North Bay Business Journal

Friday, July 23, 2010, 12:05 pm

A chance to jumpstart SMART project at Railroad Square


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    Imagine this proposal coming to your city’s leaders in today’s awful economic environment: Build a privately financed, state-of-the-art health club near downtown and adjacent to a rising heritage neighborhood with three stories of affordable senior housing on top.


    Well, there is such a proposal surrounding Santa Rosa’s long-delayed Railroad Square SMART project. And it should be warmly and emphatically welcomed.

    The first thing to understand is that this is not your ordinary health club.

    Clubsource Development Partners, whose Club One facility in Petaluma has been a smashing success, sees itself as both a health club and a community partner, providing recreation opportunities that cash-strapped cities can no longer provide. It even sees having senior housing above a health club as an opportunity to innovate around easy yoga or other exercise programs for our elderly citizens.

    I’ve argued in this space and elsewhere that Santa Rosa and the North Bay need a symbol of progress to bring us out of the economic funk. This project could be that symbol in the same fashion, though on a much larger scale, that the Golden Gate Bridge was during the Great Depression.

    And the SMART project could use a lift, having been beset by a series of delays that brought setbacks such as the loss of the Santa Rosa Junior College culinary program. The economy, which has killed virtually any chance of financing for market-rate housing, has left the entire project on life support.

    The Club One-senior affordable housing proposal — there are two swimming pools planned, by the way ­– would be a huge boost to the entire SMART project area. It would bring business-generating activity to the site and surrounding neighborhood and would protect state bond funding from being taken away because of lack of project readiness.

    Moving the project forward does require changes to the agreement between developer The John Stewart Company and the regional SMART district. Santa Rosa does not control that, even though the city has the most to gain – or lose – from this.

    One thing is certain. The economic environment today is nothing like what it was when the original agreements were drawn. Having a financeable — and innovative — project is indeed a rarity today.

    One of the challenges the SMART project has faced is that it has too many masters – the regional board, labor, environmental and affordable housing advocates among them.

    If for some reason one or more of these interest groups succeeds in delaying or rejecting the Club One-senior housing proposal, Santa Rosans need to understand a critical, job-generating infill project at the heart of their city is almost certainly dead for years to come.

    That would be a terrible thing to let happen.

    Read Mr. Bollinger’s follow-up commentary, “Private capital, public goods.”


    Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.

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    1. July 24, 2010, 11:25 am

      by Houser Dude

      Brad’s trying to make a silk purse outa sow’s ears. So’s the developer, John Stewart. His Railroad Square Project’s floundering. There’s no foreseeable market for the proposed 200 units of condo’s and high end rental housing, or for the commercial space. The Napa Ox Bow Market people recently backed out of the proposed”public market” in the project. And it’s unlikely that anything bigger than hand cars will be running on those railroad tracks in the next decade. So Stewart’s probably going to drop the project unless SMART gives him lots more public money (which they clearly don’t have). Stewart bought the Canners building 12 years ago to convert it to high-end condo’s. He’s looking at a big loss on that investment. So by this deal with the exercise club, he’s hoping to turn a big loss into profit. By moving the affordable housing promised for the SMART site to his own site, he gets millions in public money to rebuild the Canners building. And the City’s promised to build a parking garage (again with public money) next door. We can’t fault Stewart for trying to creatively cut his losses, but he’ll be leaving SMART in the lurch, along with the whole notion of a transit-oriented mixed use, mixed income development around the station. Let’s hope SMART tells him no.

    2. July 24, 2010, 3:21 pm

      by Norman Nance

      This sounds like a really good idea. I guess all of the Santa Rosa citizens should make their voice heard on this one. We do need to have the trains running and for several reasons. I myself just like trains.

    3. July 25, 2010, 1:54 am

      by Mike Kobler

      While I do see a need for senior housing and see how the proposed “partnership” with Club One would benefit the SMART project, I can’t help but raise the question, is that not only good for the SMART Project and Club One, but also for the businesses in Railroad Square and Downtown as a whole. Seniors (I apologize if I’m generalizing) typically don’t go to loud music venues (Last Day Saloon), go to bars (Toad in the Hole and Courthouse Sq. bars), and typically don’t dine later in the evening. While these may seem trivial, I think that the goal of SMART and other Redevelopment Projects is to create a thriving, 24 hour downtown. I’ve heard over and over, that the current 9 to 5 atmosphere needs to change. With prime real estate rare downtown, developments must weigh all aspects and examine how each would add elements capable of creating a thriving city center. Undoubtedly, the City will receive extremely large amounts of noise complaints from events in the area as well as nightly noise. I am pleased that Club One has taken an interest in the health and now the day to day life of our aging population, I believe that this type of development doesn’t provide enough to the rebirth of downtown enough to be considered for such precious real estate.

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