By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans to transform a vacant hospital in Bennett Valley into housing for at-risk young adults advanced on a unanimous vote Thursday following an emotional hearing where supporters characterized the effort as a moral obligation to help the needy and detractors denounced it as unfit for and unwelcomed by the neighborhood.
Supporters erupted in applause as the Planning Commission voted 7-0 to grant a permit and zoning change to the Dream Center project proposed for the former Warrack Hospital site at the intersection of Summerfield Road and Hoen Avenue.
Commissioner Curtis Byrd said it was “breaking my heart” to see such an important project pit neighbor against neighbor and for some residents to take a “not in my backyard” stance against it.
“We have a social responsibility. Those that have are supposed to help those that don’t,” Byrd said, choking up as he spoke. “I’m honestly in tears over that.”
The vote sends the Social Advocates for Youth project to Santa Rosa’s City Council for final approval.
The nearly six-hour hearing aired starkly different views of the project, with passionate calls for commissioners to support young people in need and some residents of southeast Santa Rosa pleading for the project’s impacts on their neighborhood to be studied further.
“We’re fighting for the soul of our town,” Fred Ptucha said. “Will we be a community that offers compassion, empathy and support for the most vulnerable and needy members of society, or will we let our actions be governed by anxiety, fear and selfish unwillingness to help the most at-risk people in our community?”
Ptucha urged the commissioners to remember that many foster children often become homeless because they lack affordable places to live after they leave foster care at age 18 and need a supportive environment to help them overcome histories of abuse and neglect by their parents.
“I urge you not to abandon our kids,” he said. “Give them a place to call home, to heal, to learn, to grown and to dream.”
Critics of the project, which proposes to house up to 63 people ages 18-24 in transitional housing units and a smaller emergency homeless shelter, claimed it is too big, creates too many potential public safety risks and ignores the will of neighbors.
“I just hope that SAY’s dream doesn’t become Bennett Valley’s nightmare,” said Sherry Nelson, whose parents own land housing a child care center near the project.
An overflow crowd began lining up at City Hall as early as 1:30 p.m. for the 4 p.m. hearing, and by 3:45 p.m., several hundred people stood hoping to enter the chambers.
“We’re going to be here a long time,” Chairwoman Patti Cisco said at the start of the hearing.
Many project supporters wore bright yellow T-shirts reading “Say YES to Dreams,” while some residents of Bennett Valley held signs reading “Bennett Valley Citizens — Citizens Unite.”
Planner Noah Housh explained that the commission was being asked to rezone eight parcels covering 8.7 acres, approve his conclusion that the project will have no significant environmental impacts, and approve a permit setting several conditions governing the use of the property.
SAY executive director Matt Martin said the organization did significant community outreach that resulted in a number of positive changes to the project since it was first proposed last year.
“The fact is that the project before you is a better project than SAY’s original plan due in large part to this year of conversation,” Martin said.
Changes include reducing the original number of beds from 100 to 63 and phasing those units in over four years. Several changes have tried to address neighbors’ concerns about public safety, including a robust screening program, background checks, 24-7 staffing, and zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use. He added that outdoor activities will end at 9 p.m. and there will never be any amplified music outside.
Project architect Jim Henderson explained that the majority of the upgrades to the hospital, vacant since 2008, involve remodeling the interior. Exterior improvements would include a half-court basketball court, an arts-and-crafts and pottery area, gardens and solar panels.
Housh explained that a report called a negative declaration found that traffic, noise and air quality impacts of the Dream Center on the neighborhood would not be significant and didn’t need further study. The limited amount of construction, existing infrastructure, similar land use and consistent surrounding land uses all supported that finding, he said.
But that conclusion enraged and bewildered several speakers, who argued for either a full environmental impact report or a broader, socioeconomic impact assessment.
Bennett Valley resident Ed Bashaw said the city’s refusal to require additional study was fueling feelings of mistrust in the community.
“It’s not about SAY, it’s about having a say!” Bashaw said.
Bruce Kelm, who said he lives about 400 yards from the facility, said he recalled how years ago the city forced a nonprofit group that sought to install lights at Montgomery High school to do an environmental study that cost $43,000.
“The City of Santa Rosa is blowing me away here in not requiring there to be a full-blown EIR for a project of this scope and this magnitude,” Kelm said.
Charles Jensen noted that he is a resident of Bennett Valley, “unlike a lot of the people wearing yellow shirts.” He urged the commission to require an environmental impact report because, if they didn’t, a judge later would.
“So do it now, save the money and save the anger. The people of Santa Rosa deserve it,” Jensen said.
Some said SAY officials have misled neighbors with claims that the center primarily would serve young adults aging out of the foster-care system, when in fact people who are homeless or on probation will make up a sizable portion of the population.
Others questioned SAY’s financial and organizational ability to undertake such a large project, and others suggested smaller facilities spread throughout the city would make more sense.
But as frustrated and vocal as the critics of the project were, supporters were equally passionate. They argued that the center fills an important community need, as evidenced by the growing homelessness problem in the city and statistics that show 65 percent of foster youth become homeless within two years of leaving the system.
“It seems to me the risk of not doing this is way worse than the risk of doing it,” said George Gittleman, rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Bennett Valley.
Commission members were universal in their support for the project and for SAY’s vow to hold quarterly community meetings to keep residents apprised of issues and volunteering opportunities at the center.
Commissioner Valerie Minton noted that she has family in Bennett Valley, spent time there growing up and called it “truly a wonderful community.”
“I think this project is a real opportunity to share those wonderful things with people who need it,” Minton said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.