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WHEN THE HIGH DRY WINDS BLOW

The “Diablo Winds” are apparently a Regular Thing now, with the high, dry northeasterly gales ripping through the North Bay and too often creating firestorms. But how common were these damned winds historically?

Start with our three examples that caused major fires: The 2017 Tubbs Fire, the forgotten Great Fire of 1870 and the 1964 Hanly Fire. Beyond those incidents, however, it’s hard to say with much certainty.

First, “Diablo Winds” is a modern term, invented in 1991 (Wikipedia has a good explanation of the meteorology), so looking for that name in the old newspapers is a non-starter. A century ago and more they sometimes called any bad winds “Boreas,” although that was the classical name for a cold north wind often accompanied by rains. But the bigger problem is that our ancestors didn’t care much about recording wind directions or speeds; while they diligently kept records of rainfall down to the hundredth of an inch, apparently no one in Sonoma County had an anemometer in the old days.

Searches of the Santa Rosa and Healdsburg newspapers turned up surprisingly few historic windstorms that match the Diablo pattern with certainty (I limited my research to destructive weather events during the California autumn months with no rain mentioned). If I find more I’ll add it here and flag the update in the title of this article, but I think it’s safe to presume these big winds weren’t very common. Sources of all newspaper items are transcribed below.

The most surprising discovery was 1871, the year following the Great Fire. Once again there were “large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma…It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality.”

“A vicious wind” in 1887, which might also have been a freak tornado, took down a two-story hotel at Los Guilucos that was under construction. “Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles.”

There are two accounts of the two-day storm in 1892; rain was mentioned in Petaluma but not elsewhere. It was “one of the severest [windstorms] felt in Sonoma county for a number of years,” the Sonoma Democrat reported, with hundreds of mature trees downed. An elderly woman died of fright.

“The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm,” the Healdsburg Tribune noted in 1900, making it sure bet to be classified as a Diablo Wind. Then a few weeks later, an even more destructive wind hit the town following a light rain: “The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake.”

Our last historic windstorm conveniently also provides our obl. Believe-it-or-Not! finish. This item is from the Press Democrat in 1919:

The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.

 

sources
 

The Storm.

A terrific wind storm prevailed throughout the county on Thursday night, during which large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma, and it is feared serious damage was done in those localities. About Santa Rosa, sign boards were demoralized to a considerable extent, that of the Kessing Hotel being torn from its fastenings and broken to pieces. Those of the telegraph office and Santa Rosa Book Store, were blown down. The tin roof of the store occupied by Carithers & Martin, was transferred to the building of E. T. Farmer, next adjoining. Wind mills upon the premises of Windfield Wright, Henry Worthington and Adam Shane, were blown down, and orchards through the Township literally stripped of fruit. It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality, and our people are fortunate in getting off with damages so slight.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 14 1871

 

HIGH WIND —One of the most violent windstorm ever known in this region raged last Tuesday. It subsided during the night without causing any material damage in any way. But it made a lively dust.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1880

 

A Vicious Wind.

The new two-story hotel at Los Guilucos town was razed to the ground during a violent wind storm which occurred there about 7:45 o’clock Thursday evening. If the building was as substantial as its appearances would indicate it certainly must have been a vicious wind, and the descriptions given by the workmen who were on the spot are now too highly colored. The men employed in tinning the roof had not been out of the building three minutes when the crash came. The air was full of flying timbers, some of the largest of which weighed several hundred pounds and were hurled high above the tops of the trees and lodged on top of the hotel before it fell. It seemed to be the nature of a whirlwind, and the doors and windows of the structure being open its interior formed an amphitheatre for the sports and athletic feats of Boreas. Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles. Not a timber was left standing and all that remained to mark the spot where had once stood the first building in Los Guilucos town was a few pieces of roof timbers held together by long narrow strips of twisted and misshaped tin. Other reports received from the valley are somewhat contradictory of the nature of the storm. A gentleman residing within two miles of the hotel says the wind was somewhat stronger than a zephyr, but not of sufficient violence to cause him or his family any alarm concerning the safety of their residence and outbuildings. The damage it is estimated will not be over 4,000. Messrs. Ludwig & Kroncke visited the scene of the disaster Friday.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 26 1887

 

Early Monday morning Petaluma was visited by the swiftest and most disastrous windstorm known for many years. The wind did not only whistle, but it howled and groaned through every chink accessible. This account will read very true to many Petalumans, for most of them were kept awake by the ceaseless noise of boreas and his companion, the rain. Trees were uprooted in many parts of the town. Robert Spotswood, on Keller street had a pepper and an acacia tree blown down. A eucalyptus was blown from the sidewalk in front of the Newburgh residence on Liberty street. A poplar was uprooted at Father Cleary’s, and many other trees. The fence was blown from in front of the D street school. Also the fence surrounding the Sweed property on Sixth and B streets. The scaffolding left by the carpenters on the handsome Haubrick residence now in course of construction was scattered far into the street. Not satisfied with this, the wind sailed three miles out of town and lifted a goodly section of roof off the old adobe built by General Vallejo in the early days and now used as a home by M. Riely. This old building was perfectly strong and secure and it must have been a terrific wind to carry that roof as it did.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892

 

Effects of the Storm of Sunday Night.

The storm last Saturday and especially Sunday and Sunday night was one of the severest felt in Sonoma county for a number of years.

Trees were blown down all over town Sunday night. Near the corner of the Baptist Church, a large maple, which Street Commissioner Cozad will remember very well, blew down across B street.

The top of a large pine tree, standing near the residence of R. M. Swain, broke off about twenty-five feat from the top, and in falling just missed the house. The fragment was fully one foot in diameter, which shows the force of the wind.

Two large trees standing near the home of O. H. Hoag were blown down. They struck the house and rather demolished the kitchen.

A tree on William Hopper’s place fell Sunday night and carried with it a large section of Mr. Hopper’s front fence.

Keegan Bros, heard the wind whistle to the tune of $100 Sunday night. The force of the wind tore off the front sign hanging to the awning and carrying it in struck and broke the beautiful plate glass window.

The wind also played havoc with the sky-light of the engine house, picking it up and setting it down rather roughly where it did not belong, breaking every pane of glass. A number of panes of glass were also broken in the courthouse.

Carithers & Forsythe and George F. King have the turbulent elements of Sunday night to blame for misplacing their signs.

Beldin & Hehir’s sign, aided by the gentle zephyrs, drifted from its moorings and tapped the window of the postoffice and the adjacent transom a little too hard,

A passenger on the down train from Guerneville says that all hands were required to get off and help remove two large trees that had fallen across the track a few miles from Guerneville.

About seventy trees are down across the road from Duncan Mills to Guerneville, and one citizen from Bodega says the storm Saturday and Sunday was the severest felt in that windy locality for years. It blew down most of the fences in Bodega, together with several trees and old out-buildings that were insecurely anchored.

The Pacific Methodist College came near being scalped when the gale caught one corner of the tin roof and tore off about six hundred square feet of the roof.

A large maple in front of the residence of Dr. Savage, on Fourth street, succumbed to the breeze.

Many windmills throughout the valley got more wind than they could stand, and went to the ground, and one barn was blown down.

No very heavy damage to property is reported.

The saddest occurrence of all was the death of Mrs. Clark, elsewhere reported, who was afflicted with heart troubles, and it is believed her death was precipitated by nervousness and fright occasioned by the storm.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892

 

The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm. The winds and the intense heat of the sun have been of great advantage to prune drying, condensing into a few days what would take weeks to dry. It’s an ill wind that blows evil to the fruit dryer.

– Healdsburg Tribune, September 27 1900

 

THE STORM.
Violent Windstorm Does Considerable Damage Tuesday Night.

The rain that had been gently falling for the previous few days, culminated in a terrific windstorm on Tuesday night. Old Bordeas went on a toot, tearing down signs, breaking windows, uprooting trees and doing damage to a greater or less extent in all directions. The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake and sleep became an unknown quantity with many residents. The damage to ornamental trees must have been considerable in the aggregate. The electric lights were snuffed out at about 11 o’clock but resumed business a few hours later. The rainfall for Tuesday night was 1.53, and 9.11 for the season. The symmetrical circle of umbrella trees on the Plaza was broken, two of the trees falling prone on the sward, and the others being blown out of perpendicular. Silberstein’s sign became loosened at one end and becoming a plaything in the power of the winds, smashed much of the glass front of the store into smithereens. The early morning hours indicated that the proprietors had gone out of business, and had moved their signs to other parts of the city, Carl Muller, who has kept a record of the rainfall for many years, reports the windstorm as severe, if not more so, than any previous windstorm within his memory.

– Healdsburg Tribune, November 22 1900

 

BARN MOVED BY WIND, BUT HORSE REMAINS BEHIND

The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.

– Press Democrat, November 29 1919

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kitty

PG&E: THINGS WE HATE ABOUT YOU

Dear PG&E: We need to talk. I think you’re aware (dimly, maybe?) everybody hates you. It’s not just because of the deaths and the places that burned up, or even how the recent shutoffs revealed you can’t even keep a website running, much less handle the power grid. No, it’s not just neglecting to do your job properly; you’ve been behaving badly for over a century including a hot mess of corporate malfeasance. Maybe you’re hoping we’ll patch things up after your bankruptcy and jury trial over the Tubbs Fire, but not this time – we want you to get out. Let someone else run the show. Sincerely, Northern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric has a history that deserves a spot in the Hall of Infamy somewhere between the tobacco companies and the railroads. The next time you’re hanging with friends, ask each to crawl down memory lane and recall a news story about the company. Someone will surely bring up when eight were killed in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion; auditors found PG&E had slashed the pipeline maintenance budget in order to award fat bonuses to the CEO and executives. (Afterwards, they spent tens of million$ on ads touting the company’s high commitment to safety.) An older friend might remember their mad plan to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head which they were determined to do even after it was discovered the San Andreas Fault ran directly through the site. There’s plenty more stories to share because the list of outrages goes on and on and on. Okay, one more: PG&E used a loophole to siphon over a billion dollars from a state fund for affordable housing. And on and on. Okay, one more: Diablo Canyon was the only nuclear power plant which generated electricity not with fuel rods, but by throwing dollars down a black hole. (And by the way, PG&E will soon sock customers with a $1.6 billion bill to pay for decommissioning the place, despite repeated promises that it was paid for in advance.) And on.

Aside from rage against dumb schemes like Bodega Head, most pushback against PG&E over the last 75 years has concerned rate increases, and came from the same pocketbook protectors who regularly manned the ramparts against taxes. But in 1952 there was a one-of-a-kind presentation given in Santa Rosa that exposed doings that the company did not want known. The Press Democrat and Argus-Courier offered more fact-filled editorials, letters and columns, and as a result the Sonoma county newspaper readers were likely the best informed people in the state that year.

The setting was a January 8 meeting at Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Grange Hall, in those years a popular place for holding meetings, monthly dances and other shindigs. Discussed that evening was PG&E’s proposed $37.6 million annual rate hike. (Inflation has gone up almost exactly 10x since then, so just add another zero on any dollar amounts discussed below.)

The speakers were Joe C. Lewis and Oliver O. Rands, both experts on hydroelectric power who knew how PG&E was making huge profits by reselling energy from the federal Central Valley system at a jaw-dropping 1,500 percent markup, buying it for only 0.4¢ per KWH and reselling it in Santa Rosa and elsewhere for about 6.5¢ per KWH. Yet the company still wanted a hefty rate hike.

Lewis was an ex-Assemblyman from Buttonwillow (best known to travelers on I-5 as, “hey look, there’s an exit for a town named Buttonwillow!”) and then the head of the “California Farm Research and Legislative Committee,” a grassroots organization representing hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farmworkers against agribusiness and PG&E/SoCal Edison. Rands was the federal Bureau of Reclamation chief overseeing the contracts providing ultra-cheap power to PG&E. As far as I can tell, this was the only time the two men appeared together to shine a spotlight on the monopoly’s practices.

PG&E’s argument(s) went something like this: Although the proposed rate hike will raise the average bill by 21 percent, that’s not a lot. Heck, some other power companies have doubled their rates in the last dozen years – thanks to our good management we’ve kept rates low. But we’re really paying a lot of taxes (more than half of all taxes collected in some counties!) and we’ve had to expand because of all the people who moved to California since the end of WWII. Our profits are way down and we might have to reduce the approx. 12% annual dividend we’ve paid our thousands of shareholders (fun fact: More women than men own stock!) this year. Also, we’re entitled to raise prices because we’re legally allowed to make a 5.8 percent profit under regulations, which makes this rate increase only fair.

Bullshit, said Lewis, Rands and the other PG&E critics. The true reason to hate PG&E in those years was because in all ways it acted more like a Fortune 500 company than a regional utility.

The company’s balance sheet was filled with hard-to-justify operating costs, starting with the president’s whopping base salary of over $107,000 – a shocking number back then, when average family income was $3,300 and a CEO typically only made 20x more than its workers (far more obscene today is that a major corporation CEO makes about 360x over the employees).

PG&E also paid over $1 million between 1949-1952 on lobbyists in Washington and Sacramento and spent lavishly to defeat ballot items it didn’t like. When Redding, which has its own municipal electric utility, held a 1949 referendum on buying energy directly from the Bureau of Reclamation, PG&E poured money into their small town politics (population 10,000) blocking the switch by spending $7 for every vote – and remember, multiply all these dollar amounts by ten.

But the most questionable item in its operation budget was “sales promotion,” which Lewis said totaled $2,100,000 in 1950. That did not include the cost of “PG&E Progress,” the chatty little newsletter sent to each customer in the same envelope as the monthly bill; much of that PR budget paid for large, expensive ads in newspapers and national magazines such as Life, Look, Time, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest and similar. This was certainly a major reason why it’s so hard to find any scrutiny of PG&E in the press during the 1950s – publishers are always loathe to portray major advertisers in a bad light.

The national ads didn’t tout PG&E by name; the source was a trade group that identified the ad as being sponsored by “America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies.” Known in the industry as the “Electric Companies Advertising Program” (ECAP) it was among the top 100 national advertisers, spending $25 million in 1950. At various times there were about a hundred ±30 companies underwriting the program and we don’t know how much of their funding came from PG&E, but you can bet it was a greater chunk than all the pee-wee members such as the Conowingo Power Company of Elkton, Maryland.

The ECAP ads from the ’50s and ’60s are often campy fun, urging consumers to embrace “modern electric living” (which usually meant buying major appliances) and feel-good “world of tomorrow” stuff (a personal favorite is found at the end of this article). But there were other ad campaigns which were anything but fluffy PR.

Another type of their print ads (ECAP also sponsored popular network radio shows) brought scrutiny by crossing the line into lobbying, particularly by complaining the companies were being taxed unfairly. Since PG&E and the other companies claimed those ads as part of their operating expenses, they sometimes were investigated or sued over doing so – and it’s only thanks to legal documents about the issue (such as this one) do we know some of what was going on behind the curtain at ECAP.

Sometimes the ads changed the name to something like, “Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies” as a reminder that some of the big companies like PG&E were ready to sell stock to non-customers. While their newsletter boasted that it was California owned, almost half of PG&E’s stock in 1952 was held by sixteen East Coast corporations, according to a PD columnist.

socialistic(RIGHT: 1950 ECAP ad calling public-owned utilities un-American)

At the Santa Rosa meeting Mr. Rands was clearly angered by a particularly despicable class of ECAP ads that attacked municipal power utilities as “socialistic poison.” He explained that PG&E not only didn’t like the competition, but wanted to conceal that towns such as Healdsburg had much lower rates because they could buy power directly from the Bureau of Reclamation at a fraction of the cost of other places in Sonoma county.

And finally, PG&E was even covering up why they really needed to increase prices – it was in order to pay for the $62M “Super Inch” natural gas pipeline from Arizona to Milpitas. Under federal regs they had to show they had the income to pay for building and maintaining this enormous project. Looking forward forty years, the pipeline would become national news in the 1990s, after Erin Brockovich exposed it had contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, CA – another major PG&E scandal one of your friends might have recalled.

In the autumn of 1952 the Public Utilities Commission allowed PG&E to increase rates, but by 16% instead of the 21% they had insisted was needed. From the wire service reporting it appears the company’s inflated operating costs were not mentioned at the PUC hearing. (PG&E’s funding of ECAP did come up when they requested another rate increase in 1974.)

This is not the place to poke through all of PG&E’s dirty laundry from that era, although there’s no book or internet source that explores it (at least, none I’m aware of). Those wanting to know more will find the testimony of Robert Read and Louis Bartlett at the 1945 state water conference to be stimulating reading. This scarcity of background makes the 1952 coverage by the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier all the more extraordinary.

Credit where it’s due: Besides Lewis and Rands, we were educated by W. D. Mackay of the Los Angeles-based “Commercial Utility Service,” a watchdog group that sent letters to mayors and city attorneys about the gas pipeline. The Argus-Courier was apparently the only paper in the state that published the letter. In the Press Democrat solid information was provided by Ulla Bauers, the paper’s night editor and sometimes columnist. Because of him, we have a great Believe-it-or-Not! footnote: “Ulla Bauers” was the name of a dislikable minor character in the sci-fi DUNE universe who appears in a novella published in “The Road to Dune.” Author Frank Herbert worked at the PD 1949-1952, so the name can be no coincidence. Herbert also later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle.”

1959 ECAP ad
1959 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad

TOP PHOTO: “Kitty” @blackksiren weheartit.com
PG&E ads: advertisingcliche.blogspot.com

 

sources
“Letter Read to City Council” Argus-Courier, July 4, 1951

“P.G.&E. Rate Case Affects Interests Of All Santa Rosans” Press Democrat, December 7, 1951

“‘Unjustified’ PG&E Costs Reported in Rate Protest” Press Democrat, January 9, 1952

“Much of P.G.&E.’s Profits Are Drained Out to the East” Press Democrat, April 1, 1952

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phase1cartoonFB

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

If a time machine is ever invented, lord help Santa Rosa’s 1960s decision-makers; there will be mobs of howling Facebookers chasing them through the streets for what they did to this town.

Those who hang out in local history and nostalgia social media often write about downtown Santa Rosa in that era as if it were a crime scene; a vintage photo of a picturesque building now demolished, a scene of streets crowded with shoppers will draw tearful emojis and bitter comments. How did all this come to disappear? We know the answer: It was the outcome of the town’s gung-ho embrace of urban renewal schemes, which are the subject of this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”

(This article covers only “Phase I” of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment in the 1960s, when the urban renewal area was limited to the 40 acres between Sonoma ave. and Third street, and from Santa Rosa/Mendocino avenues and E street. Events leading to construction of the Santa Rosa Mall were Phase II and III during the 1970s and will be covered later.)

Other cities and towns climbed aboard the redevelopment gravy train – it was free federal money after all, and the government wasn’t too picky about how it was spent. But few communities were willing to go as far as Santa Rosa and gut so much of their downtown core.

One reason this is so crazy-making for us today is because there was no compelling reason to declare most of the downtown “blighted,” which was their excuse for wiping out entire blocks and more than a hundred historic buildings. The movers ‘n’ shakers of Santa Rosa saw the opposite – downtown was economically blighted because their projections estimated the taxable value of the area after redevelopment would be at least three times greater.*

They were also true believers that anything new was better than old. In a 1961 editorial the Press Democrat dismissed all the old buildings as “substandard” and said tearing them down would “…serve the Santa Rosa of today and the future instead of continuing to be a deteriorating hodge-podge that ‘just growed’ over the past 75 years or so.”

Steering the redevelopment ship was the five-member Urban Renewal Agency (URA), which was created by the City Council in 1958. Its executive director and the appointed members wielded enormous power (including the ability to condemn land using eminent domain without a public hearing) yet faced little criticism except from one persistent fellow named Hugh Codding – more about him in a minute. What the public heard instead was enthusiastic approval from the Council and city staff and particularly the PD, which was the URA’s most ardent cheerleader. The paper leaned hard on the notion that the blighted area really was studded with eyesores, and good riddance; there was a photo they liked to use showing a ramshackle house badly in disrepair with a sagging porch – while neglecting to mention one of the first places to be demolished would be Luther Burbank’s house.

Redevelopment programs became infamous for graft and corruption but I don’t find a whiff of that happening here. While the URA was biased toward particular developers and clearly treated Codding unfairly, I fully believe everyone’s motives were well-intentioned – that they expected the result of their labors would truly create a city beautiful. Of course, very little worked out as well as they expected and they ended up creating a city regrettable. To paraphrase the great disclaimer at the start of the movie, Fargo:

This is a true story. The events described here took place in Santa Rosa, California. Out of respect for the survivors of those times and their families, keep in mind the decision-makers back then were not fools, dunderheads or venal crooks, though some of their choices seem glaringly stupid today. But hey, it was the 1960s, when everybody was a little nuts.

Santa Rosa’s Big Urban Renewal Adventure kicked off in 1960, when the city tapped some of the URA’s government money to hire New Jersey urban planning experts to come up with ideas on what they should do with the six blocks to be redeveloped. They developed a model that everyone here loved like a warm puppy – it was so popular they had to schedule showings of it in bank lobbies and store windows.

Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below
Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below

 

Their model shows a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek greenway with the city hall and state building on its southern bank (an earlier drawing shows the courthouse and jail there, before it was decided in mid-1960 to rebuild at the county administration center). There was plenty of parking spaces, a big department store and several mixed retail/office buildings.

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

No, strike that – they kept the parking lot next to the library and the parking garage at Third and D.

Without a master plan the URA couldn’t provide a rudder for what should be built and where, aside from vague expectations there should be a new city hall, a major department store (or two) and a “shopping center.” Read that again, slowly: The only planning provided by the city was what to condemn and demolish, leaving it to the developers to shape how downtown would look and function. The Press Democrat had welcomed urban renewal as an opportunity to rid Santa Rosa of its “hodge-podge” appearance, but we were preparing to hodge-podge it up again, only now with plenty of very undistinguished office buildings.

Megapolitan(RIGHT: The 500,000 sq. ft. proposal for downtown Santa Rosa from Megapolitan Corp. The street glimpsed at the top is presumably Sonoma ave.)

In place of the master plan there were four proposals made to the URA in 1963. (A reminder again that this was for the six blocks directly south of Courthouse Square, not the current location of the mall.) Two developers pitched conventional shopping centers with no big anchor stores – one used the top floor for professional offices. An ambitious bid from the Megapolitan Corp. of Los Angeles called for a massive shopping center which was virtually an indoor, self-sufficient town, sans housing. The bizarre plan called for a “European opera house” with seating for 1,500 that “could accommodate full broadway, concert, opera, and ballet productions” a nightclub, two “theater bars,” dance and health studios, laundry and dry cleaning shops, a supermarket, drug store, billiard hall and a “host of specialty tenants.” (Whew!)

The winning proposal in 1964 came from the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (called here “SRBCRC” to avoid confusion with all other things Burbank). This was a financing consortium put together by Henry Trione and his friends, not planners or architects – they hired top-notch Bay Area designers to come up with actual plans. Their original presentation included two department stores plus a “Civic Tower” on Courthouse Square straddling a sunken roadway, as discussed in the article on the development of the city hall complex.

That the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for ownership of the entire 40 acres irked Hugh Codding no end, mostly because the agreement was made with the price yet to be negotiated at some future date. Once he became a City Councilman, Codding would needle the URA directors by sarcastically asking if SRBCRC had made a downpayment yet.

But despite the URA’s founding promise that redevelopment would draw big-name stores to downtown Santa Rosa, it seemed no companies were willing to take a chance. It was rumored that Macy’s was interested; nope. J.C. Penny? Pass. Emporium? Sorry. SRBCRC hired another set of architects to draw up new layouts. “The success of any of the plans was highly speculative,” Trione wrote in his autobiography. “Potential buyers were very cautious.”

It wasn’t that those companies were cautious about building new stores – it was that they were leery about Santa Rosa’s downtown; their location scouts couldn’t help but notice parking was a headache (and not free). The uncertain status of the redevelopment area meant their future neighbors could range from an upscale jewelry store to a smelly fast food joint, and ongoing construction would keep the area dusty and noisy for years to come. No, a smarter bet would be to build a department store in a spanking new shopping mall with none of those drawbacks. Coddingtown, for example. And so they did.

Looking ahead, Trione and his company built offices, banks and government buildings (which, I imagine, few of us have ever had reason to visit). The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store. 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.

But in the autumn of 1965, the Press Democrat’s editor Art Volkerts imagined it was the start of a glorious transformation. In a puff-piece “URA Holds Promise in Heart of Santa Rosa” he wrote,

…What will this mean to Santa Rosa? Well, it will mean more tax revenues to help pay for the city’s expanding services. It will mean bright, new buildings rising in an area which was fast becoming a civic blight…it now seems certain that the URA project will indeed be a flower worthy of maturing next to Santa Rosa’s beloved Burbank Gardens.

Others more clear-eyed saw it meant 37 businesses had been displaced and 44 families plus 43 single individuals had lost their homes. For the next few years there would be forty acres of vacant lots scraped down to the dirt waiting for all that greatness which would not come.

NEXT: THE TWO COURTHOUSE SQUARES

* “In its present run-down condition, the Santa Rosa urban renewal area is assessed at $859,000. The least favorable of the several forms which redevelopment could take will result in real and personal values assessed at $2,413,700.” Press Democrat editorial, July 17, 1961. By 1965, the PD was claiming the current value was about $3 million and should be worth over $12M.
1965 model of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC
1965 drawing of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC

 

 

Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates
Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates

 

 

Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency
Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency

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