You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 15, 1978 – groundbreaking day for the downtown mall.
Twice before you’ve visited this spot; the most recent was the 1982 grand opening of the mall. In 1972 you were also here for a last look-see at the old district west of B before the city began demolishing it all. Those time machine trips were mentioned in the first chapter of this series, “HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE.”
But before you now in 1978 is a vast vacant lot, 43 acres scraped clear of the barber shops, the hotels once home to pensioners, the dive bars and the ballet school, the grand Art Deco “Cal” movie palace, the thrift shops and lunch counters. Gone are places where you could swing by after work and go home with the latest Elton John album or a live parakeet in a cage – the sort of eclectic district whose character helps a town thrive. All that remains now is the old Post Office, which will be moved in a couple of years and become the Sonoma County Museum.
About 300 yards away, near what once was the corner of Second and A streets, there’s something going on. You see a raised platform with a lectern – although so few are in the audience that a speaker could be easily heard without a microphone.
The Press Democrat allowed reporter Paul Ingalls a bit of poetic license to set the scene:
|Like a Shakespearian play, groundbreaking of Santa Rosa’s downtown shopping center unfolded Wednesday, revealing the worries, dreams and bitterness of those who have struggled over the mammoth development for so long. By comparison to the huge center the crowd which appeared on the project site for the 4 p.m. ceremonies was small. But among the group were the characters who have fought and promoted the project through more than six years of studies, public hearings, official meetings and lawsuits. There were those who claim they are powerful and those who claim they are not; those who think they have won and those who think the war is not over.|
Such a meager attendance seems odd, considering that morning a PD editorial boasted this is “the beginning of a new day” that will bring “a thriving shopping center in the heart of our city.” The paper will later claim a poll shows four out of five residents want the mall opened ASAP.
Yet the crowd doesn’t seem too appreciative of the blessings that are surely soon to come. In front of the rostrum a young girl marches back and forth with a protest sign. There are also adults (including a former Planning Commissioner) holding posters that read, “Don’t divide our city!” and “Don’t isolate Railroad Square” and “Did you vote on urban renewal?”
A citizen’s protest movement against a big commercial development? Sure, maybe in Berkeley or Greenwich Village but not in Santa Rosa, where the Chamber of Commerce and the Press Democrat had always steered the bus without much challenge.
Few complained when the city declared its intention in 1970 to plow under about a third of the downtown area. Nor were many (except for the Coddings) terribly upset when our redevelopment agency tossed long-promised plans to create a convention center and performing arts theater, instead inviting a Southern California developer to build a shopping center.
Not until 1974 when people realized their beloved Cal theater would be torn down did protests begin. The resistance spread deeper roots the following year after the City Council formed a citizen advisory committee which turned out to be a sham, attempting to promote their plan to spend public money on mall development while making ham-fisted efforts to intimidate community leaders into going along quietly. And did I forget to mention the Council dusted off an old law to ensure that voters could have no say in these dealings?
(Here’s also a reminder this is all part of a broader series on Santa Rosa redevelopment: “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” which includes an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s. This is chapter ten of the series just about the downtown mall.)
That it took so long for an opposition movement to coalesce doesn’t reflect public apathy so much as it was difficult to follow what was really going on. A lack of transparency and obstinance from both elected and non-elected officials is a common thread in this series; nearly every chapter has examples of the city deliberately making public information hard to find. Pivotal agenda items were sometimes not included in meeting notices printed in the newspaper; the library had only one non-circulating copy of the EIR – Urban Renewal Agency director James Burns said that was to “keep down the cost of governmental services to taxpayers;” the Community Development Commission (formerly the URA) stalled on releasing documents and sometimes wouldn’t answer even basic questions. Once the 20+ opposition groups began to form there were opportunities for people to network and share information.
Even at the time of the 1978 groundbreaking there were major issues still unresolved, including details of how the city would finance $4 million for infrastructure work needed before the mall construction. Those opposed feared traffic backups downtown because studies predicted Third Street would reach its capacity around 1990. (The city was also chastened by CalTrans because the EIR didn’t consider what impact the mall might have on highway traffic, which proved to be a far greater concern once the mall opened.) And as the protest signs said, the mall was going to further divide downtown from Railroad Square.
All of these problems were directly tangled up with “Phase III.” That was the name for the 12-acre section that covered Fifth Street to Seventh and included the Cal Theater, the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership, the old Post Office and Sears. Today it’s the site of Macy’s and the mall’s north parking garage.
There probably would have been little to no resistance to the mall if not for Phase III (except from the Coddings, of course, who wanted developer Hahn to drop out so they could build their own project). Yes, many would object to having any sort of downtown mall, but a smaller one that ended at Fifth Street – or better yet, Fourth – wouldn’t have blocked off a large section of downtown or had the funding and traffic worries.
Or if you want to visit a different alternative universe, more people would probably have fought against the mall from the beginning if they knew what it was going to look like. Either Hahn was keeping his plans close to his vest or the developer-friendly Press Democrat was negligent in keeping the public informed. Or some of both.
The first time anyone in Santa Rosa glimpsed his plans was a 1973 layout seen in the EIR. Besides showing a parking garage on B Street that blocks the mall off from downtown, this version was notable because Hahn presumed he would gain approval to include Phase III in the project, although that wouldn’t happen for another year.
Hahn presented a scale model of what he was planning to the city Design Review Board in the summer of 1974. No picture appeared in the newspaper, but he said it came “95 percent of the way” to meeting concerns about the design.
That could be the same model shown in a 1977 feature in the PD.1 The description in the paper stated the design would feature “heavily landscaped exterior mini-parks.” Note there is no parking garage on the north side next to Macy’s, nor is there that peculiar little access road that provides a shortcut between B and Sixth Streets for those in the know. (Santa Rosa Trivial Pursuit question: What year was the Sixth Street highway underpass created? A: 2012, thirty years after the mall opened.)
While that model clearly shows the mall squatting atop Fifth Street, critics believed this was a negotiable point. Two candidates for City Council replied to the PD’s “new day” editorial by insisting the sacrifice of Fourth and Fifth to the development would create a traffic mess “worse than Steele Lane.” Later in 1978, a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups filed a suit over the issue, arguing this demonstrated collusion between the city and the developer.2
A WALKWAY TO RAILROAD SQ?
With no means to drive (or bike) from downtown to Railroad Square without taking a detour through Third or Seventh Street, a pedestrian corridor through the mall was still in the plans…right?
Look again at the 1973 layout and find there’s a direct something between B and Morgan Streets. What was that? An aisle through the mall, open only during business hours? An outdoor passageway, perhaps with gates on either side that can be lowered when the mall is closed? Or was it a tunnel, as underground parking was part of the plans at the time? The EIR was silent, although the consultants who wrote the report gently chided the developer and the city for not doing enough to link the mall with downtown via pedestrian access. (This is further discussed in the EIR chapter.)
The issue remained unresolved in 1977, although the model seen above suggests a skylight over a straight line passageway. The accompanying article in the PD said, “Hahn’s architects will continue designing the 750,000 sq. ft. center…What remains is the specific appearance of the entrance at Fourth Street and treatment of the walkway through the facility toward Railroad Square.”
Depending on whom you asked, the rebels preferred Fifth to remain an open street (with Macy’s separated from the mall), become an underpass (apparently like Third St.) or a tunnel under the store, starting east of B Street and ending near Railroad Square.
Hahn and the department stores pushed back – hard. The developer said he had letters from both Sears and Macy’s that they would pull out of the mall if any of those options were approved. (FYI: The executive from Sears was named in the PD article, but not the one from Macy’s.)
Worse yet, Hahn threatened to sue the city into the next century and beyond if Fifth Street remained open. The man who normally came off as a kindly grandpa said he would kill the whole mall project and use “every legal means available to us for the recovery of the $2 million plus expended on the project to date.”
Yet a potential lawsuit was just the beginning of Santa Rosa’s nightmare: The city would have to repay Hahn’s 1973 “good faith” deposit of $500,000 (with interest), and the developer now had approval to buy the property on both sides of Third St. where the Sears store was to be built. As Hugh Codding pointed out, he would be paying roughly 15¢ on the dollar, so he could reap further millions by selling that prime real estate at market rates.
The City Council rushed to approve the street closures as expected, although this time the vote wasn’t unanimous. It seems the pro-development forces had another problem: One of the leading rebels was now sitting on the Council.
With rare exceptions (such as Hugh Codding’s tenure in the 1960s) the midcentury Santa Rosa City Council was made up of middle-aged shopkeepers and the occasional banker.3 So it came as a surprise to many when the city’s general elections held a few days after the groundbreaking found the top vote-getter for the Council was Jerry Wilhelm, a 27 year-old attorney. Wilhelm had worked at the California Rural Legal Assistance nonprofit and was attorney for the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee, which had emerged as the leading activist group opposing the mall. They had a reputation for butting heads with the city, most famously in early 1977 when the mayor was forced to admit the Council had acted illegally by rushing through approval of a subdivision so the landowner could enjoy a fat tax break.
Once on the Council, Wilhelm wasted no time in challenging the status quo. (Part of his campaign motto was, “stop special favors to the favored few.”) He was a Fifth Street tunnel advocate, insisting something to preserve the street needed to be addressed before mall construction began.
As far as Hahn’s threat to leave unless the streets were closed, Wilhelm said it was a bluff because Santa Rosa was such a “plum” he’d never walk away. The EIR was outdated and needed to be amended or completely redone, Wilhelm insisted, particularly the section on mall financing in light of Prop. 13. And speaking of which, Hahn had said he would donate $400 thousand annually to the city for ten years to make up for lost tax revenues. Wilhelm replied Hahn was going to be saving $1.2M a year in taxes under the new law, so he wasn’t really being so benevolent.
Wilhelm was invited to speak at a Downtown Development Association luncheon. Gentle Reader probably assumes the merchants in that bastion of Babbittry would be fighting mall construction tooth and claw. The addition of dozens of new chainstores just down the street couldn’t possibly help their own businesses – right?
To the contrary, Wilhelm was told 85 percent of the membership was not concerned at all. The Councilman argued the point; he told them a mall is “not designed to have a spill-over effect. It’s a little too much to expect that people will start to walk all over town after driving that far (to get to the shopping center),” the PD reported.
But the DDA loved the plans and saw the street closures working to their advantage because it would create a bottleneck on Third Street. Wilhelm taped the luncheon meeting and recorded Bill McNeany, head of Rosenberg’s Department Store, saying this:
|“We want a captive shopper. And once he gets down here, let him fight his way out, to then shop in the stores on his way out – ‘I’m not going to go to my car because the traffic is too bad. I’ll go shop instead.’ Once we get him in, let’s keep him here. We want a captive audience.”|
Gaye LeBaron though it rude of Wilhelm to record the meeting and it was a shame McNeany got flak for his remarks since he was really the “original Mr. Nice Guy.” But someone (Gaye suspected Codding attorney Bill Smith) took his idea and formed a parody organization, the “Committee to Close Third Street too.” T-Shirts were made and press releases handed out; one read, “Let’s close Third Street too and then instead of one vast city we can have two half vast cities!”
We fly ahead to 1980; Sears’ new store opened and there was still squabbling over what was to be done with Fifth Street. All of the many lawsuits against the mall were over, except for a Codding appeal challenging the EIR and that 1978 complaint about street closures filed by a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups as mentioned above.
(RIGHT: One of several ads from the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan that appeared in the PD during 1978-1979)
Part of that coalition was the “Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan” – which was partially funded by the Coddings – and the group assumed leadership, printing leaflets and buying large ads in the Press Democrat, such as the example shown here. Some ads would list names of a hundred or so people who had signed aboard, but all included that tone-deaf McNeany “captive shopper” quote.
When the suit finally came before Superior Court Judge Bryan Jamar, they found him as sympathetic as any plaintiff could wish for. When the city attorney said traffic studies showed traffic would flow smoothly once Fourth and Fifth streets were fully closed, the judge snapped, “You wanna bet?” and he wouldn’t change his mind “even if there were a zillion traffic studies.” Still, he ruled the city had the power to abandon those public rights-of-way, as “it was the council’s decision to make based on the evidence they had at the time.” Poof! And our last hope to integrate the mall as part downtown vanished.
The Sensible Downtown group was led by Hal Coleman, a board member of the influential Santa Rosa Democratic Club and who had been a candidate for Council in 1978. Now in 1980 he was running again, this time as part of a “slate” with fellow Sensible Downtown activist Norman Boyer, the two of them vowing to join Wilhelm in creating a new “philosophical majority.”
The thought of the three of them voting in synch surely caused ice water to run down spines at City Hall, as it was the exact scenario that led Hahn to sue Corte Madera six years earlier. There an anti-mall council was voted in and they put Hahn’s shopping center development on hiatus. Hahn retaliated by filing a $10M suit for supposed lost future income. A PD editorial called the possibility of something similar happening here “disturbing:”
|…They imply they would join with present Councilman Jerry Wilhelm to form that new majority. We find this disturbing, because one of the positions which all three have in common is opposition to the downtown shopping center as it is presently planned…It seems logical to us that the election of Coleman and Boyer could be considered by them, and Councilman Wilhelm, as a mandate to reopen the entire downtown plan for review. Reopening the subject of the downtown plan at this late date would be counter to the interests of the city…|
That neither of them won is somewhat a surprise, as even the PD conceded the Sensible Downtown group seemed to have broad popular support. Perhaps it was because there was a sense that the game was over – which it indeed was. There would be no further lawsuits or other actions to delay construction or seek design changes of the mall.
But there was a final big lawsuit to be filed that year: In July, the Redevelopment Agency sued the Coddings for $4 million plus damages. Among the charges were “malicious abuse” of the courts by filing ten suits and financing five more to delay mall construction and prevent its financing.4 Codding agreed to a $675k out of court settlement in 1982.
Codding attorney Bill Smith was portrayed by the Press Democrat as a bully, hectoring the poor, poor members of the City Council or Redevelopment Agency who had to sit quietly through his anti-mall diatribes and aggressive questioning. For those keeping track of such things, let it be known at three hearings police were called to get Smith to hush up. On one of those occasions Smith had been challenged to a fistfight.
But besides serving the interests of the Coddings and their construction business, he deserves great respect for acting as the de facto public watchdog over Santa Rosa’s whole urban renewal/redevelopment slog from 1973 to 1980, even on points that didn’t directly impact Codding. Thanks to him we learned of Hahn’s threatened lawsuit against Corte Madera after he obtained a copy of the developer’s letter and slipped it to the PD.
Smith was in attendance at a URA meeting in January 1975 when the Agency discussed what to do about the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership and its claim the agency owed it $300,000. (For those needing a refresher in the urban renewal game: A city agency would pay market value for a property, bundle it with other parcels and then sell everything to a developer for pennies on the dollar.)
Walter Hansel said he was told in April 1972 by Lester Beldon, then the URA chair, their A Street location would be redeveloped. Then and over the following years, the agency told Hansel the purchase deal would go through “sometime in 1972,” 1973, 1974, “and perhaps April 1975.” Meanwhile, the Ford dealer had spent more than $300k preparing for their move to Corby Ave.5
Although Smith was not the attorney for the dealership, he spoke up at that 1975 meeting to point out an interesting detail: The car lot was within the Phase III area. Hansel supposedly had been told it was going to be part of the land required by the mall more than two years before the City Council hearing where Phase III would be approved.
This started “another of those bitter shouting matches” (as the PD put it) between Smith and the URA directors, who refused to answer any of the lawyer’s questions.
Said Smith, “I don’t think we’ve been told everything the agency knows. I think the taxpayers of Santa Rosa have a right to know why a reputable firm is bringing this action.” He was told to sit down and this, by the way, was one of those meetings where the police would be called to silence him. True to par, the agency followed by debating whether there was any way they could blame their broken obligations to Bishop-Hansel on Codding.
While Bishop-Hansel was reluctant to leave its downtown location, another business within Phase III was quite eager to move.6 It was Sears, and their managers had likewise started making plans in 1972, before the area got a green light for redevelopment. Only Sears wasn’t talking to Santa Rosa’s URA – they were negotiating with developer Hahn.
And what makes that twist in the narrative particularly interesting is that those talks were supposedly underway even before Hahn was in the picture.
Recall in early 1972 there was no developer tapped to develop the shopping center – or whether there would even be one. In March, URA Executive Director James Burns ran an ad inviting developers to contact him because they were “interested in exploring the possibility” of a downtown mall. By the end of the month the URA was in “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn which would continue on for a full year. That history is recounted in the chapter, “THE CHOSEN ONE.”
Hahn’s interest in a Santa Rosa project and his exclusive deal were first announced in the PD on March 28, 1972. (Please make note of that date.) The article also reported, “Mr. Burns said representatives for Sears in Santa Rosa have expressed some interest in the shopping center idea and are watching related steps closely.”
But a few years later, the Coddings obtained a letter Sears wrote to Hahn. According to the description of the contents printed in the PD, Sears told him they would be willing to sign on to the Hahn project as long as they could be guaranteed there would be an acceptable deal to sell the B Street property. The letter was dated February 23, 1972 – five weeks before Hahn was named as the chosen developer for the mall:
| The Codding firm cites as evidence a letter from Sears to Hahn dated Feb. 23, 1972. Signed by B.K. Horne, property and construction manager at the Sears Alhambra office, the letter authorizes Hahn to announce that store’s interest in relocating its B Street store into the new downtown. Sears said its willingness to relocate was conditioned on an agreement by Aug. 31, 1972, and “the required disposition, whether by direct purchase or trade, of Sears current ownership of the present (B Street) Sears facility and its attendant land.” (Press Democrat, February 16, 1975)
Put this 1972 timeline under the microscope. February: Sears told Hahn they’ll need a purchase deal. March: The URA announced Hahn will be the developer. April: The URA promised Bishop-Hansel, which was just a block from Sears, they would get just the sort of market-value purchase deal Sears was requiring.
There’s a lot to unpack and it’s above my pay grade to even hypothesize whether or not all of that was completely legal. But it certainly seemed hinky; commitments were being made by a city agency to spend large sums of public money on an unapproved development project, while a wildcat developer with no connection (yet) to the city was negotiating deals that would do the same.
The 1975 PD article continued: “Nell Codding, secretary-treasurer of Codding Enterprises, the developer and former city official’s wife, said she believes Sears was demanding a good price for its B Street site before agreeing to enter Hahn’s project. She contends Hahn, in turn, pressured the city to declare Sears in the Phase Three urban renewal area to guarantee its entry into the project.”
Thus here, as best as I can piece everything together from ever-so-many Press Democrat articles, was the Big Plan: The 1972 RFP for shopping center developers was a sham because Hahn – who was recommended by URA exec James Burns – must have been secretively already chosen the designated winner. Hahn needed an anchor tenant for his future mall, and Sears was willing. For Sears to easily get market rate for its existing building they needed the city agency to buy it. In May, 1973, the City Council extended the urban renewal study area to include the blocks with Sears, the Ford dealership and the Cal Theater. Phase III was born, and with it was lost the hope for an intergral downtown.
So for the last time, imagine standing at the end of Fourth Street gazing west. Before you is the Great Wall of B Street, forever chopping off a large part of downtown Santa Rosa. As you grind your teeth and blame the 1970s City Council, the Urban Renewal Agency, the foolish downtown merchants and developer Ernest Hahn, don’t forget to aim some of your ire at Sears, which didn’t care what would happen to Santa Rosa as long as they got a good real estate deal.
1 The February 6, 1977 PD (page 3C, or #37 in newspapers.com) also shows a model for a Railroad Square “rehabilitation” and the only aerial photo I’ve ever seen of the demolished project area, although the Occidental Hotel, Cal Theater, and other Phase III structures are still standing.
2 The coalition suing to block the closure of Fourth, Fifth and A streets consisted of the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan, the Irate Taxpayers Committee, Sonoma County Tomorrow and the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee
3 Also on the City Council in 1978 (and was, in fact, then Santa Rosa’s mayor) was Donna Born, former Chair of the city Planning Commission. As discussed in the EIR chapter, she had spoken eloquently during the 1974 EIR hearing questioning the need for the mall to be enclosed and whether the mall’s design would integrate with the rest of downtown. On the Council, however, she mostly voted with the majority in favor of redevelopment although she identified herself as liberal.
4 The Press Democrat and other sources usually accuse the Coddings of being responsible for 18-22 lawsuits against the mall. See discussion in fn. 5 of the previous chapter.
5 Bishop-Hansel sued the URA in May 1975 for $500 thousand and asked another $350k in damages. The Ford dealership lost their case that November after the court ruled they couldn’t show URA statements had damaged their business. The following month they completed the move to Corby Ave.
6 The Santa Rosa Sears building was still fairly new having opened in 1949, but the chain felt it had outgrown its 75,000 sq. ft. and wanted to expand. The new store in the mall would be almost twice that size, not even counting the 18,000 sq. ft. auto center.