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Focus on the SDC: Small Bites

Focus on the SDC:  Small Bites
Acacia 1, a one-time staff housing unit on the SDC campus. Housing is a hotly contested topic concerning the future development of the property.Photo by Paul Goguen

Guest editorial by Tracy Salcedo

The expectations are enormous. Redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) should provide good-paying jobs, affordable housing, market-rate housing, safe passage for wildlife, incentives for developers, an “innovation hub” focused on climate change, co-housing, agriculture, groundwater recharge, a hotel/resort, escape routes from wildfire, historical preservation, a cemetery memorial, housing suitable for individuals with developmental disabilities …

And the list goes on. It’s all there, scattershot, in the three alternatives that Sonoma County has generated as choices for redevelopment of the SDC, the hole in the Glen Ellen donut.

Everything on the list is worthy. But the SDC campus is only 200 acres. We cannot solve all the problems of the world, or even of Sonoma Valley, on the SDC.

All or Nothing?

“Wow! Alternative [fill in the blank]! It’s genius,” said nobody I’ve talked to so far.

The three alternatives have been almost universally panned as various versions of same vanilla. It’s just a matter of where you want your sprinkles. For example, each has a hotel/resort; it just moves around the property.

It’s also too large, too much. The number of dwellings hovers around 1,000 (though with “90” attached to each, I feel like I’m dealing with a used car salesman. Is 1,290 really going to sell better than 1,300?). Hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space are designated on top of that.

Want a buffer for the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor? A historic district? A community center?

It’s all there, dolloped on different iterations of the same frighteningly congested plan.

So, do we punt it back to the planners? The answer is no, given the short time frame. We’ve got two months before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors must pick a preferred alternative, and then six months to polish that up before they give final approval.

Is doing nothing an option? No, again. Somebody other than the state of California is going to own and redevelop the SDC. This exercise is about ensuring that somebody has a plan they can work with and we can live with.

Thankfully, we can mix and match. We can cobble together elements from the three alternatives into a fourth alternative we can stomach. The only problem is agreeing on the ingredients and proportions. Apologies to Mr. James, my high school English teacher, but I’m going to mix my metaphors here: We’ve got to swirl the vanilla with the rocky road (yeah, I went there) and come up with something palatable to fill the donut hole.

Keep it simple

If I were to conjure a filling, it would have two primary ingredients: open space and affordable housing, including housing for people with developmental disabilities. The sprinkles would have their places — services and the cemetery memorial and historic preservation — but homes and open space preservation would be foundational.

The nice thing is, the open space is baked in. It has been functioning beautifully for decades, and has only gotten better as the SDC has lain fallow. The Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor is alive and well, encompassing not just the wildlands but also the vacant campus itself. Ground squirrels have colonized the field next to Oak Lodge, deer promenade past the Main Building, and salmon pass through on their way to their natal waterways.

How, then, to add housing? We know anecdotally that homes and a wildlife corridor mix because, north and south of the campus, the two have coexisted for decades. The tricky bit is measuring out the right proportion, determining the right scale, the right density. How many homes can be built on the land without trashing its natural values? How many homes make the project attractive to a developer? How many homes meet the demand for affordable and workforce housing?

To answer the first question, we must trust the experts at the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma Ecology Center to tell us what works.

The second is opaque and a moving target, dependent on markets and corporate and political will.

As for the third, we will never, ever, meet the overwhelming need for affordable housing valleywide, countywide, or statewide, by building it on the SDC campus. The state will want more; the county will want more; housing advocates will want more. What we can do is shoulder our share of that burden in a small bite, without overwhelming the other star ingredient, the wildlife corridor.

Looking to the surrounding community for guidance, since we know it works, makes good sense. If south-side Glen Ellen were duplicated on the property, fewer than 500 dwellings would be built on the campus. If all those homes were affordable — or even 50 percent, as opposed to the 24 percent in the alternatives — we’d go a long way toward doing the right thing by neighbors struggling with the cost of living in Sonoma Valley. Doubling or tripling that number, as proposed in the alternatives, and then dumping on the sprinkles, results in congestion that fundamentally compromises the SDC’s ultimate gift, its open space.

Less is more

I recently read a story to students at Dunbar School called On a Magical Do-Nothing Day. The story begins with the protagonist killing time on a rainy day by killing Martians on their device. Then they accidently drop that device in a pond. Half a dozen pages in, tragedy.

But then, the world opens up. It begins with snails. Then there’s mud, and mushrooms, and shafts of sunlight, and birds to talk to. In the end, there’s hot chocolate with Mom.

Dunbar’s scholars were mesmerized. They understood the magic because they live it. They live it on the school campus, and they live it on the SDC campus. Whether home is a condo in Agua Caliente or an apartment in the Grove or a cottage off Warm Springs, they know where to find tadpoles and how to play ball in tall grass and that worms grow in the acorns that fall from oak trees.

On the SDC we have the opportunity to demonstrate what the kids already know: Things don’t have to be big, shiny, and new to be worthwhile. The SDC is as valuable in its simplicity and openness as it would be packed with houses and businesses. If we tread lightly and keep our expectations in check, we can build our neighbors homes and ensure our other neighbors have a safe place to roam. In a small way, on this small campus, we solve the problems of the world by taking small bites.