WatchSonoma Watch

Water Agency selling old headquarters in Santa Rosa

The Sonoma County Water Agency is preparing to sell is former headquarters along College Avenue in Santa Rosa on Monday, March 17, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Water Agency is preparing to sell is former headquarters along College Avenue in Santa Rosa on Monday, March 17, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Water Agency is selling its old headquarters in Santa Rosa, hoping the 7.5-acre property might one day become the site of an affordable housing development.

City officials have also welcomed that possibility.

“We’re looking forward to that property developing,” said Chuck Regalia, Santa Rosa’s director of community development. He called the pending sale “a great thing.”

To prepare the way, the city earlier this year rezoned the property for high-density residential development — featuring 18 to 30 units per acre. That change and the site’s re-designation for housing in the General Plan in 2009 nearly guarantee that the campus will never again be used as an office complex.

“This is not a place for a park or another government agency,” Regalia said.

But it’s not clear exactly how the city’s vision will be realized. Regalia said the city doesn’t anticipate buying the property, valued at more than $6 million. Officials with Burbank Housing, the affordable housing non-profit, said it would require at least $9 million from the city as seed money to apply for grants, tax credits and loans to finance such a project.

And “the city does not have enough money” to get that kind of project off the ground, said Pascal Sisich, Burbank’s director of housing development.

That leaves the site open for commercial developers, Sisich said, who are likely to opt for mostly commercial-rate apartments, leaving just a handful of below-market units available.

Long-time housing advocate David Grabill, however, had a slightly more hopeful view, saying there does seem to be an increased interest at the state or local level for funding affordable housing now that the economy seems to be turning around. The West College Avenue site, he said, is possibly the best candidate for affordable housing in the city, given its short walking distance to shopping, a community center and the transit hub on Stony Point Road.

“It would be a real loss if no affordable housing is built on that large piece of property,” Grabill said. “Nobody is advocating that all of it be affordable housing … but a significant percentage should be restricted for affordable housing.”

The Water Agency built the three-building office campus, at 2150 West College Ave., in the mid-1980s, but quickly outgrew it. The problem became acute in 1995 when the agency took over responsibility for 11 small sewer systems around the county, nearly doubling its staff, Assistant General Manager Mike Thompson said. By the end of the decade, half the staff was scattered around the area in various leased offices, making the operation less efficient.

The agency began planning to move to new quarters in 2003 and since then has spent more than $18 million on three buildings – the main headquarters and an operations and maintenance building near Airport Boulevard and an office for flood control operations at the airport.

That cost was partly offset by the sale of some extra property at the airport to the SMART commuter rail system, worth about $2.7 million, and will be further offset by the sale of the College Avenue campus, Thompson said.

The agency has been phasing out the College Avenue offices since 2011 and closed the final one there last fall.

The site was the center of a political scandal in 2011, when then-state Assemblyman Michael Allen was fined $3,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for his 2009 vote as a planning commissioner to designate the property for affordable housing in the city’s General Plan.

The Commission ruled that Allen’s role as a consultant to the Water Agency on the site was a conflict of interest. He said he had misunderstood the nature of the vote and that his violation was inadvertent.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the sale of the now-vacant complex Tuesday.

By law, the agency will have to offer the site to government agencies related to affordable housing or recreation for the next 60 days before offering it on the open market. Thompson said it is impractical for anyone to try to reuse the site as an office even if the zoning allowed it; the buildings are in poor repair and would need at least $1 million in renovations.

No matter who buys it, only about 5 acres of the old campus will be available for development. The remainder will be put in a conservation easement to protect a creek that runs through the property, the Water Agency says.

The land could hold 120 to 150 apartments in three-story buildings, Regalia said, though the more units a developer tried to squeeze in, the more complex the plans become, particularly in trying to provide adequate parking.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

7 Responses to “Water Agency selling old headquarters in Santa Rosa”

  1. Redwood says:

    The “Warm Springs Dam” charge on your property tax bill was originally used only for Warm Springs Dam debt service.

    the Water Agency expanded the use, very, very widely, in the early 90s.

    Check it out PD.

  2. The Hammer says:

    I too would like to know why the building was in poor repair. Someone at the agency needs to be fired. Time to pay the piper.

  3. R.B. Fish says:

    Thanks “Allen’s Scandal.” Good work.

  4. PapaESoCo says:

    To “Allen’s Scandal”, a great big “Thank You Very Much”, for the enlightening bit of history. Oh, I can see Lisa Maldonado screaming now. LOL!

  5. Henry Bernard says:

    “In poor repair”. Are we to wonder at this. Just recently a sewer main off the Russian River blew out flooding the river with 100,000 gallons of raw sewage. Water Agency, those responsible for the systems upkeep, spokesman replies that the pipe was at the end of its life expectancy. Question (unasked) is if the SCWA new the pipe was suspect why didn’t it haul out the back hoe and do some investigating before the fact and sewage?

    No wonder that a 30 year old building under their care is in disrepair. Possibly management should spend less time picking up Starbucks on their tax payer funded CalCards and more effort towards basic responsibilities.

  6. Allen's Scandal says:

    Here is the scandal related to this site:

    The Sonoma County Water Agency pretended for two years that it was going to turn this site into “employee housing” and subsidize that employee housing and naturally they needed to hire a consultant to tell them how to do that…so they hired who? A housing consultant? no. They hired the guy who at the time was employed as the District Director for Sen. Pat Wiggins Michael Allen (a state legislative employee), who also happened to be running for political office, and who also happened to be the President of the North Bay Labor Council. At the time the contract was signed the Water Agency actively lobbied the state legislature including Senator Wiggins office. The contract called for this political hack with nothing but decades of labor union experience create a plan for the agency to subsidize employee housing at this site so that they could recruit and retain highly compensated engineers and executives. With me so far? In theory, the Agency claimed they wanted to create an employee benefit with subsidize housing to offset the high cost of housing in Sonoma County. Now…how many highly compensated engineers and executives do you think would be in line to live at the Water Agency’s old building that was to be converted into tiny affordable apartment units???? Yep. Zero. No one. Nada. It was the most absurd “plan” to the point that no one could have ever believed it was anything other than a worthless piece of paper. In fact, it turned out that the plan submitted by Michael Allen was nothing but a photocopy of a something any one of us can find on the internet and actually authored by a real East Coast housing consultant. So for plagiarizing someone else’s work, pushing the print button and sending an invoice to the Water Agency Michael Allen was paid handsomely at a time he was running for public office…gee…in Chicago some people might suspect public funds were being funneled into a campaign. But this is Sonoma County. Here the Michael Allen’s of the world get a lot free passes. After Allen lost his City Council race, Gary Wysocky appointed him to the Planning Commission. Within 10 days, Allen set up an appointment with the General Manager of the Water Agency to amend his contract to add on more money in exchange for his vote on this very project. After the vote was taken a few months later, Allen sent the Agency an invoice and the Agency responded with a check. (Neither of these two public documents were reproduced for the readers of the Press Democrat. )

    That is what is known as a quid pro quo. And political corruption. Pure and simple. There was nothing “inadvertent” about it. It was described in a contract written up by Allen who is an attorney. Who billed for his “service.” The only reason there was any mystery was Allen denied it when the story came out and had his underlings bad mouth his critics. He kept stalling and denying so that the public would give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him to win the Assembly seat in 2010 he was after at the time. He eventually admitted the facts and signed a stipulation agreeing to pay a fine…but not until after the election.

    Now that four years has passed, everyone please note nowhere is there any mention of this building being used for subsidized housing for Water Agency employees. That clearly was never actually the real plan. That was merely the cover story that allowed the Sonoma County Water Agency to illegally funnel the ratepayer funds into the pocket of political candidate Michael Allen. All told it was about $95,000. That was very close to the amount Sen. Calderon is accused of taking. There is one difference. The managers at the SCWA who paid off Allen have never been fined or investigated. They should be. Afterall, isn’t misusing public funds a crime just like exchanging a vote for money?.

  7. PapaESoCo says:

    What? Did I read that right? Built in the 80′s and the buildings are in poor repair? Driving by the facility, the last few years, I marveled at the apparent opulence of the place(at least from the road) and was struck by what power and money can buy. Is not the Water agency the most powerful entity in Sonoma Co.?