‘Urban center’ developer buys 32 acres in Rohnert Park’s nascent downtown
There’s a new owner of the 32-acre former State Farm Insurance property adjacent to the Rohnert Park SMART station and key to the city’s dream of a downtown.
Laulima Development, which had been pursuing the 267-acre Alexander Valley Resort project near Cloverdale until early this year, led the Dec. 1 purchase of the Rohnert Park property, located at 6400 State Farm Drive south of Rohnert Park Expressway and between the road and the light-rail station. North Bay Community, LLC, an affiliate of Irvine-based SunCal, had bought the site in late 2013 from the insurance company, about three and a half years after State Farm vacated the 320,000-square-foot facility.
What attracted Laulima to buy the Rohnert Park property was it had the right amount of land, in the right place, next to the right transit and with the right attitude from local government, said David Bouquillon, one of the founders of the company nine years ago.
“I was surprised that there was even 30 acres that was assembled in the North Bay within an environment that could be a downtown and because of the SMART train,” Bouquillon said. “We’re urban-center guys.”
Transit-oriented development (TOD) is associated with various modes of public transportation, but Laulima focuses on TOD associated with light rail, he said. The purchase deal for the State Farm property was parallel-tracking with the rollout of initial service on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line, which started carrying paid travelers in September. The deal was in contract for sale for about four months and was partly postponed because of the October wildfires.
Laulima and SunCal came together for the sale through a mutual acquaintance in Southern California who knew of SunCal “decided not to continue with (its) proposed plans for Rohnert Crossings,” the company said in an email to the Business Journal, explaining the reason for the sale. That was the company’s name for the project.
“Although we were not able to proceed with this venture, it was a pleasure working with the city of Rohnert Park, and we wish them the best in the future development of this site,” the statement said.
Laulima talked with Rohnert Park officials throughout the due-diligence process leading up to the sale, and the development team found the government’s attitude refreshing, Bouquillon said.
“Every time we would walk in, they would ask, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ That’s very rare in our business,” he said.
Though it is presenting its vision for the property to the City Council on Tuesday, Laulima plans to formally submit its proposed final development plan in two months. The intention is to lean toward the vision for the property laid out in the Station Center priority development area plan the city approved with its environmental impact report last year, Bouquillon said.
The city already approved a preliminary development plan and is developing a form-based Downtown Amenities Code for projects along State Farm Drive, including the 32-acre site, according to Mary Grace Pawson, director of city Development Services. The city held a community design charette on the code in November.
“With the change of hands of the SunCal project, we’re taking a pause to get coordinated with the new owner,” Pawson told the Business Journal.
At the City Council meeting presentation Tuesday, Laulima partner Jonathan “Jes” Slavik said the proposal will include 111,000 square feet of retail space, 65,000 square feet of offices, 415 residential units and a 136-room hotel. SunCal’s approved preliminary development plan called for 70,000 square feet of retail, 50,000 square feet of office and 400 dwellings. The city’s priority area development plan mirrors Laulima’s intention for the project, except for some retail space shifting to a hotel.
“We think what we're proposing is a better mix, a better plan and closer to what you were hoping to get,” Slavik said. “The difference in this plan is a hotel. … We'd like to propose a hotel because we think it is good for our project, and we think it is good for the downtown for a lot of reasons.”
He said the limited time for the informal presentation prevented a further discussion of the merits of a hotel there. That conversation with the City Council would come during a later hearing, he said.
Another Laulima idea for the property is to create a “retail spine” connecting the SMART stop and Commerce Boulevard to the west, running along the south side of the shopping centers anchored by Raley’s and Safeway stores. Part of that would be to build a SMART station building, Slavik said.
“The SMART station is really a platform. A lot of stops on the SMART line have stations, and they really announce a gateway to the communities,” he said.
Slavik said the design team has been inspired by landmark train stations around the country and is envisioning a “grand,” ”iconic” building with an atrium connecting it to the retail spine. A town square would be placed right in front of that station building.
Surrounding the retail spine street and the square would be the commercial buildings, with retail on the ground floor, office above that and apartments above that. Secondary retail would be built along State Farm Drive and a new interior street that connects the spine with Rohnert Park Expressway.
Three-story multifamily housing would be built on the southern half of the site, Slavik said. The idea is the create a walkable community where people can live, work and shop, he said.
Bouquillon told the Business Journal before the meeting that his company would oversee the construction and management of the commercial and rental housing. But the company would partner with other developers for the hotel and for-sale homes.
Bouquillon declined to state the sale price for the Rohnert Park property. Based on public records, the value of the purchase by Laulima Rohnert Station LLC, was $13.5 million.
North Bay Community also didn’t say how much it paid in December 2013, but it initially financed $30 million at the time. That loan was refinanced with another lender in early 2015 for $42.5 million, with balance adjustments in August 2015 and in April of this year to $49.9 million and $73.5 million, respectively, according to filed documents.
Laulima’s purchase didn’t involve assumption of loans, Bouquillon said.
Danny Jones of Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc./Oncor International represented North Bay Community in the sale of the property.
Jeff Quackenbush (email@example.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.