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Report details what it would take to reunify Old Courthouse Square



Six years after Santa Rosa settled on a plan to reunify Old Courthouse Square, the city is no closer to being able to afford turning the bifurcated plaza into a $14 million downtown “living room.”

View of Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa looking west. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

View of Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa looking west. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

It has, however, recently published an environmental report describing in the greatest detail yet just what it would take to pull off a remodel of that magnitude.

Traffic would be rerouted off Mendocino Avenue, dozens of trees would be removed, contaminated soils would likely be uncovered, and nearby businesses would be disrupted during construction, according to the draft environmental report released earlier this month.

See photos of what the new Courthouse Square would look like here

But once the dust settles, the heart of downtown would be restored to its original layout with a unified central plaza suitable for concerts, art shows, farmers markets and a range of other public activities, according to the report.

Mayor Scott Bartley said he started out a skeptic of the project but has since “done a complete 180,” fully supporting reunification and the design chosen by a city committee in 2007.

“My feeling is we’ve got to make this work, and I’m absolutely confident it’s workable,” Bartley said.

The good news from the report is that there were no major surprises, with most of the impacts foreseeable ones common to major public construction projects, Bartley said.

The bad news is the city doesn’t have any money to actually build the thing.

A few years ago, the city was counting on the sale of the former AT&T building for about $2 million in seed money toward construction of the first phase of the project.

But since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies, the money from that sale, if consummated, will be dispersed to other taxing districts, such as the schools.

“That money all went up in smoke,” said Rick Moshier, the city’s director of Transportation and Public Works.

That leaves the city with just $119,000 raised years ago for the project, plus some limited funding for the restoration of streets or sidewalks after the aging water and sewer lines beneath the square are replaced, Moshier said.

The shortfall means the project will have to be built in stages and it will only happen with the help of private donations, Bartley said.

Once the report is certified and the council approves the final project design, Bartley said he plans to reactivate the council’s Courthouse Square Committee, appoint some new faces with fundraising experience, and start making the pitch to the community.

“We recognize we have to go and act like a nonprofit does in the private sector and do a good old-fashioned capital campaign,” Bartley said.

Private donations helped build the Prince Memorial Greenway, Finley Community Center and, most recently, the Person Senior Wing, Moshier noted.

Before the recession, Bartley said he and others envisioned raising the entire $14 million to build the project in one go. The new financial realities mean the fundraising and construction will have to be phased, Bartley said.

“I think we can break it into chunks that are doable,” he said.

The first phase of the project would be to block off Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, replace the road with a layer of decomposed granite, install new water and sewer lines under the east and west sides of the plaza, and rebuild Hinton and Exchange streets. A portion of the Rosenberg fountain in the northeast corner would be removed.

The second phase would involve the removal of the bandstand, raised lawn and Ruth Asawa fountain, whose panels would be reintroduced into the new square. This is also when the majority of the trees would be removed.

Of the 128 trees in the existing square, 91 would be removed, including five coast redwood trees large enough to be considered “heritage” under the city’s rules. The large Bunya Bunya tree, which was on the grounds of the original courthouse, will be preserved.

About 74 new trees would be planted to replace the five heritage trees alone, some in other locations such as city parks. Care would be taken to ensure disruption for any endangered species of bats and nesting birds would be minimal.

At this point, the signature features of the new square would be installed, including the water wall and light arbor. The water wall would be a plate glass fountain 25 feet tall by 85 feet long. As envisioned by SWA Group of Sausalito, whose design was selected by a committee in 2007, the wall also could be used — when the water is turned off — as a stage or projection screen.

The light arbor would consist of a series of small lights strung high above the central half-acre gathering space. They would run east to west between 16 pylons up to 35 feet high. Hardscape sidewalks and benches also would be installed in this phase.

Finally, the third phase would involve the installation of four pavilions for smaller exhibits or gatherings, picnic areas and restrooms.

Throughout the construction, use of heavy bulldozers will be restricted within 25 feet of historic buildings to minimize potential harm to the structures, such as the Empire and Kress buildings.

Engineers also will have to plan to run into contaminated soil, which the report indicates is likely to be present.

An environmental study found several areas of soils contaminated by petroleum products. There have been at least three gas stations facing the square in its history, the latest on the corner of Third Street and Santa Rosa Avenue where the Bank of America building is located.

In addition, the original courthouse building was heated by boilers that were typically fed by underground fuel oil tanks, which the project might come across, the report found.

The city performed the extra environmental study because it didn’t want to get halfway through the project only to discover a significant contamination issue. The test results are typical of many downtown sites and should not prove extraordinarily expensive to deal with, Moshier said.

“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t any,” Moshier said.

Public comments on the 193-page document will be accepted through Sept. 16. A public hearing before the City Council starts at 5 p.m. Sept. 10.

For more information visit: http://ci.santa-rosa.ca.us/departments/communitydev/Pages/ReunificationofCourthouseSquare.aspx

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

9 Responses to “Report details what it would take to reunify Old Courthouse Square”

  1. James Bennett says:

    Cut ‘n paste:
    The bad news is the city doesn’t have any money to actually build the thing.

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  2. RICHARD says:

    RE:” A few years ago, the city was counting on the sale of the former AT&T building for about $2 million in seed money toward construction of the first phase of the project.
    But since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies, the money from that sale, if consummated, will be dispersed to other taxing districts, such as the schools.”

    Oh really ? The city never should have bought the AT&T and certainly should not have used borrowed redevelopment funds to pay for it. Buying the AT&T building removed it from the tax rolls.

    The city has agreed to sell the AT&T building for about $ 1.2 Million less than it paid for it. It is a money loser not a money maker. This is flopping the opposite of flipping.

    Blaming this on the dissolution of redevelopment is a false charge.

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  3. Cal Sorensen says:

    Reading this news article and flipping through the before & after images using SWA’s renderings to generate the after, I am appalled. What is wrong with us? Do we have some inferiority complex?

    First, the current square is a disaster, and has been ever since we decided the automobile is more important than people, and split the square in two, effectively killing it as a gathering place. This original sin is now meant to be repaired, except that the SWA design appears to have been selected by a panel of us who have no confidence in our own history, in ourselves?

    Second, what does a vastly expensive light arbor and a hugely wasteful water feature have to do with Santa Rosa? Were the lights settled on so that we would feel safe, so that the “bums” would no longer be in control of our city’s literal heart? Are we that afraid of ourselves?

    Third, does a city that prides itself as being “sustainable,” where water and energy conservation are important lessons we teach our children, install a water feature and a light trellis as the core design elements of our “repaired” square?

    Fourth, could less be more in the reunification of Courthouse Square? Could we get a beautiful square by planting local varietals rather than foreign-born light arbors? Perhaps Luther Burbank’s work might be considered as the framework of how we “decorate” out square? Could we consider a water feature that kids might play in, instead of one that is meant to impress our neighbors?

    Finally, I am proud to live in Santa Rosa, and I think Sonoma Co is about the most beautiful place in the world. I am glad that the Fair comes to town a couple weeks every year and I am still mesmerized a little by the garishness of the midway, but I am happier when the whole thing is gone. We desperately need a repaired downtown, starting with a reunited Courthouse Square. Build a plan that reflects us and that embraces our strengths. We don’t need the baubles, they are an expensive distraction.

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  4. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @Mockingbird – the bunya bunya and most redwoods would remain

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  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    I don’t think they need a complete upgrade of the square. Just block off traffic to be routed around and redo the street and sidewalk area to accommodate. I’m appalled at their taking out all those trees. That makes no sense unless they are unhealthy.

    That bunya bunya tree better still be there. It’s healthy and beautiful.

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  6. James Bennett says:

    A truthful headline to the story might read:
    Report details what it would take to unify Old Courthouse Square with ICLEI’s Transit Village grant eligibility criteria.

    Some engaged citizens have been doing their own “study” for some time. “study”.

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  7. David says:

    I am going to keep asking:

    What happened to the article about the casinos / reservations and the courts?

    Who censored (pulled)the article?

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  8. RICHARD says:

    The reunification of Old Courthouse SQ is not needed. Events held in the square are easily accommodated, usually not even filling up one half of the square. For the bigger once a year weekend events, Santa Rosa Ave can be blocked off as is now done.

    Spending ten million dollars for somethings not need is wasteful and in theses difficult economic times it is unconscionable.

    The money is needed elsewhere, existing parks are underfunded and poorly maintained. Streets maintenance is being neglected.

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  9. StarsUponThars says:

    i know i am in the real minority of WSC commenters, but i think this is a lovely idea.

    i’ve heard that santa rosa is the counter example used by city planning classes: as in, we are the textbook example of doing everything wrong.

    now, if we could just go back in time, never build the mall and have 101 run along stony point instead of right through downtown, then we’d really have a city we could be proud of.

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