Sonoma County officials could soon move forward on efforts to build housing at the site of the county Water Agency’s former headquarters on West College Avenue, where early estimates indicate as many as 200 units could be constructed.
Any progress there this year would come in addition to plans already underway to sell 82 acres of county-owned land off Chanate Road to a housing developer, as well as a separate project to build units on part of a Sebastopol Road site owned by the county’s Community Development Commission.
Further down the line, county officials envision building housing on part of their northern Santa Rosa administrative complex, which is considered too old and spread out to meet current demands. They also may someday develop units at the site of the old Los Guilicos juvenile hall off Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley, but officials have yet to seriously move forward with any plans there.
Aside from Los Guilicos, the other four Santa Rosa sites could anchor some 1,375 units by 2022.
While that amount would mark a major effort by the county to expand the tight local housing market, it would not come close to matching the pace from the boom years before the most recent recession, when builders added nearly 18,000 houses, apartments and condominiums in the county from 2000 to 2008. The county wants to get as many housing projects as possible underway this year.
“We have to be bold and stand up,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman. “It’s not just about one block or one neighbor. We’re all going to feel it if we don’t have housing for working people, whether they be schoolteachers or service providers.”
Supervisors will meet behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss the 7.5-acre site at 2150 W. College Ave., which has been considered for development ever since the Water Agency completed its move to its current Santa Rosa headquarters in 2013. One option is a possible sale of the property to the Community Development Commission.
The commission, as a potential short-term owner, could make it easier to build housing, according to Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director.
“At the end of the day, we have a role to play in bringing developers to the table,” Van Vliet said.
“We’re trying to figure out what are the legal mechanisms and financial mechanisms to make that happen.”
Santa Rosa City Schools at one point wanted to put a charter high school on the College Avenue property but abandoned those plans in November 2015 amid mounting criticism from teachers and parents. Earlier that year, a homeless encampment set up there, partly in protest, before moving to the Roseland Village shopping center — the same Sebastopol Road location where the commission is helping advance a mixed-use project with 175 planned housing units.
The College Avenue site is ideal for residential purposes, given its location within walking distance of a transit hub and shopping, said Mike Thompson, the Water Agency’s assistant general manager. But a development deal hasn’t come to pass partly because the agency can’t legally discount the price, which would make it more feasible for affordable housing builders, he said.
“There’s been a lot of interested parties that have wanted the property, but then after they do their due diligence and find out what their own internal constraints are, many weren’t able to put together an offer,” Thompson said. “That’s probably been the biggest challenge.”
While the county can sell land to housing developers, it generally does not have the final say over the number of units that will be built on land within Santa Rosa city limits. For example, once the Chanate Road property — site of the former Sutter Medical Center— is sold, the developer’s project will need to pass through the city review process. Santa Rosa planners and ultimately the City Council could determine whether the project can achieve its full buildout of 800 units.
“All of those sites are great opportunity sites to evaluate housing on,” David Guhin, the city’s director of planning and economic development, said of the four Santa Rosa sites. “And really, when you go through the process . . . to identify all of the potential issues — such as traffic and setbacks and other environmental mitigation that might be needed — that’s when you really start to determine the number of units that could be supported on a certain property.”
The county’s preliminary estimates call for building an additional 2,000 units countywide. At the same time, Santa Rosa has set its own goal of building 5,000 units by 2023, and the city has estimated 685 units will start construction this year.
“We should all be ambitious in our desire for housing in Santa Rosa, and in particular affordable housing,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. “The devil’s in the details here, and I don’t think that any of these (county) proposals, other than the Roseland Village site, have enough detail associated with them — at least that I’ve seen — for me to say whether the numbers are realistic or not.”
Another aspect officials will consider as they try to expand housing stock is the balance they want to strike between market-rate rentals and those set aside for residents with lower incomes or special-needs groups like seniors and people with disabilities.
For some projects, that question has already been answered, at least initially. Plans for the Chanate Road site have called for 20 percent of the units to be affordable to residents with very low incomes, and the Roseland Village developer wants to make 75 of the 175 planned units affordable to residents with low, very low and extremely low incomes.
Stephen Harper, a longtime leader of the Housing Advisory Group, praised the “excellent direction” in which supervisors have moved to address the local housing crisis. Still, he was unsure if the actions they envision will be enough.
“They’re finally moving forward with some sort of plan. Of course, the housing advocates would appreciate knowing, on all those units we’re talking about, what percentage will be low income and what percentage will also be set aside for people with special needs,” Harper said.
“If they allow 25 percent of all that housing to be low income or special needs, that’s going to scratch the surface. That’s about it.”
Zane — whose housing mantra is “build, baby, build” — has made it clear she’s looking to add units for those at all income levels.
“Regardless of whether it’s an affordable rental unit or market rate, you’re still helping the problem. You’re still easing the pain and the crunch of the housing shortage,” Zane said. “Building the market-rate housing, too, is going to help our situation, because it then frees up more of the affordable units.”