Santa Rosa apartment project to become tallest downtown housing complex

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A 107-unit, seven-story apartment building is set to become the tallest of its kind in downtown Santa Rosa after planning commissioners gritted their teeth and exempted the property at 888 Fourth St. from a city height restriction.

Hugh Futrell, the influential Santa Rosa developer with several prominent downtown projects in the works, secured the exemption Thursday for his planned seven-story building, allowing it to top out at 112 feet — towering over the rest of the neighborhood near Fremont Park, which includes mostly one- and two-story buildings.

A representative for Futrell, who was not in attendance, cited the cost of building underground parking included in the original plans as prohibitively expensive, leading developers to pursue ground-level parking, with a taller building on top.

Planning commissioners emphasized prior to the decision they were not voting on the project — plans for which were approved more than two years ago — but only on whether the height increase was compatible with city guidelines. The vote was unanimous, but some of the six commissioners present were visibly uncomfortable.

“The tension is between the small single-family homes on Third Street and putting something tall and new and big in this area,” said Commissioner Vicki Duggan, “We’ve talked about how we want to grow downtown and increase housing — and it’s a difficult call.”

Previous plans from Futrell set the height of the 888 Fourth Street Apartments at 95 feet, the maximum allowed on the property without an exemption. The site currently comprises a parking lot and an adjacent piece of vacant land.

The change in plans would not affect the parking allotment, said Kristinae Toomians, a city planner. “It’s simply bringing the building up ... and incorporating the garage into the upper floors.”

The project is advancing as Santa Rosa officials have signaled they are ready to go to extra lengths to create more housing in the city’s core. The goal was the same more than a decade ago, but the city failed to meet its target of 3,400 new units, building just 375 in downtown since 2007. That shortfall, and the now sharper regional housing demand — a need exacerbated by the 2017 fires — led the city to redraw its blueprint for downtown development, including potentially less-stringent building standards to drive new projects.

The new height exemption for Futrell came two years after his Fourth Street project first received approval and over a decade after city officials in 2008 approved a proposal for a seven-story building with apartments and businesses on the site.

Where past plans called for the building’s roof to reach the maximum 95 feet with an ornamental “blade” shooting up to 140 feet on the Fourth Street front, the new plans also call for a smaller blade, lowering the overall design height to 124.5 feet.

Bethlehem Towers, the 14-story apartment complex for low-income seniors located in the Burbank Gardens neighborhood south of downtown, remains the tallest building in Santa Rosa.

Futrell’s representative on Thursday, Don Tomasi of TLCD Architecture, said the building’s revised designs were “essentially the same” and explained that excavation required to build underground parking and a supporting slab would be too expensive to proceed, he said.

“Basically, the project did not pencil out,” he said.

Duggan acknowledged the building “might not be something that you would want to have in your backyard.”

And that is the prospect facing Denise Marquez, who lives on Third Street bordering Futrell’s project.

“It pretty much is going to be like our house is kind of like a pit,” she told the Planning Commission, referring to how Futrell’s tower would dwarf her home.

Futrell’s other active downtown projects include the renovation of the historic Empire Building on Old Courthouse Square into a boutique hotel, to be known as Hotel E. The first phase of the lodging project is set to open later this year.

Futrell also is building a four-story complex at Seventh and Riley streets, dubbed the Art House, that will include an art gallery, 21 residential units, and 15 extended-stay suites. That project is actively under construction, slated for completion late this year.

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

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