occidemo

ROAD TO THE MALL: THAT WHICH WE LOST

During the first days of 1970, the Press Democrat asked several of Santa Rosa’s movers ‘n’ shakers what changes they thought would come about in the new decade. The city manager believed the population would grow by 40 percent (it actually increased by two-thirds). The assistant city manager imagined they probably would get a computer and use it for payroll and other accounting tasks. And the city planning director predicted by 1980 they were going to wipe away an older section of the downtown core.

Say what?!?

It had been barely three months since the Oct. 1969 quakes hit Santa Rosa, causing moderate damage. Building inspector Ray Baker had said about 17 commercial buildings and 28 homes around town were in such bad shape they needed to be demolished, but most property owners were scrambling to arrange repairs. The city had just started talks with federal officials about designating the area west of B Street an urban renewal zone to pay for improvements, but nothing had been said about plans to “wipe away” that part of downtown. (Those developments were covered in the previous chapter, “MONEY FIRST, PLANS LATER.”)

Planning Director Ken Blackman continued: “By 1980, redevelopment will be viewed as a continuing effort by all major cities to combat deterioration and blight.” Ah, the “B Word” – the incantation that turned historic homes, neighborhoods and districts into cash dispensers. To quote myself from an earlier article:

…[In the 1960s] the nation was gripped by a collective madness called “urban renewal”. Anything new would be better than anything old simply because. There was also free federal money available as long as the magic words were spoken: “urban blight.” So cities across America declared large swathes of their communities were indeed filled with areas injurious to public welfare because of being unfit, unsafe, obsolete, deteriorating, underdeveloped (read: undertaxed), subject to flooding or otherwise terribly blighted. File your blight report and don’t forget to include the address where Washington can send the money.

Santa Rosa had already received $8 million for redevelopment east and south of Courthouse Square – the bank buildings and government offices still in use today. Now that the city was asking for a new tranche of redevelopment money, the earlier project began to be called Phase I, with the west of B St. area dubbed Phase II. There was also mention made of potential Phase III, IV and V later.

These two images (and only these) were used repeatedly by the Urban Renewal Agency and the Press Democrat to show urban blight in the Phase II area west of B St. It was never identified where the photos were taken or when
These two images (and only these) were used repeatedly by the Urban Renewal Agency and the Press Democrat to show urban blight in the Phase II area west of B St. It was never identified where the photos were taken or when

Thus the day came to pass when Santa Rosa’s mall-destined future was cast in stone: March 10, 1970. That’s when the City Council unanimously passed ordinance 1439, which declared “…the area is a blighted area and that it is detrimental and a menace to the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants and users thereof…”

It allowed for the city agency to condemn buildings and force the owners to sell the property via eminent domain. It stated that a program would aid those living in the area move to somewhere else “not generally less desirable.” It promised “due consideration” would be given to providing new parks and recreational facilities “with special consideration for the health, safety, and welfare of children residing in the general vicinity.”

By the time the new ordinance passed, the city had raised the total of buildings needing demolition to “more than 75” of the 89 found in just the Phase II area – all but ensuring Blackman’s vow made at the start of the year to “wipe away” that part of downtown. Yet still there were no plans at all of what to build in its place, aside from vague notions of “a community center, hotel-motel complex, major retail store with allied retail, a restaurant and a service station.” (See the layout shown at the end of the previous article.)

Some downtown buildings outside of Phase II were also condemned. The earliest demolitions began right after the first of the year and were the Wards Department Store at 411 Mendocino Ave. (now the parking lot adjacent to the Press Democrat building) and a building at the SW corner of Third and Santa Rosa Ave. The Roxy Theater at the NE corner of Fifth and B was also red-tagged although the place only had cosmetic exterior damage, along with some ceiling plaster falling. Politics may have played a role in the decision; there had been no end to the fuss after the theater switched to an “adult art” format in the summer of 1969, and the PD regularly printed letters penned by furiously offended citizens. After the quakes someone wrote the building’s damage was clearly a sign of god’s wrath.

Another quake casualty in the downtown core was the building east of Mac’s Deli on Fourth street. Although it was supposedly so badly damaged as to be unsafe, the structure proved remarkably difficult to tear down in January 1970. “It’s coming down slow,” the contractor told the Press Democrat, “it’s a tough building.” Since the property owner couldn’t afford the cost of demolition the city hired the company and added $12,000 to the owner’s tax bill (about $88k today). The City Council soon discovered this was a really bad idea; besides losing rental income, some landlords claimed the tax surcharge would make them go broke. The rule was changed so the city would buy a property and pay to have it cleared, then resell the vacant lot to an investor.

toymodelFor over a decade that building had been home to the Toy & Model Shop, and after it was condemned the store reopened quickly at the corner of Third and B. Recall at that time the risk of demolition was considered a rare and worst-case option; the toy sellers couldn’t know that just a few months later Santa Rosa would declare a swath of the city “blighted,” including their new address. The shop remained there until moving to Coddingtown in 1971, and was the only business displaced twice by the disaster.

“Where do we go?” Was a pressing question for every business located in Phase II after the City Council passed the 1970 ordinance declaring the area blighted. Despite Phase I redevelopment filling up a section of downtown with banks and government buildings, there was space available east of B street; a PD article before the earthquakes compared downtown to “swiss cheese” because there were so many vacant storefronts, some of which had been empty for years.

The 1973 document on the renewal project estimated there were 169 businesses, offices and whatnot that had already moved out of Phase II or would need to do so. About a third closed instead of relocating, so the property buyout and dislocation payment “acted as a windfall profit” in the view of the report written for the city.*

Many of those lost businesses had been around for years – sometimes decades – at the same location so it was probably insulting to frame their forced closure as if it were like winning a lottery scratcher. The report also discounted the hundreds of people living in the Phase II area; losing an apartment building with twelve units counted as a single business in the city’s view. Ditto the hotels, which had 203 permanent residents after the quakes. No mention was made of the private homes that would soon disappear under the bulldozers.


WHAT USED TO BE THERE

Places in the Phase II area that moved elsewhere in Santa Rosa (M) or did not reopen after the building was demolished (X)

433 Club (X)
Alec’s Sewing Center (X)
The Alibi Tavern (X)
Alice-Marie Shop (X)
Alpha-Redwood Welding Supplies (X)
Art’s This and That Shop (M)
Audio Spectrums (M)
B Street Coffee Shop (X)
J. Berger Furs (X)
Berkey Photo (X)
Bill’s Thrift Shop (X)
Bishop-Hansel Ford (M)
Bonanza 88-Cent Store (M)
The Brake Shop (X)
Brown’s Motorcycle Repair (M)
Bruner’s Frame Store (M)
Cal Barber Shop (X)
California Club (X)
California Hearing Aid (M)
California Hotel (X)
California Theater (X)
J. C. Campbell Dental Office (M)
Carl’s Salads Sandwiches Soups (X)
Carousel Color Corp. (X)
Charles Shoe Repair (X)
R.J. Chase Printing (X)
Church of the Pattern (X)
The Cinnabar (X)
Cipriano Book Store (M)
Cole’s Silver Shop (X)
Countryside Pet Shop (X)
County Bugle (M)
David’s Piano (M)
Deardorff Office Supply (M)
Dhanken’s (M)
Elite Linen (X)
Empire Electric (M)
Evans Market (X)
Fourth Street Flower Shop (X)
Frenchy’s Phillips 66 (X)
Garden Apartments (X – 12 tenants)
Garden Cafe (X)
Gardner Printing (M)
Haircutter’s Unlimited (M)
Hardisty’s (M)
Herald Printing (X)
Hodges Tires (X)
Holt’s Used Clothing (X)
Humane Society Thrift Shop (X)
J&J Billiards & Lunch Counter (X)
Jerry’s Bazaar (X)
Jobbers Electric (X)
Kasbah Cocktail Lounge (X)
Kurlander Printing (M)
Kurlander Tobacco (M)
Langwell Ceramics (X)
The Laton Shop (X)
Levin Hardware (M)
Al Lewis Trucking (M)
Lou’s Sporting Goods (X)
Lucky’s Richfield Gas Station (X)
Lueger’s Clock Shop (M)
Mac Martin (X)
Majestic Hotel (X)
Mansion Apartments (X – 18 tenants)
Mazatlan Restaurant (X)
Merchandise Sales and Loan (M)
Mohawk Rubber Stamp Co. (M)
The Money Tree (M)
Motor Brake and Wheel (X)
My Kitchen (X)
N&J Tire Recapping (X)
Nagel’s Mailing Service (X)
Nelligan Brothers Feed & Seed (X)
Occidental Hotel (X)
O.K. Barber Shop (M)
Oliver Hotel (X)
Ostarello’s Harvey-Davidson (X)
Paul’s Restaurant (X)
Fred Plante Electronics (M)
Powell’s Furniture (X)
Qualitone Photo Processing (X)
Ray’s Cafe (X)
Ryan Outdoor Advertising (M)
Saare Body Shop (M)
Salvation Army Thrift Store (M)
Sam’s Barber Shop (X)
Santa Rosa Auto Parts (M)
Santa Rosa Bearing (X)
Santa Rosa Book & Bible Store (M)
Santa Rosa Hotel (X)
Santa Rosa School of Ballet (X)
Savoy Hotel (X)
Schank Brothers Garage (M)
Sears (M)
Selby Barber Shop (X)
Shorty’s Beer Parlor (X)
The Silver Dollar tavern (X)
The Snack Shop (X)
Sonoma County Senior Activities Center (X)
Southern Style Bar-B-Que (X)
Strebel’s Garage (X)
Sue’s Thrift Shop (X)
Sunrise Sound (M)
Surprise Body Shop (X)
Sutcliffe’s Sporting Goods (M)
Swift’s Garage (M)
The Toggery (X – menswear)
Tom’s Used Furniture (X)
Third Street Apartments (X – 12 tenants)
Tomasco Drugs (M)
Tony’s Liquors (X)
Toy & Model Shop (M)
Traverso’s (M)
Trembley Auto Parts (M)
Western Union (M)
Wig Discount Center (X)
Wink Processing Company (M)

Not counted: 10 private homes on First, Second and A

HOW THIS LIST WAS MADE

This list attempts to name every business and residence in the Phase II urban renewal project area that existed in the years immediately prior to demolition. It includes everything which could be reasonably considered as being open to the public; omitted are warehouses, lodge halls and offices. Some businesses moved to another town or may have reopened in Santa Rosa under a different name. Primary sources were the Polk 1970 and 1972 street directories and issues of the Press Democrat from 1973-1974 that mentioned business relocations or SBA loan recipients. Any corrections or additions would be gratefully welcomed.

It’s also quite a slanted way of measuring the true impact. To get a better idea, I assembled a list of Phase II storefront businesses and living spaces that existed before the quakes and in the year following. My list and the official estimate nearly agree on permanent closures; the report said there were 69 and I found 75.

The big difference is the official count of 169 includes every warehouse, lodge hall and back office – but if you consider only places which were actually open to the public, the total was 118. This means the percentage of tax-paying businesses lost because of Phase II destruction was nearly twice as many than the city would admit (63% vs. 35%). And unmentioned in the report was that all those businesses had customers who would be seeking those goods and services elsewhere, maybe outside of Santa Rosa. So much for the hoopla of urban renewal being such a great boon to the local economy.

The Press Democrat was the loudest cheerleader for redevelopment so there was nary a discouraging word from businesses forced to move, aside from Elwin Hardisty’s remark that “it was a bitter pill to take” since they had remodeled their houseware store just a short time earlier. Fred Plante, who sold many local folks their first (reasonably decent) home stereo system, saw his business improve after moving to Mendocino Ave. He told the PD more women were coming in because he now had “a location that all my customers feel safe to visit.” Louis Traverso was reassured by his clientele “no matter where you decide to go, we’ll find you.”

The paper also glossed over the costs of setting up at a new location, which could be considerable. Passing mention was made of several stores applying for low-interest SBA (Small Business Administration) federal loans but only twice were figures mentioned: Plante went into debt for $83,000 to reopen and Hardisty’s loan was $189,000 – almost $1.3M today. Perhaps the reporter misunderstood and this was what Elwin actually meant by his “bitter pill” comment.

Phase II demolition began in early March, 1972. Slated for that first round were buildings on Fourth between A and B Streets, plus an apartment building and ten homes on First, Second and A St. Within days, a lawsuit was filed to stop the destruction.

The suit was filed on behalf of those living at the Occidental and Santa Rosa Hotels. An earlier survey had found there were 203 hotel residents with three out of four elderly or disabled, and that 1970 ordinance had assured them the city would find apartments comparable in quality and cost. A lawyer for the group told the PD those efforts were “completely inadequate” and resulted in tenants scrambling to find housing on their own. Rather than helping as promised, the city was instead trying to “temporarily” pack all of them into the Occidental because the Renewal Agency wanted to vacate the Santa Rosa Hotel. Not only that, the living situation was made worse because nearby restaurants, pharmacies, barber shops and other essential businesses were now boarded up and sidewalks were blocked off.

Six weeks later the group dropped the suit after the city convinced them it would fast track two senior citizen housing projects. One was the Salvation Army Tower, AKA Silvercrest Housing, at 1050 Third St. which had been rejected not long before. The other was Lamplighter Senior Citizens Inn on Range Avenue near Coddingtown (since 2014 it’s been the Parc Station Apartments). Newly built Bethlehem Tower on Tupper Street also promised to take in dozens of relocated tenants.

(Unrelated but interesting sidenote: At that same time another redevelopment project was ruffling feathers all over town – The Press Democrat reported there were plans to raze the McDonald mansion and build a “townhouse development of some kind.” The PD commented demolition was inevitable because “it is a dinosaur, unadaptable to the twentieth century marketplace.” The paper further endeared itself to history buffs by claiming “Mapleton was built in 1869 or ’77 or ’78, depending on the source.” As Gentle Reader knows well, Mableton was built in 1879.)

As the seniors watched their world being dismantled from hotel windows, Santa Rosa continued to rake in federal money, including another $1.5M for land acquisition and relocation. By Labor Day 1973 there were still over a hundred living at the Occidental. Some had been placed in Bethlehem Tower, some had enough income to rent a modest apartment somewhere. Some had died. Two years after that there were still 35 tenants and most went to Silvercrest. All told, it had been three and a half years since the seniors agreed to drop their lawsuit after the city promised to make good on the fundamental condition that it would find them new places to live.

The demolitions dragged on until 1978. Eminent domain was used (at least) six times to force a sale, including an apartment building on Third Street. Except for that original City Council meeting ‘way back in 1970 there had been no public hearings, and the legally required Environmental Impact Report was not prepared until two-thirds of the buildings had been already demolished.

The Cal Theater was torn down on January 13, 1977 and more will be written about that later. The Occidental Hotel – the oldest building in the project area and the last to be destroyed – fell on December 14 of that same year.


* Environmental Impact Report, Santa Rosa Center Renewal Project; URS Research Company, December 1973; Volume 1, page IV-3
Phase II area as seen in 1971 before the start of demolitions. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library (enhanced)
Phase II area as seen in 1971 before the start of demolitions. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library (enhanced)

NEXT: THE CHOSEN ONE

Read More

moneyfirst

ROAD TO THE MALL: MONEY FIRST, PLANS LATER

It was a victory lap more than just a ceremony with windy speeches. Some 700 gathered for the June 7, 1969 building dedication of the new city hall/civic center; Santa Rosa was on the “threshold of an era,” cheered the Press Democrat. And that was true. The city government complex was the keystone of a project which brought drastic changes to downtown, more so than anything that had happened since the 1906 earthquake.

About a quarter of the downtown core was new construction east and south of Courthouse Sq. – mostly tall office buildings associated with big banks, government offices and parking garages/lots. There were no new shops or restaurants; the only retail business in that area was the White House Department Store, relocated from two blocks away. The city designed for living was starting to look more like the city designed for providing office space for a brigade of bureaucrats, bank tellers and accountants.

The ceremony was also somewhat of a wrap party. For more than a decade Santa Rosa had been daydreaming about a complete makeover of the downtown area; architects had produced designs – some lovable and some laughable, but all destined for the wastebasket. Aside from the state and federal buildings which were yet to be built in this redevelopment zone, there were no big construction projects on the horizon for Santa Rosa. (Here’s a short recap of what happened over those ten years.)

The day after the ceremony, the Congress for Community Progress held its annual meeting. The Congress was an ad hoc coalition of local social clubs, downtown business interests and city manager/directors; it was formed by the Chamber of Commerce and (no surprise) their suggestions rubber-stamped what the Chamber wanted. At the top of the wishlist that year was a convention center, probably at the current location of Westamerica Bank on Santa Rosa Ave. They also urged a major hotel/motel be built near Railroad Square, which could become a “tourist-oriented ‘old town.'” But these ideas were whiffs of smoke; the coalition had no clout to make anything happen.

And then came the October 1 earthquakes. I suppose there must be an alternate universe where city leaders could have screwed up worse – but it’s hard to imagine.

Assessing the damage was an obvious first priority; was a building damaged – and if so, could it be repaired? And did “repair” mean it must be brought up to modern code standards? This started a heated debate; structural engineer Richard Keith told the PD, “if we use the code as it is today, we’d probably destroy most of downtown.” (Details are hashed over in the following chapter.) By the end of the month Santa Rosa’s chief building official, Ray Baker, declared seventeen commercial buildings must be demolished, plus 28 homes – although he would change those numbers later.

The City Council declared an interim emergency that created its own set of problems. A rule was issued requiring all permits for making repairs to get underway between November 5 and 19 – an arbitrary and absurd two week window which surely had every contractor within miles dancing for joy.

Had your building been red-tagged, there was no appeal (at least, I found none mentioned in the PD). Demolition was your responsibility but if you couldn’t afford it, the city would hire a contractor to tear it down – and place a lien on the property for the cost.

But the most urgent post-quake SNAFU was that no one in the city had given any thought about what should be done with the estimated 30,000 cubic yards of rubble created by all that demolition. Contractors were dumping loads illegally near the airport, where Farmers Lane passed Santa Rosa Creek and at the city wastewater plant. Constantly burning piles of mixed construction materials led to complaints of air pollution (and given that the stuff was from older buildings, the soil must now be laden with asbestos). The city passed an emergency ordinance exempting owners of dump sites from zoning regs – but requiring them to get a special permit.

Reading this, Gentle Reader is forgiven for concluding the city was being run by incompetent boobs and nitwits (and far be it from me to ever dispute G.R.’s infallibility). But there was another factor in play: When these bad decisions were being made, city hall had a sharp focus on using the earthquake damage to seek millions of dollars from the government – in what would become the largest single payday in Santa Rosa history to that date. On the same day homeowners and landlords were blindsided by that two-week repair deadline, the mayor and planning director were in Washington D.C. playing Let’s Make a Deal.

"Composite Core Area Plan Taken From Downtown Study Report". Press Democrat,  June 6, 1969
“Composite Core Area Plan Taken From Downtown Study Report”. Press Democrat, June 6, 1969

Prior to the 1969 earthquakes, Santa Rosa’s poobahs had mused about doing something with the area between B Street and the highway, but there were no real plans to redevelop it similar to the way a chunk of the downtown core had been just turned into a financial and governmental district. At the earlier Congress meeting, Trent Harrington said time was running out, and the city should take “good close look at further renewal while an agency still exists that can handle the federal details.”


WHO’S YOUR SUGAR DADDY?

Great sums of money sloshed through Santa Rosa in the 1960s and most of it flowed out of HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) and its predecessor, the Federal Housing Administration. Between 1960 and 1967, Santa Rosa received approx. $8 million in federal grants and loans. There undoubtedly are surviving reports on how much the URA took in specifically from them in those years but concentrating on HUD/FHA alone risks missing the bigger picture. Those dollars were commingled with other sources as the agency saw fit. As explained earlier, for example, Santa Rosa Creek was piped underground using a federal grant made to the county intended for flood control projects as well as a portion that came from the URA.

Monies from the URA also went into a city fund that spent today’s equivalent of nearly $100 million over six years. Santa Rosa’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) began Jan. 1963 and by Feb. 1969 had spent $11.5M. Money came from the URA, a set of 1965 muni bonds, half of the city sales tax, certain developer’s fees and a portion of the gas tax revenue. It paid for street improvements, city hall construction, a fire station and park development.

The agency he referred to was the Urban Renewal Agency (URA) where Harrington was former director – again, skim the recap if the agency is unfamiliar to you. In its heyday earlier in the 1960s, millions were shuffled through the URA, most of it from the government. Harrington had recently stepped down to take a top job with developer Henry Trione’s company and as he implied, the agency’s future was uncertain. All the redevelopment deals were wrapped up; its main task now was waiting for construction on the state and federal buildings to begin.

Now Mayor Jack Ryersen and Planning Director Kenneth Blackman were in Washington to meet with top HUD officials. Their hopes were that the department would bless a second – and more ambitious – redevelopment project in Santa Rosa and approve it with haste, given the need to recover from quake damage. The city’s first application for urban renewal money had taken almost two years to get the green light.

The feds’ immediate reaction was the area was too large and needed to line up with the boundaries of the previous project. Ryersen and Blackman proposed 35½ acres, from Fifth Street to Sonoma Ave. (the Chamber of Commerce wanted it to extend down to Juilliard Park) but HUD cut it off at First Street. Once back home, Blackman heard from the San Francisco HUD office. Enough with the razzle-dazzle, they said – how did the city propose to redevelop the land? And where were the studies?

There were no studies, which would have taken months or years to create. The city had vague architectural site plans shown above and below that envisioned most of the area as a parking lot with a community/convention center (and oddly specific, a coffee shop). But aside from the URA’s obvious desire to crank up the federal money machine again, there were legitimate reasons why the city needed quick approval.

Santa Rosa was soon to face a Catch-22 in the HUD rules; cities with populations under 50,000 were expected to pay one-fourth of the total development costs, while cities over 50k paid one-third – a difference that could have added close to a million dollars to our part of the bill. At the time of the 1969 quake, Santa Rosa’s population stood at 48,450 (the official 1970 census count would be 50,006).

The other reason was because of the stupid two-week window on repair or demolition permits. Under that artificial deadline, major demolition work was expected to start by the end of November and there was still no solution as to what to do with the rubble. The city engineer begged anyone with a possible dump site (“big and small”) to contact the Public Works department. There was also blowback to the requirement that homeowners pay for their house to be torn down or face a lien on the property; now the city would handle the bill.

Except for ongoing citizen complaints about illegal dumping, little was written about earthquake recovery plans over the next few months. The HUD application process went smoothly; Santa Rosa was allowed to file it as an amendment to the original project, which meant that whatever monies were left over could be used. There was a hearing in March, 1970 for the City Council to officially approve the funding request and there were no meaningful public comments.

Then finally in July, word came from Washington: HUD had approved $5.57 million for “emergency rehabilitation.” Blackman announced the city would immediately begin hiring contract workers to start appraisals, title work and preliminary engineering. Santa Rosa was congratulated for having achieved in eight months what usually took 3-4 years.

But still, there was no progress on deciding what would be done with the area. “Proposed for the new area are a hotel-motel complex, service facility, coffee shop, a department store or two, other retail space and a community center,” as the Press Democrat had mentioned after the public hearing.

Uncredited and undated drawing of "what the new renewal area may be turned into." Note more than half the area between the highway an B Street is parking and that Fourth Street is eliminated. Press Democrat, March 2, 1970
Uncredited and undated drawing of “what the new renewal area may be turned into.” Note more than half the area between the highway an B Street is parking and that Fourth Street is eliminated. Press Democrat, March 2, 1970

NEXT: THAT WHICH WE LOST

Read More

1982mallopentitle

HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE

You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 4, 1972 – a day of no particular importance.

Directly across B St. from you is Hardisty’s; that’s where your sister’s wedding china came from. On the north corner is the big Occidental Hotel. Your mom takes grandma there on her birthday for an afternoon tea which she says makes her feel like a debutante again. A few doors farther down from the hotel is the “Cal,” Santa Rosa’s grand Art Deco movie theater. You’ve spent countless hours inside. So did you dad when he was a little kid in the 1930s, participating in the live Saturday afternoon Mickey Mouse Club show.

Detail of 1971 photo showing the intersection of Fourth and B streets, looking SW. Full image at end of this article
Detail of 1971 photo showing the intersection of Fourth and B streets, looking SW. Full image at end of this article

You have passed this exact spot hundreds and hundreds of times and everything before your eyes is as it has been for decades. The “New” Hotel Santa Rosa next to you opened in 1936. The Occidental Hotel was built shortly after the 1906 earthquake. The only slight change is across Fourth Street from you at the NE corner; that was always the White House Department Store but they moved so the building’s now vacant.

Now close your eyes tight as we jump into the future. You are at the exact same spot but it is now March 4, 1982 – precisely ten years later. You cannot believe what you see.

The White House building is still on the corner (it’s really the “Carithers building” and remains there today, albeit heavily altered). B Street – which had been a little-used two lane crosstown street with stop signs – is now a four lane (sometimes five) thoroughfare with traffic lights on nearly every block. But everything else is… gone.

The Santa Rosa Hotel: Gone. You look across the street and find Hardisty’s is gone. The Occidental is gone. The Cal is gone. Facing you is a featureless, 2+ story wall – a fog bank made out brick. It goes on more than three blocks. People stream through an unmarked gateway.

You wonder: Are all the other little businesses that were west of B Street somewhere behind that brick fortress? The sinking feeling in your gut tells you the answer. While you were away, Santa Rosa bulldozed all of it in the name of urban renewal. And this is the result.

How did this happen? Yeah, Santa Rosa had talked about a downtown shopping center since the early 1960s; out-of-town architects and consultants were hired to build models and make presentations. Some of the ideas were pretty good – there was a Santa Rosa Creek greenway combining a government center with a department store and retail/office space. Others were simply awful, such as a mega-mall which included a 1,500 seat “European opera house.” None went beyond the show ‘n’ tell stage.

What those proposals had in common, though, is they were to be built outside the original business district, either on Santa Rosa Avenue or by (or above) the Creek. This Plaza project wiped out roughly a third of the downtown core – it was like the town had been amputated at the knees.

How could this happen? Santa Rosa wasn’t known as a city that moved fast on approving of high-profile, consequential projects. It took five years before trucks began hauling cement loads to build the underwhelming city hall complex, and seven years passed between when the Carnegie Library closed and the new one opened. Yet the entire process to create this mammoth Plaza took less then a decade? Just unbelievable.

But when you peel the onion, it becomes clear this was a project like no other.

In the 1970s and 1980s, cities across America dreamt of shopping malls as if they were the gateway to the paradise of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. Malls defined popular culture; we spent more time in malls than anywhere else except for home and work/school.* All that shopping made a mall an economic powerhouse because of the tax income it generated, and not having a mall as good as – or more popular than – the one down the road could make or break a city or county budget.

Santa Rosa had its own manic drive to see a mega-mall built here. Since the 1906 earthquake (and arguably back to the 1880s) the bankers, downtown business interests and the Press Democrat had indefatigably boosted the city as on the cusp of becoming a Bay Area metropolis. This led to a history of disastrous short-sighted decisions, the worst being the insistence that Highway 101 cut the town in half, lest Santa Rosa become a “ghost town” for lack of immediate access by shoppers.

With that motivation, everything fell into place in the 1970s. There was funding for urban renewal – lots and lots of free government money. There was a large cadre of unelected local decision-makers who believed a whopping mall was a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform Santa Rosa into that great metropolis, along with a tax base which would pour an endless river of cash into the city treasury. Then there were enthusiastic downtown shopkeepers, who somehow convinced themselves a giant shopping center next door would bring them good fortune. And not least of all, into town stepped a savvy developer known for building malls in mid-sized West Coast cities and with a talent for dealing with naïve locals.

None of this was inevitable. There were objections, pushbacks from citizen’s groups and lawsuits from rival developer Hugh Codding. Many times Santa Rosa found itself standing at a crossroad which could have led to much different outcomes. The mall footprint could have been smaller, the California Theater movie palace could have been preserved. The place could not have been built at all, and instead the buildings in that part of downtown could have been upgraded for safety and remodeled using available federal funds. Or landowners could have rebuilt new stores at the same locations. There were so many times when Santa Rosa had an opportunity to not lay waste to so much of itself. Yet it didn’t, and here we are.

Crowds await the opening of the Santa Rosa Plaza, March 4, 1982. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Crowds await the opening of the Santa Rosa Plaza, March 4, 1982. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

This is an intro to the story of how the Santa Rosa Plaza was built. Had Gentle Reader lived in town during the 1970s this may be a gut-wrenching episode to rehash; feelings ran high as the city relentlessly pushed the project through with little (often no) public input. Maybe you knew someone who lost their business or was forced to move to a less desirable location because Santa Rosa condemned their property in order to take it via eminent domain. Maybe you knew people who lost their homes and apartments in the same way. Maybe you’re still mad about how the city passed an ordinance making it easier for them to do that.

It’s also the most impactful story concerning the city of the last 50+ years. Even if you personally haven’t been inside the Plaza for ages, that sprawling building and its parking garages continue to shape the town and any possibly better future. It blocks east/west pedestrian and bike traffic, especially when the mall is closed. It disappears Railroad Square from anyone not in the know; it makes planning for improved public transit a cruel joke, as it forms a barrier between the Transit Mall and the SMART depot.

Yet little has been written about the history of how all that came to be, save for stories about the passionate protests to “Save the Cal” and the rescue of the old post office in order to preserve it as the county history museum. The details of what else happened during those years has been reduced to footnotes. Scratch that: Not even footnotes exist because the overall story remains untold – the articles here barely skim the surface of what happened.

This also continues the overall series about Santa Rosa’s redevelopment, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER” which has thus far only discussed the early years. Links to these chapters about the Plaza also appear on the index found there.

There’s lots of misunderstanding about what was/was not part of the urban renewal projects; on social media it’s blamed for all manner of bad things from the 1950s onward. To clarify the basics of that history before diving into the mall drama, here’s a summary of what happened, excerpted from earlier articles:

In 1958 the Santa Rosa City Council created an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was a full-time planner, an executive director and a steady parade of out-of-town consultants making recommendations. The appointed members of the URA had diverse backgrounds that might have served them well on some less critical civic board or committee but as far as I can tell none were knowledgeable about urban planning, architecture or anything else relevant.

The Downtown Development Association (DDA) was formed at about the same time and the two organizations worked in tandem, promoting the idea that much of downtown was a “blighted” area which needed to be demolished and rebuilt. The same year the Council was given a presentation that proposed redevelopment of 140 acres – in other words, wiping out almost every building downtown. The head of the DDA gushed, “we are on the threshold of destiny.”

A federal grant of about $1 million (equivalent to $10M today) was earmarked in 1960 for urban renewal. At the same time another $12M went to the Sonoma County Water Agency for flood control. When a heavy winter storm hit in 1963, the Agency and URA officials joined to push through plans to bury the portion of Santa Rosa Creek that passed through downtown in a culvert – even though all previous planning had insisted the creek remain a greenbelt centerpiece for future development. See “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK.”

The first redevelopment project the URA tackled was awarding approval to build a new city hall/civic center. Competing developers in 1964 were Hugh Codding and Henry Trione, head of the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (SRBCRC). Trione’s group wanted to buy Courthouse Square and build a 15-story civic tower, but the Square was not included in the part of downtown the URA had declared “blighted.” In 1965 SRBCRC was selected as the developer for the city government complex adjacent to the entombed creek. See “HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL.”

To the ire of Codding, the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for all of what would be called redevelopment Phase I. Despite the URA’s founding promise that big name stores would now be drawn to downtown Santa Rosa, no companies were willing to take a chance. The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store; the rest of the buildings initially built between Third Street and Sonoma Ave. were professional, bank and government offices. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base. See “IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY.”

It’s commonly misbelieved that the courthouse and Carnegie Library were torn down because of urban renewal. The library was structurally unsound because of poor construction and there was no realistic hope of saving it. Efforts to brace it after the 1906 quake only made problems worse before it was closed in 1960, then torn down five years later. See “WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER.” The courthouse suffered cosmetic damage in a 1957 earthquake, followed by years of debate and studies from consultants as to whether repair or demolish it. Ultimately it was decided the building was expendable because it was too small for county needs and would be too expensive to bring it up to code. It was knocked down in 1966. See “HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE.”

The same day courthouse demolition began, the county sold Courthouse Square to the city of Santa Rosa and its URA. This was the URA’s own development project, which in itself probably overstretched the limit of the Agency’s charter. But the URA also began taking on powers that clearly belonged to city departments and/or the City Council, such as the closing of Exchange and Hinton streets and building a four-lane road through the middle of the square. See “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’.”

Damage from the October 1, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake was not severe and mostly repairable. The city building inspector condemned 14 buildings as completely unsafe including five homes. At a City Council meeting later that month a committee of civil and structural engineers thought 21 downtown buildings should go while the city’s chief building official said 48 were damaged. But the issue really wasn’t which buildings should be repaired – it was whether the city would allow owners to make repairs at all instead of requiring demolition. See “THE QUAKE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING.”

 


*The ‘Magic of the Mall’: An Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Built Environment” by Jon Goss; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 83, no. 1, 1993

 

NEXT: ROAD TO THE MALL: MONEY FIRST, PLANS LATER

 

1971 aerial taken from over Fifth and D streets looking SSW. Note the divided Courthouse Square in the lower left. Cropped photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
1971 aerial taken from over Fifth and D streets looking SSW. Note the divided Courthouse Square in the lower left. Cropped photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Read More