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WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

Santa Rosa has a history of making regrettable decisions, lord knows, and this series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” delves into just the cascading series of failures leading up to construction of the shopping mall, which was the ultimissimo mistake. But in our big book of blunders there’s one small chapter where the town didn’t pick the worst possible option – although it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The project we were trying so hard to screwup was (once again) Courthouse Square, and this attempt started in 1966, the same year we tore down the courthouse. Immediately following that we stabbed a four-lane street through the middle and declared that the western sliver of what remained would now be called “Old Courthouse Square.” That part of the story was explored in the previous article, “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’“.

All of that had been done under the authority of Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of downtown Santa Rosa, as also discussed in that article. As a first step that year the county had sold all of Courthouse Square (plus the county garage and jail) to the URA for $400k, but the county only expected to be paid half of that, considering the new street and west side of the Square as a donation. To raise the remaining $200k, the plan was that the city would sell the east side of the Square to a developer. “For Sale: 26,000 sq. Feet,” read the URA marketing blurb, with an asking price of $305k.

But a year passed with only a single bid: Eureka Federal Savings offered $260k (can’t have enough massive bank buildings squatting on prime downtown locations). Potential buyers found the city’s right to sell the property was…uncertain, to say the least.

This was hardly the first time questions about ownership of the Square were raised; you could say it was Sonoma County’s oldest parlor game, going back to just after the Civil War (see sidebar).

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THAT TROUBLESOME GIFT

The town was founded, as everyone knows, in 1854 by Barney Hoen & Co. and Julio Carrillo. They also donated a couple of acres for a central plaza, with the company providing the eastern half and Julio giving the western side. The notarized Oct. 23, 1854 dedication document stated “the public square…[is] donated to and for the use and benefit of Sonoma County forever…”

At that moment Carrillo was one of the wealthiest men in Sonoma county, but Fortuna did not smile upon him long. Around Christmas of 1867, Julio found himself unable to feed his family (12 kids!) because he didn’t have enough credit left with storekeepers to buy a meager sack of flour. “Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza,” wrote historian Robert Thompson, attempting to sell it to three local men for $300, as told in “COURTHOUSE SQUARE FOR SALE, CHEAP.”

The first news about the “re-deed” appeared in the Santa Rosa paper shortly after New Year’s Day, 1868, when it was also discovered that the 1854 document was never recorded – an oversight which was immediately corrected, albeit 13 years late. Still, the men who claimed to now own some of the most valuable property in town persisted, building a shack on the plaza in the middle of the night (it was torn down the next day). They tried to do it again in 1870, but it was also knocked down immediately as the town council rushed through an ordinance explicitly making it illegal to put up a building in the plaza.

In the 1870s Santa Rosa acted like they owned the place, as the Common Council passed more ordinances about the plaza and made improvements: Gates must be kept closed (“Is it not astonishing that some people will be so careless as to leave the gates of our Plaza open after they have passed through, so that cows and other animals can get in?” – Sonoma Democrat, Feb. 26, 1870), liquor and cussing were banned and new benches were added along with a flagpole.

The next dust-up came in 1883, when county supervisors decided we needed a new courthouse – the one at the current location of Exchange Bank was a leaky, plaster-cracked mess. Santa Rosa insisted it should be built in the middle of the Plaza. Petaluma objected, and offered to built it in their town; Santa Rosa founders Hahman and Hoen objected, saying it had been gifted with the clear intent of it remaining a park; even District Attorney Thomas Geary opined “the county had no more right to put a building there than they had on the county road.” The squabble ended only when Santa Rosa sent the Supervisors a resolution “surrendering the possession of the plaza.” (For more, see “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.”)

But at the time the Petaluma Argus began sewing doubt that the plaza might not be owned by the city OR the county – everything about the title to the plaza land was unclear. What did “use and benefit of Sonoma County” mean legally? Apparently Julio was truthful in saying there was no deed or other paperwork.

After that the issue lay dormant until 1953, when the Planning Commission produced a review of possible new sites for the courthouse. The County Taxpayers’ Association shot back with a 25-page critique which included this point: “It is reliably reported…should it be used for other than a Courthouse or a park, the title will revert to the heir of the donor”. In his writeup on the group’s response, PD reporter Fred Fletcher commented, “this has been rumored in the Courthouse for years.”

The URA certainly knew about the problems. A few years earlier while they were hashing out ideas about where to put the new city hall/civic center, a site selection committee was appointed with Judge Hilliard Comstock as chairman. When they were considering the Square he looked into the title issue and reported that although the county felt it owned the Square because of its long use, the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property.

“Help us clear the title,” URA member O. E. Christensen asked mayor Hugh Codding in a June, 1967 meeting. “We can go from there. We can advertise the property, but not consummate the title. Untie our hands then we can move.” Codding offered to help. In the meantime they seeded the east side with grass, since development was a year or two away. Later Skylark Nursery loaned sixteen magnolia and cedar trees in containers to dress up the place a bit. The very next day they were blown over by high winds and rolled out into the street.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the new four-lane road our new, dinky, “Old Courthouse Square” was dedicated with fanfare. Mayor Codding predicted the citizenry would become “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa” as a result. Supervisor Robert Rath commented they were “revering back to perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. Carrillo when the property was dedicated to public use in 1853” (wrong year, and nope). Some descendants of Julio Carrillo were present at the dedication and wrote a letter to the PD that they were “surprised how the actual facts could be so conveniently omitted.”

Around then, talk began about the east side of the square. Maybe it was because the thousand or so people at that September dedication looked across the street at the vacant lot and wondered why that couldn’t be a public park, too. Gaye LeBaron had an item in her social column commenting that people around town were musing about putting a statue of Burbank over there, or bocce ball courts, or something else. “It isn’t so much what the people want, it’s what they don’t want,” she wrote. “And lots of them don’t want a building on that square.”

Battle lines were being drawn. On the side wanting a big honking bank was the URA, the Downtown Development Association and the Press Democrat. The PD probably did not win many converts by reproducing the URA’s site plan shown below. Not only did it show the proposed building’s footprint would dwarf all retail spaces downtown, but the illustration’s caption pointed out there would still be plenty of open space around (shown here in black). In an editorial, the PD went so far as to suggest the town already had too many parks and bits of greenery: “Between Fremont Park, Juilliard Park, the existing park on the westerly side of Old Courthouse Square, and the landscaping scheduled within the urban redevelopment area, Downtown Santa Rosa already may have received more than its fair share of the city funds available for places for people to enjoy, and for children to play.”

URA site plan of downtown Santa Rosa as it appeared in the Press Democrat, December 17, 1967
URA site plan of downtown Santa Rosa as it appeared in the Press Democrat, December 17, 1967

The Press Democrat wandered further into the weeds with an editorial claiming it would cost the city $800,000 to make it a park. (Estimating $450k in lost tax revenue + $350k to buy it from the county and create a concrete-paved plaza like the westerly side of the Square.) Mayor Codding called the guesstimate ridiculous and the editorial “an insult to my intelligence.” Codding, who was the most vocal advocate for preserving it as a park, had also asked the Board of Supervisors to consider donating the land.

By the start of 1968, every civic and service group in or near Santa Rosa was off the fence on the park question – even the Chamber of Commerce opposed development – and only the PD was surprised when the City Council voted to ask the Supervisors to donate it (Codding was absent that day, as ol’ Hugh was taking time off to shoot at bears in Alaska).

In the background during all this, the Quest for Title was slogging into its second year. Initially the county and city/URA were all meeting in efforts to settle it until the County Counsel decided to split off, so now there were two separate efforts to unravel that 115 year old knot.

(Sidenote: While doing this research the news cycle was paying much attention to a NASCAR pileup and playing in slow motion the last seconds before the crash over and over, and I thought, gee, how timely.)

The Supervisors were in a grand pickle. For two fiscal years now, their budget counted on receiving $198k for the east side of the Square. (Why $198k and not an even $200k was never explained, as far as I can tell.) That represented six percent of a year’s county tax revenue – a huge writeoff.

Over the course of that summer the Supes mulled and pondered what to do, relying upon the advice of County Counsel Richard Ramsey, although some of his suggestions – as reported in the PD – seemed unsound and aimed mainly at provoking Santa Rosa. He said the county “certainly is entitled to use the property for whatever it wants” and the Supervisors could take it over and sell it themselves. Or they could sue the city for the $198k and the title, while also assuring them there was “no question” the county could get a “marketable title” to the property. There was a closed session and another speckled with considerable bitter comments.

The Board of Supervisors decided to sue the city of Santa Rosa and its Urban Renewal Agency, demanding $800k + interest (about $6 million today). They arrived at that figure by claiming damages because the market value of the land was “substantially impaired” because the city “refuse[d] to cooperate in transferring title” (!) and had “permanently seized possession” of the Square, which had deprived the county of using its legal property. Oh, lawyers.

Efforts to negotiate a settlement went nowhere. Codding suggested the city deed everything back to the county, which would have mucked up the ownership issue further still (which I think was his intent). A Press Democrat editorial bemoaned that a drawn-out legal fight could leave the east side in limbo for years, neither the city or county maintaining it as the place deteriorated into the “Sonoma County Memorial Weed Patch.”

Our story finally winds up in 1970, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist you probably aren’t expecting. The lawsuit itself was settled fairly amicably; Santa Rosa paid the county $50,000 and gave them some land southwest of town which was outside of city limits. The agreement stated the city would have to pay $48k more if the east portion of the Square ever became something other than public use.

As for the question of title…

While the Supervisors were debating whether or not to sue in 1968, they split into two camps: One side simply wanted that $198k and said the city was in breach of contract. The other Supes’ position was that they would like to donate the land to Santa Rosa, but their hands were tied until the title was resolved. But all of them had apparently forgotten the county had previously quitclaimed the western side and roadway back in 1966 – an inconvenient fact which was brought up in the PD’s coverage. In other words, the county had already declared they were no longer claiming any form of ownership to two-thirds of the original plaza, only the remnant on the eastern side.

In the end, the county wanted money for something they couldn’t prove they legally had. Who knows what County Counsel Ramsey was thinking in promising the Supervisors he could obtain a “marketable title” in court, although at least one of his predecessors had also made the claim. Maybe Ramsey had dreams of prancing before Supreme Courts in Sacramento or Washington, making the case that Julio Carrillo and the others never meant to donate it to the people of Sonoma county but rather the county government (which practically didn’t yet exist in 1854).

Thus the one thing everyone expected to happen, didn’t – the title of the Plaza/Square was still unresolved as the county and city settled their spat in 1970. The troublesome ancient document was left to gather dust in the Recorder’s office as everyone backed away from it slowly.

Was this ever resolved in the fifty years since? Not as far as I can tell – it seems that it’s all just been forgotten, like one of the dangerous treasures buried deep in the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s warehouse.

"Old Courthouse Square" in 1968 looking east. Image: Sonoma County Library
“Old Courthouse Square” in 1968 looking east. Image: Sonoma County Library
East side of Courthouse Square in 1977. Image: Sonoma County Library
East side of Courthouse Square in 1977. Image: Sonoma County Library

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IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

If a time machine is ever invented, lord help Santa Rosa’s 1960s decision-makers; there will be mobs of howling Facebookers chasing them through the streets for what they did to this town.

Those who hang out in local history and nostalgia social media often write about downtown Santa Rosa in that era as if it were a crime scene; a vintage photo of a picturesque building now demolished, a scene of streets crowded with shoppers will draw tearful emojis and bitter comments. How did all this come to disappear? We know the answer: It was the outcome of the town’s gung-ho embrace of urban renewal schemes, which are the subject of this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”

(This article covers only “Phase I” of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment in the 1960s, when the urban renewal area was limited to the 40 acres between Sonoma ave. and Third street, and from Santa Rosa/Mendocino avenues and E street. Events leading to construction of the Santa Rosa Mall were Phase II and III during the 1970s and will be covered later.)

Other cities and towns climbed aboard the redevelopment gravy train – it was free federal money after all, and the government wasn’t too picky about how it was spent. But few communities were willing to go as far as Santa Rosa and gut so much of their downtown core.

One reason this is so crazy-making for us today is because there was no compelling reason to declare most of the downtown “blighted,” which was their excuse for wiping out entire blocks and more than a hundred historic buildings. The movers ‘n’ shakers of Santa Rosa saw the opposite – downtown was economically blighted because their projections estimated the taxable value of the area after redevelopment would be at least three times greater.*

They were also true believers that anything new was better than old. In a 1961 editorial the Press Democrat dismissed all the old buildings as “substandard” and said tearing them down would “…serve the Santa Rosa of today and the future instead of continuing to be a deteriorating hodge-podge that ‘just growed’ over the past 75 years or so.”

Steering the redevelopment ship was the five-member Urban Renewal Agency (URA), which was created by the City Council in 1958. Its executive director and the appointed members wielded enormous power (including the ability to condemn land using eminent domain without a public hearing) yet faced little criticism except from one persistent fellow named Hugh Codding – more about him in a minute. What the public heard instead was enthusiastic approval from the Council and city staff and particularly the PD, which was the URA’s most ardent cheerleader. The paper leaned hard on the notion that the blighted area really was studded with eyesores, and good riddance; there was a photo they liked to use showing a ramshackle house badly in disrepair with a sagging porch – while neglecting to mention one of the first places to be demolished would be Luther Burbank’s house.

Redevelopment programs became infamous for graft and corruption but I don’t find a whiff of that happening here. While the URA was biased toward particular developers and clearly treated Codding unfairly, I fully believe everyone’s motives were well-intentioned – that they expected the result of their labors would truly create a city beautiful. Of course, very little worked out as well as they expected and they ended up creating a city regrettable. To paraphrase the great disclaimer at the start of the movie, Fargo:

This is a true story. The events described here took place in Santa Rosa, California. Out of respect for the survivors of those times and their families, keep in mind the decision-makers back then were not fools, dunderheads or venal crooks, though some of their choices seem glaringly stupid today. But hey, it was the 1960s, when everybody was a little nuts.

Santa Rosa’s Big Urban Renewal Adventure kicked off in 1960, when the city tapped some of the URA’s government money to hire New Jersey urban planning experts to come up with ideas on what they should do with the six blocks to be redeveloped. They developed a model that everyone here loved like a warm puppy – it was so popular they had to schedule showings of it in bank lobbies and store windows.

Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below
Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below

 

Their model shows a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek greenway with the city hall and state building on its southern bank (an earlier drawing shows the courthouse and jail there, before it was decided in mid-1960 to rebuild at the county administration center). There was plenty of parking spaces, a big department store and several mixed retail/office buildings.

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

No, strike that – they kept the parking lot next to the library and the parking garage at Third and D.

Without a master plan the URA couldn’t provide a rudder for what should be built and where, aside from vague expectations there should be a new city hall, a major department store (or two) and a “shopping center.” Read that again, slowly: The only planning provided by the city was what to condemn and demolish, leaving it to the developers to shape how downtown would look and function. The Press Democrat had welcomed urban renewal as an opportunity to rid Santa Rosa of its “hodge-podge” appearance, but we were preparing to hodge-podge it up again, only now with plenty of very undistinguished office buildings.

Megapolitan(RIGHT: The 500,000 sq. ft. proposal for downtown Santa Rosa from Megapolitan Corp. The street glimpsed at the top is presumably Sonoma ave.)

In place of the master plan there were four proposals made to the URA in 1963. (A reminder again that this was for the six blocks directly south of Courthouse Square, not the current location of the mall.) Two developers pitched conventional shopping centers with no big anchor stores – one used the top floor for professional offices. An ambitious bid from the Megapolitan Corp. of Los Angeles called for a massive shopping center which was virtually an indoor, self-sufficient town, sans housing. The bizarre plan called for a “European opera house” with seating for 1,500 that “could accommodate full broadway, concert, opera, and ballet productions” a nightclub, two “theater bars,” dance and health studios, laundry and dry cleaning shops, a supermarket, drug store, billiard hall and a “host of specialty tenants.” (Whew!)

The winning proposal in 1964 came from the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (called here “SRBCRC” to avoid confusion with all other things Burbank). This was a financing consortium put together by Henry Trione and his friends, not planners or architects – they hired top-notch Bay Area designers to come up with actual plans. Their original presentation included two department stores plus a “Civic Tower” on Courthouse Square straddling a sunken roadway, as discussed in the article on the development of the city hall complex.

That the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for ownership of the entire 40 acres irked Hugh Codding no end, mostly because the agreement was made with the price yet to be negotiated at some future date. Once he became a City Councilman, Codding would needle the URA directors by sarcastically asking if SRBCRC had made a downpayment yet.

But despite the URA’s founding promise that redevelopment would draw big-name stores to downtown Santa Rosa, it seemed no companies were willing to take a chance. It was rumored that Macy’s was interested; nope. J.C. Penny? Pass. Emporium? Sorry. SRBCRC hired another set of architects to draw up new layouts. “The success of any of the plans was highly speculative,” Trione wrote in his autobiography. “Potential buyers were very cautious.”

It wasn’t that those companies were cautious about building new stores – it was that they were leery about Santa Rosa’s downtown; their location scouts couldn’t help but notice parking was a headache (and not free). The uncertain status of the redevelopment area meant their future neighbors could range from an upscale jewelry store to a smelly fast food joint, and ongoing construction would keep the area dusty and noisy for years to come. No, a smarter bet would be to build a department store in a spanking new shopping mall with none of those drawbacks. Coddingtown, for example. And so they did.

Looking ahead, Trione and his company built offices, banks and government buildings (which, I imagine, few of us have ever had reason to visit). The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store. 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.

But in the autumn of 1965, the Press Democrat’s editor Art Volkerts imagined it was the start of a glorious transformation. In a puff-piece “URA Holds Promise in Heart of Santa Rosa” he wrote,

…What will this mean to Santa Rosa? Well, it will mean more tax revenues to help pay for the city’s expanding services. It will mean bright, new buildings rising in an area which was fast becoming a civic blight…it now seems certain that the URA project will indeed be a flower worthy of maturing next to Santa Rosa’s beloved Burbank Gardens.

Others more clear-eyed saw it meant 37 businesses had been displaced and 44 families plus 43 single individuals had lost their homes. For the next few years there would be forty acres of vacant lots scraped down to the dirt waiting for all that greatness which would not come.

NEXT: TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

* “In its present run-down condition, the Santa Rosa urban renewal area is assessed at $859,000. The least favorable of the several forms which redevelopment could take will result in real and personal values assessed at $2,413,700.” Press Democrat editorial, July 17, 1961. By 1965, the PD was claiming the current value was about $3 million and should be worth over $12M.
1965 model of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC
1965 drawing of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC

 

 

Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates
Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates

 

 

Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency
Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency

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…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

“This is why we can’t have nice things” was a popular quip a few years ago; it’s something to say after discovering something cherished has been trashed. Every time I step into the courtyard of Santa Rosa’s city hall complex that’s the phrase I mumble (okay, whimper) because underneath this reinforced concrete monstrosity is the filled-in bed of Santa Rosa Creek.

(This article is the back half of the story which began in “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…” and should be read first, as it explains why the creek was covered and traces the origins of the Urban Renewal Agency.)

Even in the URA’s early days – while they were still pondering how much of Santa Rosa’s historic downtown deserved to be wiped out – there was agreement there should be a “civic center” built somewhere within that area. The contrary voice in 1960 was developer Hugh Codding, who volunteered to donate “as much as you need” on Steele Lane, near where he was building his new shopping center.

Codding’s quest to sell, lease, or give away land for a civic center is one of those epic tales about our town’s wild and irrepressible developer. He first offered the city space in 1950 at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. In the mid-1950s he offered another spot near his shopping center, this time at the corner of Fourth St. and Farmers Lane. Once Coddingtown was up and running he offered either of two Steele Lane sites in 1963 and when the City Council still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal for city hall to become part of the new county administration center (which would have put Santa Rosa’s city offices on unincorporated county land). After this the Press Democrat editor wrote, “a city hall is not some toy on wheels, to be moved around from one outer boundary of a city to another where property developments happen to be going on.” Undeterred, Codding once more pushed the Steele Lane location in 1964. The next year Hugh was back again, this time with site plans. But he was now a member of the Council, and the city attorney pronounced Santa Rosa could never consider any of his properties because it would be a conflict of interest. True to form, Hugh offered to resign on the spot – as long as they would accept his deal.

Although Codding remained the key player in the overall tragedy of Santa Rosa’s urban renewal scheme, that’s the extent of his involvement in this chapter on the city hall and what was to be built over the entombed creek. This time center stage belongs to one of his main adversaries: The Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company, which was formed in 1963 to “compete” for properties under the URA’s control. (“Compete” is in ironic quotes because their bids won even though they paid nothing until the price was negotiated at a later date – a sweetheart deal that never failed to raise Codding’s ire.) The locally-owned investment company was headed by five general partners, including Henry Trione as CEO/President. In the newspapers it was commonly called “the Burbank Center” or “the Burbank group,” but since those names have other uses today they are referred to as simply SRBCRC here.

The SRBCRC hired a team of top-notch architects and redevelopment experts, launching with an ambitious $12 million proposal to redevelop the entire downtown area including Courthouse Square. It was already presumed that the courthouse would be demolished and the square would be split in half by the new Santa Rosa Ave/Mendocino Ave connector.

Foremost among their celebrity consultants was architect John Savage Bolles who designed Candlestick Park, the spiky Birkenstock building in Novato beside Hwy 101 and most NorCal Macy’s. Straddling the divided Courthouse Square he envisioned a 6-8 story “Civic Tower,” later expanded to fifteen floors. The attorney for SRBCRC boasted it would be a “landmark…people will be able to see the tower from as far away as seven miles.” The description in the PD said there would be parks on either side, including two lakes (!) and a constant-flow artificial creek.

John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a "Civic Tower" in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square
John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a “Civic Tower” in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square

 

 

For the lost creek area, SRBCRC proposed to build a retail complex which would cover eight acres including a major department store with three floors, a junior department store and numerous specialty shops, according to the PD. There was to be some sort of 800-foot covered walkway from downtown. Also, “an attractive artificial creek would replace the natural Santa Rosa Creek, which has been placed underground.”

The Agency gave SRBCRC the nod in 1964 to develop the creek site, followed by tentative approval to build the retail complex there. (You just know they would have added insult to injury by naming it “Creekside Mall” or similar.) The 15-story skyscraper on Courthouse Square was less of a sure thing, although one of the SRBCRC principals said experts had assured them that the “best way” to guarantee Santa Rosa’s commercial development would be for the civic center to be on the Square. A 22-member civic center site selection committee was appointed – with Judge Hilliard Comstock, chairman – and Henry Trione quickly asked the City Council for them to delay picking a location for up to 12 months.

There were legit reasons to postpone the decision. While a large citizen’s group had earlier voted for the redevelopment area to include a “civic center,” there was no agreement on what that meant. Some were thinking it would be an art gallery, museum and cultural center with an auditorium; others interpreted it to mean a new city hall/municipal center, or a combination of both. Complicating the situation was that Santa Rosa already had a perfectly serviceable city hall next to Courthouse Square, and that building was not scheduled for demolition (yet).

oldcityhallRIGHT: Santa Rosa City Hall and county jail (California Historical Society)

Plus there were sticky legal questions of whether SRBCRC could build their civic tower at all. The deal SRBCRC wanted was to buy Courthouse Square, build the tower and lease it back to the city. But the Square wasn’t for sale – it was not deemed a “blighted” part of downtown by the URA and Washington apparently didn’t allow redevelopment projects to be amended once they were approved. Nor was it clear whether the Square was city or county property – a debate readers might recall also came up in 1883, as told in “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.” Site committee chair Judge Comstock looked into the issue and reported that although the county feels it owns the Square because of its long use, ownership remains unclear because it was originally the city plaza; the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property to SRBCRC.

Hilliard’s report was apparently the death sentence for Courthouse Square tower. Two months later, in April 1965, the site committee announced it had chosen the “Luther Burbank site,” meaning the current city hall location. A bond was placed on the ballot to buy it which passed with a whopping 92 percent voter approval. Curiously, this same bond deal – a city hall over the creek – had been offered two years earlier and failed badly.

Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco
Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco

 

An architectural competition followed, and out of 73 entries the winner was Richard L. Heglund of Marin County. The Press Democrat only published a drawing of the first runner-up (see below), so one has to recoil at the thought of how awful the rest of the pack must have been.

On the day it opened on June 7, 1969, the PD editor had written: “Efficiency does not have to be ugly, and the new home of incorporated Santa Rosa has not sacrificed attractiveness.” Mayor Jack Ryersen swooned that the design met “the challenge of excellence.” How things change: Recently former Mayor Chris Coursey told the paper “I’ve always thought it was one of the ugliest buildings in town…a complete waste of space.” You would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with Chris; I’ll add only this is how I imagine Chernobyl looks.

In defense of the architects, “brutalism” was much in vogue at the time for public buildings, and this is far from the worst example – take a gander at Boston City Hall which was built at the same time, likewise the spawn of a urban renewal project. And while I personally couldn’t imagine approving this design in 1966, the courtyard drawing is more appealing than real life, making the space appear light and airy instead of being overshadowed by those meaningless obelisks and oppressive, top-heavy buildings.

But is there an “attractive artificial creek” as officials had been promising ever so often? Funny you should ask.

1963siteplanGentle Reader might recall this faux creek was first mentioned while decisions were being made to enclose the real thing inside the box culvert. At the same time in early 1963, the city was preparing for the bond (the one that failed to pass) which was to pay for a city hall complex on top the lost creek location. The PD published an unattributed, back-of-the-envelope site plan seen here at right; those big squiggly areas in the middle are the fake creeks – or more likely a single fake creek with a bridge over the middle, as the accompanying article mentioned landscaping “somewhat like that in Juilliard Park.” And as noted earlier, SRBCRC said there would be an artificial creek on the site when they were planning to make it a retail complex.

Instead of any of that, we got a splash fountain in the courtyard (see photo below) and only because the Saturday Afternoon Club was willing to chip in half of the $15 thousand cost. It’s now been filled in and used as a planter.

The only upside to this dismal tale is that Santa Rosa Creek had its revenge, of sorts. The box culvert swings towards the south end of the property and the buildings are built directly above the original creek. When the contractor began pouring the foundation pilings 1967-1968, they ran into serious problems because they encountered uncompacted soil – rubble that had been dumped on the banks of the creek following the 1906 earthquake. Construction work came to a halt until it was removed.

We knew that hundreds of loads of bricks and debris were used near the E street bridge to specifically fill in the approaches for a new bridge, but apparently the whole length of the creek near downtown was used for refuse disposal.

That stretch of Santa Rosa Creek also had received quite a bit of misuse in earlier years, being an open sewer in the late 19th century and then in the early 20th, being used for the discharge of toxic waste by factories and PG&E. Despite all of that the creek always bounced back, with kids hooking trout in it through the 1950s.

The Press Democrat tried to put an inspirational spin on the delays caused by the earthquake debris, writing it was “fitting because the new would rise phoenix-like from the buried ruins of part of old Santa Rosa.” Here’s a better metaphor: Abuse Mother Nature at your own peril – because the bill always comes due, often in ways no one expects.

 

 

Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019
The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019

 

Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.
Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.

 

An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

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