State launches Sonoma Developmental Center site assessment

Engineering firm to evaluate potential uses of vast Eldridge campus, its landscape and buildings.|

After what has sometimes seemed like an interminable delay, the wheels are starting to turn on the rollout toward closure of the Sonoma Develomental Center.

At least that’s how it looks now that the state Department of General Services has announced that a $2 million contract has been signed with a Bay Area engineering firm to perform a “site assessment” of the 860-acre SDC campus for use after the closure of the facility, scheduled for the end of 2018.

San Francisco-based Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) entered the contract with the state in mid-April. The first step will be a “kick-off meeting” and team introduction, with the goal to develop a project schedule and define areas of responsibility and research for WRT and its subcontractors.

That meeting was scheduled for Monday afternoon, May 15, at the Slater Building on the SDC property. A final report of the group’s assessments is due in late December, after a number of intermediary benchmarks.

1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who’s also on the leadership team of the Coalition to Preserve SDC, said she’s “anxious” to work with the site assessment team and help facilitate community meetings so “they can fully gauge the community’s concerns, interests in eventual reuse of the campus and constraints to development.”

Wallace Roberts & Todd’s other regional projects have included the Richmond Civic Center, Oakland’s Lake Merritt and the Windsor Town Green.

The contract between the State of California and WRT specifies a number of subcontractors that will be working with WRT, including architects, surveyors, landscapers, design engineers and others. Among their areas of evaluation will be assessments of the property’s boundaries and topographical features, a building inventory, historical uses, traffic and other transportation data (bicycles, pedestrian facilities, etc.), and hydrologic, sewage and ecological systems.

“The really great thing is that, of the subcontractors on the list of firms in the contract – many are folks we worked with, folks we hired as part of Transform SDC,” said John McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust, one of the key members of the Coalition to Preserve SDC. He specifically noted the Sacramento-based Center for Collaborative Policy, which managed the May 2015 Transform SDC workshops.

Transform SDC is the aspirational name the coalition adopted even before the December 2018 deadline was established for moving all of the current residents of the facility to other housing. Coalition members include Sonoma County supervisors, the Parent Hospital Association, Audubon Canyon Ranch, the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association and others.

Two paragraphs in the WRT contract’s “scope of services” point toward evaluating the future use of the property, not just coming up with historic or technical evaluation. One goal is for WRT to review “analog projects for ideas, new program uses, concepts and lessons learned” from similar reuse of existing public facilities. The Presidio in San Francisco is often cited as a model for creative localized reuse of government property.

In addition, there’s the expectation that town halls and project reviews will be open to the public at various stages in the assessment’s development, possibly in September or October, prior to a final report due from WRT before the end of the year.

But missing from the site assessment spec is any mention of the current residents of the developmental center, an oversight not lost on Kathleen Miller, president of the Parents Hospital Association.

“As you know, my main concern is the folks, not the land,” said Miller. “As far as that is concerned, I’m disappointed.”

Miller says the Coalition to Preserve SDC wanted “safety net” services to remain at the SDC site.

“We were sure that was being considered,” said Miller. “But with this new safety net plan, they’re saying no. Nothing, nothing.” She referred to a new safety net proposal just released by the state Department of Developmental Services, which does not include any retained services on the SDC campus.

But it’s not only the staff of WRT and its subcontractors who will contribute to the vision of the future of the SDC property. At Creekside High School, teacher Walt Williams has turned the future uses of the SDC campus into a 10-week project for his Social Responsibility and Geometry classes – to develop ideas of their own for future uses of the SDC campus.

“We start by brainstorming solutions,” said the teacher, blogger and wine tour bus driver. “This is my sweet spot: What better way to motivate students than have them develop a proposal for their dream facility. And who knows? Crazy money is out there, why not throw a giant wad our way?”

His plan is to come up with a class program that they can submit to the state, possibly to get a piece of the pie in finding practical uses for the SDC campus.

“I want to turn the Sonoma Developmental Center into a facility of learning and all I need is $200 mil,” Williams wrote, only half in jest. His students have already come up with a multitude of ideas: a job training center, a film studio, an animal shelter, even a bee farm.

Last week Williams took about 20 of the Creekside students to visit the SDC campus and, after a morning clambering over the Ropes Course, they took a bus tour of the depreciated, century-old facility to see how their inspirations match with reality.

Whether or not the Creekside class’s ideas are part of SDC’s future, their engagement has its own merit. And it’s now part of the now-ongoing efforts to envision a future for SDC – one that includes community input and creative uses of the historic, if troubled, property.

McCaull’s own priorities remain the preservation of the open space lands, a key linkage in the “wildlife corridor” between Sonoma Mountain the Mayacamas. “For the Land Trust, our goal is that by the time they close it, we have an agreement in place with the state on how the open space land will be protected.”

Added McCaull, “I think there has to basically be a preferred alternative for the property that is broadly embraced by lots of Sonomans – there’s consensus, essentially, on uses.

“You know how it is in Sonoma – when people agree versus disagree, things can happen.”

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