Adjust your California maps: The dot marking Santa Rosa needs to be bigger.
Dramatic changes in housing, demography, and criminal justice are altering the Golden State’s geography, and no place in California stands to benefit more than Santa Rosa.
While other California cities have decided to limit the marijuana industry, Santa Rosa has rapidly issued permits for cannabis operations, creating a run on warehouse space.
The Sonoma County seat seems poised to become the most successful example of a certain type of urbanism – the rapidly growing midsize city that serves as a crossroads between major regions. The city’s current motto – “Out There. In the Middle of Everything” – encapsulates the new and paradoxical centrality of edge cities, from Fairfield and Santa Clarita to Riverside and Escondido.
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“We’re on the move and we’re interested in growing,” says Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs of her town.
The fifth largest city in the Bay Area, Santa Rosa, population 175,000, plays many roles. It’s the northern spillover area for people and businesses seeking refuge from the higher costs of communities closer-in. The city now boasts 88,000 jobs, its highest employment level ever.
And by dint of geography and strategy, the city is emerging as California’s weed crossroads – or, in more official language, the “farm-to-market” center for medical and recreational marijuana, connecting the North State’s cannabis growers with the retailers and consumers of the Bay Area and points south.
While other California cities have decided to limit the marijuana industry, Santa Rosa has rapidly issued permits for cannabis operations, creating a run on warehouse space. What the city wants is higher-wage professional jobs – in sales, finance, distribution or lab testing – that the newly legal industry will require.
And while Marin County to the south is famously anti-growth, Santa Rosa has been busily preparing for the new people heading its way. In downtown Santa Rosa, there are plans for taller buildings, including a hotel. Santa Rosa’s once-tiny airport is expanding to handle double its number of travelers by the end of the next decade. The first 43 miles of a new 70-mile commuter rail line, the SMART train, opened this summer, connecting Santa Rosa to San Rafael, and, eventually, the ferry to San Francisco.
The city council has distinguished itself by making housing its top priority, with a multiphase plan that promises more housing both for younger families and seniors. The city has put its own money into affordable housing, is working with the county to establish a housing trust, and is encouraging denser, taller construction – while still preserving its urban growth boundaries. Santa Rosa also has responded aggressively to rising homelessness – declaring a local state of emergency that allows for zoning to help house people quickly.
All of this progress has been helped by a series of inclusive community conversations, some called Santa Rosa Together. The community’s cohesion opened the door to Roseland and other poorer communities on the southwest side, with the goal of giving them more political voice and better services. The annexation, expected to be complete by year’s end, is billed as the largest such expansion in the city’s history.
All this change can be jarring for some Santa Rosans, particularly longtime residents accustomed to a smaller town that identified itself with the cartoon strip “Peanuts” and its author, Charles M. Schulz. Santa Rosa still remains home to a Schulz Museum, part of a complex with an ice rink.
But the world is changing. MetLife last year fired Snoopy after 30 years of sponsorship, and the Peanuts brand was sold off to a Canadian company. And Santa Rosans will soon have to adjust to living in a city of 200,000, rather than the 1970 town of 50,000.
Next year, Santa Rosa celebrates its sesquicentennial. It is also the 75th anniversary of its star turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Hitchcock portrayed Santa Rosa as an out-of-the-way place where a serial killer could hide easily.
Today, the geography of 21st-century California makes Santa Rosa inescapable.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.