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A decade ago, Santa Rosa officials hoped to add 3,400 new housing units downtown within 20 years. A decade in, the city has added only 375.

But city leaders — while disappointed in the setbacks: recession, fires and more that contributed to the disappointing results — are not giving up, and the effort to transform Santa Rosa’s downtown received two big boosts recently.

Last month, a local real estate developer bought a former freight railyard next to the SMART station in Railroad Square, planning a development with hundreds of apartments. Last week, the Santa Rosa City Council updated its local density bonus ordinance to allow higher density developments near the city’s two rail stations.

Santa Rosa sorely needs downtown residential development. The city is facing a severe housing shortage — exacerbated by the October 2017 wildfires that destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa.

A residential boom, if it comes, could do a lot for downtown beyond easing the city’s housing crisis. More people living downtown would spur more economic development, helping counteract some of the nationwide decline in retail exemplified by the closing of Sears in the Santa Rosa Plaza.

A denser residential population also would foster a livelier city and an improved nightlife, all things that could help downtown businesses recover from the fire’s impact and reinvigorate the city as a destination for tourists.

The owner of 2 Tread Brewing Co. said his recent decision to shutter the downtown brewpub was due to reduced traffic because of the fire. “The first three weeks we were opened, we were comfortably ahead of projections,” said Bill Drury. “Then the fires hit. … On cash flow matters, we could never get in front.”

There are other benefits, too, as SMART Board Chairwoman Deb Fudge said. More residential development downtown, and near SMART’s Coddingtown station, would help the rail system prosper and provide important and lasting environmental benefits.

“When you look at what all of the other cities are doing along the line, it’s exactly what we need for transit-oriented development and also to provide ridership for the train,” Fudge said. “This is also important for combating the impacts of climate change. The primary thing is to get people out of their cars, so they’ve got transportation options and they don’t have to drive.”

The city’s new bonus system rewards developers with higher density allowances in exchange for construction of more affordable housing units. Given the state’s affordable housing crisis, such encouragement is an excellent idea.

The maximum density bonus — up to twice the number of units normally allowed — is limited to locations within a half-mile of the city’s two SMART stations, a school or a council-designated “housing opportunity site,” also near the train stations.

Apartments for very-low income tenants provide the biggest bonus in the sliding-scale system.

The city has taken other steps to encourage residential development downtown, including lowering impact fees and speeding the approval process. In addition, it’s considering loosening parking requirements and raising building height caps. Those ideas are definitely worth investigating.

The goals set a decade ago remain important — and achievable. If city leaders take the right steps now to encourage smart residential development and listen to downtown merchants and business owners, then the next 10 years can see a lot more progress than the last.

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