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 email@example.com.