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Another Way for Coffey Park? Not So Fast.

An urbanist lawmaker walks a political tightrope.

Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood was one of the areas hit hardest by the Tubbs fire.

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

Surveying the damage in Santa Rosa from an emergency services airplane just after the fires, Sonoma County supervisor Shirlee Zane had a brainstorm. As she looked down at the burned-out site of a giant Kmart in the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood, it occurred to her that there might be an alternative to simply rebuilding the big-box store with its huge parking lot. “That would be a great spot to put quality high-density apartments,” Zane told San Francisco on the morning of November 1. “We’ve got to look at density, building up, and parks, sidewalks, and bus routes,” she said.

From an urban-policy standpoint, Zane’s idea made a lot of sense. The Santa Rosa fire was disastrous, but its aftermath presented a potential opportunity. Last year, the city council declared a state of emergency over rising home prices and a severe housing shortage. And the fire has made the situation even worse. With parcels of land like the Kmart lot suddenly empty, what better time to consider making places like Coffey Park—a classic suburban subdivision of single-family homes—denser, more affordable, less car-dependent, and more walkable?

Zane has long been on the forefront of reimagining urban life in the North Bay. The former CEO of the Council on Aging, she has pushed for options to allow seniors to age in place and secured funding for an experimental tiny-house village to serve the homeless. Zane sent up a trial urbanist balloon on October 29, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “A lot of people—particularly the newer generation—are open to something other than this suburban sprawl we are all so stuck in. I hope NIMBYism dies right now.” She repeated that sentiment to San Francisco, saying of Coffey Park, “The millennials and baby boomers both want walkable, livable, smaller spaces closer to amenities and transportation. We have some unique opportunities.”

But many residents of Coffey Park—which, problematically, Zane does not represent—rejected the idea. “I think the community is going to rebel against that thought,” Paul Donner, whose house on San Miguel Avenue was destroyed, told the Press Democrat. At an October 26 meeting attended by more than 250 people, many residents indicated they wanted to keep their land exactly the way it was.

Zane quickly walked back her call to reimagine Coffey Park. She told the Press Democrat that her earlier quotes in the media did not fairly represent her views. And in an email statement sent from her office late on November 3, Zane also recanted what she had told San Francisco. In bolded type, part of her email read: “Please do not suggest, infer, or otherwise conclude that the Supervisor believes Coffey Park should be denser, multi-use, more transit-friendly, or significantly reimagined.”

There was no mention in the email about the Kmart.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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