There were two Santa Rosas in the early 1970s but unfortunately, the Press Democrat opted to only write about one of them.
The newspaper loved to showcase news about their reborn city. Ever since the 1906 earthquake, editors had touted Santa Rosa as a true (but unappreciated!) Bay Area metropolis which would someday bloom into greatness. Now work was wrapping up on the urban renewal projects directly south and east of Courthouse Square. Contractor vans and pickups still crowded parking spots but the tall office buildings with banks on the ground floor showed how much progress had been made in the 1960s. Our city hall complex, with its elaborate water feature in the courtyard and unadorned concrete walls so pure white you had to squint in bright sun, boldly said this was as modern a city as could be found anywhere. Why, if you didn’t know any better it would be easy to imagine all this wonderfulness was in Topeka or Schenectady or any of a hundred other cities.
SELF-DESTRUCTION WAS ALL THE RAGE
Future historians will look back at post-WWII America and want to know: Why did we destroy our cities?
During those years there was no shortage of experts praising the gospel of urban renewal at Kiwanis Club luncheons and business roundtables, singing to the famous tune from The Music Man: “Oh, ya got trouble right here in [your] city with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘B’ and that stands for Blight…” Around 1960, Santa Rosa was visited by two or three of these blightarian preachers every year.
The message was always that too much of the place was old and rundown, either a slum or on the brink of becoming same – plus there were warehouses and auto repair shops and lumber yards which didn’t need to be anywhere near downtown. A commonly heard metaphor was that these low-income residential and light industrial areas were like a disease threatening the health of the city whole. Surgery was urgently needed.
Replacing all the old stuff with new stuff certainly sounded swell, but what ended up happening was anything but surgical. Those who lived there were the usual poverty suspects – people of color, the elderly and downtrodden – and told to get out because their buildings were about to be torn down. The properties were then purchased by the city using federal and state grant money; after bulldozers scraped everything down to the topsoil, multiple parcels would be bundled together and sold for pennies on the dollar to developers. Where once stood historic buildings and unique neighborhoods there were now gleaming steel commercial districts and/or high rise apartments.
Not every redevelopment project was a complete nightmare, of course; some cities made sure those who were displaced found decent places, even building subsidized housing. Strict architectural design guidelines can be found that ensured new construction would blend better into the existing area, or at least not follow cookie-cutter blueprints.
But more commonly heard are horror stories – politicians using redevelopment as a tool to isolate or smother minority communities, or how the local government oversight was so lax or corrupt the developers were allowed to run amok. Often cited in books and studies among the worst cases was the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project in Los Angeles, the largest makeover of a city’s downtown core in our nation’s history.
Starting in the 1890s, Bunker Hill was the swanky part of LA. There were Victorian mansions that rivaled Newport’s finest and there was the picturesque Angels Flight tram to carry residents between their exclusive neighborhood and the downtown shopping district. When the rich began migrating to Beverly Hills and elsewhere in the westside “Platinum Triangle” the grand homes were broken up into apartments and boarding houses. During WWII those rooms were filled with aircraft industry and transient workers; afterward it was mostly elderly pensioners (watch a short heartbreaking documentary). By the time demolition began in 1961, there were up to 8,500 awaiting eviction.
The building program was beset by lawsuits and political meddling. Promised affordable housing never materialized. A 1966 audit found the city agency had done little except for acting like an inept real estate broker, spending top dollar to acquire large amounts of land while selling only a small portion of it – and that at cut-rate prices. The public was told construction would be completed by 1975, 1977, or 1979, tops. Today the area still isn’t built out, as Los Angeles recently gave the green light to a 64 story tower on one of the remaining vacant lots.
What the PD avoided writing about was the west side of downtown. Everything between B street and the highway was slated to be demolished, as detailed in the previous chapter. And starting in 1972, the wrecking crews came in and began to wreck.
Other cities had likewise dismantled whole sections of their downtown in the name of urban renewal, particularly Los Angeles (see sidebar). Newspapers in those cities took notice and ran articles describing what would be slipping away. Human interest stories of elderly residents who had lived in the area for years and were afraid what would happen to them; shopkeepers worried about losing their livelihood.
Not so the PD. Except for a single story about George and Tillie Cross, who had operated a breakfast and lunch counter on lower Fifth St. since 1929, little in the local paper personalized the upcoming demolition of so much of our community. There was no downside at all to throwing away about a third of the downtown in their editorial eyes.
Also ignored by the PD was that demolition began at a time when the city still had no plans on what to do with the land, except for vague notions that a convention center and department store would be nice. (Sorry, the city government is using eminent domain to force the sale of your home because a developer might want to build something there someday.)
In this Santa Rosa was following the script of Los Angeles’ ultra-controversial Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project from a few years earlier, where an audit had concluded that such a pre-emptive purchase of land – which might not be redeveloped in the foreseeable future – was wasteful and only proved LA’s urban renewal was a colossal flop.
Also like LA, our Urban Renewal Agency (URA) was directed by a five member board of non-salaried political appointees. They were stolid, civic-minded gentlemen but none had any apparent background in land development or urban planning; as identified in the photo below, there was a banker, an insurance agent, a civil engineer and two who worked in stores.
The Press Democrat didn’t criticize the board or city leaders for stumbling forward without a plan, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise – more important was they had already accomplished their initial objective, which was snagging millions of dollars from Washington for the new urban renewal project. A month after Santa Rosa was hit by the 1969 earthquakes, the mayor and the Planning Director were at the Capitol making a pitch for fast approval of federal grant money.
(A reminder that this article and others concerning the redevelopment saga are all part of the series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER” which offers an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s.)
That Planning Director was Ken Blackman who would be appointed City Manager in mid-1970, a position he would hold for thirty years. Whatever you love or hate about this town can probably be traced back to Blackman in some way – and that includes the mall. The PD was absolutely smitten with him; a 1983 puff piece told readers he was the “true mayor of Santa Rosa…Council members know they are often considered little more than pawns, or a rubber stamp for Blackman and his staff.”
Blackman was first hired by the city in 1965 and within a year was named Planning Director (he had a degree in economics and a Masters’ in Urban Planning). Besides that job, when crucial decisions were being made following the ’69 quakes he was also Community Development Director and Urban Renewal Agency Director. Since these were all fulltime staff positions, the joke going around City Hall was that he was gonna be the richest guy in town.
Even Blackman’s adversaries agreed he was a very successful City Manager. He kept the gears of Santa Rosa’s (surprisingly large) bureaucracy running smoothly and held sway over the City Council so it would do exactly what he wanted. He spoke fluent politics and a campaign manager told the Press Democrat in that 1983 profile he had “the ability to sense which groups have political power and he takes care of them.” While he didn’t cause people to fear him he was described as aloof and something of a tyrant; the PD’s stock photo of him in the early 1970s had a phone pressed to his ear with a “stern dad” scowl. But make no mistake: Ken Blackman was the bossman in the City of Roses. L’état ç’est lui.
He was the earliest and loudest advocate for razing the entire west side of downtown but was largely responsible for blunders that hampered his goal. The city had made no plans about what to do with rubble from the few buildings needing to be demolished because of earthquake damage, much less the 89 structures in the area Blackman wanted to bulldoze (the county dump near Guerneville only accepted household waste). As explained previously, the city’s solution was to allow any vacant lot to be used as a construction material dump as long as paperwork was filed for a special permit which would waive zoning laws. (There were even appeals asking property owners to come forward as a civic duty.) It would be an interesting research project to see if there is a map of these sites and whether there were any subsequent soil tests for asbestos, lead, arsenic or other toxins.
Another urgent problem was what to do with the 200+ people living in the redevelopment area who were about to be displaced by the demolition. A San Francisco developer tried to build a 226 unit residential hotel at Second and D Streets but found the URA impossible to work with. One of the partners expressed frustration to the PD and said pressure from the Agency staff was making the project “much too complicated.” Comments from city representatives in that article strongly imply Santa Rosa was throwing obstacles in front of the developer because the real hope was to make a deal with the government to buy it (today it’s the location of the state’s Rattigan office building).
After the residential hotel project died in the summer of 1971, there were three very different templates for Santa Rosa’s future I can imagine:
BUNKER HILL DÉJÀ VU Santa Rosa could continue following the blueprint of LA’s Bunker Hill, albeit writ smaller. Let the impoverished residents fend for themselves, scrape the land down to a blasted heath then let it sit idle for years as the city tries to haggle jackpot real estate deals. Meanwhile, Santa Rosa collects millions in ongoing federal redevelopment grants because so much public money has already been dumped into the boondoggle project it’s become too big to fail.
REDEVELOPMENT LITE The 1960s redevelopment near Courthouse Square mainly resulted in those blocks being dominated by banks and office buildings. Santa Rosa could raze the east side of B Street between Fourth and Second for more of the same (which is how it’s now used, with CitiBank, Wells Fargo and Luther Burbank Savings there). The city also could build the convention center at Third and A which had been on wishlists for years. Everything else could be left undisturbed. As this plan would wipe out the Santa Rosa Hotel and a few small apartment buildings, Santa Rosa would probably get a couple of million dollars for relocation money. Funding would be available to buy the property for the convention center but Santa Rosa would have to pass a bond to construct it, as happened with the City Hall complex. In sum, this plan wouldn’t deliver those big federal bux.
BUILD BACK BETTER The existing area west of B street had been mixed residential/commercial since before the 1906 earthquake. Santa Rosa could let it stay that way, making available grants and other incentives for property owners to bring buildings up to code while doing any repairs. Gone would be any debate about what to do with the Old Post Office and Cal Theater because they remain where they always were. The downsides: Santa Rosa already had declared the entire area blighted and received a HUD grant aimed at completely taking down this “slum.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall should Blackman have needed to call Washington and explain we lied on the application because the area is really more of a fixer-upper and, um, could we still keep the money, please?
All signs pointed to Santa Rosa’s project becoming a replay of the Bunker Hill screwup. At this junction Ken Blackman did something that steered us on the path to our world today – he hired a professional who was a bulldog for getting projects done. His name was James Burns.
Burns was hired in late 1971 and weeks later was named Executive Director of the Urban Renewal Agency after his predecessor quit, saying he was “an advocate of responsible quality development” and wasn’t comfortable with the direction Santa Rosa was heading. The Phase II redevelopment project might not have been his top concern, however; at that moment there was intense pressure to rush approval for annexation and development of the Fountain Grove Ranch to satisfy a deadline set by Hewett-Packard (another long, sordid story).
Santa Rosa was the fourth stop in Burns’ career, having most recently held the number-two position in the Rochester, NY renewal agency. It appears he was all that held that office together; not long after he left four others resigned because of “unbelievable feuds” with his successor, according to the local paper. One of them followed Burns to Santa Rosa where he would work under Blackman.
Before that he was project manager for Bunker Hill. There was a shakeup following that damning 1966 audit and Burns came in after a new administrator took charge. The wholesale demolition and evictions happened before his tenure; he managed street tunnel extensions, grading 35 feet off the top of hill, and labor-intensive landscaping where flowers were continually replanted in a high visibility area to make the overall mess seem slightly less like a hellscape.
Most Santa Rosans in 1972 probably couldn’t name the fellow who previously had the URA Executive Director job (it was Donald Laidlaw, for those playing Trivial Pursuit at home) but James K. Burns quickly left his mark, starting with the ad shown at right; whether it appeared in any newspaper other than the Press Democrat or trade journal is unknown. As far as I can tell, this was the first time anyone from the city proposed a full-blown shopping center in the downtown core.
When the PD asked about the ad Burns replied, “Why have a costly study to determine the proposal when potential developers – the ones who might actually be involved in the project – can indicate the feasibility much easier?” (Of course they could trust developers to honestly report on the projected costs and impact their project would have on infrastructure, safety and the public weal. Nay, sir, why should there be any government oversight at all, including building inspectors?)
Nor did Burns expect to see an actual proposal. According to the PD, “The director said the revitalized agency will want to know the developer’s track record, source of funds, members of his development team, and their interest and motives. At that point, the agency will select the most competent development team and enter into a period of exclusive negotiations.”
While his criteria for picking a developer for such a bellwether project could scarcely be fuzzier, Burns was quite specific per the money he expected to come in: The shopping center not only would be built in record time but construction would bring in $18 million over 18 months. Compare that to the piddling million/year boost from the 1960s redevelopment project and it’s no wonder why Burns’ vision was causing everyone around Ken Blackman’s city hall to purr and mew.
A few days after the close of interviews, the winner of this beauty contest was announced: It was Ernest W. Hahn Inc. of Hawthorne (Los Angeles). Only two other developers had applied.*
The Hahn Company was a seemingly uncontroversial pick; it was among the largest commercial developers in the West, having constructed about a dozen shopping centers to that date. Prior to that in the 1960s the company built pharmacies, supermarkets and department stores and frequently bid on contracts in the North Bay, including Santa Rosa. They had satellite offices in Hayward and Sacramento, where in 1968 alone the company did over $9 million in construction. Also in the state capitol in the mid-1960s was James K. Burns, whose first job was working at the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, rising from trainee to project manager.
Still, given the short time window of three weeks to apply, it’s valid to ask whether the URA had a chance to interview all viable candidates. For example, it’s just possible Gentle Reader might recall Santa Rosa had its very own shopping center developer, someone who had built a couple of places called Coddingtown and Montgomery Village.
According to the Press Democrat, Codding Enterprises contacted Burns and asked if the Agency could “defer definite action on the developer selection until three weeks or so.” Company president Hugh Codding was on the City Council but his term would expire April 11. After that he would have no conflict of interest, so perhaps they “could then explore the developer proposal for a downtown shopping center to see if there are any areas of mutual benefit.” The PD article continued:
|Asked later to comment on Mr. Codding’s delay request, Mr. Burns said the agency often is criticized for delays. He said the agency’s desire to hear from interested developers was given public notice locally as well as in the Bay Area. “If Codding Enterprises was interested, it should have come forward and explained the situation at that time,” the director said. Mr. Burns said he felt he would still recommend the Hahn firm even if Codding Enterprises had been interviewed because of the nature of far more regional experience.|
Having lost the opportunity to negotiate for the largest project in his hometown’s history simply because of an arbitrary deadline, Hugh B. Codding accepted that decision and did everything he could to support the project in order to ensure the completion of the downtown mall just went swell.
Ha, ha, just kidding. By the end of that decade Codding had filed eighteen lawsuits (22, by another count) directly related to the Hahn project – and that was just the tip of the iceberg of court proceedings.
* The other shopping center developers were Desmond McTavish of San Francisco and the Hapsmith Co. of Beverly Hills.