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June 10, 2015
Developer presents new vision for Rohnert Park's urban core
BY DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
June 10, 2015

Imagine arriving after work at a commuter rail station in Rohnert Park and walking to your condominium through Seed Farm Square. You stop at an outdoor market for something to eat, or at a pub for a pint of beer.

Such is the vision put forth this week by a Southern California developer, whose revised plans for Rohnert Park's central core, including the site of the vacant former State Farm campus, are receiving a much warmer reception from city leaders.

"I'd say, 'Well done. Thanks,' " Councilman Jake Mackenzie told representatives of SunCal during Tuesday's City Council meeting.

The Irvine-based developer's original plans for the 30-acre State Farm site were criticized by city leaders last year for emphasizing single-family housing and not including enough retail and commercial use to attract visitors.

In response, the developer unveiled an updated plan for what it refers to as "Rohnert Crossing," including 400 higher-density housing units, such as condominiums, and a 40,000-square-foot retail village of mixed commercial use anchored by a restaurant or pub to lure people downtown.
The plan also calls for a transit hub, dubbed Seed Farm Square by SunCal, built around the station that will be used by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train.

"There's really an opportunity to build an active downtown presence," Chris Hall, of architectural and land planning firm Hart Howerton, told the council.

A majority on the council fawned over the plans Tuesday night, saying the proposal represents a major improvement over what was presented to the city a year ago.

"From what we saw, I never would have guessed we would have gotten to this spot," Councilwoman Pam Stafford said.

"You guys are working in the right direction," echoed Councilman Joe Callinan.

Councilwoman Gina Belforte was the lone dissenting voice.

"I feel that there's a heart that's still missing. It's lacking," she said.

Belforte decried what she said has been a lack of community input on the plans. Tuesday's "informational hearing" did not include time for public comment.

Callinan, however, questioned the value of such feedback, telling Belforte, "Be careful what you wish for."

"I think all the citizens of Rohnert Park are going to tell you they want a downtown like Healdsburg or Sonoma. We can't give them that," he said.

State Farm abandoned the campus in 2011. The amount SunCal paid for the property was never disclosed, but the deal involved $30 million in financing arranged through New York-based Catlin U.S. Investment Holdings, according to the Sonoma County Recorder's Office.

Michael Olson, the project manager for SunCal, declined Wednesday to confirm the purchase price. But he and other company officials have intimated that in order for the firm to recoup its investment, the development has to include a certain amount of housing and retail space.
Some council members stated their desire for the project to include more retail offerings than what SunCal is proposing.

But Olson said the 40,000 square feet outlined in the plan was the optimal size according to a company consultant.

"We don't want to be an empty shopping center," Olson said Wednesday. "We want it to be viable and vibrant, and that's what the experts in the study tell us will cause that to happen, is that amount of square footage."

SunCal outlined a vision for a "Main Street" to replace State Farm Drive, with townhomes lining the street. That vision is dependent upon the willingness of other property owners - those on the side of the street not owned by the developer - to alter what is in place. Currently, that acreage includes the Raley's Towne Center and parking lots.

"That would create the other cover of the book," Olson said. "We can just develop one side of it."

He said the company is hoping to get started on the environmental review process. It could take years before any buildings begin to rise on the site.


The former State Farm Insurance campus in Rohnert Park on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD FILE)