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Santa Rosa councilwoman reconsidering vote that doomed Railroad Square project

Brick walls of a former cannery on Third Street near Santa Rosa's Railroad Square have been propped up and awaiting construction for years.

The Press Democrat, 2007
Published: Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.

A decision last week by the Santa Rosa City Council to pull the plug on a senior housing project in Railroad Square isn't necessarily the end of the line for the 93-unit complex.

Councilwoman Julie Combs, who voted against San Francisco developer John Stewart's latest plans for the site, says she has lingering questions about the impact of that controversial 4-3 decision.

“I'm feeling the need to take a little more time and to hear a little more information,” Combs said.

Combs is one of the three new council members who in a surprise move sided with Mayor Scott Bartley against the project.

They questioned whether the site is suitable for low income seniors, whether that demographic would boost ridership for the SMART commuter train, and whether the deal would constitute a bailout for the developer.

Supporters say allowing Stewart to go forward with the senior project on his 2.1-acre property on Third Street, where the brick walls of a former cannery have been propped up for years awaiting construction, would be a catalyst for the development on the neighboring property owned by SMART.

But Combs now says she isn't certain she fully understood the implications of her vote and hopes to meet this week with city staff to get more detailed answers.

It's unclear to her what happens to the millions of dollars set aside for the project if it is derailed, she said. For example, Stewart is suing to prevent the state from taking $5.5 million in redevelopment and housing funds committed to the project, and she wants to know what happens to that money if he drops his suit.

Combs said she also wants to better understand how allowing this piece of the development to go forward would affect future development on the remainder of the 11-acre property west of the tracks between Third and Sixth streets.

She noted that anyone who voted in the majority on an item, as she did, has the right to reconsider his or her vote at the next council meeting, set for April 30. She would make her decision about whether to do so after gathering more information this week, she said.

“That is always a possibility,” Combs said.

It did give her pause that the three new council members all voted against the project, while three more experienced council members voted for it, she said.

“It did make me ask myself 'Do they have information, because of their history with the project that I didn't have?'” Combs said.

Bartley said he is confident the overall site will one day be developed as a transit-oriented mixed use development. But “it came time to pull the plug” because in his view the project has a number of major hurdles to overcome. The latest proposal, which lacked a mixed-use component and focused solely on low-income seniors, didn't fit the overall plan, which itself was “hanging on by its nails since day one.”

Early plans for the 11-acre site called for a 40,000-square-foot food-and wine center similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, 40,000 square feet of office space, 279 units of market-rate and affordable housing, a 263-space parking garage and several restaurants.

In 2010, the board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District allowed Stewart and his partners in shift the 68 units of affordable housing from the SMART property, which Stewart had an option to purchase and develop, onto the cannery site.

He planned to build the units over a fitness center, but that didn't pan out. Now he's proposing just the 93 units for low-income seniors, which he says are the easiest to finance in the current lending climate.

Stewart didn't renew his option to buy the SMART property in February because there was not enough demand in the commercial or residential real estate markets to give him any hope of developing the property by February 2016, the deadline by which he would have to expend the $11.3 million in state grant funds aimed at promoting transit-oriented infill projects.

The state has preliminarily said Stewart's senior project would qualify for $4.3 million of the original grant award.

Bartley said he understands the grant money “goes poof” if the latest version of the project comes to a halt. But he said there's nothing to say such grant funds won't return in the future. Stewart disagrees, noting that the funds from 2006's Proposition 1C funds are finite and competition to win the grant in the first place was fierce.

Long-time SMART board member Debra Fudge said it doesn't surprise her that new council members would be challenged to understand the implications of their vote on what she called “one of the most complicated projects I've ever been involved with in my 18 years of public service in Sonoma County.”

“I can understand how there could have been confusion or decisions made where the full impact may not have been understood,” Fudge said.

She said she understands the concerns of council members that the current project is far less than the overall envisioned for the site.

“There's the perfect world, and then there's the world we're living in,” Fudge said.

But the train is scheduled to arrived late in 2015 or early 2016, and Fudge said Stewart's project, by putting that redevelopment and state funding to work, will help area around the downtown station become the “jewel” of the entire SMART line.

“I don't want this project to die. It's in the best interests of SMART and the City of Santa Rosa, especially,” she said.

Stewart said Combs had reached out to him for more information, and he had replied. He said he hadn't and wouldn't be reaching out to other council members to discuss their votes, calling it “inappropriate.”

“If there is going to be some sort of a reconsideration, that's fine. We would be delighted,” he said, but said it would have to happen soon.

If the vote stands, Stewart said he would have to withdraw his lawsuit against the state Department of Finance before the May 17 trial date because it would be “fraudulent” to continue “defending a project which the city says it doesn't want.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

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