Santa Rosa fast-tracks downtown housing construction
Santa Rosa may be at a turning point in allowing urban housing, creating policies and streamlining reviews aimed at being more friendly to investors and developers.
“After years of strategic planning we now have specific direction as part of a comprehensive development strategy,” said Mayor Tom Schwedhelm. “City council members are on the same page with a series of 7-to-0 unanimous votes supporting urban core development. We’ve realized we can’t continue with business as usual and have to take risks to achieve these goals. Development doesn’t happen overnight in our Downtown Station Area Specific Plan, we have to be willing to offer incentives to accelerate the process.”
He said the council is united, evidenced by its sanction of waived impact fees and eased housing requirements, while focusing on finding ways to attract people back to the city center by eliminating bureaucratic roadblocks.
Councilman Jack Tibbetts said he’s seeing “overwhelming support” for high-density living. And he thinks that reduced local impact fees could help increase tourism and overnight stays, leading to increased business and retail activity.
“For example, when building taller structures, as floor levels increase impact fees go down,” Tibbetts said. “Staff understands the new direction and is finding ways to make this process even more efficient and cost effective.”
Clare Hartman, Santa Rosa’s interim assistant city manager, noted that the city council’s follow-through with approval actions beyond just policy support are creating much needed predictability for downtown projects, combined with community support coming from various sectors.
“Our goal is to attract three to five market rate housing projects to catalyze downtown development,” Hartman said. “We know we’re ready because it’s not uncommon to get all types of opinions at public hearings in support of downtown housing from the business community, those living in the city, environmental groups, transit and climate action advocates as well as from local and outside developers.”
She said all downtown city property has been evaluated and is undergoing a process to support public-private-partnership, or P3, developments. This includes city parking garages, surface lots and the city hall area.
“Look for city council agenda items in November for an ENA (exclusive negotiation agreement) and a DDA (disposition and development agreement) for city parking lots and developer partnerships,” Hartman said.
A number of fee reductions and incentives have been offered to developers through the High-Density Multifamily Residential Incentive Program, such as reduced capital facilities fees (CFF), reduced park fees, deferred water and wastewater fees, along with reduced inclusionary affordable housing requirements for downtown (4% for rental property downtown versus 8% outside of downtown).
Officials said the application process time has been reduced from 10 months to three months, and application fees were reduced due to permit streamlining from $24,000 in entitlement fees to $9,000. Through a “housing by right” policy, no use permit or rezoning is necessary. Enabling the Zoning Administrator to act as the review authority, versus the Design Review Board, also saves time, they said.
Federally designated opportunity zones offer tax incentives as well. The downtown area is one of two such zones in Santa Rosa.
On Oct. 13, the council added another major tool, according to Hartman, with adoption of the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan. City officials note the city is moving away from density and height standards and minimum parking requirements.
The relaxed parking policy allows for creative, market-driven solutions such as shared parking, transit passes or parking permit arrangements with city parking garages, as is the case with the 1 Santa Rosa Ave. project. It’s a 120-apartment development by Keith Rogal, who is reworking the 157-acre Napa Pipe property with a Costco and hundreds of homes and built Carneros Inn over a decade ago. The Santa Rosa effort would have studios and one- and two-bedroom units.
While no rental rates have been announced, he said rents could probably be at or near the upper bracket, but comparable to that for class A garden apartments in a mid-range urban community