Sonoma County leaders are poised to move forward Tuesday with a yearslong effort to redevelop their aging and sprawling north Santa Rosa government campus, a measure that could make room for at least 1,400 housing units.
The Board of Supervisors will consider directing county staff members to gauge developers’ interest in building a consolidated 500,000-square-foot administrative center to accommodate county offices that currently are spread among numerous low-rise buildings, most of which are 50 to 60 years old.
The buildings have an ever-growing maintenance backlog, currently pegged at $258 million. County officials think they’re better off building a denser office complex, either on the same site or elsewhere, and freeing up space for desperately needed new homes.
“It’s like when you have a car that you’re spending more money on maintenance than it’s worth,” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman. “And you say, what if I sold it?”
Four general locations for the new government center are being floated by county staff: the existing site centered in the area around Administration Drive, downtown Santa Rosa, the county airport business park or another location proposed by a developer.
If the county moves its administrative offices downtown, it could opt to share a site with the Santa Rosa city government, which is mulling its own move out of the City Hall complex on Santa Rosa Avenue.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the city is interested in getting new housing built on the site, making a combined government center an attractive option for city officials. But Coursey warned the idea at the moment is “one of those moonshot type of things.”
“Under the proper circumstances, it would allow housing to be created — a lot of housing — at the county center and on the City Hall property where we sit now,” Coursey said.
“I think it is a great idea,” he said. “It would take a lot of work to make it happen. We’re in the very preliminary stages of getting to that point.”
The county campus totals about 47 acres, but not all of it is slated for redevelopment: Justice-related buildings, including the Sheriff’s Office and the county jail, would remain. The Sonoma County Superior Court already is planning to move into a new courthouse, but the existing Hall of Justice where the court currently is located could be replaced or refurbished as part of the broader plans for the administrative campus, said Caroline Judy, the county’s general services department director.
The county thinks housing could be built on 60 percent of the campus, allowing for an estimated 1,410 units under the neighborhood’s current zoning rules and as many as 3,892 units if higher density is allowed, she said.
It’ll likely be several years before any of those units comes to the market, however. If supervisors agree to move forward this week, county staff members will release a questionnaire to gauge developers’ interest this summer, then launch a formal request for development proposals no sooner than this winter, Judy said.
Still, the potential housing project could give a major boost to supervisors’ ambitious goal of getting tens of thousands of housing units built in the coming years.
“We’re beyond the vision that we can fix these things by just incrementally adding an accessory dwelling unit or a granny unit here or there,” Gore said. “We need some big wins. I hope we can keep our eye on the ball.”
Cost estimates for the redevelopment vary depending on the kind of building or buildings the county decides to construct. A new mid- to high-rise building would cost an estimated $349.9 million, while building multiple new buildings would cost a projected $375.5 million, according to county staff.
Funding options include debt financing through the issuance of a bond or a potential public-private partnership where the government retains ownership of the land but contracts with a developer to build the new administrative center, which the county then leases back, Judy said.
The plans already won early excitement from a coalition of business and environmental groups that banded together in hopes of convincing the county government to move downtown. The Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, Greenbelt Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action and the North Bay Leadership Council sent a joint April 20 letter to Gore expressing unified support for moving the county campus to the city’s urban core.
In the letter, the groups said the move would provide major benefits for the downtown economy — shifting the workplace of about 1,400 government employees — and open the door for an influx of additional housing, both on the current county campus site and near the new one.
“A civic center in the downtown could be just the type of flagship development to boost incentives for business and housing to grow in our downtown,” the groups said in their letter to Gore. “Opening the existing county campus for mixed housing and commercial development creates a much better use for the site. Indeed, with the development of several thousand housing units on this site, plus the financial incentive for more housing downtown due to the increased workforce presence, the county can make significant strides toward its stated housing development goals without putting pressure on our cherished natural resources and open space.”
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the county’s western 5th District, raised concerns that moving downtown would put the government offices further away from residents in more remote unincorporated areas. Residents of the lower Russian River area, in particular, could have a harder time getting downtown, said Hopkins, who also questioned whether there could be sufficient free parking provided there.
Yet, Hopkins said she supports moving forward Tuesday. She also hasn’t ruled out support for a move downtown.
“I’m still open to it, but I have some serious reservations that would need to be addressed, including accessibility for west county residents,” Hopkins said.
The questionnaire will give county leaders a better sense of the best location for their new administrative offices and the most realistic amount of housing that could be developed through the move, Judy said.
“We want to learn from the market, before we go and issue something, about what’s considered viable,” she said.