonus law. The move is the latest step in a series of changes meant to make the city more attractive to builders as it starts to overhaul its long-term blueprint for downtown commercial and residential development.

“It’s been time for Santa Rosa to grow up downtown,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs shortly before the council unanimously approved the local density bonus expansion. Formal approval would come with a second vote likely to come next week.

The city needed to update its density bonus to comply with several recent changes to state statute, which currently allows developers to build up to 35 percent more units if they also provide a share of on-site affordable housing. The council’s actions are meant to take Santa Rosa well beyond compliance by giving developers the option of building up to 65 percent more units for certain projects.

The local incentive is limited to two areas near the downtown and north Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stations. The maximum density bonus — allowing twice as many units — is available only to projects within a half-mile of either of two SMART stations and also within a half-mile of a school or in a City Council-designated “housing opportunity site” near one of the train depots.

The modified incentive would create a sliding scale of points based on the number of units in a project reserved for affordable housing. Apartments for very-low income tenants would be the most prized under Santa Rosa’s ordinance, while units targeted for sale to moderate-income earners would qualify, but at the low end of the spectrum.

Developers could also earn bonus points through Santa Rosa’s program by providing a mix of affordable housing and community benefits such as public open space and family-size rental units.

The council would reconsider the ordinance in five years to determine whether it has effectively boosted the city’s housing stock. A revision of the city’s existing density bonus has been in the works since 2016. An earlier revision stalled last summer before the Planning Commission sent the current version to the City Council.

The new density bonus would follow other moves by Santa Rosa to encourage new housing development, including fee reductions and expedited processing for certain residential projects. The city also may loosen parking requirements and raise caps on building heights to spur new downtown housing.

“We do want to see that type of development in our downtown core,” said David Guhin, the city’s planning and economic development director.

Tuesday’s planning-heavy meeting also included the City Council’s approval of a strategy to engage civic leaders and the public as it redesigns its 20-year vision for downtown, where lofty plans for housing crafted more than a decade ago have not been realized. City Council members floated a number of potential planning ideas.

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming expressed a desire to make sure affordable child care services were located near transit. Councilman Chris Rogers pressed staff on what it would take for the city to recruit a grocery store downtown. Combs wondered whether the downtown plan should limit drive-thru fast-food restaurants.

Guhin emphasized that public input will be key as the city looks to improve its standing among developers while revamping its downtown plan. The city is set to seek input through a combination of pop-up events, formal meetings and social media outreach.

“That’s where we need the community to engage over the next few months,” Guhin said.

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

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