Had City Council members actually read and understood their own report, they might have discovered their pet project was probably going to ruin downtown Santa Rosa.
The document was the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) related to the downtown shopping mall proposed by Los Angeles developer Ernest W. Hahn. State law requires a study be prepared before construction begins on a major project like that and it mostly addresses the sort of issues you might expect – will the project create air pollution, harm water quality, overload power lines, etc. etc. etc. A 321-page draft version written by a San Mateo company was delivered to Santa Rosa a few days before Christmas 1973.
In the following thirty days anyone could comment on what was found (or not found) in the draft. Questions were directed to city staff, the project architect or others involved. Their replies appeared in the final EIR, which was released Oct. 1974. In any EIR that last volume is worth a close read because it almost always has more of the real lowdown about what’s going on.
QUESTIONS RAISED, RARELY ANSWERED
Remarks from over two dozen individuals, companies and firms can be found in the final EIR but many were technical in nature. For reference sake, these six people contributed most to topics discussed here:
Donna Born Planning Commission Chairperson
Dolores Clayton League of Women Voters President
Dan Peterson Santa Rosa architect
William (Bill) Smith Codding Enterprises attorney who attended every public hearing regarding the mall and redevelopment of the project area
Peter Bolles Shopping mall architect (also son and partner of John Savage Bolles, who designed Candlestick Park)
James K. Burns Executive Director of the Urban Renewal Agency (URA)
(Here’s also a reminder that this is 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 eight of the series just about the downtown mall)
Critics jumped on the uneven quality of the EIR, but I’ll preface that discussion by noting the consultants didn’t make much of an effort to learn about Santa Rosa or the history of the project. Not one of the well-informed commenters listed in the sidebar were interviewed. Instead, the people they spoke to included a pharmacist best known for collecting old bottles; a driver’s ed teacher; the two women who researched Carrillo family history and the guy who ran the Robert Ripley museum. As far as I can tell, none of the interviewees contributed information or expressed a public opinion about the mall and redevelopment project, either pro or con.
Some of the official replies make you wonder if these experts even visited town. Donna Born asked why it needed to be a sealed-up fortress and cited the “energy crisis,” which was the top news story of early 1974.1 She commented, “I think it is a little silly today to be espousing that large of an air conditioned area in a city like Santa Rosa that really doesn’t need air conditioning.” Architect Bolles’ answer suggested he thought the city was somewhere in the tropics and beset with monsoons:
|The climate of Santa Rosa is well known for wet winters and hot, dry summers. Because of the inconvenience and hardship in either climactic extreme, an enclosed mall was considered a must…one only has to carry a shopping bag a block or so in driving rain to recognize the desirable aspects of an enclosed “shopper’s street.”|
It’s a lesser quib, but even their logo on the EIR report reflects out-of-town cluelessness. It’s a drawing of a sculpture erected in 1971 near City Hall (a photo can be seen at the end of this article). From what I can gather from the Press Democrat’s coverage at the time, the Arts Council had a grant to commission a work of civic art and that was the only viable submission. The work was never mentioned by the paper again and was otherwise ignored; choosing it to symbolize a project expected to redefine the city into the next century was simply bizarre.2
Odd choices and/or naiveté aside, it seemed Santa Rosa really didn’t want the public to know what was in the EIR. Dolores Clayton remarked, “We would hope that the Urban Renewal Agency would make much greater efforts than it has in the past to get citizen input into the Project. For instance, the Environmental Impact Report is costly to purchase and there is only one non-circulating copy in the Library.”
URA director Burns countered, “The Environmental Impact Report is costly to purchase because it is costly to prepare. Our Agency is always conscious of trying to keep down the cost of governmental services to taxpayers.” He added there were “two copies in the City Clerk’s office, and three copies in our office for public use at no cost.” Please enjoy reading those 300+ pages while standing at a service desk.
Then there was the February Planning Commission meeting where they discussed the EIR. Only four members of the public attended (three of them from Codding Enterprises) because, gosh darn it, nobody from the city thought to put a meeting notice in the paper, although this would be the only time the Commission would discuss the report.
Architect Dan Peterson sent a letter to the Commission saying he would have been there if he had known it was on the agenda:
|Over the past month I have discussed the shopping center layout with several persons and discovered they were not aware of the present proposals which to my knowledge have never been published in any public document other than the EIR…the Agency is not making it possible for the public to review and comment upon the project which is the intention of the Environmental Impact Review process.|
It rankled all of the critics that the Planning Commission had no say about the EIR or anything else concerning the mall project, per City Council dictum. All they could do was make comments – and as noted earlier, commissioners were attacked when they even dared to raise questions.
Codding attorney Bill Smith pointed out this was unprecedented:
|The Urban Renewal Agency is apparently proceeding on the basis that it will act as judge and jury of the EIR which it has caused to be prepared for its own project… [Normally] the EIR procedure would involve a review by the Planning Commission with right of appeal to the City Council. The Hahn proposal will be subject to no such review by the Planning Commission or the City Council; it will be handled internally by the Urban Renewal Agency… It is apparent that the Urban Renewal Agency will not review the draft EIR as intensively as would the Planning Commission if this were any other project.|
A major shortfall in the EIR mentioned at the Commission meeting was that it contained nothing about what impact the mall might have on highway traffic – which was particularly surprising considering the mega-mall was supposed to suck up all retail trade between Marin and the redwood netherlands. CalTrans wrote two letters to James Burns complaining the issue should have been considered, although he did say the mall would probably only increase traffic volume by ten percent, so there shouldn’t be problems. Gentle Reader can guess what happened next: By the time the mall was fully opened in 1983, it appears traffic on that section of Highway 101 increased 30-40 percent – far above maximum capacity. Perhaps you remember sitting on the freeway in some of those epic backups; I sure as hell do.3
The Draft EIR also provided the first glimpse of what the future mall might look like. All freeway traffic would come and go through Third Street. Parking lots and a huge, two-story garage along B Street would effectively cut the mall off from downtown. At a February meeting with the Planning Commission, the URA said the drawing – which they had submitted only a few weeks before – was already out of date and B Street parking had been scrapped. Now there was to be underground parking and garages surrounding the mall’s other three sides.
Look closely at the layout and note there is an east/west open space through the middle – a direct passageway between B Street and Railroad Square. But was that to be inside the mall (and thus only available when the mall is open) or was it an outdoors corridor? The final EIR made it known the city and the developer were trying to have it both ways:
URA Director Burns promised “The City design staff is working on several other elements that will make the center more a part of downtown. One of the most important elements is the pedestrian link from Courthouse Square to and through the shopping complex to Railroad Square.” Elsewhere, architect Bolles wrote there would be landscape planters “on either side of the Fourth Street pedestrian walk which leads across the site on grade, from Morgan to B Street. The treelined Fourth Street pedestrian walk will be an important landscape feature connecting downtown with Railroad Square.”
Above all else, what everyone wanted most was for the mall to be integrated with the rest of downtown. In the EIR there was found a two page discussion revealing the developer had other ideas.4 The authors of the EIR waved the biggest and reddest of flags trying to draw our attention to the fate that would otherwise befall our town:
|…the schematic project design does carry some significant, potentially adverse implications for the aesthetic character and urban design quality of downtown Santa Rosa. The progress of the design development of the project deserves the continued attention of the public and reviewing officials…one of the potential problems of the shopping center design is that it must recognize the center is not an isolated community in itself, accessible only to motorists, but should become a member of a larger commercial and social community accesible also to pedestrians…if the shopping center design were to treat the downtown area essentially as another major tenant of the center – which in effect it is – the design of these pedestrian links would undoubtedly be more heavily emphasized.|
Although the City Council apparently didn’t take notice, the mall critics did. Planning Commissioner Frances Dias wanted to redefine the project: “I take great exception to anyone that calls this a ‘shopping center.’ It is downtown. It is not a shopping center, And I think it is very important to the health of the community, again, as I say, that the integrity of downtown be maintained.”
Dan Peterson gazed into his crystal ball and saw shoppers wouldn’t venture outside the mall into downtown: “I am not opposed to the commercial land use providing that aesthetics and scale relate to Santa Rosa and not San Jose. The enclosed single structure concept would not encourage shoppers to extend themselves into the downtown area because of the total air conditioned environment – including malls. The planning consideration obviously has not been extended beyond the project property lines.”
And Dolores Clayton accurately predicted the mall would lead to the decay of the downtown business sector:
|The Environmental Impact report indicates inadequate provision for pedestrian access to the Project. There is also, we note, no reference to provision of links with public transportation…This lack of integration, this forbidding encapsulation, would seem to be counter productive from the stand point of enhancing the entire Downtown area. Might not the affect of such a selfcontained Project rather be that of a vortex drawing all the vitality to itself at the expense of weakening the rest of the Downtown area?|
The URA’s James Burns responded to Clayton (hers was the only letter he answered). “The Urban Renewal Agency is using the Central District Development Plan as a guide in developing downtown,” he replied. “The main difference between the Redevelopment Plan and the Central District Development Plan is that, by necessity, the Redevelopment Plan has more flexibility.”
Well, no. The 1968 Central District Development Plan was the result of hundreds of hours of public meetings; crucial decisions in the Redevelopment Plan were made by seven unelected URA appointees and the Agency staff. The plan from 1968 focused on remodeling and restoring existing buildings, creating a convention/arts center, a tourist center, a transit center and a hotel/motel complex. It had a four stage schedule to beautify downtown with fountains, greenspace, outdoor cafés, arcades to house cute small shops and a plaza meeting place. It wanted to make downtown ultra-friendly for pedestrians and aimed to fix traffic problems, not make them worse. It said nothing about bulldozing a third of the downtown core to build a colossal shopping center. Comparing the 1968 Plan to what Burns and his crew were planning was like comparing fluffy kittens to ATM machines.
The EIR was officially accepted at a marathon public hearing that lasted seven hours (!) and is covered in the following chapter. But before leaving this topic I yield the floor to Commission Chairperson Donna Born, whose observations perfectly summed up the train wreck that awaited us:
|I have been in several centers, like I’m sure everybody has. They [are] all alike, They [are] 2-3 stories, and they have got a 2-story mall with the tile floor and piped-in music and buildings around. And they’re sometimes attractive, but they’re always worlds unto themselves. They’re completely isolated. There is no feeling of identity with anything else, And I think that, unless it has a special relationship with the rest of the downtown, then we are just setting the stage for our next Urban Renewal project. Also, I think that the design as I see it, has no human scale, and I think that is essential to what Santa Rosa is all about. And I am certainly, obviously, no designer, but I think I have hunches about what makes a human scale and I don’t see it in this kind of self-contained 3-story thing.|
1 The “energy crisis” lasted approximately between Oct. 1973 and March 1974. Caused by an OPEC embargo on oil sales to the U.S. it created gasoline shortages nationwide. The Press Democrat ran front page stories describing cars lining up several blocks long, starting at dawn, as drivers waited at one of the few gas stations that remained open. Police struggled to keep intersections clear and the Highway Patrol found traffic stopped because off-ramps near stations were backing up onto the freeway. The price for premium gas at the time was about 55 cents a gallon.
|2 The City Hall sculpture was created by Shirley Wastell, a Sonoma Valley artist known as something of a character. According to a Gaye LeBaron column, she drove a station wagon festooned with her sculptures of frogs, birds, dragons, and “six cats on the roof reclining in various cat positions.”|
|3 There was no traffic measurement given directly at the Third Street exit. Between 1974-1983 there was an increase of 32% at the College Ave. exit, so it does not include traffic from the south. The closest exit from that direction was at Todd Road, which increased 64 percent. The average between the two was 48 percent. “The flow on 101”, Press Democrat, March 10 1985, page 1B|
|4 Draft Environmental Impact Report Vol. II, pg. 98-99|