September 21, 2017
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RP City Council one step closer to vision of downtown

By: Katheine Minkiewicz
August 11, 2017

A resolution that would allow the city manager to launch a “Form Based Code” contract with a city designer and contractor, a document that defines the aesthetic look and design of a city’s downtown area, passed 5 to 0 at this week’s city council meeting, putting the city one step closer to establishing an official downtown area for Rohnert Park.

The contract was awarded to Opticos Design Inc., an architect and urban planning firm based out of Berkeley, known for designing the likes of Hamilton Housing in Novato, the Livermore Village in Livermore and even “tropical buildings” in Gabon, Africa, according to their website.

As defined in the City Council Agenda Report compiled by Director of Developmental Services, Mary Grace Pawson, the form based code is a “land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm… form based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

Essentially, the form will act as a regulatory blueprint for how the city will want the new downtown visage to look and will stipulate how the buildings and structures will look. The designs will be presented in words and visuals, such as drawn 3-D visuals.

Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said of the form code contract, “A standard way of regulating land usage is to use zoning, so you can have residential, or retail or office, those sorts of things to create the environment that you want. But a form based code takes a little bit of a different approach, it basically regulates the look and feel of buildings regardless of their uses.”

During the meeting, Jeff Beiswenger, developmental services planning manager, further explained the opportunities that a form based code can provide for the city,  

“We don’t have a clear vision of what that (the downtown) would look like and the form based code would get us more of a consensus of what that downtown vision is. It also helps with the nerdy side of creating a community, by setting up what the structural components (things like street grids) would look like, what the streets should look like and tailoring the downtown vision to what Rohnert Park… because downtowns aren’t just one size fits all, we want it to be something unique,” he said.

According to the agenda report, Petaluma and Windsor have used similar methods in establishing the basic framework and vision for the buildings and street landscaping that make up their vibrant downtown and theatre districts.

The history of Rohnert Park’s attempts in establishing a downtown is somewhat lengthy. In March of 2016, City Council adopted the “Priority Development Area Plan,” which was developed through several stakeholders.

According to Schwartz’s city column, which appears every week in the Voice, the plan includes housing, shops, restaurants and a walkable open space with easy access to the SMART train.

In a survey conducted by the City following the establishment of the PDA plan, it was found that many residents have expressed a desire for an authentic downtown district above all other city improvement projects.

“This is something that we’ve been hearing about for years. We did do a community survey earlier this year and we asked people what one thing they would want to see different in Rohnert Park and downtown was one of the biggest things,” Schwartz said. “We had 2,400 people responding which is a pretty good response for a city of our size… and we know it is an interest to folks and the city council has of course supported it for some time.”

The potential downtown would be located near the Rohnert Park City Center on State Farm Drive from Enterprise Drive and would encompass around 300 acres from Highway 101 to the SMART station. It also may comprise of the expansive State Farm Property that is currently up for sale.

However, this brings up the question of, “why hasn’t Rohnert Park already established a downtown region?”

Schwartz said it has to do with how the city was originally designed around family neighborhoods when the city was established in 1962.

“The downtown was designed to be built around each neighborhood and have that neighborhood focus and they were each identified by their letter section, ‘A’ section, ‘F’ section etc.,” Schwartz explained.  

While this is only a small step, Schwartz did say it is one step closer to getting a downtown, however, it may be a while before it all becomes reality. 

“It’s not a magic bullet, in it of itself it’s not going to create a downtown, but it is one of numerous steps that will help get us there,” Schwartz said.

While there were no public comments on the matter, many council members voiced their opinion on the agenda item and seemed excited to discuss this vital step in the process.

Council member Joseph Callinan expressed his enthusiasm towards the form contract, citing that the need for a downtown in Rohnert Park has been long overdue.

“I think this is a really important step in Rohnert Park history. I mean, we’re starting a downtown and the town has been here since 1962 and everybody you talk to, that is the one thing, ‘where’s your downtown?’... But now we’re changing things up and I think it is very important that we get it right, we take our time and get a lot of public input because we only have one shot to get it right,” Callinan said. “There is two things on the agenda tonight that is changing the history of Rohnert Park and this is one of them.”  

Council member Gina Belforte echoed Callinan’s remarks, saying, “I’m super excited and I am really looking forward to it.”

This resolution also works towards Mayor Jake Mackenzie’s vision for updating the city and bringing it into the 21st century with the City’s General Plan, which he briefly touched on during his appearance at the Richard Crane Elementary School ribbon cutting.

Mackenzie said of the action to establish the form code contract with Opticos Design Inc., “This is real stuff and I think I can confess to getting some excitement back in my tone of voice, because we’ve been disappointed (in the failed attempts to finally establish a downtown). Council members agree with me, staff agrees with me and the citizens agree… and we need to get this going ASAP, full steam ahead.”