By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
An eclectic group of developers and downtown Santa Rosa business owners is proposing an unusual public-private partnership it hopes can jumpstart the long-stalled reunification of Old Courthouse Square.
A group calling itself the “AD Hoc Committee — Courthouse Square” claims it could raise $10 million for the project and have construction underway as early as next year if the City Council turned the project over to its members.
“In short, we believe that given our creative energy, commitment to Santa Rosa and relevant experience we can complete this daunting project more quickly and more efficiently than any other party,” the group wrote in a letter to the City Council earlier this month.
The proposal is raising eyebrows because the members of the group include business and property owners with interests downtown as well as backers with the financial heft to pull it off.
They include Steven Oliver, building contractor and art collector; Eric Anderson, a Santa Rosa native and New York City developer; and Kent Chilcott, a Santa Rosa-based planner and designer. The three men worked together on a failed bid in 2010 to transform the AT&T building into a boutique hotel, a plan that included plans for private development of the square.
Other members include restaurateurs such as Darren Chapple, an owner of La Rosa Tequileria & Grille on the square, and Giovanni Cerrone, an owner of Spinster Sisters on A Street; attorney Pat Grattan, whose office is on the square; Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street; and Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths.
The letter was sent to the City Council as part of the public comments on the environmental impact report on the reunification project that goes before the council Tuesday.
Eric Anderson declined to discuss the group’s plans before they are presented to the City Council. A member of the group plans to read the letter to the council Tuesday, he said.
“Out of respect for the process and out of respect for the council, we want to talk about this but at the right time and place,” Anderson said.
Mayor Scott Bartley said he hadn’t spoken to anyone from the group or reviewed their plans.
But he said it wouldn’t be the first time a private group floated ideas for developing the square. Years ago, a group proposed a parking garage beneath the square similar to Union Square in San Francisco. Another project, possibly a previous iteration of the current proposal, was bogged down by the restrictions inherent in turning over public land to a private developer, he said.
“We just can’t say, ‘Hey, you have a great idea. Here’s this public property and we are giving it to you,’” Bartley said. “We have to have a public process.”
That could still be a ways off. The public hearing on the draft environmental impact report for the project is Tuesday. Staff will respond to the public comments, and the city council will be asked to approve the final environmental report several weeks later. Then the council will discuss funding of the project, phasing and other considerations.
Nevertheless, Bartley said he is interested in learning more about the group’s ideas.
“We’ve got to find new and creative ways of dealing with this stuff, so I’m open to any possibility,” Bartley said. “Show me the numbers and show me how it works.”
That’s where the details are a little sketchy. The group claims that it could “work within a budget of approximately $10 million” to complete the project design selected in 2007.
That project, as designed by SWA Group of Sausalito, called for the blocking off Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets and rebuilding Hinton and Exchange streets, including utilities. About 128 trees would be removed to make way for a water wall, light arbor and four pavilions.
The group says it could pull it off “with little or no dependence on Santa Rosa’s general fund” and would work with the city to set up a plan for “management and programming” of the square. It would also identify businesses to occupy the pavilions, generating revenue for the project.
The proposal is “based on the SWA Group plan, but the committee “would reserve the right to make modest adjustments” during the design and development phase, according to the letter.
This could prove to be a sticking point. Bartley, an architect, noted that the design was selected by the public and the city has already spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on drawings. Now is not the time to start redesigning the project, but to move forward with it, he said.
The area has plenty of examples of parks being managed by nonprofit groups, including state parks such as Jack London in Glen Ellen and Luther Burbank Home & Gardens downtown. But Bartley couldn’t think of a comparable project that involves a private entity developing and managing a public space, he said.
The group in its letter acknowledges its proposal might seem far-fetched, but urged council members to think outside the Sonoma County box.
“We appreciate that the private-public joint venture being suggested is bold and uncommon,” the committee wrote. “But we have studied similar, successful arrangements in other communities and believe such a joint venture can be replicated here.”
One of the fears some in the community have is that the city, lacking the necessary funds, will piece-meal the project, leaving the amenities that will really draw people to it uncompleted for years, said Craig Anderson of LandPaths.
“If we as a community are going to see the reunification of Courthouse Square, we have to see it as reunification and reanimation of Courthouse Square.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)