Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit is coming; where’s the housing?

After years of planning and multiple development proposals, the mixed-use project site next to the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit depot in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square remains undeveloped in May 2017. (ROBIN STEPHANI)



The nearly $1 billion investment in the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train line and all its surrounding upgrades in the two counties is preparing to start rolling trains this summer, but development of housing and commercial projects linked into the network has largely stalled in the nine years the transit project has been picking up steam, according to a proponent of sustainable projects.

“We have a lifetime opportunity right now because of this train that’s coming to town to create and re-energize neighborhoods, so that we can create the walkability that we know will produce the kinds of talent-attraction neighborhoods that we really need, to be that nimble, competitive economy here,” said Robin Stephani at North Bay Business Journal’s Construction Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on May 12. “We haven’t done much. We’ve sort of been the antithesis of nimble.”

None of the transit-oriented development sites promoted around the line’s stations, particularly in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park, have been built so far, she noted.

“We need to figure out how we’re going to maximize this investment,” Stephani said. “We’ve baked in a lot of constraints we can’t do anything about. The SMART train has left the station.”

Sonoma County has about 10,000 housing units approved to be built and another 10,000 units that will be needed in the next 10 years. Stephani suggested that cities move quickly to get housing built around the SMART stations and in the urban cores.

In addition to her day job as vice president of preconstruction for Wright Contracting of Santa Rosa, Stephani is part of Urban Community Partnerships. It’s a nonprofit formed two years ago formed by Sonoma County homebuilders facing hurdles in getting projects approved and built.

They took their challenges to the Sonoma County Alliance’s Environmental Committee, which Stephani chairs. That started a conversation that brought together stakeholders not normally on the same side regarding development, she said.

The group is endorsing projects that fit this vision and coordinating with public agencies to make them happen. One such project is the creation of the Midtown Fourth Neighborhood Association on College Avenue.

The group also sponsored a visit more than a year ago by economists who specialize in analyzing existing and possible property values. Bottom line: Taller buildings can fill city coffers more and fill budget holes than shorter buildings.

Stephani pointed to a missed opportunity the city of Santa Rosa had in boosting its tax revenue by approving a mid-rise office building envisioned in 1982 by local architecture icon Larry Simons at downtown site ultimately approved for The Roxy 14-screen movie venue.

“For every one- to two-story building that is built, cities will need 10 multistory buildings to make up for its value,” Stephani said.

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers construction, commercial real estate and wine.