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Builders of Sonoma County small projects tout community participation in process

Nearly 60 developers, architects and investors from more than 20 states concluded a three-day Healdsburg conference Thursday that examined several Sonoma County projects and their part in a movement to “Build Small,” aimed at allowing communities and developers to develop projects with greater community consensus that also keep “a sense of place” while attracting visitors.

“Building small encourages civic leaders, developers and community groups to develop resilient local economies, foster more authentic places, as well as heal and grow divested neighborhoods with greater participation by residents, public officials and investors,” according to Jim Heid, organizer of the 16th annual Small Scale Developer Forum.

A real estate developer, landscape architect and a founding partner of the CraftWork co-working enterprise space in Healdsburg, he is also the author of “Building Small,” a toolkit for those wanting to capture and retain the unique character of their downtown areas while navigating the planning process for incremental development on a smaller scale.

“Residents of Healdsburg and Sebastopol, along with many other small to medium-size towns in California and the U.S., cherish their mom-and-pop and sole proprietorships along with the look and feel of legacy buildings with smaller footprints in core areas without big box stores or franchise chains. This build-small objective has become part of their community culture and DNA, while also establishing a sense of place that attracts locals and tourists seeking unique stays, dining, shopping and wine country experiences,” Heid said.

During a panel discussion to discuss whether incremental development can preserve small town character while building economic resilience, Eric Ziedrich, owner of the Healdsburg Lumber Company and founder and developer of the Caboose coffee shop, said It is vital to maintain good relations with city officials.

“In the past the city sometimes wanted us to pay fees ranging from five to six digits for traffic or water utilization studies that we felt were way out of line with our financial realities,” Ziedrich said. “Educating them — without lecturing -- on the economics of our business is as essential as it is for us to hear their concerns.”

He said business owners and investors have should engage in an ongoing dialogue early in the planning and consultation stage for any new development, and then participate in workshops and public meetings with large groups and individuals and get to know elected leaders by meeting with them over a meal to share ideas and viewpoints on various development positions and related topics.

Will Seppi, president and CEO of Costeaux French Bakery Inc. and chair of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce Board, said he worked with members to launch a program that “continues to inform civic leaders about how the business sector works to create better understand and a greater willingness to hear our thoughts on development issues as we work together to build centers of community life.”

Patrice Frey, president of the National Main Street Center, said money for projects tends to gravitate toward urban areas.

“Most urban investors are more willing to spend hundreds of millions on a single development deal in a big city so they can achieve a higher rate of return, but are usually not willing invest similar amounts spread over 100 or more smaller projects in less populated areas,” Frey said.

Large scale investment dollars are not always available from banks for small developments, meaning small project developers may have to use personal and private capital, family funds, form a local investment partnership, or apply for a line of credit, which is often a much easier way to build than with a construction loan, according to Architect Alan Cohen, who designed the 205 Center Street live/work downtown project in Healdsburg.

The Center Street property has a 1,350-square-foot, three-story townhouse, an attached two-story office and gallery, a detached shop, and an art studio above connected by a second story enclosed skyway to the residence. This building was converted from an old metal warehouse and provides its work-from-home owner without a commute with a substantially reduced carbon footprint, according to Cohen.

The emerging Mill District and the completed Hotel Healdsburg (56 rooms), H2Hotel (36 rooms) and the Harmon Guest House (39 rooms) were highlighted in another case study, as well as The Barlow market district in Sebastopol, which is an adaptive reuse of a former cannery production facility transformed into industrial space and a food/wine retail hub.

Rather than build one large hotel with several hundred rooms, designers for a series of new Healdsburg hotel properties were led by Piazza Hospitality Group Founder Paul Petrone along with Development and Marketing Director Circe Sher of this firm specializing in the ownership, development and management of hotels, restaurants and spas in premier locations. They worked closely with David Baker and Brett Jones, principals at David Baker Architects, to achieve their vision.

“We decided to break the big hospitality box image by building 3 smaller hotels with relatively low profiles in incremental stages over a period of years,” said Petrone. “This plan was aided by an agreement with the city of Healdsburg allowing us to use a portion of its public parking area behind Hotel Healdsburg for guest parking, reducing the need for on-street or within property spaces.”

A fourth small boutique hotel is planned in Healdsburg by Piazza Hospitality, called HH Residences (16 rooms), that will have kitchenettes and connecting rooms designed for families planning longer stays.

The Mill District is a 9.6-acre mixed use infill destination neighborhood adjacent to Healdsburg Avenue with emphasis on pedestrian connectivity. It is a redevelopment of a former lumber mill at the same location.

It will include 138 market rate condominium homes, 40 deed-restricted affordable housing rental apartments, 30 middle-income housing units, a 53-room boutique hotel, 15,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, and a 0.8-acre privately owned, publicly accessible park.

Deed-restricted units eligible for the 9% federal low-income housing tax credits are for households that earn earn less than 60% of the area’s average medium income. Middle-income households earn 120% to 160% of that median.

The project cost is estimated at $500 million at full buildout. Site wide infrastructure ground prep work began in January. Phase 1 affordable housing construction began in April, with completion set for September 2022. Phase 1 of residential construction is set to begin in January 2022 and be complete by August 2023.

A separate case study focused on the Riverhouse Cottage Court infill project, consisting of eight single family detached residents plus four detached ADUs near downtown Healdsburg. Tour groups also passed the Paul Mahder Art Gallery, a reuse of a former warehouse built in post-World War II Quonset hut-style dating from the 1940s. This structure was fully gutted and redeveloped as a showcase for large-scale art and event space. Stops at the Glass Pavilions and Fog Belt Brewing Company at the Old Roma station were included on the tour.

The roundabout on Healdsburg Avenue, completed in 2018, was included among the list of resilient projects in Healdsburg for its ability to enable continuous traffic flow at a complex five-way intersection. It was also seen by developers as a viable solution to unlock the value of the former lumber mill leading to the development of the Mill District. The plan was championed by a small citizens group that launched the Vision Healdsburg process.

Heid said, “Over the years we compiled valuable takeaway information and feedback from developers and investors attending the forums. Capital and regulation issues top the list. Projects require an alignment with residents and stakeholders in the community.”

He added that developers have to be the “face” of their projects, be good communicators with the public, and not rely on attorneys and architects to do this for them.

“Build Small projects are not developed in a linear process. Often it takes multiple plans with revisions before final approvals are obtained. You have to own your design, stay the course and be prepared to experience delays while continuing to be an advocate by selling-in your project. At the end of the day, such incremental developments help build a better community that are a win-win for all concerned,” Heid added.

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