Santa Rosa council signs off on SAY Dream Center

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The Santa Rosa City Council unanimously and enthusiastically approved a plan to transform a vacant hospital in Bennett Valley into housing for at-risk young adults despite neighbors' threats to sue to force additional environmental studies.

The council denied an appeal of the Planning Commission's January decision approving Social Advocates for Youth's Dream Center plan for the former Warrack Hospital campus at the intersection of Hoen Avenue and Summerfield Road.

The council's decision came after a lengthy hearing where dozens of supporters spoke passionately about the urgent need to help young people in need, but far fewer opponents spoke out against the project than have at previous public meetings.

Vice Mayor Robin Swinth, who lives a half-mile from the project, said she heard plenty of concerns from friends, family and neighbors about the project. She said she ultimately concluded it fulfilled a profound community need.

"We have a responsibility as a community to take care of our kids and our young adults. That's the opportunity that's before us tonight," Swinth said.

The decision was not unexpected. The Planning Commission unanimously approved the project and little new information has come forward since then.

The Dream Center proposes to house up to 63 residents, many of whom have aged out of the state's foster care system. There would be 51 beds of transitional housing where people can stay for up to two years and 12 emergency shelter beds with a three-month maximum stay. A variety of counseling and health services, as well as education and job-skills classes and SAY administration offices also will be located on-site.

The project has stirred significant and at times virulent opposition from some Bennett Valley residents, many of whom expressed fear that the project would draw homeless young people or criminals to their neighborhood.

Real estate agent Jeanette McFall was one of a handful of opponents at Tuesday's meeting. She said her neighborhood, Summerfield Heights, had gotten used to the peace and quiet of the site since Warrack ceased operations in 2008.

She and others vowed not only legal challenges but political repercussions should the council approve the project.

"The opposition is large and upset and well-funded, with the ability to take it to the next step if our appeal is denied," McFall said.

But the vast majority of speakers expressed strong support for the project. Supporters included a long list of community leaders, including Connie Codding of Codding Enterprises, Bill Friedman of Friedman's Home Improvement, Victor Trione of Luther Burbank Savings, former Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm,and Willie Tamayo of La Tortilla Factory.

SAY has run the 25-bed Tamayo Village with a similar mission to the Dream Center for the past nine years with few complaints from the community. Tamayo said the need to expand services is great.

"A harsh reality is that there are nearly 1,200 homeless youth sleeping on the streets of Sonoma County each and every night," Tamayo said. "This statistic is unacceptable."

Several speakers emphasized the Dream Center would not be bringing struggling young adults into the community, but rather serving those who are already here.

Others praised SAY's leadership, its work in the community for 43 years, and its willingness to make changes to the project to address neighbors concerns. The changes included reducing the size of the project, beefing up screening procedures and limiting activities that could generate nighttime noise.

Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom quipped that the rules seems so restrictive that she wondered when the young people were going to have any fun.

Martin Hamilton, a junior at Elsie Allen High School, injected some levity into the proceedings with a letter he wrote to the council. He said his family has experienced homelessness in the past and stereotypes assigned to people in that situation are untrue.

"Not all homeless people are dangerous and a threat to society; not all homeowners are productive citizens who benefit the community, either," Hamilton wrote, which got a laugh from the audience.

Former Mayor Jim Pedgrift urged the council to make a decision benefiting the entire community. He said opponents had shown "anger against and a passion seemingly out of proportion to what's being proposed."

"Don't be intimidated by threats of re-election or lawsuits," Pedgrift counseled.

Mayor Scott Bartley, who said he lives less than a mile from the project, praised SAY staff members for working with the neighborhood, which despite some characterizations to the contrary, is diverse with a variety of kinds of housing.

"I think it's a wonderful use for this facility, and I think it's going to be real asset to the community," Bartley said.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares said he was thrilled to see a wide cross-section of the community — including teachers, business and faith leaders, human services representatives and neighbors — come together to support the project. But he cautioned that more work remained ahead. He said that all the young people who can't pass SAY's rigorous screening process will need places to live, too.

"Homelessness is a community issue that we all need to work on together," Olivares said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @citybeater.

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