Monday, June 06, 2005

Now Coursey cites "dire need" for high-density growth

Press Democrat columnist Chris Coursey wrote in February,

the city is presented with a proposal to spoil yet another ridge in Fountaingrove. Aegis Assisted Living seeks the city's permission to build a 250-unit gated community off Fountain Grove Parkway. ’Varenna’ would provide detached homes and assisted living for retirees.

There's no doubt there's a market and -- as baby boomers age -- a growing need for such a facility. … But is a prominent 600-foot ridge the ‘ideal location,’ as project manager William Mabry told planners?

The city General Plan includes a goal to ‘preserve and enhance Santa Rosa's scenic character ... including hillsides.’ Varenna's developers plan to ‘hide’ the massive project by flattening out the top of the ridge and planting trees, but an environmental study says it still will ‘interrupt the skyline.’

City policy allows ridge-top development if the project ‘minimizes visual prominence’ and ‘minimizes alteration of topography.’ That policy provides no definition of ‘minimizes.’ But if policy-makers apply the same standards to this project as they have to previous development at Fountaingrove, you can kiss another ridgeline goodbye
.” (2/14/05, “Thoughts from high above, down below”)

Keep that in mind as we continue. Coursey wrote today,

anyone living next to developable land within city limits in Sonoma County should brace themselves. What's built next door is most likely not going to look like your neighborhood.

He was touting Windsor’s approval of Orrin Theissen’s latest “smart growth” project there:

the Town Council last month unanimously approved a project featuring 2½-story buildings with condominiums over retail space on Old Redwood Highway. Orrin Thiessen's project was approved despite opposition from residents of the Oak Creek subdivision, who said the tall buildings and intense development don't belong alongside their neighborhood of single-family homes on large lots."

Coursey claimed ”Oak Creek is a classic example of sprawl - large homes on lots ranging from a quarter-acre to one acre that were built on bare land in a subdivision that has one entry and exit on Old Redwood Highway. “ And he explained,

What the council realized is that developments like Oak Creek should be a thing of the past in Sonoma County, while developments like Thiessen's should be the wave of the future. … Thiessen is using an acre of land on a major thoroughfare to build a mixed-use project with 15 residences that will sell for less than the price of a median home.” (6/6/05, "When a city's needs trump a neighborhood's")

Coursey also wants more intense growth in Santa Rosa. He asked today,

Does Santa Rosa have so much developable land that it can afford to slash the density on a large parcel on a major thoroughfare within walking distance of shopping and schools, trails and bus lines? The answer is no

His example this time was a revised plan for the 14.8 acres of Church property--including the historic Carrillo Adobe--east of St. Eugene’s on Montgomery Drive:

Instead of 265 apartments - a project that was approved by the Planning Commission but shot down on a 3-2 vote of the City Council - Barry Swenson Builders of San Jose now plans 140 market-rate condos and 25 apartments for low-income seniors on the property. That will reduce the density to 11 units an acre, from the original 18.

Neighbors, who joined with historic preservationists to block the original project, said they can live with the new plan. Compromise is preferable to conflict.

But let's remember that this compromise lops 100 homes from Santa Rosa's future housing stock. It also trades apartments for condos that will cost up to $800,000.

That’s arguable, just as Theissen's project next to Oak Creek in Windsor is arguable. But how could anyone justify building 265 apartments across from Montgomery Village, on congested Highway 12?

Oak Creek may have been suburban “sprawl” when it was first built. But Oak Creek was the kind of California suburban living its residents were looking for. So how does that justify building urban-style, high density residential and commercial uses next door?

Then Coursey blew it entirely, when he used Varenna at Fountaingrove to make his case. He wrote:

I offer Exhibit C - the Planning Commission's recent decision to approve a 250-unit luxury retirement community straddling a ridge line at Fountaingrove.The project violates city policy prohibiting building on hill tops, but planners said the city's need for senior housing - even senior housing with $1 million entry fees - outweighed the need to protect scenic vistas.

If the need is truly that dire, then it is even more critical that our decision makers choose to risk the ire of neighbors, as the Windsor council did last month, rather than to spread the effects of sprawl, which is the likely consequence of the downsizing of the Adobe project.” [emphasis added]

I think Coursey knows the need is not all that dire. The Planning Commission simply made a political decision to violate City design policy for Varenna at Fountaingrove. City Hall did the same thing for all those other million-dollar sore thumbs on Rincon Ridge, just a few years ago.

While we’re talking about developer/banker Bill Gallaher’s Varenna at Fountaingrove, it’s no surprise the PD has published several stories about Varenna--and many expensive display ads promoting it--without ever mentioning that former Mayor Sharon Wright works for Gallaher.

Wright is or was Director of Marketing for Oakmont Senior Living LLC. Varenna’s website says Oakmont Senior Living is “the real estate and construction arm of Áegis Senior Living”.

Wright just left City Hall in December. During most of her tenure on the Council, she was the paid Executive Director of the Sonoma County Alliance, the countywide developer/business lobby. Now she’s an Alliance director again, representing Aegis Senior Living.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Keith Woods and Charlie Carson agree: "smart growth" is dumb

Today I found myself agreeing with Brad Bollinger, Press Democrat Business Editor; Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, and Charlie Carson, Executive Director of the local Home Builders Association. Or maybe they’re catching on, and beginning to agree with me.

It began with a snippet at the end of Bollinger’s column: “ ' There are two kinds of development Sonoma County hates,' a local developer recently was quoted as saying. ' Sprawl and density.' ”

True enough. Sonoma County residents don’t want either urban sprawl, or high-rise, high-density growth within its nine cities.

There are several related stories in today’s PD (6/5/05). The most confusing--and unfortunately, the one readers will probably see and remember--is Ann DuBay’s op/ed piece: “Battle over expanding Sonoma County greenbelts is about to begin”.

Dubay concludes, “City residents should feel the pain themselves before requiring their country neighbors to sacrifice their lifestyle.” She's talking about the pain of urban sprawl.

DuBay argues, “But more than anything, organizations concerned about sprawl need to promote dense urban developments. By allowing more people to live within the cities, there is less pressure to build in the country.”

And also, ”Environmental activists aren't the only ones who need to speak up: Anyone worried about the county's future should be voicing their support for dense urban housing projects.”

I disagree. And so do Keith Woods and Charlie Carson.

The better story is in the annual Sonoma County Outlook section today, p20: “Cities turn to 'smart growth'/Mixed-use developments gain in popularity across Sonoma County”, by Steve Hart.

The story promotes “smart growth”. But it adds:

” ' It's the wave of the future,' said developer Orrin Thiessen, whose $160 million Town Green Village in Windsor is Sonoma County's leading example of the concept.

But not everyone is raving about smart growth. Critics say such high-density development can bring traffic problems and overcrowding.

' It can become dumb growth if it's in your neighborhood,' said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a construction industry group.

It's unclear whether Sonoma County home buyers will embrace the trend. Builders say most consumers want single-family homes in conventional suburban neighborhoods.”

And also,

Neighbors are fighting Thiessen's plan for multi-story housing and commercial development next to single-family homes in Windsor's Esposti Park neighborhood. Critics say multi-story housing isn't compatible with the neighborhood.

Woods said some projects are bound to cause conflict. ' We are forcing ourselves to stuff high densities into communities that were never designed for those sorts of numbers ' he said.

Charlie Carson, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, said there must be balance between smart growth and other types of development. ' People say it should be smart growth or nothing,' he said. ' But it can be really difficult to get their version approved and come on line.'

He said it might be unrealistic to plan high-density projects around a proposed North Bay commuter rail system that probably won't be built for many years.

Carson said there's still a need for traditional development, including neighborhoods of detached single-family homes. ' That lifestyle really prevails up here,' he said. “

The developer Bollinger quoted said Sonoma County hates two kinds of development: “Sprawl and density”. Both Woods and Carson seem to agree local residents don’t want “smart growth”; and Carson commented “People say it should be smart growth or nothing.”

There’s been too much unmitigated, urban-style growth already. So I agree with Keith and Charlie, and the people of Sonoma County: no growth is better than "smart growth".