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SDC: decaying campus central to all future plans

State of the buildings will play a large role in what’s possible to do with them

By Jay Gamel

It’s one thing to dream of all the good things that might be done with the beautiful lands and many buildings the State of California is leaving behind after terminating long-term treatment of people with a spectrum of developmental disorders at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). It’s another to have to cope with the economic realities of rehabilitating or demolishing those buildings to even start creating a future for the place.

The consultants now developing a plan for future uses of the property and county officials have expressed concerns about the eventual cost of dealing with the buildings and infrastructure already there and making the property economically viable. Those costs could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Through two major wildfires and a global pandemic, the agencies and consultants charged with outlining a practical and measured future for the site have gathered a lot of public input from Glen Ellen and surrounding communities in the Sonoma Valley, and the many agencies and organizations throughout the region who are invested in the future of the 195-acre campus. Approximately 750 acres of open space have already been earmarked by the state and county for parkland and wildlife corridors.

Public sentiment runs strongly to preservation and re-use of existing buildings, with community centers, museums, and historic preservation often mentioned. The state has required any future development of the property to include a housing element, affordable where possible, to meet a long festering housing shortage affecting everyone in Sonoma County.

Residents and organizations in Glen Ellen have repeatedly expressed their desire that development be moderate and not biased toward commerce or dense housing, preserving the rural characteristics of the surrounding Sonoma Valley.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin sounded a cautionary note about SDC’s future at the Feb. 10 meeting of the North Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NVMAC). The NVMAC is designed to help Gorin communicate with the communities of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and to receive feedback, as well.

“The state has always said to us that there are several hundred million dollars of infrastructure upgrades on the footprint of the campus,” Gorin said. “They are investing millions of dollars each year for the funding, planning, as well as security, and other services on the site that may be invisible. They want to recoup their investments. They consider it an investment in the community.”

Gorin thanked legislators and the state for allowing time for a community engagement strategy, but noted built-in problems.

“It is a very complex site; 176 aging buildings, only one of which is on the Historic Register,” Gorin told the NVMAC council members. She suggested to the Specific Plan’s Planning Advisory Team on Feb. 5 that they start developing “some financial estimates on the cost of rehabilitating a building if in fact it is not reusable in its current form, and the cost to demolish and rebuild. I know from working on the Ad Hoc committee for the Chanate campus that it cost $6 million (at the time) to demolish the former Sutter Hospital and $60-plus to rehab it.”

Rajeev Bhatia, a principal partner in consulting firm Dyett & Bhatia, steering the Specific Plan process for the county, has emphasized the state’s requirement that what plans that are developed must be financially viable.

The California Department of General Services (DGS), charged with disposing of the property, made clear from the start that it fully expects to recoup the cost of maintaining the property until it is transferred to new caretakers, a cost pegged at $43 million through 2022, when Sonoma County adopts a specific plan for what to do with the property. If the Specific Plan is approved by DGS, the state will step out of the picture.

An initial assessment of costs from Williams Roberts Todd (WRT), the first consultant hired to do a preliminary survey of the issues, was cut short by the 2017 wildfires. A condensed version of WRT’s existing conditions report was included in a 2018 public workshop presentation. Those findings were expanded by successor consultants Dyett & Bhatia, and released last September in a 234page Community Profile and Background Report, just before the 2020 wildfires again devastated the area (the report can be found at sdcspecificplan.com).

Real estate developer Kevin Feeney, speaking at the April 2020 community “kickoff” for public comment on SDC’s future, said that whatever development occurs will have to consider the “upfront costs of remediating and building rehabilitation.”

“Generating revenue is going to be necessary for the size of these infrastructure improvements,” said Robert Upton, a Kenwood real estate developer with 40 years of experience developing all kinds of projects. He is also a member of the PAT, and participated in that April virtual forum.

WRT’s preliminary assessment was made after a three-day focused inspection of 53 buildings, picked as representative of most of the buildings on site. The early report looked at the central utility plant that served the entire campus, along with a steam system, the electrical system, telecommunications, and forms of water supply, including cold water, drinking water, and the water treatment plant, now closed for lack of certified operators and in dire need of upgrades. Almost all aspects of the existing infrastructure require demolition or deep rehabilitation.

Hazardous materials were also found to be a major headache, with many associated with the medical program, the farm, vocational programs, landscaping, and waste management. Many buildings were tagged for further testing for underground storage tanks, incinerators, hazardous material storage, an onsite recycled paper and cloth manufacturing plant, and pesticide storage.

One of the included studies found arsenic, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, metals and more, which will require detailed examination before future development can happen.

And once these considerations are resolved, there are economic challenges involved in new development, especially around affordable and non-market rate housing.

The D& B report concluded that “maximizing affordable housing in the Planning Area will require subsidies from market rate housing and/or other subsidies or funding, which relates the number of affordable housing units that can be built in the Planning Area to the real estate value created by market rate housing.”

The Planning Advisory Team and Specific Plan department of Permit Sonoma must provide three possible scenarios for SDC’s future by the end of March, one or a combination of which will become the basis of an Environmental Impact Report. That EIR will set the ground rules for future development of the grounds once it is adopted by the end of the year.

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