Can we build 6,000 housing units in the North Bay in the next two years? Think I am crazy to even ask? Well, the answer is yes. We have done it before.
It’s been a while, for sure. But between 1988 and 1989, more than 11,100 single- and multi-family housing units were added in Sonoma and Napa counties, most of them single-family residences. More than 80 percent of them were in Sonoma County, according to the Construction Industry Research Board and the California Homebuilding Foundation.
Sure, things are different today with a shortage of construction labor and other issues. But the data show it has been done and there is no reason it can’t be done again better and safer.
Still thinking Sonoma County doesn’t have the grit to get big projects done?
“If anybody tells you this community cannot rebuild fast, they are crazy,” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, at a Business Journal conference in November. “They do not know this community.”
Mansourian noted that, from 2012 to 2015, SMART rebuilt 43 miles of tracks and 63 crossings, installed 42 bridges, including a movable bridge over the Petaluma River, and established a 60-acre natural preserve. The train serving Sonoma and Marin counties is now operating with solid ridership.
“In three years, we built an entire railroad system from scratch. The right-of-way was there, but we had to rebuild,” Mansourian said. “This is the way we do things up here.”
Need more examples? Lake Sonoma was completed in 1982, and saved the region during drought. In the early 2000s came an engineering marvel: a 41-mile pipeline collects wastewater and lifts it 2,000-feet-plus to The Geysers, where it recharges geothermal wells critical to the region’s clean-energy production. Then there’s the $120 million Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, a world-class performance venue and education center.
We’ve already started to apply this can-do spirit in the cleanup. At the November conference where SMART’s Mansourian spoke, State Sen. Mike McGuire reported that cleanup crews had surged into the region, working holidays, weekends and nights with the goal of beginning “rebuilding this community this spring.”
Meanwhile, local contractors are stepping in to offer people options to rebuild their lives and dreams.
Let’s say we rebuild 6,000 homes in two years. Then what?
The North Bay was in the middle of a severe housing shortage when fires hit. That shortage, which distorts housing prices and fundamentally threatens our future economy, will still be there after we rebuild from the fires.
At the end of two years of rebuilding from fires, it was observed at a recent CEO Roundtable hosted by the Journal, there will be some kind of building machine – labor, materials, expertise – in place. Do we just let that building machine disperse or do we capitalize on it to relieve our mid-to-long-term housing shortage with additional construction?
The opportunity for our region is enormous. As Blair Kellison, CEO of organic tea maker Traditional Medicinals, pointed out at the Nov. 29 CEO Roundtable, Sonoma County and the North Bay are blessed with many leading companies and startups in natural and organic foods and beverages. These companies – and the North Bay – are perfectly positioned to tap into a global shift toward healthier food.
Many of our telecom, software, energy and medical technology companies are world leaders in their product areas. Our wines and tourist experiences are world class. The list could go on and on.
“We are the future,” Kellison said, a place with a rare combination of natural beauty and economic assets. “We have it all,” Kellison said, all that is necessary to lead us into the future – industries, companies, innovators, environment, higher education.
But will we grasp this future?
These companies will grow because they create the products of the future. They can grow here, providing local jobs and economic opportunity for local families, or they can grow somewhere else. But they are going to grow.
Will every city and county create conditions – housing in particular, but also infrastructure, commercial space, education – where companies can grow at home, or will this opportunity slip away?
Meanwhile, making this area safer from wildfires in the future will require big thinking around engineering solutions on the order of Lake Sonoma and The Geysers Pipeline. For instance, when recent Southern California fires threatened the area around the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, a million-gallon water-storage tank – built for precisely such an event – was opened and allowed helicopters to quickly pick up water. Fires never directly threatened the museum, but having the storage facility helped battle the fires.
State Sen. Bill Dodd at the November Journal conference offered another forward-thinking idea: When weather forecasts indicate the possibility of destructive Diablo winds, shut down the power grid until the danger passes. Perhaps modern battery backups could be enlisted during such an outage.
We lost a great deal in October’s fires. But the responses of individuals – tens of millions of dollars flowing to those who suffered losses and countless acts of kindness and generosity – have been awe inspiring. We have never been a community of strangers, but the fires have brought us even closer to one another.
Ron Nersesian, CEO of Keysight Technologies, where employees suffered enormous personal losses, said managers spent the days after the fires contacting every one of more than 1,500 employees and contractors to check on their safety. Everyone got paid. It was a time, Nersesian said, to lead with the values of caring for others as you would want your children to be cared for.
We will get through fire recovery together better and safer because of who we are. Imagine if we also built a foundation for a safer environment and better economic future for everyone in our communities.