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ROAD TO THE MALL: GREATEST EXPECTATIONS

By Christmas 1974, Santa Rosa City Hall was at war. Not good, but at least the bleak concrete architecture that made the government complex look like a fortified bunker now seemed fitting.

The city was fighting its war on several fronts. The county was suing the city, accusing it of exploiting a loophole which would cheat the treasury out of millions of dollars per year. Hugh Codding was now on his seventh lawsuit to block Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA) from working with the developer planning to build the downtown mall, and likewise the city had sued Codding to put obstacles in his plans for a shopping center in Rohnert Park. (A peek into our crystal ball shows that about a year later Rohnert Park will be suing Santa Rosa over building the downtown mall and the developer will sue Codding.) And meanwhile Santa Rosa’s City Council was warring with the public, not only refusing to allow a referendum vote on the shopping center but calling the referendum proposal itself as being illegal.

Watch “Game of Thrones”? What happened in Santa Rosa during 1974 and 1975 was filled with just as much conflict and intrigue – not to mention being just as difficult to follow, should you not keep up with each confusing turn in a story that seemed as if it would never end.

The key takeaway from this chapter should be there was never any resistance to building the downtown shopping mall from the City Council or other Santa Rosa decision makers. Making a deal with Los Angeles developer Ernest W. Hahn had broad support from the beginning, even from downtown merchants. They believed it would make Santa Rosa a more prosperous and better place to live.

But as the project became more ambitious the city became more dependent upon it being built, and they indebted the town in ways that would have been considered risky, even scandalous, in other times. City planners convinced themselves the mall would bring in staggering piles of cash and every delay in construction meant the town was being cheated out of what was its due. Money fever raged through the many offices in City Hall like a pandemic, and people who raised questions or urged caution were deemed enemies. Community betterment took a backseat to making sure developer Hahn was kept happy. That 1974 Christmas lawsuit was over the Board of Supervisors fearing school districts would be screwed out of funding in order to keep Hahn’s property taxes artificially low.

(Developments described here follow key events in 1972 and early 1973 which were introduced in the previous chapter. If there are unfamiliar terms or names “MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS” is a good starting point, with an index to the whole “ROAD TO THE MALL” series also available.)

Our story resumes as Codding’s second lawsuit was filed in June 1973. It raised a valid complaint there had been no public hearings concerning a downtown shopping center – much less, government approval to build same – yet the city was more gung-ho than ever over Hahn’s mall.

Another point made in the suit was more important, yet difficult to understand from coverage in the Press Democrat. Codding wanted to block a new city bond from being issued. The bond had “nothing to do with the shopping center,” the URA director told the PD – although that was inaccurate, as the main purpose of the bond was to obtain a federal grant to buy some of the property where the mall would be built. 1

From that point onwards, there were major new developments almost every month.

The Renewal Agency opened the door to sell the land to Hahn (it was an “interim resolution,” so there was still wiggle room). At the same time, the Rohnert Park City Council – which was rooting for Codding to build his “Coddingland” shopping center there – said they were considering suing Santa Rosa because the mall would “monopolize [county] sales tax revenue”. The mayor of Santa Rosa told them to butt out; we hadn’t made a fuss over their projects.

Hahn announced he had commitments from Sears and Macy’s for his future mall. Macy’s was the whale that Santa Rosa failed to land in the mid-1960s for the Courthouse Square area, so that was undeniably an impressive win. But what was the deal with Sears? They already had a store at the corner of B and 7th and it wasn’t even that old. The official reason was the chain wanted to double their space to put more emphasis on fashion and home furnishings, but as discussed later there was quite a bit more to it behind the scenes.

At the close of the previous chapter, the City Council had expanded the border of the urban renewal study area from Fifth street to Seventh. As of that September, this additional acreage had a name: Phase III.

Phase Three was quite different from Phase Two. It was to have a single store (Macy’s, although that decision was apparently in the future) along with its surrounding parking garage. Nor was it mentioned in early newspaper coverage whether it would be attached to the mall, thus closing off easy access to Railroad Square.

What readers of the Press Democrat were told was the new combined assessed value of Phases 2-3 was $13.7 million – a 550 percent increase over the mixed-use neighborhood it was replacing. The PD loved quoting such figures from URA Executive Director James K. Burns: “Discussions with Burns leaves one’s ears ringing with the promise of millions of dollars of economic improvement in exchange for blight.”

1974chart(RIGHT: Santa Rosa “development value” from urban renewal projects, as shown in a 1974 URA pamphlet.)

Those figures were just the beginning. With each passing year, estimates of all sorts kept skyrocketing. The mall would create 1,000, 1,500, 3,000 jobs. It would more than double retail sales by 1980, which would “revitalize” downtown businesses yet not compete with them. New construction would bring in $60 million. The increase in commercial taxes would pay to redevelop even more of Santa Rosa (“Railroad Square could become an exciting ‘old town’ tourist center”). Perhaps schools should have placed caviar on the lunch menus so kids could get accustomed to the good life they were soon to enjoy.

City Hall had better hope lots of money would result from adding Phase III, because there was no clear way to pay for it. “There is no more money for urban renewal for Downtown Santa Rosa,” Burns announced, as President Nixon had slapped a moratorium on new redevelopment projects.2 Without the guarantee of free HUD money, Santa Rosa would be assuming a much higher risk – and Hahn made it clear there would be no mall without this extra land. Together with Phase II the footprint would be thirty acres and he said the usual shopping center size was 50 acres, leading Hahn to grump he would have to unhappily add a second floor to make up the shortage.

It would take months to have the legally-required Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and other studies prepared for the combined Phase II-III project, and to hurry it along Hahn allowed $98 thousand of his $500K “good will deposit” to help pay for it – although he expected the entire amount given back (with interest) once the project received a green light.

During this interim the first meek voices of opposition (other than the Coddings) began to be heard – with pro-mall forces eagerly waiting to shout them down.

At its February 14, 1974 meeting, members of the city Planning Commission raised questions about traffic and whether the mall could be open air, as was Coddingtown then. Commissioner William J. Weil, a vineyard realtor, mused that we should also consider whether or not the mall should be built. (This is exactly as it appeared in the meeting transcript, with the ellipsis probably showing rhetorical pauses in his remarks):

Has anybody really looked into this and said, you know, we need another shopping center in the town? And I think, especially the Urban Renewal Agency being a quasi-public agency, probably has a greater obligation than a private developer or private enterprise to look at the needs of the community and not to do something that is expedient for, …I don’t know how to say this thing without… in a sense feathering their nest. Then to look at the community as a whole and say this truly is the best thing. This is what the community needs.

Milquetoast as those comments were, they apparently set off alarm bells. The Press Democrat reported “Commission Chairman Donna Born said her group has been made ‘the bad guys.’ She said strong commission statements last week were meant to be constructive.” (Bookmark that “feathering their nest” comment, by the way – the issue will resurface.)

The PD was firmly in the Hahn/URA camp, and printed (wayyy too) many articles with Burns’ ear-ringing promises of great riches certain to come. The paper also downplayed news that might portray the developer poorly. The same week Planning Commissioners were being called “bad guys” only the most observant readers might have caught a passing reference that Hahn’s design at the time called for a 700 car, two story garage between his mall and B Street. So much for pretending Hahn had good intentions for the mall to be integrated with the rest of downtown Santa Rosa.

Worse, the PD tried to suppress news about Hahn threatening to sue a town that might reconsider plans to build a mall there. In January 1974 Hahn warned Corte Madera it would “suffer the consequences” if their City Council – which had recently elected an anti-mall majority – withdrew approval. Although the Marin I-J had published several articles about his $17.5 million threat, nothing about it appeared here for weeks, and then only after Codding’s lawyer, William Smith, slipped copies of Hahn’s ultimatum letter to the PD and members of the Santa Rosa City Council. Hahn told the Press Democrat the Corte Madera situation was completely different from here and insisted “we’ve never threatened a suit before.” Yet our local paper still managed to spin the news as if Hahn was being unfairly attacked, with the PD article framing it as “the latest development in the Codding Enterprises-Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency controversy.”

hahn(RIGHT: Undated portrait of Ernest W. Hahn courtesy the California Homebuilding Foundation)

Probably many in Santa Rosa were shocked to hear of Hahn playing lawsuit hardball. He seemed such a damnably likable fellow, a grandfatherly neighbor who might rock on his porch swing after supper, sipping a Coors Light while listening to a ballgame on the radio. Hahn came to Santa Rosa and usually made presentations or answered questions himself. And although he was a big shot, someone on FaceBook commented they would see him riding the bus from San Francisco.

And unlike Corte Madera, the decision-makers in Santa Rosa gave Hahn their full and unconditional faith that he would do what was best for the city. Part of the reason might be because he told them what they wanted to hear. While URA Director Burns was promising the mall would rain down riches, Hahn told them to feel good about tearing down an existing neighborhood because nothing worthwhile was being lost. “There were a lot of old buildings and vacant land there,” he said to the PD. “What are you going to do with it?”

So tight were Hahn and City Hall that we asked him to lend us money. Santa Rosa was turned down for a conventional $3.5M bank loan in order to finish acquiring land for Phase II and III. Hahn agreed to the loan at eight percent interest, the highest we could pay by law. This short term interim loan would be paid back by the muni bonds, which would in turn be paid back by the increased taxes expected once the mall opened. Gentle Reader is forgiven for now muttering, “gee, this sounds like a house of cards.”

The way the URA planned to use bonds for nearly all of the mall financing was always legally shaky, particularly since the city could no longer count on matching federal grants (see footnote 2). The Press Democrat mentioned the Hahn loan several times but was light on the details – except for one article’s scary statement “Hahn could foreclose on the property” if a judge later tossed out this use of bonds. The city and Hahn negotiated the loan for over three months before the idea was dropped.

The PD also neglected to explain that relying on Hahn as a banker might not be such a swell idea. In 1973 he had been sued for fraud and “irregular banking practices” for his role in the largest bank failure to date. The overall scandal was mentioned briefly in a 1975 profile of Hahn in the PD, but not that he personally paid a large settlement.3

The failure to land a (relatively modest) $3.5 million short-term loan threw the entire mall project into crisis, and URA Director James Burns continually barked that every month of delay in construction was costing the city about $100,000 (!) and the sole cause of all these woes were Hugh Codding and his gang of hoodlums. According to Burns, the Codding lawsuits spooked bankers from having anything to do with Santa Rosa.

Hahn was never as strident against Codding, but while defending his threat to release a courtroom Kraken on Corte Madera in early 1974, Hahn commented to the PD, “[Codding’s] attitude could jeopardize the future of downtown Santa Rosa…Other than Codding, I haven’t heard one voice in the community against the project.” That wasn’t quite true – see remarks above from the city Planning Commission – but Hahn was about to hear from lots of other dissident voices, which is the subject of the following chapter.

But a year after the 1974 Christmas lawsuit filed by the county, Ernest Hahn filed a $40M suit against Codding in federal district court in San Francisco. As summarized in the PD, Hahn alleged “Codding and his firm, Codding Enterprises, are guilty of anti-trust violations, defamation of character, and interfering with Hahn’s business relations with the city of Santa Rosa.”


1 The court dismissed Codding’s entire suit as “premature,” as the bond hadn’t been issued. The $1.8M TIF bond (see previous chapter sidebar) never got beyond URA passing a resolution for it, and it is not clear if it was ever anything more than a financial gimmick to obtain a matching amount of Community Development money. It was intended to make up for an $800 thousand shortage in the city’s required share to the overall urban renewal fund. The remaining million was to be added to the pool of money for renewal projects, such as a proposed parking lot between A and B streets or redevelopment around South Park. The week following Codding’s suit over that bond, the URA was awarded the matching $1.8 million grant for land acquisition in the Phase II area.
2 In order to avoid cuts to the $18 billion military budget, Nixon froze large parts of the budgets for key health, education and housing programs from the Kennedy and Johnson years. The new January 1973 guidelines for HUD grants and subsidies required local governments to acquire the properties, do all improvements and sell it to a developer within one year. By September – the month Phase III was announced – the rules were tightened further, essentially ending all federally funded projects except public housing for the elderly. (MORE)
3 Hahn’s start as a shopping center developer began after U.S. National Bank in San Diego acquired a bank Hahn co-founded that was having loan problems. Hahn was named to the USNB board and when the bank collapsed in 1973 criminal charges were filed against the bank president for tax fraud, securities fraud, embezzlement and bank fraud. Hahn, who had been an active director, was on sabbatical at the time but was among those charged by the FDIC for engaging in “unsafe and unsound” banking practices. He paid up to $2M for settlement and attorney fees. For much more, see this article in the San Diego Reader.

NEXT: SAVE THE CAL

"Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Project Area" as shown in a 1974 URA pamphlet. Yellow: Phase I. Orange: Phase II. Tan: Phase III. Blue: Phase IV - Possible community/convention center. Green: Phase V - Possible Railroad Square historic tourist center.
“Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Project Area” as shown in a 1974 URA pamphlet. Yellow: Phase I. Orange: Phase II. Tan: Phase III. Blue: Phase IV – Possible community/convention center. Green: Phase V – Possible Railroad Square historic tourist center.

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coddingcitykey

ROAD TO THE MALL: MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS

There were good reasons to feel optimistic in the spring of 1973. The last American soldiers left Vietnam. The Watergate hearings started and people began taking the scandal seriously, with public opinion swinging from it being “just politics” to “very serious.”

In Santa Rosa, the Press Democrat published its “Outlook 73” supplement which painted a very rosy picture of things to come. We would soon have a wonderful downtown shopping center with three major department stores and up to 85 stores. And soon after that a renewal project for Railroad Square will include a community center with a 2,500 seat performing arts theater and a 50,000 sq. ft. convention hall.

The photo accompanying that cheery item portrayed a scarred landscape that looked like a war zone, with several roughly cleared acres half filled with pools of rainwater. Not long before, the area was home to mom ‘n’ pop stores, repair shops, apartment buildings and more. In the name of urban renewal, that business and residential district was turned into this scene of desolation – which is how it would remain for the next seven years. It’s tough to stay optimistic for that long, particularly when a growing number of people would start to question whether the shopping center was such a good idea in the first place.

(ABOVE: Hugh Codding holding the “key to the city” while dressed in 19th century costume during the March 16, 1968 Santa Rosa centennial. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)

As introduced here in earlier chapters of the “ROAD TO THE MALL” series, this phase of urban renewal started in March 1970 when the City Council passed an ordinance ruling that pretty much everything between B Street and the highway was a “blighted area.” Hardly anyone made comments or raised questions at the public hearing; likely most expected a replay of what happened in the 1960s, when all the blocks surrounding Courthouse Square were similarly deemed unfit but only a few building locations east and south of the Square were affected. They couldn’t forsee that this time, however, the city would be demolishing everything in the area.

Nor was there much fuss when the first bulldozers arrived in 1972 and started bulldozing. A short-lived lawsuit on behalf of the 200+ low income residents still living in the area was quashed by the city’s promise to make good on its original promise to find them other places to live.

The same week that suit was filed, the Press Democrat said Santa Rosa approved “exclusive negotiations with a Hawthorne development firm for a renewal-area shopping center.” A shopping center was a radical new direction from what had been considered when the blight ordinance passed in 1970; at the time there were only fuzzy plans for a department store, motel and a convention center. Even though this major decision was made by a non-elected city staffer without any sort of public hearing, there seemed to be little concern – although normally this sort of undemocratic schenanigan was what you’d expect to set city hall watchdogs barking in alarm.

No group opposed to the redevelopment project appeared until the autumn of 1974 (the topic of a following chapter) but there was one Cassandra who warned from the beginning the situation was fraught: Hugh B. Codding.

In 1970 Codding was a member of the City Council. At that March blight-ordinance meeting he remarked the city’s Planning Director Ken Blackman and the Vice Mayor had tried to strong arm the Montgomery Ward department store chain.1 Codding – who had offered Wards space at Coddingtown – said he was told the city officials had warned a company executive they would have to commit to building a new store in the project area or the company wouldn’t be welcome in Santa Rosa. Other council members pressed him for details and Codding provided the name of the Wards executive, yet the Vice Mayor still insinuated Codding was a liar.

That set the tone for much of what would happen over the next dozen years. It would be Codding fighting the city – specifically, its Urban Renewal Agency (URA) – charging that most everything leading up to opening day at the mall was shifty, if not flat-out illegal. In turn, city officials sniped back over his motives and embarrassed themselves with foolish remarks; in 1974 some council members suggested a boycott of Coddingtown and Montgomery Village. Yeah, causing the city to lose a large chunk of its sales tax revenue would really show Codding who’s the boss, you bet.

But don’t mistake Hugh Codding for a valiant knight wanting to protect his hometown from death by redevelopment. While he believed a mall at that location would force existing downtown stores out of business, he wanted to build on the site as well. Codding told the PD it would “resemble the old central business district plan and would include two department stores and shops, a conventional hotel center, exhibition hall and entertainment center.” He vowed not to touch the Cal Theater and said he would turn the old Post Office into a museum right where it was.

Codding’s main argument was the project area, dubbed “Phase II,” should be sold outright to a private developer (him) at fair-market value – as opposed to making a complicated deal that would be funded through the URA using public funds, including raising money via bonds.

And you can bet Codding was pissed because he wasn’t given a chance to even discuss those ideas with the URA, which rushed into exclusive negotiations with Los Angeles developer Ernest W. Hahn. This was more or less what had happened back in 1964, when he was blocked from making bids on the earlier redevelopment project because the agency made a sweetheart deal with local developer Henry Trione’s group.

Codding was on the City Council back then, so he confined his protests to snarky comments about unfairness. But now that he was no longer a councilman he unleashed Codding Enterprises’ attorney, William J. Smith, who would keep busy filing lawsuits intended to monkeywrench Hahn’s mall project. The Press Democrat was unabashedly a cheerleader for mall construction and had long disliked Hugh Codding but Bill was a great lawyer, if only because he kept Codding’s anti-mall viewpoints in the paper. Reporters knew he was the go-to guy for a dramatic quote: The mall project was not only a “land grab” but “the biggest ripoff in the history of Santa Rosa.” Without his colorful quips much of this important history might have slipped by unnoticed.

coddingland(RIGHT: Richard Codding and Bill Smith looking at plans of Coddingland Shopping Center in 1971. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Codding was further motivated to stop or slow down the Hahn project because he didn’t want competition. Besides Coddingtown and Montgomery Village, since the mid-1960s he planned to build “Coddingland” (!) – a large regional shopping center on the west side of Rohnert Park. As explained in the intro to this history of the mall, a commonly-held notion at the time was that a shopping center was vital to a community’s economic survival; failing to have the best one within driving distance of most people in the area and the local Chamber of Commerce might just as well start handing out STORE FOR RENT signs.

Before continuing, I want to repeat an earlier point that cities and counties all over the nation were making similar stupid, irreversible decisions in those days. I don’t find a whiff that anything actually illegal was going on here in Santa Rosa – it was good intentions, not greed or corruption, which led to the dismantling of “The City Designed for Living.” (Here’s also a reminder this chapter 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.)

But a year before Smith’s first lawsuit was filed, it seemed like Codding’s proposal might get a hearing at the agency after all – although URA Executive Director James K. Burns originally told the Press Democrat he hadn’t even considered speaking to Codding because Hahn’s company had far more regional experience. Lordy, that must have stung.

The exclusive deal with Hahn was for a 120 day feasibility study. “Mr. Codding went away with the understanding that if Mr. Hahn’s firm doesn’t come up with a workable proposal in four months, his firm would be one offered a chance for a new proposal,” the PD reported.

Come July of 1972 and the study period was up. Hahn asked for a nine month extension, which was immediately granted by the URA. Replying to a question from Codding Enterprises, Burns said they were welcome to look at any area plans or studies that didn’t belong to Hahn’s company. What the PD actually printed, however, was they couldn’t see anything that was the property of the Burns Company. It was interesting no one at the paper caught this howling typo – but considering what happened next, it proved surprisingly prophetic.

Time fleweth by and it was now March 1973 – Hahn had had a full year to consider whether he wanted to build a mall or no. He could still cancel the deal without consequences, as his company had not purchased an option on any of the property and those months of study were really the sort of due diligence that his staff surely needed to do on every major project.

Attorney Smith appeared at the next URA meeting and accused the agency and their lawyers of stonewalling requests for basic information about the planned scope of the Hahn project and how it would be paid for. After a month of failed efforts to simply get someone to answer the phone, Smith said their behavior was “suggestive of governmental secrecy and closed-door dealings.”

The agency chairman demurred, saying they first needed to consult lawyers and have Burns write a report. That response only further raised red flags, as just a few days earlier Hahn was the speaker at a Downtown Development Association (DDA) dinner where he blabbed at some length about the size and layout of the future mall. As far as funding, he boasted it would “pay for itself.”

A few days later Burns gave Smith a copy of a memo which he said was soon going to be shared with the City Council anyway. It sketched out how much the URA intended to raise with bond money, which was in addition to the HUD grants. The scheme was either savvy (the project would “pay for itself” if everything went perfectly to plan) or reckless (Santa Rosa could end up bankrupt if it didn’t). The Big Ask would be for $13 million and include funding for “development of Railroad Square” and construction of a community center – both of which were to be quickly dropped from actual consideration, though they continued to appear in PR pamphlets touting redevelopment. 2


…AND HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO PAY FOR THAT?

In March 1973 the URA told Hahn it would propose Santa Rosa use two kinds of bonds that didn’t have to be approved by voters. Neither type of bond was controversial in its own right, but Santa Rosa wanted to use them in a way more beneficial to the developer than the city.

A Lease Revenue Bond (LRB) is issued by government (state, county or city) to pay for a public building that wouldn’t be used to generate income, such as a firehouse, school, or a prison. This is how Sonoma County funded construction of the present courthouse after voters refused to approve a bond (five times, no less!) between 1960 and 1963. The government then rents the building from the bondholders.3

A Tax Increment Financing Bond (TIF, also called a “tax allocation bond”) has less specific purposes, but is usually to fund redeveloping an entire “blighted” district. Presumably such improvements would result in higher property taxes and more local sales tax income.

Both are long-term municipal bonds which would typically extend over decades. But Santa Rosa officials believed at the time the mall would be opened by 1975 and the city treasury would be instantly awash with tax money, which would pay off any bonds in 8-10 years.

The $13M TIF bond was dropped, but the city later sold $6.5 million in bonds for Phase II redevelopment. Another $1.8M TIF was not sold, but was a “tool” used to obtain a matching federal grant from HUD, according to a URA lawyer.

It was because of the proposed TIF bonds that the county sued the URA in late 1974. Because all new tax income generated by the mall was earmarked for paying off the bond, special districts for schools, fire departments and hospitals (etc.) would not enjoy any benefits.

Worse, the assessed property values in an active redevelopment area were frozen at whatever they were when the blight removal project began. To speed up HUD approval of the 1970s project area, the URA had used a loophole. They claimed this wasn’t a new project, but rather an extension of the earlier project near Courthouse Square. This meant property taxes for the new mall were to be set not according to the current year, but instead the “base year” when redevelopment was first approved – which in this case was 1961.

(This sidebar has been edited to correct details about the TIF bonds.)

This was in addition to the big tranche of HUD urban renewal money, and the URA intended to raise this other pot o’ gold via bonds – which led to lawsuits against the URA by the county as well as Codding. See sidebar.

Once Bill Smith obtained this “secret memo” between Hahn and the URA he unleashed his silver tongue: “The implications of this material are staggering. It is perhaps the most incredible document we have ever studied.” He objected to the absence of voter approval and that taxpayers would be “subsidizing land developers and large department stores.”

All true that, but left unsaid was those bonds represented a Point of No Return. After they were issued, Santa Rosa would be completely at the mercy of Hahn making good on his promises. Should he proclaim that, oh, the mall just might need another year of studies – or goddesses forfend, he might be thinking about walking away from the project – the city would still have to make bond payments on today’s equivalent of $84 million dollars. We were giving away all bargaining power on what impact the mall would have on the future of Santa Rosa.

Yet at every URA or City Council meeting concerning redevelopment, attorney Smith was there, reminding the officials that Codding Enterprises was ready to immediately present a $1M deposit to buy the property outright, with no bond funding required at all. So great was the animosity toward Codding they never had the courtesy to allow him to make a pitch. Maybe they were concerned his proposal would prove so popular it would put the brakes on the mad rush to hand over keys to the kingdom to a Los Angeles developer.4

A few weeks after the “secret memo” episode, Hahn was back in town for a URA meeting where he requested (wait for it, wait for it!)…another extension. This time it was for ninety days, and the agency approved it unanimously. Bill Smith was at the meeting, and I’ll bet his eyes rolled so far back in his head they made an audible clunk.

Hahn was also there to deliver a cashier’s check for $500,000 as “good faith” money – but should the deal fall through, Hahn expected all of it back, and with interest. Smith argued this amounted to giving him a risk-free option, and said Hahn had dragged out studies for a Richmond shopping center for two years before it was dropped. In response the URA chairman chided Smith for not being “affirmative.”

The new extension was because Hahn said he needed time to prepare a “predisposition agreement” required for HUD approval and review by bond underwriters. Said Smith: That means it’s a public document and I want to see it. He was told it was off-limits because it part of their exclusive negotiations with Hahn.

Thus Codding Enterprises immediately filed its very first lawsuit in the redevelopment saga, seeking disclosure of the agreement under California’s version of the Freedom of Information Act. He complained to the PD about the URA throwing out obstacles on “this charade, this costly proceeding to get a lousy letter.” When it was released shortly afterwards it was shown one department store was committed to the mall, another considering it, and a third straddling the fence.

In an imperfect (yet better!) universe this would be nearly the end of the story. Codding surrenders and Hahn’s mall is built in the mid-1970s. Yeah, it may be obnoxious but it doesn’t completely dominate downtown. It ends at Fifth street so it’s still easy to get to Railroad Square. The beloved Cal Theater remains in place, as does the Old Post Office and Masonic Scottish Rite Temple, with its precious Kurlander Collection of Santa Rosa’s historical artifacts.

But Gentle Reader knows this is not what happened. Bill Smith continued to protest. Codding continued to sue. In the following years others decided Codding shouldn’t have all the judicial fun and they filed lawsuits as well. In the compressed viewpoint of hindsight, that period looked like everyone was slugging it out with everyone else all the time.

We can pinpoint our unhappy turn of fate to May 22, 1973, which was when the City Council approved expanding the urban renewal study area to Seventh street at the request of the URA. Besides the aforementioned heritage buildings, this area included the Bishop-Hansel Ford dealership and the 75,000 sq. ft. Sears department store, which was less than 25 years old.

Smith argued those twelve acres were not blighted and thus would not qualify for HUD redevelopment funding. Burns countered it was the Council who determined where urban renewal was needed. The PD noted the underlying reason was to expand the mall’s footprint.

So here’s the executive summary of where things stand as we enter the summer of 1973:

Our coy developer, Hahn, is still not sure Santa Rosa is up to muster and is having trouble signing up anchor stores for the future mall. But maybe if we could see fit to supersize the amount of land we’re giving him, he will decide he likes us in spite of our failings.

URA Executive Director James K. Burns has taken to fear-mongering the city is “losing $100,000 in taxes monthly” until the mall opens. He and other URA members appear so worried Hahn might delay or take flight they attempt suppressing all disclosure of their “exclusive negotiations,” skirting the law and giving their discussions the shady appearance of backroom dealmaking.

Codding Enterprises attorney William Smith is haunting public meetings and writing letters that warn the city is being hoodwinked.

There is still no organized public opposition to the mall project. It may be because Codding is leading the fight and some people really don’t like him. Since no architectural drawings appear in the paper most don’t understand Railroad Square might be blocked off. Or perhaps people just aren’t paying attention because it’s all so confusing. (“Tax increment systems?” Wha?)

Bottom line: Judge them not, because few, if any, can see what’s in store for poor, damned Santa Rosa.


1 The Montgomery Ward building in Santa Rosa was demolished following the 1969 earthquakes, but they quickly reopened as a catalog store near the current location of the Mendocino Av. Safeway. In 1972 they moved next to the Flamingo Hotel.
2 A full breakdown of Phase II and III financials by URA Executive Director James K. Burns can be found in the September 2, 1973 Press Democrat

3 No Lease Revenue bond was issued for the mall project (as far as I can tell) although it was described several times in the paper, including in a March 9, 1973 Press Democrat interview with Burns. It was probably just being used as a talking point in order to mention a community center which the URA kept dangling as a possibility in PR materials.
4 Since Codding Enterprises never had the chance to make a redevelopment presentation we don’t exactly what they would have proposed. The few times it was mentioned in the newspapers a department store, motel and convention center were frequently cited. Objections to the Hahn plans from William Smith sometimes mentioned the city’s Housing Element in the General Plan, and at least one letter from him stated “replacement and construction of housing for low and moderate income families and the elderly should be part of the downtown plan.” April 26, 1973 Press Democrat

NEXT: GREATEST EXPECTATIONS

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Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

HUGH CODDING’S “DEAD ZOO”

Santa Rosa schoolkids in the 1960s-70s may remember field trips to the museum. No, not to the place on Seventh street with its neoclassical architecture – that didn’t open as a museum until 1985. Before that the schoolbus drove to a nondescript industrial building on Summerfield Road which was the “Codding Museum,” although in truth it was mostly Hugh Codding’s hunting trophy room.

Codding, it seems, had been blasting away on all continents (except Antarctica) since the late 1940s. “I don’t say hunting is good,” he told a biographer, “it’s just the way I am. I don’t play golf. Hunting and fishing I like because you get a little reward at the end. It’s like a stick with a wienie on it.”1

Inside the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History” (as it was formally known) there were some four hundred stuffed animals or parts thereof. There were bears of all kinds in scary poses, a Bengal tiger and a leopard along with other animals that had menacing claws or antlers. There were entire walls of mounted heads and sometimes the big game wasn’t so big; there was a South African dik-dik which was about the size of a cocker spaniel when Hugh killed it. There were glass eyes staring back at you from all directions. There were dioramas where the animals were arranged in something like their natural settings, except the animals never moved or blinked. It was like visiting a dead zoo.2

That museum at 557 Summerfield Road was shared with the Sonoma County Historical Society, which rented the front lobby from Codding for $1/year. What was displayed in their room was mostly random old bric-a-brac better suited for an antique (or junk) store, as described in the previous article. But Codding was using the Historical Society’s participation to lend his taxidermical souvenirs a measure of legitimacy. That motive was clearly on display in early 1963 when he sought permission for a 5,000 sq. ft. building at the NW corner of Hoen and Farmers Lane. He told the Santa Rosa Planning Commission it was to be charitably offered to the Society while the “remainder would be devoted to items of natural history interest.” That plan was scrapped later that year when Codding’s tenant at the Summerfield Road address moved out, making a space of the same size immediately available. The Historical Society and Hugh’s stuffed things moved in there and opened a few months later.

Having his trophies on display did not end or even slow down Codding’s hunting trips and safaris, and when the museum opened he said it would need to be expanded in a couple of years. If anything his urge to bag wild game only increased after the mid-1960s. When he was on the City Council many votes were missed because he was shooting up in Alaska or elsewhere. Wyoming was a favorite; he and a handful of buddies would disappear up there for a week or more at a time.

Although he had killed one elephant (at least), Codding bought a baby one for $7,500 and avoided paying sales tax by claiming it was livestock he was fattening up. “The city attorney threw a fit,” he told a biographer.3 He had his construction crew build an elephant house near his home, hired a trainer/handler to care for it and after awhile the animal was making regular appearances at the newly-opened Coddingtown, which was then unroofed. He kept it about six months before sending it back to the Southern California dealer.

The curator for the overall museum was Ben Cummings, a retired chemical engineer and Hugh’s brother-in-law. He had no experience with managing any sort of museum but was a conservationist, having been chairman of that committee at the Sierra Club’s big New York chapter. Ben was also a fine artist and the landscapes seen in the dioramas were his work. He quit in 1981 1984 to take up painting fulltime after declaring there was nothing more for him to do at the museum, according to a Press Democrat interview.

In truth, there was lots of work to be done. While his dioramas were realistic, that sort of static tableau was widely considered outmoded. In the photos below it’s shown the signage was just a card naming the animal(s) seen behind a plate glass window – unless visitors were being guided by a very adept docent, there was nearly zero educational content to be gleaned. By then, better museums were incorporating videos into displays or using Walkman cassette players to provide high quality self-guided tours.

Besides being over forty years younger than Cummings, the new curator was an actual scientist committed to environmental education: Paleontologist Raj Naidu. He put most of the trophy heads in storage, added new regional geology and fossil/dinosaur displays, expanded community outreach and began programs for docents and teachers. Naidu told the PD that “our visitors these days know we’re not a ‘glorified trophy collection.'” It’s said Codding did not get along well with Naidu, and it may be because of that.

Attendance was now better than ever, drawing 10k visitors a year. But once the history museum on Seventh street opened in 1985, Codding’s offering was at a crossroads. Yearly operating expenses were $100,000 and completely underwritten by the Codding Foundation. In May 1989 the Coddings gave Naidu notice they were shutting it down. Hugh told the PD the closure “has nothing to do with finances” and today Connie Codding says Hugh was crestfallen to learn people were disparaging the museum because of the wildlife trophies.

Closing the museum meant those many hundreds of wildlife trophies would need to be rehoused or liquidated. Some would be kept by the family or given away. Selling many of them, however, would be difficult or even impossible; the world had changed since Hugh’s killing spree began in the 1940s and many states now banned the sale or purchase of wildlife taxidermy, particularly when the species was endangered/threatened. California (as might be expected) has the strictest laws in the nation.4 To Hugh Codding’s great good luck, in to his newly shuttered museum walked Ron Head, who was hoping to score a Tule Elk trophy for his classroom.

Ron was a hugely popular instructor at Petaluma High School, teaching environmental/natural resources classes. Earlier that same year he had taken the school’s Outdoor Activities Klub [sic] whitewater rafting on the American River and had launched the “Animals for Everyone” program, where high school students visited elementary schools and community groups to show and speak about exotic animals including pythons, a boa constrictor and a tarantula.

“Kids come in expecting Bambi, but I do my best to burst their bubble about the natural world,” Head told the Argus-Courier. “Our class is not like a Disney movie; there’s never a dull moment.” In 1976 he invited an owner of a tame mountain lion to bring it in to his classroom where it roamed around unleashed.

Codding and Head hit it off well enough, as both were outdoorsy types and especially because of their shared interest in hunting. Ron was offered a job which he turned down.5 Undeterred, Codding made another offer: Head could have the entire inventory of the museum. Free. There was only one catch: He would only give the collection to a non-profit.

For Codding this would be the sweetest deal possible. There were no restrictions on donating a taxidermied creature, even those species which could no longer be stuffed under state, federal or international laws. And since it was to be a charitable donation, there was a tax write-off for its full value – which was pegged at $1,000,000.

For schoolteacher Ron Head it would be like cliff diving into unknown waters. He would immediately have to create a 501(c)(3) corporation, convince the school board to allow that and allow him to accept the collection. He would have to find a large enough space to house it all. And he would have to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.


A MUSEUM LIKE NO OTHER

Behind the student parking lot at Petaluma High School can be found a most remarkable and unique place: the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, the only student operated natural history museum in the nation.

Open to the general public most Saturdays, the hour-long tour led by trained high school student docents aims to teach visitors about the importance of wildlife conservation/preservation. There are other programs including a week-long summer camp for 5-12 year-olds that sound like great fun.

The docent handbook written by Phil Tacata (Ron Head’s successor) includes this inspiring passage: “…you have the ability to change the future, and it starts by teaching the children of our community about the beauty, the power, and the fragility of this wonderful world around us. It starts with you communicating your knowledge of wildlife and transferring your passion for nature to the next generation, to inspire them to love it as you do, TO TEACH THEM THAT THIS WORLD IS WORTH PROTECTING.”

Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed
Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

Against high odds, Ron pulled it off. Aided by an outpouring of support from the Petaluma community, a small army of volunteers and workers from the Codding construction company, an old bus garage on the high school campus was converted into the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, which opened in 1992 (see sidebar).

There are still some heads on the walls but the larger animals are no longer encased behind glass in dioramas. It is very much a hands-on experience for small kids to have memorable encounters with the museum’s living “animal ambassadors” and for the older students serving as docents to gain confidence and teaching skills.

As for questions about the dead mounted animals, the docent handbook suggests explaining honestly that Codding killed them “because he wanted trophies.” If the visitor struggles with understanding that answer, a docent can offer a carefully balanced perspective: “Mr. Codding came from a different era, one in which attitudes towards trophy hunting were different than they are today. You can also continue to explain that, today, we know that trophy hunting is usually a destructive practice, but because Mr. Codding donated these animals to us, we can use them as examples to teach you why it’s important to protect them.”

Connie Codding says she and Hugh visited the Petaluma museum many times and a child once recognized him, presumably from the bronze bust on display. The youth told them he couldn’t wait to be old enough to be in high school and learn to become a docent. “He just glowed with happiness when he heard that,” she recalls.


1“Hugh” serialized bio by James Dunn; Sonoma Business magazine 1993-4

2The “dead zoo” analogy comes from an earlier article, “HE’S HERE TO KILL ANIMALS FOR THE DEAD ZOO” which told of a taxidermist who was arrested in Lake County for killing birds during 1908. He was on a collecting expedition for Lord Walter Rothschild, a wealthy amateur zoologist who was trying to collect specimens of nearly every creature on Earth, living or dead. The British children of Hertfordshire mockingly called Rothschild’s private natural history museum the “dead zoo.”

3 “Hugh”, op. cit.
4 The best summary of state laws regarding the sale of taxidermy can be found at EstateSales.org.
5 Details of the interactions and agreements between Hugh Codding and Ron Head are drawn from the History of the PWM slideshow. Slides 11 and 13 describe the terms of the donation.

Photos of the Codding Museum exhibits courtesy the Petaluma Wildlife Museum

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