Next week, Chuck Marohn is speaking in Santa Rosa, CA for a series of events in partnership with Joe Minicozzi and Urban3. In preparation, we asked one of our members, Paul Fritz, who helped to organize the event, to share some background about the Santa Rosa area.


Like many other cities in California, Santa Rosa is struggling with high housing costs and deteriorating infrastructure. Rents have risen 40% in the past 4 years. Median sale price has risen about 10% in the past year. Even with the economic recovery new home construction has been relatively slow. The cost of construction in Santa Rosa is similar here to the rest of the Bay Area. However, housing costs, while high, are generally higher elsewhere. So developers are developing where they get a larger return on their investment.

The City of Santa Rosa has $1 billion in projected infrastructure projects over the next 20 years. There has been limited discussion of where this money is going to come from short of changing the development fee structure which over the last 20 years has generated $230 million in revenue. Increasing development fees to offset this imbalance is not feasible and will only further discourage new housing development.

The City Council has been discussing these issues in recent months. In addition to considering changes to development impact fees, the council has considered implementing rent control, which has been highly contentious. The city has commissioned a study to look at possible solutions to these issues which is due out this month. So far, no silver bullets have been found.

In addition to development impact fees, the city also collects revenue through property and sales taxes. As readers of Strong Towns know, development patterns have a significant impact on the amount of revenue generated through these two sources. To understand this dynamic further, the city has contracted with Strong Towns and Urban 3 to undertake an analysis to look at the financial productivity of different development patterns across Santa Rosa with a focus on the differences between downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. This study will help show city leaders the financial productivity of the areas of town developed in a more traditional manner of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, to those that are more suburban in nature.

Image from Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management District

Image from Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management District

Santa Rosa, in addition to the eight other incorporated cities in Sonoma County, has an urban growth boundary. The urban growth boundaries are complemented in the county by designated ‘community separators’. While these policies have been nominally successful in focusing development within city limits, the types of development that have been happening continue to be largely of the suburban sprawl variety. When voters approved the urban growth boundaries, city policy was not changed to encourage infill development within the boundary. Most policies continue to favor sprawl. City regulations make infill development difficult in part due to parking requirements, height restrictions, setback requirements, etc. We need to rethink these policies and encourage more infill development. Having the data from Urban 3’s analysis will help to refocus this conversation.

Sonoma County is also anticipating the beginning of service on a new passenger train by the end of 2016. The SMART train system runs along the highway 101 corridor of Sonoma County from Cloverdale in the north to Petaluma in the south and continuing on through Marin County to eventually connect to the ferry terminal in Larkspur for connection to San Francisco.

Image from Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART)

Image from Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART)

This is a $650 million infrastructure project whose success will depend on the development of the areas around each station. Santa Rosa has two stations: a station downtown in a neighborhood called Railroad Square and second station a few miles north of downtown. There is a large amount of vacant land in the station areas in Santa Rosa, and the rest of the county, waiting for appropriate development. This is a great opportunity to refocus development around the station areas into walkable, high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods. Proposed higher-density projects have been meeting resistance. However, the only way the train will be successful is if we develop the station areas appropriately. Low density, car-oriented development is not going to cut it. We need to get this right.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner. 

I am a member of a new non-profit called Urban Community Partnership. Urban Community Partnership was established to facilitate this project with Strong Towns and Urban 3 but will we continue working to support developments that are financially productive places to live, work and play.  Urban Community Partnership will be using the Strong Towns/Urban 3 events to kick-off our next project which is going to look at the SMART station areas in more detail.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner. 

We hope that the events next week help start to change the conversation. Visit this page for the full schedule and additional info.  If you are interested in attending any of the sessions please RSVP at our website.


Paul Fritz is an architect with a strong interest in urban design issues. He runs his own architecture practice, Paul Fritz Architecture/Planning.  He is interested in creating pedestrian-oriented urban environments that allow us to reduce our dependency on the automobile. He lives and work in the small town of, Sebastopol, California, and writes for his blog, Small Town Urbanism