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Jason Walsh: SDC and the future of Eldridge

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“New ideas must use old buildings.” – Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”

The year 1891: Thomas Edison patents the motion picture camera. The first-ever game of basketball is played. And Spam is added to the American canned-food lexicon.

It is also the year the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded moved to the 860-acre parcel at Eldridge where it remains today in its more dignified guise as the Sonoma Developmental Center.

Well, we still watch movies, basketball is bigger than ever, and Spam sales were up more than 9 percent from last year.

Yet, by the end of this year, the Sonoma Developmental Center will be no more.

The state Department of Developmental Services is bringing to a close Gov. Brown’s three-year plan to shutter the aging, costly – and outdated – facility. Colossal medical institutions with their own separate societal constructs are emblematic of generations gone by. The paradigm is no longer financially sustainable. And, given the problems some have endured in the past – combined with newer models of caregiving – some critics would argue they’re no longer ethically sustainable either. What was once home to 1,200 developmentally disabled residents had dwindled to about 400 when the plan to close SDC was announced in 2015; according to DDS about 80 residents remain to be relocated to smaller, community facilities by the time the chimes of midnight sound Dec. 31.

On June 23, state officials offered the first public glimpse of a year-long site assessment of Eldridge, tallying a list of suitable uses based on the needs of the community for the Valley’s largest swath of soon-to-be unaccounted-for real estate.

Nearly a year in the making, the assessment – conducted by consulting firm Wallace Roberts & Todd, and officially called “Sonoma Developmental Center Existing Conditions Assessment: a report on the land, water, ecology, economy, buildings and infrastructure” – detailed a review of the existing conditions of the SDC property, and recommended the next phases in its transition.

The lengthy report touched upon everything from water use and ecological planning to the condition of buildings and notable architecture. But to many the most important question is that of land use. The report suggested that if the vast majority of the site’s open space was protected, it would still leave more than 100 acres surrounding the core cluster of buildings around Arnold Drive for potential development. The report said that, aside from such secondary needs as commercial and educational space, that central area of SDC could help fill the Valley’s pressing need for housing.

That finding is not surprising. Across the country, former hospitals and other such facilities are being closed and converted to housing. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand: There’s a rapidly rising need for desirable living space, while demand for inpatient care is on the decline. The Sonoma Valley has decried its own “housing crisis” for more than two years – as lower-income families and service-industry workers have been increasingly priced out of the area, forcing displacements, increasing traffic and exacerbating already skyrocketing rent and real-estate costs.

When dozens of acres of infrastructure-ready state-owned land adjacent to hundreds of acres of potentially protected open space becomes available for possible use as housing, the opportunity can’t be ignored.

When the history of developmental centers is recounted decades from now – from their century of life-care for disabled residents and peace of mind to their families to occasional darker moments of abuse and neglect – one may find the Sonoma Developmental Center a fitting analogy for 20th century America: A place founded upon a directive of equality and welfare for all humanity, but whose progress toward such ends was at times bespotted by the very flaws that make us all human in the first place.

Like many of society’s advancements, it was the best we could do at the time.

If its legacy were to continue as a harbor from such potential 21st century ills as suburban sprawl, housing insecurity and income segregation it would be a worthy testament, indeed.

Norman Mailer once said that, “the horror of the 20th century was the size of each new event and the paucity of its reverberation.”

The Sonoma Developmental Center will pass into history this Dec. 31.

It’s up to Sonoma Valley to ensure its lasting legacy reverberates for decades to come.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.