Creating a Place for Community to Thrive
Once upon a time, not so long ago and not in a land far away, towns were built around a central commercial core. People walked to work and school, knew their neighbors, shopped for local produce, and enjoyed community in the town square.
Those, of course, were the days before urban sprawl, suburbia, long commutes to work, and big box stores with mass produced goods took over, resulting in an unsustainable lifestyle. But it doesn’t have to be that way. SOMO Village, with a mission to be a leading example of a thriving and sustainable community, is offering an inspired alternative.
SOMO Village located in Rohnert Park, just 40 miles north of San Francisco, is part of SOMO, an investment holding company which includes SOMO Land Company, LLC; SOMO Village Commercial, LLC; SOMO Construction, INC; and SOMO Management, LLC, which are involved with real estate development, property management and construction. We spoke with Marketing Director, Maciej Plich, who brings an international perspective to the project, having lived and worked in Poland and Dubai; and with General Manager, Tina Montgomery, who’s been with SOMO for over 20 years, to learn more. And the first thing they both made very clear, is that SOMO is far from being a typical, traditional land development/real estate company.
As Plich explained, the concept for SOMO Village, a 200-acre mixed use community, “is not just about real estate development. It’s something that is much bigger than that. It is about building a place where sustainable and healthy living is convenient and where people have the built-in ability to reduce their impact on our earth.”
He describes SOMO Village “as a community designed for people to enjoy their lives, spend less time in cars and more time walking, bicycling and connecting with neighbors – and one that uses the best practices in sustainability and green technology.”
The concept for this European-style community, where people can live, work, shop and play, goes back to 2005. That was when SOMO CEO Brad Baker, together with Codding Enterprises, purchased property abandoned by Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies when they moved their operations offshore, eliminating 2000 jobs.
From the outset Baker was determined that something beneficial, both for the planet and its people, would be going in its place. In 2006, the company invested in the then largest, privately owned, solar power installation in Northern California — 5,845 solar panels to generate 1.14 MW of power. Soon after, the project plan was certified at the highest Platinum level under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) initiative.
Then in 2007, SOMO Village became North America’s first One Planet Community. One Planet Living is an international program that envisions a world where people can live happily within the bounds of the Earth’s resources. “The program is based on a 10-principle framework that covers all aspects of social, environmental and economic sustainability with an action plan for each that is monitored and reviewed annually for continuous improvement,” Plich explains.
“We had the founder and CEO of One Planet Living visit SOMO two days ago,” he shares, “and he told us that the way North Americans live right now, we are consuming the resources of five planets because if we continue the way we are, we would need five planets’ worth of natural resources to sustain us. Europe would need two worlds of resources. So, you can see the need to change our habits considering the amount of plastic we use, the amount of water we waste, the way we eat and the way we farm and build; it all matters. We have to reduce our impact on the planet from five planets down to at least two, which will allow us to live a little bit longer on this beautiful Earth, which is the only planet we have.”
But even though plans for this Utopia were completed as far back as 2010, economic forces conspired to slow the project’s completion. First there was the 2008 financial crisis. “We had a plan to build 1700 homes, but with the downturn in the market, it was not the right time,” Montgomery explains. “However, we were able to lease about 600,000 square feet of commercial space, which allowed us to attract some outstanding companies to our community.”
Postponing the residential construction gave SOMO time to develop the commercial core, which was recently over 92 percent occupied and employing over 2000 people.
Among the current 20 business tenants are a mix of different businesses in the natural food and beverage sector such as World Centric and Traditional Medicinals, which are both B Corporations, as well as Morton & Bassett and New Barn Organics. Companies such as Comcast and Habitat for Humanity, which follow sustainable practices, have also found a home in SOMO. There are also startups such as Resynergi which has developed technology that turns plastic waste into environmentally friendly fuel.
In 2017, SOMO Village welcomed Credo High School, a Waldorf-inspired public charter high school, with 425 students and 35 full-time faculty members. This is an especially significant addition to the community as it’s the first One Planet School, utilizing the 10 principles for sustainability.
In keeping with One Planet’s first principle of health and happiness, SOMO Commercial Village has applied that principle to the well-being of people who work there. “We believe art at the workplace can elevate performance, mood and physical well-being, as well as bolster interpersonal bonds with clients and visitors,” Plich says. “Culture and community, (another One Planet Principle) plays a crucial role. We support local artists and create spaces where we can meet and appreciate art. Currently our indoor gallery has 74 pieces from local artist Warren Hedgpeth and numerous sculptures are set around the property to create meaningful outdoor spaces.”
In addition, there is an outdoor, solar-powered 3000-seat performance space with a custom-designed 1200 square foot stage and reclaimed redwood bleachers, set within a 1.5 acre courtyard and redwood grove. Over the last six years, Second Octave, another SOMO tenant, has brought in performers such as Social Distortion, Allen Stone, Grace Potter, and Ziggy Marley, among others, with concerts and festivals typically from May through October.
There’s also an indoor event center, which includes the Heirloom Café — a farm to table restaurant — and meeting rooms for workshops and educational, charitable, and non-profit events. Opening in 2020 will be the Sky Lounge, a 4000 square foot elevated event space that includes an outdoor deck.
All of these spaces and events will be open to residents once the residential component opens in 2021. Before the wildfires devastated parts of Sonoma County in October 2017, burning over 112,000 acres and destroying 5,300 homes, there was a housing shortage in the region, which was only exacerbated by the loss.
Meanwhile, other preparations were being made that in the long term will benefit residents. More solar energy panels were added in 2010 and 2016, so that today, according to Montgomery, “we have a total 3.14 MG of solar energy from 13,333 solar panels on our rooftops, as well as battery storage that is coming on soon to offset peak demands.”
Now, at last, the residential portion is set to go forward, once updated plans are approved by the City of Rohnert Park, with infrastructure starting in 2020 and homes ready for occupancy sometime in 2021. There is not yet a formal waiting list, but people can express interest by emailing the company’s website.
The neighborhood development plan calls for 1,694 homes of varying sizes, including a mix of condominiums and multi-family buildings, townhomes, and single-family houses, plus 56 accessory dwelling units, with 15 percent designated as affordable housing. In practical terms, however, all of the housing will be more affordable over the long term, because all are designed to be highly energy efficient according to LEED Platinum Standards and the principles of One Planet Living.
An added bonus comes from the design of the village, with high-density residential areas surrounding the commercial core, meaning that all homes will be within a five-minute walk to the commercial center and a 10-minute walk to the train station. “A car will be an option rather than a necessity, and sustainable and healthy living will be convenient,” says Plich.
“It’s our intention for this type of redevelopment to be replicable elsewhere,” says Montgomery. “There are other underutilized or underdeveloped properties that can use the One Planet Living framework to rejuvenate and adapt or renew, without having to develop something totally new.”
Adds Montgomery, “Seeing the evolution of SOMO Village has been extremely gratifying, as more and more people are attracted to nature, culture, comfort, innovation and technology. We are continuing to learn best practices from our fellow One Planet Communities around the globe as well as from our tenants, employees and visitors.”