For decades, the city of Rohnert Park has longed for a downtown. Rotary president, Pat Miller remembers moving to Rohnert Park with her boyfriend, now husband, in 1978, and finding disappointment.
“There was no downtown,” she says. In Marin, where she’d lived prior to moving to Rohnert Park, the downtown gave a sense of community, a sense of pride, something she missed. “So,” she says, “I was looking forward to bringing forth a sense of community.”
That was 1978. Over the years, she watched Rohnert Park evolve into a place with wonderful neighborhoods, plenty of recreation and proximity to other cities such as Santa Rosa, Windsor and, down the freeway, San Francisco. It was a great town, but there was no center where people could gather and feel that sense of identity, that sense of place. Rohnert Park needed a downtown. While leadership was responsive, the right formula never quite gelled. Now, with San Francisco-based Laulima Development’s Station Avenue project approved and underway, the community’s wish is about to come true. “I’m so excited I can’t stand it,” says Miller, laughing.
“Before 2010, the Rohnert Park city center plan promoted the idea of a downtown, and some urban style residential projects were built. But the area didn’t have the commercial component of a true downtown,” says Jeff Beiswenger, planning manager for the city of Rohnert Park. He recalls that in 2013, the city began working with the Central Rohnert Park plan with funding from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Around the same time, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) was building a new train station alongside the vacant State Farm campus. The city center plan and the new train station set the table for a future downtown, complete with retail and office space, residential units and a central plaza.
“So, from about 2014, as the Central Rohnert Park plan was written, residents were consistently saying, ‘We need a downtown!’” says Beiswenger. “We have great neighborhoods with parks and schools, but we don’t have a central downtown where the community can gather.” Now, suddenly, the right combination has materialized — as if, as Rohnert Park’s mayor, Gina Belforte, puts it, “By magic.”
“It all started in a meeting where the spokesman for SMART presented plans showing that the Rohnert Park station was going to be on the north side of Rohnert Park Expressway, across from Mary’s Pizza Shack,” says Belforte. She remembers wondering aloud whether it would make more sense to have the train station near an area with a high concentration of people and activity. At the time, 32-acres worth of former State Farm property had stood vacant just south of the Expressway since 2011. She asked why the train station couldn’t be moved to that site, which was, after all, just waiting for the right development plan. “That was the whole catalyst,” says Belforte. “We call it a perfect storm. But in a very good way.”
With the addition of the train station, the property could become a transit-oriented development (TOD) that could open up possibilities. “We looked at doing some different things with entitlements, and changed some zoning,” says Belforte. "Laulima recognized the potential to redevelop the State Farm property as the catalyst for a vibrant downtown for Rohnert Park.” In late 2017, San-Francisco-based Laulima Development LLC purchased the old State Farm property from SunCal for $13.5 million, since SunCal’s long-held plans for the parcel never materialized. Right from the start, the Laulima vision coincided with the city’s.
To get a sense of what the Laulima team does, one could walk into one of their mature projects, such as the Bay Street development in the East Bay and, after a sterile but practical trudge about Ikea, be taken by surprise with a vivid feeling of place. There’s ambiance, texture, living plant life, color, different and appealing storefronts, and the smells of restaurants you’d want to go into. You find you want to stay for lunch and do a bit of shopping. The place has a sense of neighborhood, of downtown. It’s what, for years, the people in Rohnert Park have been telling their leaders they’ve been craving, and what they’re now looking forward to. “I was impressed with the way Laulima approaches place-making and storytelling throughout the project,” says Belforte. “They incorporate art, park features, landscape, soundscape, lighting and street furniture and hardscape elements that define the textures and rhythms of the development. Often in these kinds of projects, it really is the detail that can bring it all home, and my understanding is that’s what they want to do. I think we all felt this is the best look.”
As for the city’s vision, Belforte describes a look and flow that feels fresh, honors history and sticks to local culture. “We were basically developed in the 1960s. We didn’t want to have a Spanish motif because we don’t have that tradition. We don’t want to look Mediterranean.” Nor did they want it to feel purely rural. “The designs the Laulima Developers came up with filled the bill.”
“The bill,” for the Rohnert Park community, is an authentic downtown, with a plaza or center for people to gather. It includes office space, apartments, retail shops and restaurants with café seating, and it will express something about the special nature of the place. The Laulima design has all that, says Belforte. “When people are eating, there’ll be big glass doors so they feel like they’re eating outdoors. And as people are walking by, they might see others they know.” The overall look for Station Avenue will be modern, but with warm earth tone materials such as wood, stone and patina metal to reflect Sonoma County. The storefronts will have different looks and give a sense of originality. “So, from day-one, the buildings feel like they’ve been there all along,” she says.
Another part of the vision, and what will bring additional life and energy to the project will be Laulima’s seasonal programming. “The developer in planning music, art and culinary events as well as a holiday ice rink,” says Belforte. “No matter what time of year it is, there’ll always be something going on.”
The idea of a downtown is part energy and stimulation, with restaurants, shops and visitors from away; it’s also part nostalgia, with a sense of connection, where we feel at home and can run into neighbors and friends who happen by. As Belforte says, “No matter where you live in Rohnert Park, downtown is everyone’s. I think it’s somewhat magical when you can walk around in that kind of environment. It really does ground us. It really takes us out of this fast moving, fast-paced world to—hey, let’s take a step back, sit outside, have a cup of coffee, and watch people go by.”
When complete, Station Avenue will be the largest commercial project north of the Golden Gate Bridge and will provide Rohnert Park with a whole new presence. “It’s huge for Rohnert Park,” says Belforte. “The Station Avenue development will give people an opportunity to spend time in the downtown. We’ll have celebrations there. There will be a nice little plaza in the middle. It’s going to be a very different and positive addition to Rohnert Park.”
Laulima Development’s Station Avenue plan coincides with the city’s desire to transform the way the community, and others, experience Rohnert Park. As for the economic benefit to the developer and city, economist Robert Eyler, Ph.D., president and head of research at Economic Forensics and Analytics, has examined the project. Based on estimates of the project’s size, how many jobs it will create and how many people will visit the stores and the frequency of the SMART train, he estimated the project could generate $169.5 million annually, with more than $11 million in taxes and fees—with nearly $900,000 going to the city. “I respect Robert’s economic foresight very much,” says president at Laulima Development, David Bouquillon, who added he’s met Eyler at various industry functions. For Bouquillon and Laulima, however, decisions aren’t based solely on such figures.
The overall vision is what Bouquillon and Laulima considers first, asking three key questions: What does the community want? What do the tenants need to be successful? How are we going to drive traffic and visitors? His team works on these questions, comes up with the answers and then creates a pro forma, putting in the numbers with the expected returns. “So often in the industry, it works the other way,” says Bouquillon. “Companies allow the pro forma to influence decisions. We don’t do that.” For his company, the vision drives the project. “We think there’s so much more than just the bottom line,” he says. “Our success is based on what the community wants and needs, and to create something that is meaningful to our retail clients, their guests and their customers.” So, how will Laulima accomplish this?
Bouquillon says that while he never wants to build the same development twice, there are certain qualities he looks for that will allow him to bring magic and breathe life into an area. “First, we determine if there’s enough critical mass to make a great sense of place.” For the acreage, his magic number to create such a project is somewhere between 10 and 30 acres. The old State Farm site is 32 acres. Bouquillon says the size of the property was what Laulima needed to create a space they’d want to invest in, with enough enough room to create a downtown with 140,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and entertainment, 130,000 square feet of office space, plus a 156-key hotel and 460 residential units. “That’s the type of density you want to see in a vibrant downtown environment,” says Bouquillon.
As for traffic density, Bouquillon says Station Avenue will lesson town’s reliance on cars and be a plus for the environment. “Driving habits are changing,” he says, citing Uber and Lyft and, of course, the train station. His formula incorporates the new modes of transportation, which can be more efficient and reduce the need for parking space. “What we try to have is a very strong daytime population as well as a strong nighttime population,” says Bouquillon. “Most people in Marin or Sonoma counties have three parking stalls – one at home, one at their office and one wherever they shop on a daily basis. If you live on Station Avenue, you’ve just reduced your parking by two-thirds.” Also, the daytime and nighttime traffic will work together. People who commute to work will park their cars (or take the train) and walk to lunch, then when they drive away at night, the spaces will be available for dinnertime and nighttime entertainment traffic. Fewer cars, more room for people.
“Architecture is extremely important to us,” says Bouquillon. “We go to great lengths to make it look good. Equally important is the space between the buildings. We do a lot of place making. They become outdoor living rooms, retreats for people who are shopping, dining there, working there. They’re inviting, interesting, there’s a sense of exploring that goes on.” To look at his designs, you see ample breathing room, trees and plants, outdoor seating, a green for activities, and storefronts featuring different colors, textures and designs. “So, our storytelling will happen throughout,” he says. “When I talk about placemaking it’s not just putting up a fountain. We want the guest to see it, smell it, hear it and touch it. You’re going to know that it’s the holiday season when you see an abundance of poinsettias, and ice-skating, and hear Christmas music. We program it ourselves,” he says. “It’s all those senses you get, that’s what we really pay attention to. And I think we do it really well.”
While this is a private development project and Laulima owns the property, Bouquillon still views Station Avenue as a partnership with the city and community. One of the things that appealed to him when he first considered the property was all the work the City had done for the last 10 years, their vision for downtown and how similar their vision was to his. “The scale of this project would be considered large not only for Rohnert Park but the Bay Area,” he says. “The anticipated project investment when fully built-out is approximately $400 million.”
Laulima is a Hawaiian word meaning collaboration, many hands working together. “Right out of college, I worked for a gentleman from Hawaii, and he used to say that to me every day,” says Bouquillon. “I finally asked him what it meant. He told me, and as a young, impressionable man, it just stuck with me.” Later, as he was mapping out his life, he realized that he loved real estate, team sports and how collaboration should be an important concept for both. “The reason I started Laulima Development 10 years ago is that we wanted to work on projects that were meaningful, where we could make a difference,” he says. “We wanted to hire and retain the best people, all to work within a collaborative environment and have fun doing it.”
With Station Avenue, Bouquillon and his team partnered with the city to create the downtown the community has long awaited. They’re looking to fall 2020 for completion of, as Bouquillon calls it, “the urban core, with the residential to follow.” With all the elements coming together after 10-plus years, it seems to be one of those rare projects where the parts fit just right. “This is for the community,” says Belforte. “We have paid attention. The No. 1 thing for many years is they wanted a downtown. And so, their voice was heard. They’re going to get the downtown they’ve been asking and hoping for.”
Bouquillon feels Rohnert Park found the perfect partner to turn its long-held ambitions into reality. “I think the city was lucky that a developer like us purchased the site. And we were lucky the city had paved the way for this project to move swiftly. It’s a solid public/private partnership.”
From Laulima’s November, 2018 presentation to the City Council, with figures derived from Robert Eyler, Ph.D. study.
Net Annual Revenue: $730,000 per year
◦ Sales tax: $459,200
◦ Property tax: $158,950
◦ Hotel tax: $126,625
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