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Focus on the SDC: Three groups create proposals with housing front and center

Focus on the SDC: Three groups create proposals with housing front and center
This aerial view of the SDC campus shows its potential as a site for housing. Photo by Paul Goguen


By Tracy Salcedo

This is the second in a series of articles exploring the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in the runup to release of three alternative plans for the property, one of which will become the foundation for Sonoma County’s SDC Specific Plan.

First things first: No, these are not the official alternatives.

The official alternatives everyone is waiting for, from Sonoma County’s planners and consultants, are slated for release in early November. Exactly what they will outline in terms of types and numbers of dwellings to be built on the SDC’s ~200-acre campus remains a mystery. The legislation enabling the planning process requires homes on the Eldridge site, but doesn’t state a number. Some of the housing must be affordable; that’s as specific as it gets.

In the void, the proponents of New Town, Eldridge Enterprise, and the SDC Campus Project have curated and presented proposals to county and state officials, hoping their ideas might be adopted into the official alternatives.

The three proposals approach housing on the campus from different angles, with different levels of intensity and detail. They also share common themes: Each recognizes the extraordinary potential the SDC holds, and each has its genesis in dissatisfaction with the county process — concerns that planners and consultants are not thinking “outside the box” or sensitive to important constraints and benefits.

Again, with a bigger hammer: These are not the county’s alternatives. Those are still to come. This is also not a comprehensive review of the proposals. Instead, I’ve outlined them here with the hope that when the official alternatives are unveiled, readers will be better prepared to determine which, if any, alternative is appropriate for the property.

New Town Development

Victor Gonzalez is a developer by trade, and a member of the Planning Advisory Team (PAT) created by Sonoma County to advise Permit Sonoma and consulting firm Dyett & Bhatia as the specific plan develops. Frustrated by the process, concerned about financial feasibility and the appeal of the property to a potential developer, and in consultation with colleagues, he generated a housingforward site development plan for the SDC known as New Town.

The New Town plan calls for development of 600 to 700 housing units, including affordable housing, and sets aside a pocket of the campus for a 100-room boutique hotel. Based on the preliminary market study generated by the consultants, Gonzalez said, the “only two viable uses for SDC [are] housing and a hospitality use …. There is very little commercial or retail demand.”

The New Town plan concentrates multifamily housing on the east side of Arnold Drive in duplex clusters and single-family dwellings on medium-sized lots. On the west side, duplex clusters, housing in renovated buildings, and single-family dwellings on small, medium, and large lots are mixed with other uses. Gonzalez designates about ~315,000 square feet of existing and new buildings as commercial, hospitality, and institutional space, where the hotel, retail outlets, artists’ studios, and community services for residents would be accommodated.

Homes must be built out in phases, because “there is only demand for 60–80 housing units per year [over a 10-year window],” the developer explained. Could the maximum number of homes be reduced or increased? Yes, Gonzalez said, by 100 units or so, and it’s “easier to go down.”

“[New Town] provides for a variety of housing types to better meet [Sonoma County’s] needs and ensure a diverse new community,” Gonzalez said. “A mix of housing product types allows greater developer participation, access to more sources of finance and limits market risk.”

With a nod to open space and historical values, the New Town plan sets aside ~50 acres within the campus as open space setbacks to minimize impacts on the wildlifecorridor and Sonoma Creek. Gonzalez envisions renovation and integration of historic structures, such as the Superintendent’s House, as part of the hospitality use. The plan includes a road connecting the campus to Highway 12 to help alleviate both traffic and emergency evacuation concerns.

Gonzalez believes New Town represents a financially feasible plan that could be attractive to a savvy developer able to deal with the major expense of upgrading aging and fail-

-ing infrastructure. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m afraid nobody is going to buy this — or they’ll bid a lot and not know what to do with it. … They’d have to have deep pockets [because] it’ll be five to 10 years before they get a shovel in the ground.”

The developer thinks the New Town proposal hits the “sweet spot” and believes the county’s housing numbers will come in higher. The response from planners and consultants to the plan?

“Fortunately or unfortunately, it has been largely ignored, and we do not know what alternative plans they are developing,” Gonzalez said.

Eldridge Enterprise

Housing is part of the plan being proposed by the Eldridge Enterprise, but the overarching goal is creation of an institutional use focused on finding solutions that will mitigate climate change.

Built out over 20 years, the enterprise would transform the SDC into a “a global hub for collaboration to accelerate the rate at which technological discoveries become the building blocks of a post-petroleum society.” The vehicle for transformation is a “first-of-its-type, public/ private partnership dedicated to researching, designing, and developing adaptive solutions to climate change,” according to documents prepared by proponents.

The impacts of a built-out Eldridge Enterprise are far-reaching, The idea is outlined in a one-page summary, a second document that takes a deeper dive, and an economic impact analysis. The brainchild of a working group convened by Sonoma County First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, project developers include Caitlin Cornwall and Richard Dale of the Sonoma Ecology Center, Bill Keene, former head of Sonoma County Ag + Open Space, David McCuan, professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Sonoma State University, Rusty Klassen, and Karen Eggerman.

Parsing out the housing element, Eldridge Enterprise would include 980 dwelling units, repurposing as many existing buildings as possible. Breaking it down, “40 units [are] studio apartments for visiting scientists and new hire temporary housing; 840 units are multifamily for onsite workers and others; and 100 are single-family homes.” Affordable housing, senior housing, and housing for the developmentally disabled are factored into the mix.

Reusing as many existing buildings as possible is a nod to the site’s history. “People are attached to the look of certain buildings,” Cornwall explained. “If some of the buildings can’t be repurposed or restyled, then they can be rebuilt. They can look the same but maybe have a second [or third] story. It’s a way to honor the style.”

The enterprise expects to employ about 2,100 people in laboratories, offices, and other facilities dedicated to the overarching mission. The 1.4 million square feet of space zoned for commercial and light industrial use would also accommodate amenities for people living on campus or in adjacent communities, such as day-care facilities, a market, a coffee shop, a hair salon, etc. “All [of these services] could be on site. What a boon that would be to quality of life,” Cornwall said.

Traffic impacts would be mitigated because 900 of the enterprise’s employees would live and work onsite, according to the enterprise documents. Public transit is also important: “One of these days Sonoma County has to embrace transit,” Cornwall said.

Addressing wildfire evacuation concerns, Cornwall envisioned the SDC as a place rebuilt with “fire in mind,” noting “a place set up to be a refuge during crises such as a fire is an idea whose time has come.” The written documents also emphasize preserving view corridors, the open campus feel, and the wildlife corridor.

In considering options for the SDC, Cornwall asked a key question: “Who benefits?” It’s a question everyone looking at redevelopment alternatives needs to consider.

SDC Campus Project

The SDC Campus Project proposal is straightforward: Use existing residential buildings on the site as affordable housing now, in the interim, and later, as the property is redeveloped.

The number of people who could be accommodated in affordable housing on the site in the near term is modest, according to Bonnie Brown, co-chair of the SDC Campus Project board. But two former residential units on the east side of the campus could be converted to that use relatively quickly. The Cohen and Malone residences are representative of an H-style building that could be converted into co-housing relatively quickly, Brown explained. Fourteen large, separate living units with half-baths would be located in three wings; the remaining wing would include a shared kitchen, dining hall, and smaller spaces that could become libraries and reading rooms, exercise and music studios, etc. Each building has a laundry and room showers. Outside, lawns surrounding

the buildings would be converted into gardens. Sustainable agriculture is a major element of the campus project vision, which incorporated carbon sequestration and reduction among its goals.

Altogether, Cohen and Malone could become affordable housing for 30 to 40 people, Brown said, depending on whether rooms are rented by single individuals or small families. Rent would be scaled based on income. Who would collect rent is still an unknown; Brown said the specific planning process should provide direction about governance of the property.

“It’s so perfect for affordable co-housing,” Brown said, with “elders, essential workers, and young people” creating a “small, diverse community” on the campus. Another benefit cited by Brown and project proponents is preservation of the distinctive architecture of the buildings and maintaining “a sense of place on Eldridge.”

Brown acknowledges the group, which includes Fred Windes (cochair and treasurer), Jerry Bernhaut (secretary), Michelle Dench (communications director/advisor), Tom Conlon (energy consultant), and others, still has work to do, because the buildings need basic repairs and remodeling, as well as installation of zoned electric mini-split heat pumps. “We don’t know what the costs will be,” she admits. “But it will probably require finding a nonprofit developer, and grants. There are lots of programs we need to jump into.”

She also acknowledges the campus project is not a “business-asusual type of development. We need community support to push for it. … People need [affordable housing] and the economy needs it. People are turning down jobs because they can’t afford to live here. If you’re a commuter or you’ve been couch surfing, this will look like heaven.”

Take a deeper dive

A lot of pertinent information didn’t make the cut in this review. A more comprehensive look at the proposals has been posted on the Eldridge for All website (www.; click on “Proposals”), along with the source documents provided by Gonzalez, Eldridge Enterprise, and the SDC Campus Project. Additional information is also available at