By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A bold plan to encourage higher density housing near the future commuter rail station near Coddingtown mall is winning praise for its embrace of sustainable development principles but also criticism from some worried about its impact on their private property rights.
The city is putting the finishing touches on its North Santa Rosa Station Area Specific Plan, a $500,000 guide for the development of the half-mile around the future SMART station on Guerneville Road.
The plan calls for sweeping changes to the 987-acre area that by 2035 would make it almost unrecognizable from its current automobile-centric suburban landscape.
“It’s going to be a great transformation for that part of Santa Rosa,” Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told the commission.
The plan envisions 2,941 new housing units, more than a million square feet of office, retail and industrial space, and the creation of nearly 6,000 new jobs in the area around the mall, extending south to West College Avenue and east of Highway 101 to include the Santa Rosa Junior College.
The plan would rezone 1,300 parcels to allow higher density housing, including apartment buildings of up to five-stories with 40 units per acre. A similar “transit village” environment has been proposed for the area around the SMART station planned for Railroad Square.
The idea is to get more people living in an around the train stations to support ridership, and also to build the infrastructure that will make it easy for people to get to the station by bicycle, foot and car.
Several bicycle and pedestrian paths are proposed, including a bridge to span Highway 101. SMART also is proposing 350 parking spaces at the station.
But some major questions are being raised about the plan, including whether it is realistic, who’s going to pay for it and how the city plans to acquire the property needed for the road extensions, bike paths and other improvements.
Patti Cisco, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, said that “keeping our expectations in line with reality” was important when considering the long-range goals of the plan.
“I just really hope that the public remembers that this is a long-term plan,” Cisco said. “It’s going to take a long time.”
She added that the amount of new construction proposed in the plan is “definitely going to occur in a different economy than we’re facing now.”
The elimination of the city’s redevelopment agency was on the mind of Commission Peter Stanley, who noted that the city’s ability to pay for the upgrades has been “severely diminished.” He worried that the city would lean too heavily on private developers to make the improvements.
“It’s complicated to make high-density projects work,” said Stanley, an architect. “They are very complicated, very expensive projects. They take a real partnership.”
He expressed concern that the plan seemed to already have run afoul with mall owners.
Coddingtown development manager Kirstie Moore, in an 17-page letter to the city, praised the overall vision of the plan, which she said “embodies an exciting vision for the future of the northwest area of Santa Rosa” and “will truly revolutionize the way that people live, commute, work and experience life” in the area.
But she said the mall is “extremely concerned” about the plan, especially the bicycle and pedestrian route from the proposed Highway 101 bridge across the southern mall property to the station. Moore said the plan threatens to eliminate 30,000 square feet of retail space and 469 parking spaces, as well as significant right-of-way that would needed for the extension of Coffey Lane and installation of roundabouts on Range Avenue.
Stanley said he’s a supporter of the bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 because of the way it makes a key east-west connection for the area. But he said if the plan relied on paths across private properties that don’t want them then it would be “doomed for failure.”
“I don’t think a plan that requires getting into fights with private property owners is one that’s worthwhile,” Stanley said.
Representatives of the Greenbelt Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, and the Accountable Development Coalition all spoke in favor of the plan.
They urged that the plan require, instead of merely encouraging, affordable housing targets of 20 percent low income housing, 20 percent moderate income housing, and 60 percent market rate.
Doug VanDeren, who lives on North Dutton Avenue near the proposed station said his main concern is just being able to get his car out of his driveway in the future.
“I can just see the traffic congestion becoming very substantial,” VanDeren said.
City staff took copious notes and vowed to return to the commission in June. Public comments on the environmental report for the plan are due by May 29.
The commission will then make a recommendation to the City Council, which must approve the plan and the numerous changes to the city’s General Plan it requires.