Planning for SDC: An Exhale of Beauty and Peace
By Tracy Salcedo
We’ve been hankering to do this for years now, and it’s finally time. We’ve done the visioning. We’ve hashed out guiding principles. Now we can be specific about what we want to see at the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), and where we want to see it. It’s time to bring it down from 30,000 feet to sea level.
I’m ready. Or as ready as I can be, given I’m just an ordinary citizen, with a layperson’s understanding of the issues and minutiae that must be taken into account to develop a viable plan for this extraordinary property. Full disclosure: I don’t have a spare penny to pay for any of my bright ideas. Nonetheless, I’m diving into specifics. I’m setting up a target, because all the other targets keep moving.
Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, here’s where we’re at. The state of California wants to unload the 900-plus-acre SDC; the county of Sonoma needs to adopt a specific plan to guide redevelopment of the property; and any number of community groups and forward-thinking coalitions want their visions to prevail. No one has publicly spelled out exactly how they’ll get what they want, because any plan has to attain the arcane and undefined goal of “financial feasibility.”
Still, everyone has wants, and a consulting firm, Dyett & Bhatia, is charged with mashing them into three alternatives, and ultimately into a final plan that can be endorsed by Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors and then implemented by a deep-pocketed master developer.
My only qualifications for undertaking this endeavor are that I’ve listened, read, and talked with other stakeholders. I have a rudimentary understanding of constraints and opportunities. I share the conviction that something amazing can transpire on the property.
More to the point, I have a map, and I’ve drawn lines on it. But it’s really bad, so I wrote it out as best I could. For better or worse, here it is.
1. The hardest line I’ve drawn defines where the open space begins, the boundary of what’s untouchable and what can be built on. The western boundary is Shady Lane and Eucalyptus. On the north side, the line’s drawn at North Street. On the east side, the only development I’d want to see between Railroad and Highway 12 is low-impact, organic, commercial and community agriculture, preferably confined to the footprint of the old Eldridge Farm. This line represents my passion, and everything else that happens on the campus, from demolition to rebuilding, can’t cross it. 2. I’ve moved Dunbar School to the northwest corner of the campus, near the Arnold Drive playing fields and the natural classroom of Sonoma Creek and the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. I love Dunbar where it is, but if it’s relocated to Eldridge, Glen Ellen’s children can finally, safely, walk to school.
3. The Eldridge Institute, anchored by the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Bouverie Preserve, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, etc., occupies the rehabilitated structures along the Arnold Drive frontage on the east side. In that space, I envision these organizations (and others) expanding their good works on ecology, conservation, resiliency, and sustainability, with a focus on wildfire science and mitigating climate change. My chest is puffing up a bit here; I’m already proud of the work they’ll do.
4. The Glen Ellen Historical Society curates a historic center encompassing the Main Building, Sonoma House, and Oak Lodge, where exhibits and libraries enable the preservation and study of the property’s history, and where the region’s Native American heritage is celebrated.
5. The Eldridge Cemetery memorial is completed just as envisioned, and the names of those buried there, so long unknown, are known again.
6. Artists and makers collaborate and create in studios occupying the buildings on the south side of the Harney Oval. Theater companies and musicians stage performances in the rehabilitated amphitheater. The Pines and Palm Court buildings are repurposed as a community center and a visitor center.
7. Vocational trade schools occupy the old industrial buildings along Eucalyptus, up behind the Main Building. Keep the signs: the Electrical Shop is where electricians train, the Carpentry Shop is where carpenters train, the industrial kitchen is where chefs train.
8. Miscellaneous building reuse: The old gymnasium across from the kitchen becomes the Eldridge Brewpub. Yep. We need that. Acacia 2 — the creepy-cool building back by the Eldridge Trailhead — becomes a murder-mystery bed-and-breakfast. I volunteer to contact Stephen King about that. The oldest building on the property — the Little House on the north side of the Berkland Bridge — gets picked up and moved to the campus proper, where it becomes a ranger station.
9. Now for the hard part: housing. I’ve mapped most of the housing in the southeast quadrant of the campus, though I’ve set aside an enclave for the developmentally disabled on the Circle behind Sonoma House. My plan essentially flips a mirror image of south-side Glen Ellen (mistakenly called Eldridge) onto the campus, a mix of single-family dwellings, duplexes, pocket neighborhoods, and apartments that incorporates rehabilitated buildings as much as possible. Market rate is mixed with affordable: there’s no segregation based on race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. I’ve even put a number on housing units, based on the south-side Glen Ellen (Eldridge) census, which was about 1,250 souls in 2010. Rounding up to 1,500 and assuming four people to a dwelling unit, that comes out to 375 units. Assuming two cars per unit, another 750 cars hit the roads, at least twice a day, coming and going. My hair stands on end thinking about what this means if another inferno blows out of Nuns Canyon, and I’m also cringing for Glen Ellen, which must absorb this influx. But if it happens slowly, I believe we can mitigate impacts on traffic, fire hazards, open space, and quality of life.
Take a Deep Breath
Way back when, another consulting firm (WRT) was dispatched to Glen Ellen to engage the community in planning SDC’s future. The facilitator posed this question: What would you want to see different at SDC in fifty years?
I said, “Nothing.” In fifty years, I said, I want to drive down Arnold Drive through SDC and not know anything had changed, even though it had. I want to feel the same tranquility.
Now remember, at the time, SDC was full of people and industry. It was still a hospital, with caregivers coming and going, and residents taking walks, and gardeners tending the grounds. Behind the scenes people were taking care of other people, fixing meals and running the steam plant and making custom wheelchairs. All sorts of people, all manner of industry, all kinds of busyness happening all over the campus.
But along Arnold Drive, it was tranquil.
So what would I see if my plan came to pass, fifty years later, when I’m an astonishingly old lady? Surprisingly spry, I am taking a break on Buck’s bench after my docent shift at the Little House Ranger Station. I sit in the shade of oaks older than me, forming a bower over the two lanes of Arnold Drive. Industry and people are all around: residents taking walks, fixing meals, and making things.
As I sip cold, fresh amber ale brewed just a block away, my great-great-granddaughter tells me about how good things are. Her family loves living and working here, and being able to visit me in my ramshackle cottage on London Ranch Road. I nod with satisfaction, thinking back on the transformation I have witnessed here, from bustling hospital to empty, ramshackle playground for dog walkers, to a small, vibrant neighborhood of Glen Ellen where people prioritize synchronicity with the natural world. I gum a fine piece of locally sourced artisan cheese and rejoice in this lovely roadway, this quiet gateway, this familiar, cherished exhale of beauty and peace.