The black GMC Denali lumbered like a lunar rover as it dipped and climbed over the broken ground where John Ryan Jr. is guiding an effort to build more than 1,400 new houses and apartments near a stately concert hall in Rohnert Park.
By Sonoma County standards, the next phase of the multiyear construction project is vast. Heavy earth movers rumble around great trenches cut for utilities into a dirt tract roughly the size of three dozen football fields.
When completed, this portion of the University District neighborhood will hold 400 new houses — some designed for young families and others targeted to stair-averse seniors. Near those homes may rise a 100-room boutique hotel, restaurants and other shops directly across the street from the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.
John Ryan builds homes and more. The former Santa Rosan leads a company that constructs not only houses but also the parks, schools and other facilities that will enhance the master communities it develops around Northern California.
Seated behind the Denali’s steering wheel on a tour of the property, Ryan noted that University District is one of the few new residential projects under construction this summer in the North Bay.
“We have very little competition in the (Highway) 101 corridor,” said Ryan, 57, president of Danville-based Brookfield Residential Northern California, a division of a national home builder. Among past local projects, he said, “nothing of this size has been built in years.”
In a county where a lack of housing has been called a crisis, a residential development near a top-notch music venue might seem a diamond-studded business opportunity. But the success of University District has been anything but instant.
The project took nearly two decades to come out of the ground, longer if you count the nine years during which a separate land company gathered up the parcels needed for the 260-acre community. The development was delayed first by legal battles and later by the recession.
“They have hung in there,” Rohnert Park Mayor Jake MacKenzie said of Ryan and his team. Of the work now underway, Mackenzie said, “It’s the beginning of the realization of what we were looking at 20 years ago.”
Only last year did the first University District homes start to rise in the western part of the project off Rohnert Park Expressway. To date, about 170 houses have been sold there by three different home building companies, with the least expensive models starting around $565,000.
Another 100 houses are under construction this summer. Near the homes, a public park recently opened, complete with a baseball diamond and turf for soccer games.
Ryan, an alumnus of Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School and a member of Green Music Center’s board of directors, estimated the project will take at least five more years to complete, longer if the economy slows.
University District is of a scale rarely seen in the county.
The development’s plans include 1,236 single-family homes, more than 200 “affordable” apartment units and 100,000 square feet of commercial space. That puts it somewhere between the 500-home Skyhawk subdivision in east Santa Rosa and the 1,500-acre Fountaingrove residential and business community in the northeast part of the city.
Of note, Rohnert Park has two more substantial housing developments yet to be built, making it the center of future residential development in the county. Mary Grace Pawson, the city’s director of development services, cited the 475-unit Southeast Specific Plan development along Valley House Drive, where first-phase grading work has begun, and nearly 1,900 more units approved at nearby SOMO Village, a former Agilent Technologies manufacturing facility.