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PD Editorial: Death of a grand vision at RR Square

  • John Stewart abandoned plans to develop the area around the Santa Rosa rail depot, a project that would have incorporated the remaining walls of an old cannery. (The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa once had ambitious plans for that large area west of Railroad Square known for its dirt, weeds and propped-up brick facades.

In hopes of making the city’s vision a reality, San Francisco developer John Stewart proposed a $182 million project that was full of hyphenated descriptors. It was going to be a transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development that would include a food-and-wine center, a 10,000-square-foot retail center and low-income and market-rate housing.

It had it all. Everything except a future.

The project overcame numerous obstacles over the years: ground-water cleanup issues, threats of lawsuits, property battles with SMART, government delays and, finally, it endured a Great Recession that left many facets of the plan in shambles. But only recently, did it face its greatest threat — the loss of redevelopment money following the governor’s decision to pull the plug on redevelopment agencies and sweep the funding for schools and other purposes. Yanking those funds would have a domino effect on the only part of the project that remained viable — the development of 93 units of affordable housing on an old cannery site.

That is why, with the city’s support, Stewart filed a lawsuit in hopes of getting $5.5 million in redevelopment funds reinstated. But as he hoped to win that battle at the state level, Stewart lost the war on the home front.

On April 16, the Santa Rosa City Council voted 4-3 to drop its support for the project. Why? Because in the end, council members didn’t like what was left of the project: low-income senior housing.

“I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re grasping at straws to try to make something happen under the feeling that something is better than nothing,” Mayor Scott Bartley said.

That’s exactly why the city should have given its support — because something is better than nothing.

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