It was a grandest day, to hear the dignitaries tell it.
“It’s a day of celebration and a day of tribute,” said Mayor Bill Barone. “We as citizens can be very proud of what we’ve accomplished and of what we see because we’ve done it all together.” Other notables called it “fantastic” and “a very joyous occasion.” They all wore flowers on their lapels, pinned there by performers wearing tuxedos and top hats. The Santa Rosa High School marching band played the Rocky theme song and oddly, the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat” background music from ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
This was happening at the 1982 ribbon-cutting for the mall, which the mayor crowed was “the new heart of our city.”
Mall developer Ernest Hahn was also on hand and said he was gratified by all those who supported the project “through thick and thin.” The shopping center was going to provide 2,000 permanent new jobs with an annual payroll of $20 million. Oh, sure, only about sixty of the 130 spaces were actually leased at the time, but by the end of the year he expected full occupancy.
What a difference a year makes. In early January 1983 – roughly 300 days since the grand opening – Hahn Inc. sold the mall. Over half the spaces were never rented, and after a lousy Christmas shopping season prospects grew even dimmer as eight tenants moved out.
The Press Democrat had printed countless front page articles and feature spreads cheering for Hahn and portraying the mall as a no-risk road to riches while damning Hugh Codding and other skeptics. Yet when the end came, the PD buried the bombshell story of Hahn’s hasty departure in a 500-word item on page eight of a mid-week edition.1
Hahn wasn’t the only player in Santa Rosa’s urban renewal melodrama about to leave the stage. A few months later, James K. Burns, long the executive director of our redevelopment agency, announced he was leaving to take another job. Burns – who had recommended Hahn – was the the PD’s go-to guy for making grandiose predictions about all the money the mall would bring in, particularly his confident assertion that every month of delay in construction was costing the city $100,000.2
Even though prospects for the mall slowly perked up over the course of 1983, it was still far from meeting expectations. That surely was giving some in the city night sweats because there were millions of dollars in bond and loan obligations which were planned to be serviced by all the great income that was supposed to be pouring in from the mall.
I’ve never found an overview of those debts in the paper, but guesstimate it was around $9 million – and that’s not counting the $2.3M still being paid back for the Fourth Street Mall that flopped. Don’t remember that boondoggle? Read on.
An earlier article, “POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET,” touched on the Fourth Street Mall, mainly showing and discussing some of the proposed layouts. I’ve culled some of that material here to maintain this thread about the mall’s impact. That earlier article also includes a history of cruising on Fourth Street.
(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 the eleventh chapter of the series just about the downtown mall.)
It was first called the Fourth Street Semi-Mall and the concept predates Hahn’s appearance in town, going all the way back to 1963 when there was a proposal to remove all parking on Fourth between Mendocino Ave. and the highway. (So much for the city’s notion in the 1970s that everything west of B Street was urban blight that absolutely had to be demolished.) Later in the 1960s the concept of turning Fourth into a “meandering street” was mentioned among several spitballed ideas. Others included making most downtown streets one way and flowing counter-clockwise (Third to D to Fifth to B), a mammoth parking garage for 6,000 cars (!!) or a very large, very Hahn-like regional shopping center.
The concept didn’t have much traction until 1975, which was the year City Council gave Hahn everything on his wishlist and the mall project seemed unstoppable. But to get federal approval – as well as federal money – HUD had to give it a green light. Which they did, but only after being given assurances the mall would be (somehow) tied into the downtown core. So the city joined with the Downtown Development Association (DDA) and hired San Francisco consultants to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage.”
The plan they came up with was innovative. Fourth street became a pedestrian “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores. There were no traffic lights except where Mendocino and D street crossed Fourth. There was also a pedestrian bridge across B street, linking the presumed entrance to the mall with Fourth street. Otherwise traffic flow was completely controlled by roundabouts. There would be lots of trees and benches, a water fountain attraction and a clock tower.
A $3.1 million budget was developed but come 1978 many presumed the project was dead. Fourth Street merchants didn’t want to lose parking spaces in front of their store and the expected passage of Prop. 13 would cut off property tax money that was planned to pay for it. At a DDA meeting held on the eve of the vote, the mood was grim. “I was told yesterday my attending this meeting tonight was a bit like kicking a dead horse,” a member of the city’s Redevelopment Agency told the PD.
The Downtown Design Plan limped on, albeit greatly changed. A creative financing scheme increased the budget to $3.9 million; of that $1.5M would come from the Redevelopment Agency, $1.6M via a special assessment district on downtown businesses for 15 years, and the rest through bonds.
But thrown away was everything nice in the proposed design. The clock tower was gone: Too expensive. The water feature – intended to be a meeting space – was scaled back to an uninviting modernist fountain which would have been insulting to an office park.3 Instead of human scale magnolia and plum trees, redwoods would loom over the street. Even though sidewalks were wider on some blocks the downtown would still be car-centric because the merchants got to keep those precious parking spots right in front of their stores. And to make it even less pedestrian friendly, they nixed the benches. Why? Because merchants didn’t want anyone loitering instead of shopping.
There were problems with vagrants hanging out downtown (bet you didn’t see that coming) and Police Chief Sal Rosano told the PD that city officials wanted “some control” over people who were a “nuisance and intimidate others.” But it wasn’t just the homeless whom city officials and merchants want to eject – it was people waiting for a bus.
When the city split Courthouse Square in the middle to create a four lane thoroughfare in 1966, turnouts were included specifically to act as bus stops. City Manager Ken Blackman commented that had turned the Square from a quiet park into a “bus terminal.”
Now, one might think the merchants would welcome all that foot traffic next door; a 1983 PD article quoted a Cotati woman saying, “if you miss a bus you can walk around and window-shop.” But the Chamber of Commerce director told the paper that bus stops must be moved in order to reduce the number of loiterers like her. “Anything that would potentially solve that problem” deserved consideration, he said. (Raise your hand if you’re wondering if there just may be a racist angle to this part of the story.)
That article was the first to report the city was considering turning a section of Second Street into the transit mall, which they finally accomplished in 1987. Although only a block from Courthouse Square it’s a world apart – a grim concrete canyon where not a soul would choose to loiter.
But even ridding Courthouse Square of undesirables who relied on public transit was not enough to breathe life into our moribund downtown. By the time the transit mall opened, fourteen percent of the available retail space was vacant. “No question about it, it looks like a disaster,” a commercial real estate broker told the PD. Planning Commission Chair “Tux” Tuxhorn thought downtown “seems to be dying a slow death.”
A lack of parking and traffic issues were named as problems, but John Lissberger, landlord of several downtown stores, pointed out those were solvable problems. Not so easy to fix was the main cause for complaint: “The mall has been a disaster for downtown.” A realtor (who understandably didn’t want their name used) told the paper, “The mall is closed in. No windows. It looks like a fortress. No one who shops there shops anywhere else. They park, shop and go home.” Funny, that’s exactly one of the things nay-sayers warned about before mall construction even began.
So also in 1987 the City Council paid out-of-town consultants $125,000 and appointed a 25-member citizen committee to create a Downtown Core Area Plan. Hopefully they could “figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place.” Oh, if only had the captain of the Titanic shown such boldness after striking that iceberg.
At the first public workshop about fifty speakers were eager to say what they wanted downtown. To no surprise, it was what Santa Rosans had been variously asking for over the previous 20-something years. They wanted a performing arts center, a children’s playground, a mix of residential and commercial buildings and a better transit system. Wilder suggestions included a “European-like promenade” and “skyways that would link the Santa Rosa Plaza with downtown businesses and Railroad Square,” according to the PD.
The irrepressible Bill Zane attended these workshops and as he wrote in a letter to the editor, came away unimpressed by the consultant’s presentations:
|…A competent technical job, but one which does not approach the imaginative and overlooks the obvious. Santa Rosa’s soul remains thematically amorphous despite Luther’s historical roses, giant Redwood trees, wine country, California weather and Tommy Smothers. With this kind of flair, we could become the Gateway to Windsor. Come on, CACC, go for it! Put yourselves into the history books. Build the “Promenade,” dome the streets, provide for the world’s finest rose garden, live the fantasy. Any fantasy. Combine fantasies. If you do it well enough, the rest of the state/country will come here to visit and we’ll all profit by it.|
But the Press Democrat balanced such calls for revolution and the wails of gloomsters by tapping local bigwigs for assurances all was well. Sure, there might be some tweaks to improve traffic and parking but downtown was going to rebound on its own, probably within the next year. “Downtown is a city in transition,” said an executive at a top real estate firm, promising good days were indeed ahead.
When the 75-page draft report was released in April, 1988 it became shockingly clear the consultants hadn’t listened to anyone, including the citizen committee. What they recommended was so absurd it’s hard to believe they saw anything in Santa Rosa other than the view from their car windows as they drove from the freeway exit to the city hall parking lot.
They wrote downtown should be more pedestrian friendly – all well and good, except most of those people would be walking to or from the office. The report called for adding nearly 600,000 square feet of more office space in buildings up to ten stories; it was crucial “to maintain the city’s position as the leading office and financial center north of the Bay Area,” as the PD summarized it.
As for retail, the consultants envisioned more small stores in Railroad Square (professional offices were also an option), shops on the east side of B Street across from the mall (PD: “the project would require cooperation from Plaza owners, the report noted”) and tearing down Rosenberg’s store (now Barnes and Noble) and replacing it with “one or more stores” and two office buildings. Mendocino Avenue from Seventh to Cherry Streets would become the cultural district with theaters and art galleries – although an “office cluster servicing professional tenants” would also be cool.
Members of the citizen committee erupted in anger. They were given only one look at the draft before it would be sent to City Council. There were major recommendations in the report which had never been discussed by the committee, such as highrise office towers. The committee wanted apartment buildings, but housing was not even mentioned in the report.
Architect Bill Knight blamed City Council as much as the consultants. He told Gaye LeBaron it was short-sighted to limit the study just to what improvements could be made before the year 2000:
|I’m disappointed. We looked to the consultants for something we hadn’t seen, because maybe we’re too close. We kept challenging them to tell us, to bring us visions, to open our horizons. We didn’t get any great ideas. Things we talked about a lot, like residential development, got thrown out because they said they wouldn’t work. Not why. Just ‘It won’t work.’ We wanted them to show us ways to make it work. I think this is direction from the council. They have hamstrung the consultants by asking for a study for the next 12 years. They want what is practical and technical within the next 12 years. But 12 years is just a step.|
As committee chairman Knight took the initiative and called members back together and formed them into subcommittees. Over the following six months they would scrutinize the draft report with the consultant’s team, going over it line by line.
While that was going on, the Press Democrat invited five local architects to “design a dream for Santa Rosa” – something beautiful, functional and fun, price being no object. Sure, what they came up with was impractical and would have never been seriously considered, but all were every bit as exciting as Cal Caulkins’ 1945 downtown redesign plans (see “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN“).
My personal favorite redesign came from Joel DeSilva, who took the “meandering semi-mall” concept from a dozen years before and turned Fourth Street into a park, complete with an artificial waterway. As described in the PD, he thought “parks are the way to invite people into the downtown:”
…He starts with a miniature, tree-lined lake at the entrance of the mall on B Street. The lake feeds a creek that meanders the length of Fourth Street (which he closes to traffic) as far as the library on E Street. There are benches and little restaurants with outdoor eating space along the creek. “There has to be something to draw people out of the plaza and down to the rest of downtown. Something impulsive. You see something there and it looks interesting,” DeSilva said.
Bill Knight put a second story over Courthouse Square, with a cut-out in the middle through which water cascaded from a 2½ story high waterfall down to a ground level park. He continued the raised walkway theme with a two story enclosed arcade above Fourth. It started next to the Square, passed above B Street and connected to the mall via its second floor.
But the award for the boldest design should go to Don Tomasi, who put a glass-covered promenade from B Street all the way to Railroad Square – the 24/7 passageway through the mall that so many foolishly believed Hahn intended to provide. That it shielded pedestrians from the freeway noise and exhaust from parking garages gets him even more bonus points.
Towards the end of the year – after nearly sixteen months of meetings – the committee turned in their version of the report. According to the PD, their version of the plan “…included recommendations for the greening of Santa Rosa Creek with a trail and bike path, building affordable housing downtown for young people and seniors, and putting shops at the front of Santa Rosa Plaza to tie it to the rest of the downtown.”
Sounds pretty good, eh? The City Council hated it.
“Downtown Plan Gets Brush-off,” was the PD headline. The story began, “A forward-looking plan for Santa Rosa’s downtown the result of 15 months work by a citizens’ group and $125,000 to consultants seemed headed toward oblivion Tuesday with barely a word of thanks to the authors.”
Some of the subcommittees had clocked over 800 hours preparing their section of the report. “It’s a little bit discouraging,” architect Knight told a Press Democrat reporter after the council meeting. “I didn’t hear anybody say, hey, there’s some good things here. When you spend a lot of time on a thing, you’d like to have someone say it was a good job. The council asks for citizen input because it’s politically expedient, or for whatever reason, but it’s not really desired.”
Councilman Schuyler Jeffries dismissed their work. “I think this is an interesting update, that’s all,” he said. Councilman Jack Healy implied the committee had gone rogue: “[They] had very definite ideas what they wanted to have done and weren’t willing to accept the consultant’s answers.”
The situation was so ugly that the Press Democrat – always the stalwart defender of City Hall and decisions by the Council – fired a warning shot across the bow that they had finally gone too far:
|…A lingering complaint about the incumbent City Council is its tendency to rely on “experts” – frequently the city staff – instead of initiating policies tailored to Santa Rosa perspectives. The citizens committee went that extra mile, and was given the back of the council’s hand. The vacant storefronts downtown stand as mute monuments to the need for energetic and enlightened initiatives. The council’s response – to send this report through the two-year gauntlet of the General Plan Revision – is nothing short of astonishing. Is it possible that council members don’t realize how high-handed and insulated they appear to be? Or do they not care?|
But as rude and insulting as it was, that’s how matters were left. The citizen’s committee did not meet again, nor was their version of the report further mentioned in the paper. A disillusioned Bill Knight told LeBaron: “People kept thinking it was our one chance to get something good done. That’s what kept us going all these months.”
Top Photo: The Santa Rosa Plaza and the Fourth Street Mall simultaneously under construction in 1981. This view is from approximately 507 Fourth. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
1 Per the article in the Jan. 25, 1983 Press Democrat, Hahn sold the mall at a reported $13M loss. Besides blaming Hugh Codding for delaying the project, it was pointed out Hahn was never able to obtain regular financing, and was paying over 20 percent interest on short-term construction loans. Also revealed for the first time was Sears and Macy’s were receiving a share of the gross income for the entire mall. Not discussed in the short article was that Hahn was building the mall at the worst possible time. The nation was enduring a severe recession with unemployment rates at the highest since the Depression along with the prime interest rate hitting 21.5% in June 1982.
2 James Burns was hired by Centennial Savings and Loan in Santa Rosa to head their division developing construction projects. The following year he was named president and COO of the S&L, a position he held for six months before resigning from the thrift in November 1984. When government regulators declared the S&L insolvent the following year for its orgy of self-dealing and outrageous acts of fraud, Burns was not indicted or accused of misconduct, all of which had happened before/after his tenure as boss.
3 The original 1982 fountain between D and E streets was made of nondescript columns, three being planters and two that spouted water into a cobblestone basin. What’s currently there is “Woman with Water Jar” a gift to Santa Rosa from South Korea sister city Bukjeju. It was installed in 2007.