Santa Rosa, Sonoma County look to consultants for help envisioning new homes for local government

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Faced with rising costs to maintain outdated and sprawling local government buildings, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa have been laying the groundwork for months to explore options for new structures to house public employees.

Now, local officials have been presented with survey results indicating significant interest from private firms in redeveloping roughly 700,000 square feet of government-owned space, and the city and county both are poised to shell out for expert advice to inform future decisions. The City Council and the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider spending more than $600,000 combined for consulting advice related to redeveloping their government complexes and other publicly owned land.

The goal is to “produce hard data to support a decision to move forward together, move forward separately or not move forward at all,” said David Guhin, assistant city manager for Santa Rosa.

Whatever expert the city retains would be expected to help come up with the value for the city’s downtown property — including City Hall, three buildings on First Street and multiple downtown parking lots — as well as the cost of building a new government center and the potential for property and sales tax revenue from future private development, Guhin said.

The idea is to reduce long-term operating costs while freeing up land for new housing, a top priority for the city, he said.

The county’s 1950s-era campus in north Santa Rosa, which includes about 470,000 square feet of office space, represents most of the space up for redevelopment, according to a county report. The county has a backlog of deferred maintenance costs for the campus that totals at least $258 million, and a study from May determined that continuing without making changes or playing catch-up to the tune of $10 million per year both would be unwise tactics.

One option that has been floated is a new joint city-county government center downtown.

It’s too early to say definitively, but the county is “open to the discussion about what the benefits of (moving downtown) would be,” said David Rabbitt, who chairs the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “I would want to do it if there was really shared cost savings, and I’m not sure we’ve really investigated enough to know.”

Rabbitt also noted that government buildings are “pretty dead” in the evening and would not be “the liveliest of places in downtown.”

Rabbitt characterized the county’s Tuesday action as an incremental step in a year in which the county will not spend a lot of money on a relocation effort.

Both the county complex and Santa Rosa’s City Hall are made up of numerous low-rise buildings that gobble up valuable ground.

One option, Guhin said, would be a government-focused tower that could incorporate City Hall employees, as well as water and public works administrative staff at the Municipal Services Center Complex on Stony Point Road.

“That’s the thought: To go vertical for the government center and to free up more space for housing production,” he said.

Rabbitt also was of the mind that Sonoma County’s future government buildings needed to be taller, potentially in one or two six- to 10-story buildings.

“We don’t need to be in one-story buildings,” he said. “We need to go up.”

Council members and supervisors also will consider the results of a survey of developers, builders, architects, real estate consultants and financial firms. Conducted jointly by the county and the city, the survey generated a total of 69 responses, of which 86 percent indicated they were likely to bid.

Rabbitt said he found the survey “interesting” but noted that members of the development community might not be inclined to show all their cards without a contract.

“It’s hard to get straight answers from people who could have a financial interest unless they have a guarantee that they’ll have a financial interest,” Rabbitt said. “Opinions are pretty cheap at this time.”

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

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