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[whitespace] A new direction? Santa Rosa city officials have failed to focus on affordable housing, but Mayor Janet Condron is now calling for a change in that policy.

Master Plan

A tale of two cities and their approaches to planning

By Stephanie Hiller

MORE HOUSES? High-rises downtown? Traffic and more traffic? Here comes the "g" word--not "growth" this time, but "general plan." This year, Sonoma County's two biggest cities, Santa Rosa and Petaluma (as well as Rohnert Park), have each embarked on a periodic revision of their general plan, that unwieldy document that guides development. Both have employed Dyett & Bhatia as their consultants, but there the similarity ends.

While Santa Rosa is doing a routine, every-fifth-year update of its plan, Petaluma has launched an ambitious exercise to create "a comprehensive general plan for the whole community--kind of a 20-year business plan," according to Pamela Tuft, who holds the unique position of general-plan director in Petaluma.

Petaluma City Councilman Matt McGuire, sounding more like John Seed than the typical city official, talks about "honoring the interconnectedness of all things," measuring and quantifying the environmental impacts and then "using that as a framework to direct us in how we structure our general plan."

Back in staid Santa Rosa, you'll hear no such inspired talk. Yet that city's general-plan revision, humdrum as it may sound, will have significant impacts on the quality of life. General plans matter: through legislation and through case law, the general plan has assumed the status of the "constitution for all future development," according to LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission).

Enviros say that "it's not the plan, it's the planning." For local housing activist Sonya Taylor, Santa Rosa could do better. "This is the first revision since the urban growth boundaries [were voted in four years ago, limiting the city's sprawl for 20 years], and growth pressures are stronger than ever before. It would have been a good time to do a major update [in Santa Rosa]."

To begin with, Santa Rosa city officials were not going to invite citizens to offer their views, but, according to Taylor, they got pressured into it. The 18-month process now involves monthly workshops in each of the four quadrants of Santa Rosa, after which the city's planning management team, which is made up of staff and volunteers, will make recommendations to consultants, who will draft a general plan and bring it back to the citizenry.

"Ultimately it's those four votes on the City Council [that will decide the fate of the plan]," says Ken Wells, a citizen member of the planning management team. Wells would like more emphasis on environmental impacts than he sees happening. "One of the more troubling areas is that everything's paid for by development. Unless the community is willing to tax itself, it's impossible for jurisdictions to raise money."

The surging economy and growth of jobs have produced a terrible imbalance in the housing sector, especially affordable housing, which is, in Taylor's view, "the issue of the decade."

"We've taken a strong stand for mixed-density housing," says Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Noreen Evans, referring to the council's recent directive that Safeway's latest project at the old Yardbirds site must include affordable housing. "The reality is that people are coming here, so we might as well put them where we want them!"

Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron agrees. "We want to establish more mixed use," she says, "higher densities, more affordable housing."

WHAT'S STOPPING IT? Money, says Steve Burke, director of Santa Rosa's Housing Authority. "It's not the plan that does it. What we need most is the source of revenue."

Builders would rather construct upscale, market-rate housing, with its higher profit margin; they're tired of being asked to bear the costs of affordable housing. City leaders hope that a study currently in progress will show the most effective ways of securing that money, whether through raising in-lieu fees paid by developers or requiring businesses to cover more of the costs of the housing their workers will need.

It's become commonplace to blame urban growth boundaries for the high cost of housing, since they put the brakes on annexations. But analysts say that Santa Rosa--one of five Sonoma County communities to adopt UGBs--still has plenty of space within those boundaries to meet its growth-requirements projections for 20 years, as well those of the Association of Bay Area Governments. Since ABAG was created in 1961, the agency's projections have set the pace for city planning throughout the Bay Area. City planning must accommodate ABAG numbers in order for a city to get certified and funded. But there are no penalties if those houses never get built.

ABAG tries to distribute the growth through the nine-county region it represents, but since Marin County has a no-growth policy, the pressure for additional North Bay housing gets pushed on Sonoma County, which is expected to grow by 25 percent in the next 20 years, owing more to the birthrate than to newcomers.

USING a median income of $58,100, ABAG predicts a need for 5,465 new units in Santa Rosa in the next seven and a half years. Of those, some 1,800 houses must be built for very-low- and low-income families.

The solution, in the parlance of today's "smart planning," is higher and mixed densities in appropriate sections of the city, like the downtown area.

"We could build single-family sprawl," says Taylor. "But we've seen what happened in Silicon Valley. What we're trying to do is build higher densities in certain areas to get affordable housing and to get better neighborhoods. Then you can designate more land for parks."

It's the public that is most resistant to the idea of higher densities. "People don't like change" is the mayor's explanation.

But Taylor says sympathetically, "The bottom line is that growth brings a huge amount of problems. Transportation gets worse and roads don't get better. There's a perceived loss of privacy. Schools get more crowded."

But a mixed-use neighborhood, where shopping is close at hand and public transportation is available, offers convenience that can be a boon for elders and creates lively streets that attract young people. "I think it's Santa Rosa's responsibility to convince people that mixed density will maintain a higher quality of life," says Taylor.

Must we have those higher densities? Lisa Kranz, a city planner working on the general plan revision, "can't say."

But for attorney Dick Day of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa, the picture is quite clear: "We don't have a tremendous need for starter castles on the hill, yet that's what they're building. What we need is a growth management and allocation plan that will insist that 50 to 70 percent of new houses are affordable."

Will it be done?

Wait and see, or join the process. Monthly meetings are coming up in the next six months for southeast and northeast Santa Rosa.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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