By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
First it lost its top five stories. Now Santa Rosa’s Museum on the Square project has lost its museum.
The Sonoma County Museum announced Tuesday it was backing out of the long-delayed effort to renovate the former AT&T building downtown.
Instead, the museum’s board of directors has decided to expand its art and education programs into a neighboring building it already owns.
“We wanted it to happen, and it hasn’t happened for us,” said museum Executive Director Diane Evans of the plan to open gallery space on the ground floor of what is now a vacant windowless eyesore. “But I think we’re going to get something wonderful and it’s real and it’s happening now.”
Since 2001 the museum has owned the Seventh Street building that for years housed the Conklin Brothers flooring company, just east of its longtime home in the former city post office.
Frustrated by the AT&T project’s delays, museum officials last year kept their options open by not renewing the Conklin Brothers lease. The flooring company moved to its new home on Todd Road this month.
The museum toyed with several ideas for the space as it waited to see how the downtown project would pan out. Initially, the plan was to use the neighboring building as storage space, then possibly interim gallery space and/or media space.
But then the gleaming the Museum on the Square project lost some of its luster.
Desperate to preserve his anchor tenant and improve his chances of getting financed and built this year, Hugh Futrell, developer of the project, lopped the five stories of apartments off the top of the building.
That cut the size of the ambitious 10-story mixed-use tower in half, leaving a museum and restaurant on the ground floor and four stories of office space above. Mayor Scott Bartley called the revision a “Hail Mary” attempt to save the project.
A week after the City Council signed off on the changes, the museum’s board of directors decided to head in a different direction.
Evans said it was “a big decision to move away” from the project that the museum had spent two years working to make a reality. But with the Conklin Brothers building no longer generating rent and no guarantee the revised project would succeed, the museum decided to go forward with a project it could control, she said.
“We just decided, we’re paying for the building. We can’t wait any more,” Evans said.
If all goes well, some interim gallery and educational programming space could open by the end of the year, she said. The space might not have the same prime downtown location as the AT&T building, but it will be right next to the existing museum, have 53 percent more space, and offer good access, Evans said.
The loss of its signature tenant isn’t a major blow to the project because the museum wasn’t going to be paying rent, Futrell said. That space was being donated to the museum as a way to demonstrate the public benefit necessary to help the project win federal new market tax credits, he said.
But the scaled-back project is no longer seeking that complex financing tool, he said.
The successful financing of the project rests on the signed leases with two existing office tenants, not on the museum’s involvement, Futrell said.
“I know what setbacks are, and this is not one of them,” Futrell said.
The challenge now will be to find a new ground floor tenant that will attract people who will spend money and want to return. But that is nothing compared to the challenges the project has been through in the last few years, he said.
“Given the impasses we’ve surmounted so far, surely this one is not exceedingly daunting,” Futrell said.
The name of the project will remain the same for now. If the space isn’t put toward a cultural use, the name of the building would need to change, Futrell said. But it will be months before any such decisions will need to be made, he said.
For anyone paying close attention, there were signs the museum’s commitment to the project was waning. When she announced in November the decision to take over the Conklin Brothers building, Evans expressed frustration with the delays in the Museum on the Square project and the challenges it had created for fundraising. Asked earlier this month about the museum’s interest in participating in the scaled back project, Evans offered no comment.
And when the council signed off on the revisions earlier this month, the new contract did not require Futrell to donate space to the museum, only to provide “ground level space generating street level activity benefitting the downtown area.”