Santa Rosa’s downtown was in big trouble during the 1980s, and it wasn’t very long before I began to view the story as a murder mystery. This was an unexpected offshoot of my research on the creation of the downtown mall, which culminated in the “Road to the Mall” series that just wrapped up. From personal memory I recalled the years following the mall’s debut were tough on businesses in the downtown core and in Railroad Square – but only after paging through back issues of the Press Democrat did I come to understand how bad it was. By the end of the 1980s, it appeared Santa Rosa’s downtown was not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.
Places we thought would never, ever close were shutting down with frightening regularity. The White House Department Store at Third and D Streets closed in 1985. They had constructed a cavernous 25,000 sq. ft. building and moved in only sixteen years earlier. The downtown McDonald’s had a prime location just two doors down from Exchange Bank and it closed in 1986. Note to city planners: If you have a fast food restaurant that depends on lots of foot traffic and it fails because of a lack of customers, that’s a pretty good sign your sidewalks don’t have enough feet.
The PD conducted a 1986 survey asking people why they came downtown, comparing it to an identical survey conducted in 1983. In almost every category – shopping, dining and convenience – the numbers declined sharply. The only response where downtown showed an uptick was when asked if they agreed with “[I] like downtown because of Rosenberg’s.” Two years later in 1988, Rosenberg’s closed.
Since downtown began circling the drain soon after the mall opened, it seemed easy to connect the two events directly. And there’s some data to support that view, according to a 1987 PD report.1 Between 1983-1986 Santa Rosa was attracting a growing number of shoppers but the downtown wasn’t seeing any benefit. After a rocky first year, sales at the mall grew ten percent annually while sales downtown remained flat – by 1986, the mall was pulling in 3x more. When the lights finally went out at Rosenberg’s, about a quarter of downtown’s retail space was now vacant.
This makes it tempting to blame all those woes just on the mall and particularly its developer Ernest Hahn, painting him as a real estate sharpie who conned the yokels into gambling away their town’s future. And there’s a germ of truth to that; Hahn probably knew as much about malls as anyone in the world, having built 26 shopping centers by the time ours opened, with another 29 in the works. Hahn also knew the impact a mall could have on a community; he acknowledged in a 1975 PD interview his malls – usually built in suburbs or on unincorporated land – could contribute to the collapse of nearby downtowns.
Perhaps if this really were a whodunnit, Hahn would be a classic suspect. He was the last person you would ever imagine of resorting to a salesman’s subterfuge; he was a grandfatherly man with twinkly eyes and a broad grin who gave generously to charities. (There’s even a statue of him in a San Diego park!) Agatha Christie might have used him as a model for the murderer nobody would ever consider – perhaps a kindly vicar who turned out to be poisoning village widows in order to steal their commemorative plates.
But in Santa Rosa, Hahn wouldn’t even need to exercise his skills at back-slapping salesmanship. Here, we had a redevelopment director whose résumé consisted of urban renewal projects from the 1960s and who touted the mall as something like an upgrade to Santa Rosa Downtown version 2.0. Hahn found a remarkably pliant city government eager to rubber stamp his plans without question – and even save him money by helping with construction and giving him financial subsidies. Here also was a business community that eagerly welcomed his advent, believing a mega-mall would improve their own lot (go figure).
So the answer to “who killed downtown” was that it was a collaboration between the developer, city hall, and downtown interests. They all done it – even though there were many Cassandras along the way who warned it would not turn out well.
The point of this article is not to retread ground from the “Road to the Mall” series but to take a fresh look at the crime scene, particularly in light of an excellent PD report that came out in 1987, five years after the mall opened. Maybe then we can try to unravel the truly important unanswered question: Why on earth did so many think a downtown mall would be such a good idea? Just as there were three different culprits who participated in the deed, there were three different motives.
DEVELOPER ERNEST HAHN was at the 1982 grand opening of the mall, where the Press Democrat reported he had “a feeling of great satisfaction” to have helped restore the heart of downtown Santa Rosa. Assuming reporter Clark Mason quoted him correctly (and there’s no reason he wouldn’t, as the paper was an enthusiastic backer of Hahn and his mall) it was a damned odd thing for him to say.
First, it sounded as if he was accepting our gratitude for having performed a charitable act. Galling as that was, it was a slap in the face to claim he was “restoring” anything; the mall was intended to steal away much of the retail business from Santa Rosa’s downtown core. Hahn’s engineers and architects hoped to achieve that by pulling off quite a magic trick – they would make downtown disappear.
Gentle Reader might recall from way back in chapter one that in the 1960s and 1970s shopping malls were considered key to having a successful metro area. If the one near your town – they were almost never within city limits – was more popular than the one down the road, so much the better; it meant more jobs, more tax revenue and generally a better outlook for your community. And, of course, more stores wanting to rent space from Hahn Inc. or whatever corporation owned the shopping center.
With a Macy’s and a Sears superstore announced early on, the Santa Rosa mall was anticipated to be a regional mega-mall for the entire North Bay. This meant most shoppers would be driving in on highway 101; CalTrans projected the mall would increase traffic by an additional 15,000 vehicles daily, with 20k on Saturdays.2 Even if there was only one person per car, over twice as many shoppers than the entire population of Santa Rosa would be arriving every week.
But here’s the curious thing: Although the official highway exit signs read “Downtown Santa Rosa” there was not even a tiny glimpse of anything downtown to be seen from the offramps.
Try it yourself: Imagine it’s 1984, you live in Novato and want to buy your spouse a nice coat. You’re not familiar with Santa Rosa and at the offramp traffic light there’s a small-ish sign marked “Central Business District” with an arrow pointing east. In that direction all you can see is the Sears passageway over Third Street. Directly ahead, though, there’s a parking garage. The light changes and it’s time to make a quick decision – what do you do? Or maybe you’re coming from the north. The offramp dumps you onto Davis Street and through the highway underpasses on Fifth and Fourth all you can see are the parking garages. In both cases, the shopper’s path of least resistance will likely be to use a mall parking garage. But hey, they could still park there free and walk over to Rosenberg’s or the White House department stores…right?
Perhaps so, if our out-of-town shopper was familiar enough with Santa Rosa to know what stores were downtown and was willing to walk a few blocks. But here was the trap – the parking garages led only to a mall entrance. Gaye LeBaron lamented in a 1987 column about what happened once the shopper was inside:
|…Do we remember the repeated suggestions, when it became apparent that a direct walking route [through the mall] was lost, that the mall at least be designed so people could SEE through it. We couldn’t even get that. Hahn moved Mervyns to the middle and jogged the back door south to create a psychological as well as a physical barrier. From either side, there appears to be nothing beyond.
This calculated vanishing act is not a petty complaint. The greatest concern during the planning stages was that the mall would be a world unto itself and not integrated with the downtown core. The authors of the EIR and experts commenting on it specifically warned that was a serious issue (see chapter eight).
More critically, federal regulators let it be known that Santa Rosa and its favorite developer were on notice they better not screw this up. In 1975 HUD worried the mall would hurt Rosenberg’s, Petersen’s, the White House and other downtown stores. It was essential to link the mall with the downtown core, according to a HUD letter: “The land use problem…is that the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place.”
Exactly what assurances were given to HUD (if any) are unknown, but they had to keep the regulators happy; the entire mall project hinged on HUD giving a thumbs-up that the “Phase III” area suffered blight. Hahn had made a quiet deal with Sears that they would be able to unload their existing store in that area in exchange for becoming an anchor tenant in the new mall (chapter ten). A blight designation would mean that the city would guarantee to pay Sears market rate for the property. In September of 1975, HUD granted blight certification. After that, little could really be done to stop Hahn’s big project – although the Coddings and several citizen groups continued to try.
THE CITY shares equal blame with Hahn for what the mall wrought – and maybe more so.
It was a project that cried for the need of close oversight. Besides being the largest and most intrusive construction in the town’s history and soaking up millions in public funds, there were also those warnings in the EIR and HUD letter that it would turn into a downtown-killer if we weren’t careful. Instead, the city was in cahoots with Hahn at every step of the way.
Once Hahn appeared on the scene, the “Road to the Mall” series showed they went to remarkable lengths to keep the project moving forward. This included preventing opportunities for critics to speak; not even the city Planning Commission was allowed to say anything concerning planning the mall. They refused to allow a public referendum vote on the shopping center and even called the referendum proposal itself illegal.
“They” are specifically the City Council between 1972 and 1982 along with the Council-appointed Urban Renewal Agency (renamed the Community Development Commission in 1975). Together with Hahn, they operated like a tag team. The way money was shuffled around in those years was dizzying. Hahn made a “good faith” deposit of $500,000 – yet still retained control of how it was spent. The Council gave a $4 million loan to the Commission to use any way they liked. “Road to the Mall” covered further deals that added up to millions, all made without voter approval. An extensive audit would be needed to figure out what really happened and while I have been called many awful things in my life, never has anyone accused me of being a forensic accountant.
They also spent like drunken cowboys on out-of-town consultants, some from as far away as New Jersey. Quality varied wildly; some came up with bold ideas, others seemed to be trying to second-guess what the Council wanted them to say, and a report from a Berkeley firm was so dumb it was unlikely the authors could have found Santa Rosa on a map.
Missing from that steaming pile of consultancy was a risk–benefit analysis, which was essential before launching a major project such as a shopping center. Such a feasibility study typically might take a year or more with a local government hiring the best experts they could afford. Instead of doing that, Santa Rosa asked Ernest Hahn’s team to take a look (chapter four).
Did Hahn’s staff produce an objective analysis? Hard to say, as only selections were released. Whereas a consultant’s work-for-hire would be a public document, the city had entered into “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn. Because of that, James Burns, executive director of the Renewal Agency, told the Press Democrat parts wouldn’t be disclosed “as a matter of procedure.”
Relying upon a developer to write his own evaluation turned out to be a bigger mistake than just asking Mr. Fox to keep an eye on the chicken coop. The redevelopment of the area west of B street started as a federally funded urban renewal project in 1970, in the same mold as other downtown urban renewal projects during the 1960s. But while Hahn’s staff was still working on their feasibility study in early 1973, the Nixon administration first scaled back the program and then cut it altogether. Urban renewal had become synonymous with wasteful government spending for multiple reasons, among them that it mainly helped to enrich wealthy developers like Hahn.
This increased Santa Rosa’s risk enormously, should we continue to pursue the mall project. Considering the city would now be expected to come up with at least $4.25 million – about $29M in today’s dollars – surely impartial advisors would have suggested the City Council take a hard look at whether they really wanted to proceed.
But proceed we did, of course. Working from best-case scenarios, director Burns promised the money could be raised through selling bonds, diverting taxes and scrounging credits from other federal programs (read the interview with him in the Sept. 2, 1973 PD for a master class in hand waving and hoop jumping). Why, things would be going so well the profits would pay for a 2,500 seat performing arts theater and major convention facility which the public actually wanted.
THE BOOSTERS were the downtown businesses and Old Guard community leaders who believed in the 1970s the future mall would actually benefit downtown. In the 1980s some came to understand they had made a terrible mistake – although others thought things were just going swell.
“Santa Rosa has to take a good hard look at having a mall that divides the town,” restauranteur Lisa Hemenway told the PD in 1987. Her Railroad Square retro-1950s restaurant Polka Dots had just closed because of poor business, and she commented it was because the mall sliced downtown into three sections that didn’t interact with each other.
Yet that same year a downtown über-booster insisted everything was fine because Santa Rosa showed foresight by building a mall on prime downtown real estate. “We are the envy of most cities in the state of California.”
The Press Democrat identified fourteen men as leaders on efforts to boost the downtown core during those decades.3 One of them was PD editor Art Volkerts which is ironic – during his editorial tenure, the newspaper was such a cheerleader for constructing the mall it could be considered in its own right as one of the main players responsible for the decay of downtown’s prospects. Their newsroom had a stable of top-notch reporters, particularly Paul Ingalls, John Adams and George Manes, who did a fine job covering all sides of the complex story as it developed. But never did the paper ask follow-up questions, such as naming sources used by the city for its increasingly delusional predictions of how much income the mall would produce. And when it came out that Hahn was making a deal with Sears on behalf of the city even before he became the chosen developer for the mall (chapter ten), the PD should have been calling for a Grand Jury investigation. In olden days, an editor would have ordered the composing room staff to dust off the screaming 80 pt. Franklin Gothic type reserved for doomsday headlines.
With 250-odd members, the Downtown Development Association (DDA) represented a coalition of merchants, bankers, restauranteurs and what have you. For such a disparate group they usually spoke with a surprisingly unified voice, and what they said was “we welcome the mall.” At a 1978 luncheon, 85 percent of the membership were not concerned about what impact it would have on the downtown area.
One reason was because they had plans for a redesigned downtown that was pretty inviting; Fourth Street would become a pedestrian “semi-mall” with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). Sadly, their optimism was misplaced if they thought that was enough to draw shoppers away from the mall. It appears they expected Macy’s would be like a stand-alone store with a main exit onto B Street – unaware modern shopping centers were designed like labyrinths, making it an effort for people to find a way out (except to the parking garage). This came up at the luncheon, where the speaker warned DDA members that malls were “not designed to have a spill-over effect.” At the same event the manager of Rosenberg’s showed naïveté by insisting traffic bottlenecks at the Third Street highway onramp would encourage out-of-towners to linger here and shop more.
Had the DDA stayed the course and built the semi-mall, it’s easy to imagine downtown would have become a vibrant place and be so today. (In my personal opinion, this was key failure that undercut downtown’s future.) And if they had strongly opposed mall construction – or simply expressed serious concerns – it wouldn’t have stopped the project, but the group might have won some concessions. As it was, the plans for the semi-mall were abandoned the following year after some merchants griped that closing Fourth street to traffic would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. So much for their “all for one and one for all” alliance.
Scoot forward to 1987, five years after the mall opened. The White House Department Store is gone, soon to be followed by Rosenberg’s. Downtown now has seventeen banks and savings & loans, which a consultant called “unheard of” for a town that size.
That was not a bad thing in the view of Sharon Wright, former head of the DDA. She told the Press Democrat merchants need to adapt and “cater to the 8,000 to 10,000 people that work downtown every day.”
Her opinion invited snorts of derision and drop-jawed disbelief. Nell Codding asked the PD, “How often would you go downtown if you didn’t work there?” A councilman remarked, “office workers [alone] cannot be expected to support the businesses downtown.”
To figure out what was needed to fix downtown – ignoring that we already had that decade old plan with a pedestrian semi-mall – the City Council hired yet another out-of-town consulting firm. These experts took notice that the downtown core was now dominated by banks and office buildings and decided what we really needed to do was to… wait for it, wait for it… double the amount of office space. Oh, it would be okay to add more small stores in Railroad Square, but only lots of new office buildings (up to ten stories high) would rescue downtown. And we should start by tearing down Rosenberg’s store. Good grief.
THE CODDINGS and Bill Smith, attorney for Codding Enterprises, also played key roles in an unexpected way: By committing the heresy of questioning the city’s efforts to ramrod through the mall project, they slowly drove the true believers nuts.
(For those who need a refresher: Hugh Codding was the earliest and most persistent critic. He hoped to block it because he planned to build his own mega-mall, “Coddingland,” west of the freeway in Rohnert Park. He also wanted to buy and redevelop the area that would be used by the mall, intending to build what the town planned to do before Hahn came along; there would have been a performance/convention center, a hotel and a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Over the years he filed ten lawsuits and financed five more in whole or in part, according to the Press Democrat.)
Chapter five, “MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS,” covers the early years of the Codding’s opposition, but nearly every chapter afterward shows them uncovering further eye-opening details.
Initially the Council and Renewal Agency just stonewalled Smith’s requests to see a document or memo. Oh, it will be made available soon; oh, we can’t divulge that because it is part of our “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn; oh, call our San Francisco attorney and ask him (spoiler alert: The lawyer wouldn’t take his calls).
Smith apparently raised questions or made objections at every Council or Renewal Agency meeting regarding the mall. Sometimes the officials were evasive or refused to say anything; Agency Director James K. Burns said he wouldn’t answer Smith’s questions “because one question would have led to another question and another, and another.” At other times the sessions devolved into what a PD reporter termed as “bitter shouting matches.”
Reading the newspaper stories about those doings today, now that about fifty years have passed, it’s shocking to follow along as they transformed Hugh Codding into a super villain. They saw his invisible hand behind everything that went amiss on the mall project; when citizen’s groups filed their own lawsuits, Codding had to be secretly paying the activists to do it. When the city couldn’t get a bank loan for the project, it was only because the Codding lawsuits had spooked the lenders – not that the bankers, who by nature are extremely risk adverse, might not have been willing to underwrite a project based on the old and discredited urban renewal paradigm. When the Ford dealership sued over the city breaking its promise to help with relocation costs, the Council debated how they could blame it on Codding. They remained incredibly petty even after the mall fight was over, as when the City Council passed an ordinance to stop the Coddingtown sign from turning.4
Not that the Coddings and Smith were angels themselves, however. Although they never prevailed in court with any of their mall-related lawsuits, you still expected a Codding suit to have merit and would be based on the city actually doing something hinky. The single exception was Codding’s 1975 conflicts of interest charges.
After apparently failing to get the Grand Jury to take the bait, a suit claimed three members of the URA would benefit from construction of the mall. A store on B Street directly across from the mall was partly owned by an Agency member and another worked at a bank on the same block. There was limited parking on B so the suit made the assumption their customers would use the mall parking garages. The third accused member was an insurance agent who handled a policy for one of the owners of the Bishop-Hansel Ford dealership which was in the redevelopment project area.
Others swept up over alleged conflicts included a Councilman who had an interest in a restaurant on the “fringe” of the redevelopment area and another City Council member who was a former Exchange Bank director – his supposed conflict was the bank planned to put an ATM in the mall.
It came across as a cheap ad hominem attack, even more so when Codding’s lawyer rehashed some of the charges in the following years after the suit was dismissed. Still today, however, there are echoes of this theme found on unsocial media. In comments on this series it’s regularly opined there had to be corruption of some sort, although there was never even a hint that something like that happened.
Compiling the list of WHO killed downtown Santa Rosa presents no special challenge, and the motives of the culprits were just as obvious – they shared a misguided certainty that a downtown mega-mall would usher in mega prosperity.
But the question that continued to vex me was how the mall project made it all the way through to the finish line. Santa Rosa was not known for proceeding expeditiously; it took six years for the city to get around to constructing a new main library building. Closer to hand was the example of the semi-mall. While the concept was was widely admired, the city dithered for two years – then finally dropped the plan because the (proverbial) guy who owned a shoe store threw a fit over losing a couple of parking spots.
Yet against those poor odds, the mall project was never in doubt and kept plowing forward for ten years. Pro-mall backers maintained unwavering support – at all costs, the mall must prevail. When troubling issues arose, asking Hahn to compromise was never an option; they sought to discredit critics instead. Although the Coddings were the first targets, their enemy list grew in tandem with mounting public opposition into a full-blown siege mentality.
That was the gist of comments from Derek Simmons which appeared in the Press Democrat April 3, 1980. Although brief, these are probably the most insightful observations on the mall’s development history.
A former city attorney, Simmons was speaking on behalf of the reelection of Jerry Wilhelm, the only mall skeptic on City Council. He said City Hall had an “us verses them” attitude and since Wilhelm was considered “them,” information was not shared with him.
Nobody in city management was evil or incompetent, Simmons assured, but lack of leadership from the City Council and the high competency of City Manager Kenneth Blackman led to policymaking by bureaucracy. “It was at this point in history, when the City Manager stepped in to fill the vacuum, that the City Council and City Manager roles got reversed,” he explained.
The PD quoted him as saying the desire to defend City Hall led to a siege mentality that put a priority on secrecy:
|The public is made up of enemies and friends. Friends do not need information to support you. Enemies do need information to oppose you. Information given to the public will be used by your enemies, so don’t give out any information to the public.
That neatly sums up the entire downtown mall project. A blanket of secrecy smothered everything even before the project started. Why was Hahn so quickly granted approval, and why was he allegedly negotiating deals even before then? The public didn’t see a layout of the mall after early designs; we had to take the word of City Hall and Renewal Agency that it wouldn’t cutoff Railroad Square from downtown. And voters were not only blocked from expressing their opinions on whether the project was a good use of public money, they couldn’t even collect signatures on petitions to vote on it.
Any way you look at it, those were sad, dark years in Santa Rosa’s history. And we’ll have to keep living in its backwash for many years to come. Many.
A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE: This wraps the “Road to the Mall” series which runs to 41,000 words, including this whodunnit epilogue. It’s taken seven months just to write up; it’s the longest original research project I’ve ever tackled, even bypassing my series on the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Over four years I made clips or took notes on 287 Press Democrat articles and poured over documents from the city, particularly the three volume EIR.
I apologize to subscribers for spending so much time on this single issue – I recognize most people aren’t as interested in urban planning SNAFUs as I am. Still, this is a very important chapter in Santa Rosa history and no one else has done a deep dive into the story, so I don’t regret putting in the work.
I also apologize for not writing more about these events. There were some very interesting side streets I did not travel down, such as the 1975 efforts to recall the entire City Council. Then there’s the scandal of what was happening in South Park at the same time, which deserves a series of its own – after the city used urban renewal money to fix the streets and make other improvements to Santa Rosa’s poorest neighborhood, real estate investors swooped down and in less than six months a third of the community was forced out.
My hope is that someday the whole wretched story of what happened here in the 1970s will be told. Perhaps there’s a PhD candidate looking for a dissertation topic, or a tireless author willing to see what secrets lie inside that room down at City Hall filled with unlabeled, unindexed boxes from those times.
The Santa Rosa urban renewal debacle would make a fitting bookend on a shelf that begins with Jane Jacobs’ 1961 landmark study on the utter failure of urban renewal policies, “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Her ideas were accepted as orthodoxy by the time we started tearing down everything west of B Street and planning for a shopping mall. Even the government recognized this – recall the Nixon Administration flagged they were ending the urban renewal program in 1973, just as Hahn and the city’s Renewal Agency began getting cozy.
But in Santa Rosa, accepted wisdom and best practices be damned; we instead dusted off our dog-eared copy of the urban renewal playbook. Maybe we should drop the official motto of “the city designed for living” and change it to “Here we knew what not to do, yet we did it anyway.”
1 The “PD report” mentioned here several times refers to a Press Democrat series written by Robert Digitale and Dick Phillips which provided an invaluable look at downtown business conditions in the mid-1980s. The first part, “Downtown’s Future,” appeared May 3, 1987 with an equally interesting analysis of “Who Owns Downtown” published the following day.
2 December 1973 DEIR Volume 2, pp. 137-139 (II-127 – II-129). I am unable to find traffic numbers from right after the mall opened, but as discussed in chapter eight, CalTrans underestimated the impact on the highway by predicting it would only bump traffic by ten percent. According to a 1985 summary in the Press Democrat, the increase was closer to 30-40 percent.
3 “From the beginning, there was a core of downtown business people who worked on plans to renovate the area including Obert Pedersen, Fred Rosenberg, Bill McNeany, Chet Andrews, Elwin Hardisty, Clark Mailer, Ken Brown, John Downey, Ed Healey, Tom Cox, Art Volkerts, Jerry Poznanovitch, Jack Ryerson and Cal Caulkins.” – Press Democrat, Nov. 18, 1981
4 In 1983 the City Council considered an ordinance against rotating signs, although the only such sign in Santa Rosa was the one for Coddingtown mall. The ordinance passed in 1985. There was some debate over the following years as to whether stopping the sign was a good idea, over worries that seeing just the “Codding” or “Town” side might confuse visitors. The Council ordered the sign removed which Hugh Codding refused to do, instead briefly resuming the rotation at various times. Letters written to the PD suggest some came to view Codding as something of a rebellious folk hero because of that. Finally in 1993 the Cultural Heritage Board designated the sign a historic landmark and the Council ruled it was exempt from the ordinance.