You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 4, 1972 – a day of no particular importance.
Directly across B St. from you is Hardisty’s; that’s where your sister’s wedding china came from. On the north corner is the big Occidental Hotel. Your mom takes grandma there on her birthday for an afternoon tea which she says makes her feel like a debutante again. A few doors farther down from the hotel is the “Cal,” Santa Rosa’s grand Art Deco movie theater. You’ve spent countless hours inside. So did you dad when he was a little kid in the 1930s, participating in the live Saturday afternoon Mickey Mouse Club show.
You have passed this exact spot hundreds and hundreds of times and everything before your eyes is as it has been for decades. The “New” Hotel Santa Rosa next to you opened in 1936. The Occidental Hotel was built shortly after the 1906 earthquake. The only slight change is across Fourth Street from you at the NE corner; that was always the White House Department Store but they moved so the building’s now vacant.
Now close your eyes tight as we jump into the future. You are at the exact same spot but it is now March 4, 1982 – precisely ten years later. You cannot believe what you see.
The White House building is still on the corner (it’s really the “Carithers building” and remains there today, albeit heavily altered). B Street – which had been a little-used two lane crosstown street with stop signs – is now a four lane (sometimes five) thoroughfare with traffic lights on nearly every block. But everything else is… gone.
The Santa Rosa Hotel: Gone. You look across the street and find Hardisty’s is gone. The Occidental is gone. The Cal is gone. Facing you is a featureless, 2+ story wall – a fog bank made out brick. It goes on more than three blocks. People stream through an unmarked gateway.
You wonder: Are all the other little businesses that were west of B Street somewhere behind that brick fortress? The sinking feeling in your gut tells you the answer. While you were away, Santa Rosa bulldozed all of it in the name of urban renewal. And this is the result.
How did this happen? Yeah, Santa Rosa had talked about a downtown shopping center since the early 1960s; out-of-town architects and consultants were hired to build models and make presentations. Some of the ideas were pretty good – there was a Santa Rosa Creek greenway combining a government center with a department store and retail/office space. Others were simply awful, such as a mega-mall which included a 1,500 seat “European opera house.” None went beyond the show ‘n’ tell stage.
What those proposals had in common, though, is they were to be built outside the original business district, either on Santa Rosa Avenue or by (or above) the Creek. This Plaza project wiped out roughly a third of the downtown core – it was like the town had been amputated at the knees.
How could this happen? Santa Rosa wasn’t known as a city that moved fast on approving of high-profile, consequential projects. It took five years before trucks began hauling cement loads to build the underwhelming city hall complex, and seven years passed between when the Carnegie Library closed and the new one opened. Yet the entire process to create this mammoth Plaza took less then a decade? Just unbelievable.
But when you peel the onion, it becomes clear this was a project like no other.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cities across America dreamt of shopping malls as if they were the gateway to the paradise of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. Malls defined popular culture; we spent more time in malls than anywhere else except for home and work/school.* All that shopping made a mall an economic powerhouse because of the tax income it generated, and not having a mall as good as – or more popular than – the one down the road could make or break a city or county budget.
Santa Rosa had its own manic drive to see a mega-mall built here. Since the 1906 earthquake (and arguably back to the 1880s) the bankers, downtown business interests and the Press Democrat had indefatigably boosted the city as on the cusp of becoming a Bay Area metropolis. This led to a history of disastrous short-sighted decisions, the worst being the insistence that Highway 101 cut the town in half, lest Santa Rosa become a “ghost town” for lack of immediate access by shoppers.
With that motivation, everything fell into place in the 1970s. There was funding for urban renewal – lots and lots of free government money. There was a large cadre of unelected local decision-makers who believed a whopping mall was a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform Santa Rosa into that great metropolis, along with a tax base which would pour an endless river of cash into the city treasury. Then there were enthusiastic downtown shopkeepers, who somehow convinced themselves a giant shopping center next door would bring them good fortune. And not least of all, into town stepped a savvy developer known for building malls in mid-sized West Coast cities and with a talent for dealing with naïve locals.
None of this was inevitable. There were objections, pushbacks from citizen’s groups and lawsuits from rival developer Hugh Codding. Many times Santa Rosa found itself standing at a crossroad which could have led to much different outcomes. The mall footprint could have been smaller, the California Theater movie palace could have been preserved. The place could not have been built at all, and instead the buildings in that part of downtown could have been upgraded for safety and remodeled using available federal funds. Or landowners could have rebuilt new stores at the same locations. There were so many times when Santa Rosa had an opportunity to not lay waste to so much of itself. Yet it didn’t, and here we are.
This is an intro to the story of how the Santa Rosa Plaza was built. Had Gentle Reader lived in town during the 1970s this may be a gut-wrenching episode to rehash; feelings ran high as the city relentlessly pushed the project through with little (often no) public input. Maybe you knew someone who lost their business or was forced to move to a less desirable location because Santa Rosa condemned their property in order to take it via eminent domain. Maybe you knew people who lost their homes and apartments in the same way. Maybe you’re still mad about how the city passed an ordinance making it easier for them to do that.
It’s also the most impactful story concerning the city of the last 50+ years. Even if you personally haven’t been inside the Plaza for ages, that sprawling building and its parking garages continue to shape the town and any possibly better future. It blocks east/west pedestrian and bike traffic, especially when the mall is closed. It disappears Railroad Square from anyone not in the know; it makes planning for improved public transit a cruel joke, as it forms a barrier between the Transit Mall and the SMART depot.
Yet little has been written about the history of how all that came to be, save for stories about the passionate protests to “Save the Cal” and the rescue of the old post office in order to preserve it as the county history museum. The details of what else happened during those years has been reduced to footnotes. Scratch that: Not even footnotes exist because the overall story remains untold – the articles here barely skim the surface of what happened.
This also continues the overall series about Santa Rosa’s redevelopment, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER” which has thus far only discussed the early years. Links to these chapters about the Plaza also appear on the index found there.
There’s lots of misunderstanding about what was/was not part of the urban renewal projects; on social media it’s blamed for all manner of bad things from the 1950s onward. To clarify the basics of that history before diving into the mall drama, here’s a summary of what happened, excerpted from earlier articles:
In 1958 the Santa Rosa City Council created an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was a full-time planner, an executive director and a steady parade of out-of-town consultants making recommendations. The appointed members of the URA had diverse backgrounds that might have served them well on some less critical civic board or committee but as far as I can tell none were knowledgeable about urban planning, architecture or anything else relevant.
The Downtown Development Association (DDA) was formed at about the same time and the two organizations worked in tandem, promoting the idea that much of downtown was a “blighted” area which needed to be demolished and rebuilt. The same year the Council was given a presentation that proposed redevelopment of 140 acres – in other words, wiping out almost every building downtown. The head of the DDA gushed, “we are on the threshold of destiny.”
A federal grant of about $1 million (equivalent to $10M today) was earmarked in 1960 for urban renewal. At the same time another $12M went to the Sonoma County Water Agency for flood control. When a heavy winter storm hit in 1963, the Agency and URA officials joined to push through plans to bury the portion of Santa Rosa Creek that passed through downtown in a culvert – even though all previous planning had insisted the creek remain a greenbelt centerpiece for future development. See “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK.”
The first redevelopment project the URA tackled was awarding approval to build a new city hall/civic center. Competing developers in 1964 were Hugh Codding and Henry Trione, head of the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (SRBCRC). Trione’s group wanted to buy Courthouse Square and build a 15-story civic tower, but the Square was not included in the part of downtown the URA had declared “blighted.” In 1965 SRBCRC was selected as the developer for the city government complex adjacent to the entombed creek. See “HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL.”
To the ire of Codding, the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for all of what would be called redevelopment Phase I. Despite the URA’s founding promise that big name stores would now be drawn to downtown Santa Rosa, no companies were willing to take a chance. The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store; the rest of the buildings initially built between Third Street and Sonoma Ave. were professional, bank and government offices. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base. See “IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY.”
It’s commonly misbelieved that the courthouse and Carnegie Library were torn down because of urban renewal. The library was structurally unsound because of poor construction and there was no realistic hope of saving it. Efforts to brace it after the 1906 quake only made problems worse before it was closed in 1960, then torn down five years later. See “WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER.” The courthouse suffered cosmetic damage in a 1957 earthquake, followed by years of debate and studies from consultants as to whether repair or demolish it. Ultimately it was decided the building was expendable because it was too small for county needs and would be too expensive to bring it up to code. It was knocked down in 1966. See “HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE.”
The same day courthouse demolition began, the county sold Courthouse Square to the city of Santa Rosa and its URA. This was the URA’s own development project, which in itself probably overstretched the limit of the Agency’s charter. But the URA also began taking on powers that clearly belonged to city departments and/or the City Council, such as the closing of Exchange and Hinton streets and building a four-lane road through the middle of the square. See “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’.”
Damage from the October 1, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake was not severe and mostly repairable. The city building inspector condemned 14 buildings as completely unsafe including five homes. At a City Council meeting later that month a committee of civil and structural engineers thought 21 downtown buildings should go while the city’s chief building official said 48 were damaged. But the issue really wasn’t which buildings should be repaired – it was whether the city would allow owners to make repairs at all instead of requiring demolition. See “THE QUAKE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING.”
* “The ‘Magic of the Mall’: An Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Built Environment” by Jon Goss; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 83, no. 1, 1993