Santa Rosa’s downtown was in big trouble during the 1980s, and it wasn’t very long before I began to view the story as a murder mystery. This was an unexpected offshoot of my research on the creation of the downtown mall, which culminated in the “Road to the Mall” series that just wrapped up. From personal memory I recalled the years following the mall’s debut were tough on businesses in the downtown core and in Railroad Square – but only after paging through back issues of the Press Democrat did I come to understand how bad it was. By the end of the 1980s, it appeared Santa Rosa’s downtown was not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.














Places we thought would never, ever close were shutting down with frightening regularity. The White House Department Store at Third and D Streets closed in 1985. They had constructed a cavernous 25,000 sq. ft. building and moved in only sixteen years earlier. The downtown McDonald’s had a prime location just two doors down from Exchange Bank and it closed in 1986. Note to city planners: If you have a fast food restaurant that depends on lots of foot traffic and it fails because of a lack of customers, that’s a pretty good sign your sidewalks don’t have enough feet.

The PD conducted a 1986 survey asking people why they came downtown, comparing it to an identical survey conducted in 1983. In almost every category – shopping, dining and convenience – the numbers declined sharply. The only response where downtown showed an uptick was when asked if they agreed with “[I] like downtown because of Rosenberg’s.” Two years later in 1988, Rosenberg’s closed.

Since downtown began circling the drain soon after the mall opened, it seemed easy to connect the two events directly. And there’s some data to support that view, according to a 1987 PD report.1 Between 1983-1986 Santa Rosa was attracting a growing number of shoppers but the downtown wasn’t seeing any benefit. After a rocky first year, sales at the mall grew ten percent annually while sales downtown remained flat – by 1986, the mall was pulling in 3x more. When the lights finally went out at Rosenberg’s, about a quarter of downtown’s retail space was now vacant.

This makes it tempting to blame all those woes just on the mall and particularly its developer Ernest Hahn, painting him as a real estate sharpie who conned the yokels into gambling away their town’s future. And there’s a germ of truth to that; Hahn probably knew as much about malls as anyone in the world, having built 26 shopping centers by the time ours opened, with another 29 in the works. Hahn also knew the impact a mall could have on a community; he acknowledged in a 1975 PD interview his malls – usually built in suburbs or on unincorporated land – could contribute to the collapse of nearby downtowns.

Perhaps if this really were a whodunnit, Hahn would be a classic suspect. He was the last person you would ever imagine of resorting to a salesman’s subterfuge; he was a grandfatherly man with twinkly eyes and a broad grin who gave generously to charities. (There’s even a statue of him in a San Diego park!) Agatha Christie might have used him as a model for the murderer nobody would ever consider – perhaps a kindly vicar who turned out to be poisoning village widows in order to steal their commemorative plates.

But in Santa Rosa, Hahn wouldn’t even need to exercise his skills at back-slapping salesmanship. Here, we had a redevelopment director whose résumé consisted of urban renewal projects from the 1960s and who touted the mall as something like an upgrade to Santa Rosa Downtown version 2.0. Hahn found a remarkably pliant city government eager to rubber stamp his plans without question – and even save him money by helping with construction and giving him financial subsidies. Here also was a business community that eagerly welcomed his advent, believing a mega-mall would improve their own lot (go figure).

So the answer to “who killed downtown” was that it was a collaboration between the developer, city hall, and downtown interests. They all done it – even though there were many Cassandras along the way who warned it would not turn out well.

The point of this article is not to retread ground from the “Road to the Mall” series but to take a fresh look at the crime scene, particularly in light of an excellent PD report that came out in 1987, five years after the mall opened. Maybe then we can try to unravel the truly important unanswered question: Why on earth did so many think a downtown mall would be such a good idea? Just as there were three different culprits who participated in the deed, there were three different motives.

DEVELOPER ERNEST HAHN was at the 1982 grand opening of the mall, where the Press Democrat reported he had “a feeling of great satisfaction” to have helped restore the heart of downtown Santa Rosa. Assuming reporter Clark Mason quoted him correctly (and there’s no reason he wouldn’t, as the paper was an enthusiastic backer of Hahn and his mall) it was a damned odd thing for him to say.

First, it sounded as if he was accepting our gratitude for having performed a charitable act. Galling as that was, it was a slap in the face to claim he was “restoring” anything; the mall was intended to steal away much of the retail business from Santa Rosa’s downtown core. Hahn’s engineers and architects hoped to achieve that by pulling off quite a magic trick – they would make downtown disappear.

Gentle Reader might recall from way back in chapter one that in the 1960s and 1970s shopping malls were considered key to having a successful metro area. If the one near your town – they were almost never within city limits – was more popular than the one down the road, so much the better; it meant more jobs, more tax revenue and generally a better outlook for your community. And, of course, more stores wanting to rent space from Hahn Inc. or whatever corporation owned the shopping center.

With a Macy’s and a Sears superstore announced early on, the Santa Rosa mall was anticipated to be a regional mega-mall for the entire North Bay. This meant most shoppers would be driving in on highway 101; CalTrans projected the mall would increase traffic by an additional 15,000 vehicles daily, with 20k on Saturdays.2 Even if there was only one person per car, over twice as many shoppers than the entire population of Santa Rosa would be arriving every week.

But here’s the curious thing: Although the official highway exit signs read “Downtown Santa Rosa” there was not even a tiny glimpse of anything downtown to be seen from the offramps.

Try it yourself: Imagine it’s 1984, you live in Novato and want to buy your spouse a nice coat. You’re not familiar with Santa Rosa and at the offramp traffic light there’s a small-ish sign marked “Central Business District” with an arrow pointing east. In that direction all you can see is the Sears passageway over Third Street. Directly ahead, though, there’s a parking garage. The light changes and it’s time to make a quick decision – what do you do? Or maybe you’re coming from the north. The offramp dumps you onto Davis Street and through the highway underpasses on Fifth and Fourth all you can see are the parking garages. In both cases, the shopper’s path of least resistance will likely be to use a mall parking garage. But hey, they could still park there free and walk over to Rosenberg’s or the White House department stores…right?

Perhaps so, if our out-of-town shopper was familiar enough with Santa Rosa to know what stores were downtown and was willing to walk a few blocks. But here was the trap – the parking garages led only to a mall entrance. Gaye LeBaron lamented in a 1987 column about what happened once the shopper was inside:

…Do we remember the repeated suggestions, when it became apparent that a direct walking route [through the mall] was lost, that the mall at least be designed so people could SEE through it. We couldn’t even get that. Hahn moved Mervyns to the middle and jogged the back door south to create a psychological as well as a physical barrier. From either side, there appears to be nothing beyond.

This calculated vanishing act is not a petty complaint. The greatest concern during the planning stages was that the mall would be a world unto itself and not integrated with the downtown core. The authors of the EIR and experts commenting on it specifically warned that was a serious issue (see chapter eight).

More critically, federal regulators let it be known that Santa Rosa and its favorite developer were on notice they better not screw this up. In 1975 HUD worried the mall would hurt Rosenberg’s, Petersen’s, the White House and other downtown stores. It was essential to link the mall with the downtown core, according to a HUD letter: “The land use problem…is that the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place.”

Exactly what assurances were given to HUD (if any) are unknown, but they had to keep the regulators happy; the entire mall project hinged on HUD giving a thumbs-up that the “Phase III” area suffered blight. Hahn had made a quiet deal with Sears that they would be able to unload their existing store in that area in exchange for becoming an anchor tenant in the new mall (chapter ten). A blight designation would mean that the city would guarantee to pay Sears market rate for the property. In September of 1975, HUD granted blight certification. After that, little could really be done to stop Hahn’s big project – although the Coddings and several citizen groups continued to try.

THE CITY shares equal blame with Hahn for what the mall wrought – and maybe more so.

It was a project that cried for the need of close oversight. Besides being the largest and most intrusive construction in the town’s history and soaking up millions in public funds, there were also those warnings in the EIR and HUD letter that it would turn into a downtown-killer if we weren’t careful. Instead, the city was in cahoots with Hahn at every step of the way.

Once Hahn appeared on the scene, the “Road to the Mall” series showed they went to remarkable lengths to keep the project moving forward. This included preventing opportunities for critics to speak; not even the city Planning Commission was allowed to say anything concerning planning the mall. They refused to allow a public referendum vote on the shopping center and even called the referendum proposal itself illegal.

“They” are specifically the City Council between 1972 and 1982 along with the Council-appointed Urban Renewal Agency (renamed the Community Development Commission in 1975). Together with Hahn, they operated like a tag team. The way money was shuffled around in those years was dizzying. Hahn made a “good faith” deposit of $500,000 – yet still retained control of how it was spent. The Council gave a $4 million loan to the Commission to use any way they liked. “Road to the Mall” covered further deals that added up to millions, all made without voter approval. An extensive audit would be needed to figure out what really happened and while I have been called many awful things in my life, never has anyone accused me of being a forensic accountant.

They also spent like drunken cowboys on out-of-town consultants, some from as far away as New Jersey. Quality varied wildly; some came up with bold ideas, others seemed to be trying to second-guess what the Council wanted them to say, and a report from a Berkeley firm was so dumb it was unlikely the authors could have found Santa Rosa on a map.

Missing from that steaming pile of consultancy was a risk–benefit analysis, which was essential before launching a major project such as a shopping center. Such a feasibility study typically might take a year or more with a local government hiring the best experts they could afford. Instead of doing that, Santa Rosa asked Ernest Hahn’s team to take a look (chapter four).

Did Hahn’s staff produce an objective analysis? Hard to say, as only selections were released. Whereas a consultant’s work-for-hire would be a public document, the city had entered into “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn. Because of that, James Burns, executive director of the Renewal Agency, told the Press Democrat parts wouldn’t be disclosed “as a matter of procedure.”

Relying upon a developer to write his own evaluation turned out to be a bigger mistake than just asking Mr. Fox to keep an eye on the chicken coop. The redevelopment of the area west of B street started as a federally funded urban renewal project in 1970, in the same mold as other downtown urban renewal projects during the 1960s. But while Hahn’s staff was still working on their feasibility study in early 1973, the Nixon administration first scaled back the program and then cut it altogether. Urban renewal had become synonymous with wasteful government spending for multiple reasons, among them that it mainly helped to enrich wealthy developers like Hahn.

This increased Santa Rosa’s risk enormously, should we continue to pursue the mall project. Considering the city would now be expected to come up with at least $4.25 million – about $29M in today’s dollars – surely impartial advisors would have suggested the City Council take a hard look at whether they really wanted to proceed.

But proceed we did, of course. Working from best-case scenarios, director Burns promised the money could be raised through selling bonds, diverting taxes and scrounging credits from other federal programs (read the interview with him in the Sept. 2, 1973 PD for a master class in hand waving and hoop jumping). Why, things would be going so well the profits would pay for a 2,500 seat performing arts theater and major convention facility which the public actually wanted.

THE BOOSTERS were the downtown businesses and Old Guard community leaders who believed in the 1970s the future mall would actually benefit downtown. In the 1980s some came to understand they had made a terrible mistake – although others thought things were just going swell.

“Santa Rosa has to take a good hard look at having a mall that divides the town,” restauranteur Lisa Hemenway told the PD in 1987. Her Railroad Square retro-1950s restaurant Polka Dots had just closed because of poor business, and she commented it was because the mall sliced downtown into three sections that didn’t interact with each other.

Yet that same year a downtown über-booster insisted everything was fine because Santa Rosa showed foresight by building a mall on prime downtown real estate. “We are the envy of most cities in the state of California.”

The Press Democrat identified fourteen men as leaders on efforts to boost the downtown core during those decades.3 One of them was PD editor Art Volkerts which is ironic – during his editorial tenure, the newspaper was such a cheerleader for constructing the mall it could be considered in its own right as one of the main players responsible for the decay of downtown’s prospects. Their newsroom had a stable of top-notch reporters, particularly Paul Ingalls, John Adams and George Manes, who did a fine job covering all sides of the complex story as it developed. But never did the paper ask follow-up questions, such as naming sources used by the city for its increasingly delusional predictions of how much income the mall would produce. And when it came out that Hahn was making a deal with Sears on behalf of the city even before he became the chosen developer for the mall (chapter ten), the PD should have been calling for a Grand Jury investigation. In olden days, an editor would have ordered the composing room staff to dust off the screaming 80 pt. Franklin Gothic type reserved for doomsday headlines.

With 250-odd members, the Downtown Development Association (DDA) represented a coalition of merchants, bankers, restauranteurs and what have you. For such a disparate group they usually spoke with a surprisingly unified voice, and what they said was “we welcome the mall.” At a 1978 luncheon, 85 percent of the membership were not concerned about what impact it would have on the downtown area.

One reason was because they had plans for a redesigned downtown that was pretty inviting; Fourth Street would become a pedestrian “semi-mall” with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). Sadly, their optimism was misplaced if they thought that was enough to draw shoppers away from the mall. It appears they expected Macy’s would be like a stand-alone store with a main exit onto B Street – unaware modern shopping centers were designed like labyrinths, making it an effort for people to find a way out (except to the parking garage). This came up at the luncheon, where the speaker warned DDA members that malls were “not designed to have a spill-over effect.” At the same event the manager of Rosenberg’s showed naïveté by insisting traffic bottlenecks at the Third Street highway onramp would encourage out-of-towners to linger here and shop more.

Had the DDA stayed the course and built the semi-mall, it’s easy to imagine downtown would have become a vibrant place and be so today. (In my personal opinion, this was key failure that undercut downtown’s future.) And if they had strongly opposed mall construction – or simply expressed serious concerns – it wouldn’t have stopped the project, but the group might have won some concessions. As it was, the plans for the semi-mall were abandoned the following year after some merchants griped that closing Fourth street to traffic would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. So much for their “all for one and one for all” alliance.

Scoot forward to 1987, five years after the mall opened. The White House Department Store is gone, soon to be followed by Rosenberg’s. Downtown now has seventeen banks and savings & loans, which a consultant called “unheard of” for a town that size.

That was not a bad thing in the view of Sharon Wright, former head of the DDA. She told the Press Democrat merchants need to adapt and “cater to the 8,000 to 10,000 people that work downtown every day.”

Her opinion invited snorts of derision and drop-jawed disbelief. Nell Codding asked the PD, “How often would you go downtown if you didn’t work there?” A councilman remarked, “office workers [alone] cannot be expected to support the businesses downtown.”

To figure out what was needed to fix downtown – ignoring that we already had that decade old plan with a pedestrian semi-mall – the City Council hired yet another out-of-town consulting firm. These experts took notice that the downtown core was now dominated by banks and office buildings and decided what we really needed to do was to… wait for it, wait for it… double the amount of office space. Oh, it would be okay to add more small stores in Railroad Square, but only lots of new office buildings (up to ten stories high) would rescue downtown. And we should start by tearing down Rosenberg’s store. Good grief.

THE CODDINGS and Bill Smith, attorney for Codding Enterprises, also played key roles in an unexpected way: By committing the heresy of questioning the city’s efforts to ramrod through the mall project, they slowly drove the true believers nuts.

(For those who need a refresher: Hugh Codding was the earliest and most persistent critic. He hoped to block it because he planned to build his own mega-mall, “Coddingland,” west of the freeway in Rohnert Park. He also wanted to buy and redevelop the area that would be used by the mall, intending to build what the town planned to do before Hahn came along; there would have been a performance/convention center, a hotel and a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Over the years he filed ten lawsuits and financed five more in whole or in part, according to the Press Democrat.)

Chapter five, “MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS,” covers the early years of the Codding’s opposition, but nearly every chapter afterward shows them uncovering further eye-opening details.

Initially the Council and Renewal Agency just stonewalled Smith’s requests to see a document or memo. Oh, it will be made available soon; oh, we can’t divulge that because it is part of our “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn; oh, call our San Francisco attorney and ask him (spoiler alert: The lawyer wouldn’t take his calls).

Smith apparently raised questions or made objections at every Council or Renewal Agency meeting regarding the mall. Sometimes the officials were evasive or refused to say anything; Agency Director James K. Burns said he wouldn’t answer Smith’s questions “because one question would have led to another question and another, and another.” At other times the sessions devolved into what a PD reporter termed as “bitter shouting matches.”

Reading the newspaper stories about those doings today, now that about fifty years have passed, it’s shocking to follow along as they transformed Hugh Codding into a super villain. They saw his invisible hand behind everything that went amiss on the mall project; when citizen’s groups filed their own lawsuits, Codding had to be secretly paying the activists to do it. When the city couldn’t get a bank loan for the project, it was only because the Codding lawsuits had spooked the lenders – not that the bankers, who by nature are extremely risk adverse, might not have been willing to underwrite a project based on the old and discredited urban renewal paradigm. When the Ford dealership sued over the city breaking its promise to help with relocation costs, the Council debated how they could blame it on Codding. They remained incredibly petty even after the mall fight was over, as when the City Council passed an ordinance to stop the Coddingtown sign from turning.4

Not that the Coddings and Smith were angels themselves, however. Although they never prevailed in court with any of their mall-related lawsuits, you still expected a Codding suit to have merit and would be based on the city actually doing something hinky. The single exception was Codding’s 1975 conflicts of interest charges.

After apparently failing to get the Grand Jury to take the bait, a suit claimed three members of the URA would benefit from construction of the mall. A store on B Street directly across from the mall was partly owned by an Agency member and another worked at a bank on the same block. There was limited parking on B so the suit made the assumption their customers would use the mall parking garages. The third accused member was an insurance agent who handled a policy for one of the owners of the Bishop-Hansel Ford dealership which was in the redevelopment project area.

Others swept up over alleged conflicts included a Councilman who had an interest in a restaurant on the “fringe” of the redevelopment area and another City Council member who was a former Exchange Bank director – his supposed conflict was the bank planned to put an ATM in the mall.

It came across as a cheap ad hominem attack, even more so when Codding’s lawyer rehashed some of the charges in the following years after the suit was dismissed. Still today, however, there are echoes of this theme found on unsocial media. In comments on this series it’s regularly opined there had to be corruption of some sort, although there was never even a hint that something like that happened.

Compiling the list of WHO killed downtown Santa Rosa presents no special challenge, and the motives of the culprits were just as obvious – they shared a misguided certainty that a downtown mega-mall would usher in mega prosperity.

But the question that continued to vex me was how the mall project made it all the way through to the finish line. Santa Rosa was not known for proceeding expeditiously; it took six years for the city to get around to constructing a new main library building. Closer to hand was the example of the semi-mall. While the concept was was widely admired, the city dithered for two years – then finally dropped the plan because the (proverbial) guy who owned a shoe store threw a fit over losing a couple of parking spots.

Yet against those poor odds, the mall project was never in doubt and kept plowing forward for ten years. Pro-mall backers maintained unwavering support – at all costs, the mall must prevail. When troubling issues arose, asking Hahn to compromise was never an option; they sought to discredit critics instead. Although the Coddings were the first targets, their enemy list grew in tandem with mounting public opposition into a full-blown siege mentality.

That was the gist of comments from Derek Simmons which appeared in the Press Democrat April 3, 1980. Although brief, these are probably the most insightful observations on the mall’s development history.

A former city attorney, Simmons was speaking on behalf of the reelection of Jerry Wilhelm, the only mall skeptic on City Council. He said City Hall had an “us verses them” attitude and since Wilhelm was considered “them,” information was not shared with him.

Nobody in city management was evil or incompetent, Simmons assured, but lack of leadership from the City Council and the high competency of City Manager Kenneth Blackman led to policymaking by bureaucracy. “It was at this point in history, when the City Manager stepped in to fill the vacuum, that the City Council and City Manager roles got reversed,” he explained.

The PD quoted him as saying the desire to defend City Hall led to a siege mentality that put a priority on secrecy:

The public is made up of enemies and friends. Friends do not need information to support you. Enemies do need information to oppose you. Information given to the public will be used by your enemies, so don’t give out any information to the public.

That neatly sums up the entire downtown mall project. A blanket of secrecy smothered everything even before the project started. Why was Hahn so quickly granted approval, and why was he allegedly negotiating deals even before then? The public didn’t see a layout of the mall after early designs; we had to take the word of City Hall and Renewal Agency that it wouldn’t cutoff Railroad Square from downtown. And voters were not only blocked from expressing their opinions on whether the project was a good use of public money, they couldn’t even collect signatures on petitions to vote on it.

Any way you look at it, those were sad, dark years in Santa Rosa’s history. And we’ll have to keep living in its backwash for many years to come. Many.

A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE: This wraps the “Road to the Mall” series which runs to 41,000 words, including this whodunnit epilogue. It’s taken seven months just to write up; it’s the longest original research project I’ve ever tackled, even bypassing my series on the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Over four years I made clips or took notes on 287 Press Democrat articles and poured over documents from the city, particularly the three volume EIR.

I apologize to subscribers for spending so much time on this single issue – I recognize most people aren’t as interested in urban planning SNAFUs as I am. Still, this is a very important chapter in Santa Rosa history and no one else has done a deep dive into the story, so I don’t regret putting in the work.

I also apologize for not writing more about these events. There were some very interesting side streets I did not travel down, such as the 1975 efforts to recall the entire City Council. Then there’s the scandal of what was happening in South Park at the same time, which deserves a series of its own – after the city used urban renewal money to fix the streets and make other improvements to Santa Rosa’s poorest neighborhood, real estate investors swooped down and in less than six months a third of the community was forced out.

My hope is that someday the whole wretched story of what happened here in the 1970s will be told. Perhaps there’s a PhD candidate looking for a dissertation topic, or a tireless author willing to see what secrets lie inside that room down at City Hall filled with unlabeled, unindexed boxes from those times.

The Santa Rosa urban renewal debacle would make a fitting bookend on a shelf that begins with Jane Jacobs’ 1961 landmark study on the utter failure of urban renewal policies, “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Her ideas were accepted as orthodoxy by the time we started tearing down everything west of B Street and planning for a shopping mall. Even the government recognized this – recall the Nixon Administration flagged they were ending the urban renewal program in 1973, just as Hahn and the city’s Renewal Agency began getting cozy.

But in Santa Rosa, accepted wisdom and best practices be damned; we instead dusted off our dog-eared copy of the urban renewal playbook. Maybe we should drop the official motto of “the city designed for living” and change it to “Here we knew what not to do, yet we did it anyway.”


1 The “PD report” mentioned here several times refers to a Press Democrat series written by Robert Digitale and Dick Phillips which provided an invaluable look at downtown business conditions in the mid-1980s. The first part, “Downtown’s Future,” appeared May 3, 1987 with an equally interesting analysis of “Who Owns Downtown” published the following day.

2 December 1973 DEIR Volume 2, pp. 137-139 (II-127 – II-129). I am unable to find traffic numbers from right after the mall opened, but as discussed in chapter eight, CalTrans underestimated the impact on the highway by predicting it would only bump traffic by ten percent. According to a 1985 summary in the Press Democrat, the increase was closer to 30-40 percent.

3 “From the beginning, there was a core of downtown business people who worked on plans to renovate the area including Obert Pedersen, Fred Rosenberg, Bill McNeany, Chet Andrews, Elwin Hardisty, Clark Mailer, Ken Brown, John Downey, Ed Healey, Tom Cox, Art Volkerts, Jerry Poznanovitch, Jack Ryerson and Cal Caulkins.” – Press Democrat, Nov. 18, 1981

4 In 1983 the City Council considered an ordinance against rotating signs, although the only such sign in Santa Rosa was the one for Coddingtown mall. The ordinance passed in 1985. There was some debate over the following years as to whether stopping the sign was a good idea, over worries that seeing just the “Codding” or “Town” side might confuse visitors. The Council ordered the sign removed which Hugh Codding refused to do, instead briefly resuming the rotation at various times. Letters written to the PD suggest some came to view Codding as something of a rebellious folk hero because of that. Finally in 1993 the Cultural Heritage Board designated the sign a historic landmark and the Council ruled it was exempt from the ordinance.

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You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 15, 1978 – groundbreaking day for the downtown mall.

Twice before you’ve visited this spot; the most recent was the 1982 grand opening of the mall. In 1972 you were also here for a last look-see at the old district west of B before the city began demolishing it all. Those time machine trips were mentioned in the first chapter of this series, “HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE.”

But before you now in 1978 is a vast vacant lot, 43 acres scraped clear of the barber shops, the hotels once home to pensioners, the dive bars and the ballet school, the grand Art Deco “Cal” movie palace, the thrift shops and lunch counters. Gone are places where you could swing by after work and go home with the latest Elton John album or a live parakeet in a cage – the sort of eclectic district whose character helps a town thrive. All that remains now is the old Post Office, which will be moved in a couple of years and become the Sonoma County Museum.

About 300 yards away, near what once was the corner of Second and A streets, there’s something going on. You see a raised platform with a lectern – although so few are in the audience that a speaker could be easily heard without a microphone.

The Press Democrat allowed reporter Paul Ingalls a bit of poetic license to set the scene:

Like a Shakespearian play, groundbreaking of Santa Rosa’s downtown shopping center unfolded Wednesday, revealing the worries, dreams and bitterness of those who have struggled over the mammoth development for so long. By comparison to the huge center the crowd which appeared on the project site for the 4 p.m. ceremonies was small. But among the group were the characters who have fought and promoted the project through more than six years of studies, public hearings, official meetings and lawsuits. There were those who claim they are powerful and those who claim they are not; those who think they have won and those who think the war is not over.

Such a meager attendance seems odd, considering that morning a PD editorial boasted this is “the beginning of a new day” that will bring “a thriving shopping center in the heart of our city.” The paper will later claim a poll shows four out of five residents want the mall opened ASAP.

Yet the crowd doesn’t seem too appreciative of the blessings that are surely soon to come. In front of the rostrum a young girl marches back and forth with a protest sign. There are also adults (including a former Planning Commissioner) holding posters that read, “Don’t divide our city!” and “Don’t isolate Railroad Square” and “Did you vote on urban renewal?”

A citizen’s protest movement against a big commercial development? Sure, maybe in Berkeley or Greenwich Village but not in Santa Rosa, where the Chamber of Commerce and the Press Democrat had always steered the bus without much challenge.

Few complained when the city declared its intention in 1970 to plow under about a third of the downtown area. Nor were many (except for the Coddings) terribly upset when our redevelopment agency tossed long-promised plans to create a convention center and performing arts theater, instead inviting a Southern California developer to build a shopping center.

Not until 1974 when people realized their beloved Cal theater would be torn down did protests begin. The resistance spread deeper roots the following year after the City Council formed a citizen advisory committee which turned out to be a sham, attempting to promote their plan to spend public money on mall development while making ham-fisted efforts to intimidate community leaders into going along quietly. And did I forget to mention the Council dusted off an old law to ensure that voters could have no say in these dealings?

(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 chapter ten of the series just about the downtown mall.)

That it took so long for an opposition movement to coalesce doesn’t reflect public apathy so much as it was difficult to follow what was really going on. A lack of transparency and obstinance from both elected and non-elected officials is a common thread in this series; nearly every chapter has examples of the city deliberately making public information hard to find. Pivotal agenda items were sometimes not included in meeting notices printed in the newspaper; the library had only one non-circulating copy of the EIR – Urban Renewal Agency director James Burns said that was to “keep down the cost of governmental services to taxpayers;” the Community Development Commission (formerly the URA) stalled on releasing documents and sometimes wouldn’t answer even basic questions. Once the 20+ opposition groups began to form there were opportunities for people to network and share information.

Even at the time of the 1978 groundbreaking there were major issues still unresolved, including details of how the city would finance $4 million for infrastructure work needed before the mall construction. Those opposed feared traffic backups downtown because studies predicted Third Street would reach its capacity around 1990. (The city was also chastened by CalTrans because the EIR didn’t consider what impact the mall might have on highway traffic, which proved to be a far greater concern once the mall opened.) And as the protest signs said, the mall was going to further divide downtown from Railroad Square.

All of these problems were directly tangled up with “Phase III.” That was the name for the 12-acre section that covered Fifth Street to Seventh and included the Cal Theater, the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership, the old Post Office and Sears. Today it’s the site of Macy’s and the mall’s north parking garage.

There probably would have been little to no resistance to the mall if not for Phase III (except from the Coddings, of course, who wanted developer Hahn to drop out so they could build their own project). Yes, many would object to having any sort of downtown mall, but a smaller one that ended at Fifth Street – or better yet, Fourth – wouldn’t have blocked off a large section of downtown or had the funding and traffic worries.

Or if you want to visit a different alternative universe, more people would probably have fought against the mall from the beginning if they knew what it was going to look like. Either Hahn was keeping his plans close to his vest or the developer-friendly Press Democrat was negligent in keeping the public informed. Or some of both.

The first time anyone in Santa Rosa glimpsed his plans was a 1973 layout seen in the EIR. Besides showing a parking garage on B Street that blocks the mall off from downtown, this version was notable because Hahn presumed he would gain approval to include Phase III in the project, although that wouldn’t happen for another year.

Hahn presented a scale model of what he was planning to the city Design Review Board in the summer of 1974. No picture appeared in the newspaper, but he said it came “95 percent of the way” to meeting concerns about the design.

That could be the same model shown in a 1977 feature in the PD.1 The description in the paper stated the design would feature “heavily landscaped exterior mini-parks.” Note there is no parking garage on the north side next to Macy’s, nor is there that peculiar little access road that provides a shortcut between B and Sixth Streets for those in the know. (Santa Rosa Trivial Pursuit question: What year was the Sixth Street highway underpass created? A: 2012, thirty years after the mall opened.)

Scale model of the proposed mall, looking west. The street on the far right is Seventh St.
Scale model of the proposed mall, looking west. The street on the far right is Seventh St.

While that model clearly shows the mall squatting atop Fifth Street, critics believed this was a negotiable point. Two candidates for City Council replied to the PD’s “new day” editorial by insisting the sacrifice of Fourth and Fifth to the development would create a traffic mess “worse than Steele Lane.” Later in 1978, a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups filed a suit over the issue, arguing this demonstrated collusion between the city and the developer.2


With no means to drive (or bike) from downtown to Railroad Square without taking a detour through Third or Seventh Street, a pedestrian corridor through the mall was still in the plans…right?

Look again at the 1973 layout and find there’s a direct something between B and Morgan Streets. What was that? An aisle through the mall, open only during business hours? An outdoor passageway, perhaps with gates on either side that can be lowered when the mall is closed? Or was it a tunnel, as underground parking was part of the plans at the time? The EIR was silent, although the consultants who wrote the report gently chided the developer and the city for not doing enough to link the mall with downtown via pedestrian access. (This is further discussed in the EIR chapter.)

The issue remained unresolved in 1977, although the model seen above suggests a skylight over a straight line passageway. The accompanying article in the PD said, “Hahn’s architects will continue designing the 750,000 sq. ft. center…What remains is the specific appearance of the entrance at Fourth Street and treatment of the walkway through the facility toward Railroad Square.”

Depending on whom you asked, the rebels preferred Fifth to remain an open street (with Macy’s separated from the mall), become an underpass (apparently like Third St.) or a tunnel under the store, starting east of B Street and ending near Railroad Square.

Hahn and the department stores pushed back – hard. The developer said he had letters from both Sears and Macy’s that they would pull out of the mall if any of those options were approved. (FYI: The executive from Sears was named in the PD article, but not the one from Macy’s.)

Worse yet, Hahn threatened to sue the city into the next century and beyond if Fifth Street remained open. The man who normally came off as a kindly grandpa said he would kill the whole mall project and use “every legal means available to us for the recovery of the $2 million plus expended on the project to date.”

Yet a potential lawsuit was just the beginning of Santa Rosa’s nightmare: The city would have to repay Hahn’s 1973 “good faith” deposit of $500,000 (with interest), and the developer now had approval to buy the property on both sides of Third St. where the Sears store was to be built. As Hugh Codding pointed out, he would be paying roughly 15¢ on the dollar, so he could reap further millions by selling that prime real estate at market rates.

The City Council rushed to approve the street closures as expected, although this time the vote wasn’t unanimous. It seems the pro-development forces had another problem: One of the leading rebels was now sitting on the Council.

With rare exceptions (such as Hugh Codding’s tenure in the 1960s) the midcentury Santa Rosa City Council was made up of middle-aged shopkeepers and the occasional banker.3 So it came as a surprise to many when the city’s general elections held a few days after the groundbreaking found the top vote-getter for the Council was Jerry Wilhelm, a 27 year-old attorney. Wilhelm had worked at the California Rural Legal Assistance nonprofit and was attorney for the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee, which had emerged as the leading activist group opposing the mall. They had a reputation for butting heads with the city, most famously in early 1977 when the mayor was forced to admit the Council had acted illegally by rushing through approval of a subdivision so the landowner could enjoy a fat tax break.

Once on the Council, Wilhelm wasted no time in challenging the status quo. (Part of his campaign motto was, “stop special favors to the favored few.”) He was a Fifth Street tunnel advocate, insisting something to preserve the street needed to be addressed before mall construction began.

As far as Hahn’s threat to leave unless the streets were closed, Wilhelm said it was a bluff because Santa Rosa was such a “plum” he’d never walk away. The EIR was outdated and needed to be amended or completely redone, Wilhelm insisted, particularly the section on mall financing in light of Prop. 13. And speaking of which, Hahn had said he would donate $400 thousand annually to the city for ten years to make up for lost tax revenues. Wilhelm replied Hahn was going to be saving $1.2M a year in taxes under the new law, so he wasn’t really being so benevolent.

Wilhelm was invited to speak at a Downtown Development Association luncheon. Gentle Reader probably assumes the merchants in that bastion of Babbittry would be fighting mall construction tooth and claw. The addition of dozens of new chainstores just down the street couldn’t possibly help their own businesses – right?

To the contrary, Wilhelm was told 85 percent of the membership was not concerned at all. The Councilman argued the point; he told them a mall is “not designed to have a spill-over effect. It’s a little too much to expect that people will start to walk all over town after driving that far (to get to the shopping center),” the PD reported.

But the DDA loved the plans and saw the street closures working to their advantage because it would create a bottleneck on Third Street. Wilhelm taped the luncheon meeting and recorded Bill McNeany, head of Rosenberg’s Department Store, saying this:

“We want a captive shopper. And once he gets down here, let him fight his way out, to then shop in the stores on his way out – ‘I’m not going to go to my car because the traffic is too bad. I’ll go shop instead.’ Once we get him in, let’s keep him here. We want a captive audience.”

Gaye LeBaron though it rude of Wilhelm to record the meeting and it was a shame McNeany got flak for his remarks since he was really the “original Mr. Nice Guy.” But someone (Gaye suspected Codding attorney Bill Smith) took his idea and formed a parody organization, the “Committee to Close Third Street too.” T-Shirts were made and press releases handed out; one read, “Let’s close Third Street too and then instead of one vast city we can have two half vast cities!”

We fly ahead to 1980; Sears’ new store opened and there was still squabbling over what was to be done with Fifth Street. All of the many lawsuits against the mall were over, except for a Codding appeal challenging the EIR and that 1978 complaint about street closures filed by a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups as mentioned above.

captivead(RIGHT: One of several ads from the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan that appeared in the PD during 1978-1979)

Part of that coalition was the “Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan” – which was partially funded by the Coddings – and the group assumed leadership, printing leaflets and buying large ads in the Press Democrat, such as the example shown here. Some ads would list names of a hundred or so people who had signed aboard, but all included that tone-deaf McNeany “captive shopper” quote.

When the suit finally came before Superior Court Judge Bryan Jamar, they found him as sympathetic as any plaintiff could wish for. When the city attorney said traffic studies showed traffic would flow smoothly once Fourth and Fifth streets were fully closed, the judge snapped, “You wanna bet?” and he wouldn’t change his mind “even if there were a zillion traffic studies.” Still, he ruled the city had the power to abandon those public rights-of-way, as “it was the council’s decision to make based on the evidence they had at the time.” Poof! And our last hope to integrate the mall as part downtown vanished.

The Sensible Downtown group was led by Hal Coleman, a board member of the influential Santa Rosa Democratic Club and who had been a candidate for Council in 1978. Now in 1980 he was running again, this time as part of a “slate” with fellow Sensible Downtown activist Norman Boyer, the two of them vowing to join Wilhelm in creating a new “philosophical majority.”

The thought of the three of them voting in synch surely caused ice water to run down spines at City Hall, as it was the exact scenario that led Hahn to sue Corte Madera six years earlier. There an anti-mall council was voted in and they put Hahn’s shopping center development on hiatus. Hahn retaliated by filing a $10M suit for supposed lost future income. A PD editorial called the possibility of something similar happening here “disturbing:”

…They imply they would join with present Councilman Jerry Wilhelm to form that new majority. We find this disturbing, because one of the positions which all three have in common is opposition to the downtown shopping center as it is presently planned…It seems logical to us that the election of Coleman and Boyer could be considered by them, and Councilman Wilhelm, as a mandate to reopen the entire downtown plan for review. Reopening the subject of the downtown plan at this late date would be counter to the interests of the city…

That neither of them won is somewhat a surprise, as even the PD conceded the Sensible Downtown group seemed to have broad popular support. Perhaps it was because there was a sense that the game was over – which it indeed was. There would be no further lawsuits or other actions to delay construction or seek design changes of the mall.

But there was a final big lawsuit to be filed that year: In July, the Redevelopment Agency sued the Coddings for $4 million plus damages. Among the charges were “malicious abuse” of the courts by filing ten suits and financing five more to delay mall construction and prevent its financing.4 Codding agreed to a $675k out of court settlement in 1982.

Codding attorney Bill Smith was portrayed by the Press Democrat as a bully, hectoring the poor, poor members of the City Council or Redevelopment Agency who had to sit quietly through his anti-mall diatribes and aggressive questioning. For those keeping track of such things, let it be known at three hearings police were called to get Smith to hush up. On one of those occasions Smith had been challenged to a fistfight.

But besides serving the interests of the Coddings and their construction business, he deserves great respect for acting as the de facto public watchdog over Santa Rosa’s whole urban renewal/redevelopment slog from 1973 to 1980, even on points that didn’t directly impact Codding. Thanks to him we learned of Hahn’s threatened lawsuit against Corte Madera after he obtained a copy of the developer’s letter and slipped it to the PD.

Smith was in attendance at a URA meeting in January 1975 when the Agency discussed what to do about the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership and its claim the agency owed it $300,000. (For those needing a refresher in the urban renewal game: A city agency would pay market value for a property, bundle it with other parcels and then sell everything to a developer for pennies on the dollar.)

Walter Hansel said he was told in April 1972 by Lester Beldon, then the URA chair, their A Street location would be redeveloped. Then and over the following years, the agency told Hansel the purchase deal would go through “sometime in 1972,” 1973, 1974, “and perhaps April 1975.” Meanwhile, the Ford dealer had spent more than $300k preparing for their move to Corby Ave.5

Although Smith was not the attorney for the dealership, he spoke up at that 1975 meeting to point out an interesting detail: The car lot was within the Phase III area. Hansel supposedly had been told it was going to be part of the land required by the mall more than two years before the City Council hearing where Phase III would be approved.

This started “another of those bitter shouting matches” (as the PD put it) between Smith and the URA directors, who refused to answer any of the lawyer’s questions.

Said Smith, “I don’t think we’ve been told everything the agency knows. I think the taxpayers of Santa Rosa have a right to know why a reputable firm is bringing this action.” He was told to sit down and this, by the way, was one of those meetings where the police would be called to silence him. True to par, the agency followed by debating whether there was any way they could blame their broken obligations to Bishop-Hansel on Codding.

While Bishop-Hansel was reluctant to leave its downtown location, another business within Phase III was quite eager to move.6 It was Sears, and their managers had likewise started making plans in 1972, before the area got a green light for redevelopment. Only Sears wasn’t talking to Santa Rosa’s URA – they were negotiating with developer Hahn.

Architectural elevation drawing by Cal Caulkins of the Sears Department store on B Street.
Architectural elevation drawing by Cal Caulkins of the Sears Department store on B Street.

And what makes that twist in the narrative particularly interesting is that those talks were supposedly underway even before Hahn was in the picture.

Recall in early 1972 there was no developer tapped to develop the shopping center – or whether there would even be one. In March, URA Executive Director James Burns ran an ad inviting developers to contact him because they were “interested in exploring the possibility” of a downtown mall. By the end of the month the URA was in “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn which would continue on for a full year. That history is recounted in the chapter, “THE CHOSEN ONE.”

Hahn’s interest in a Santa Rosa project and his exclusive deal were first announced in the PD on March 28, 1972. (Please make note of that date.) The article also reported, “Mr. Burns said representatives for Sears in Santa Rosa have expressed some interest in the shopping center idea and are watching related steps closely.”

But a few years later, the Coddings obtained a letter Sears wrote to Hahn. According to the description of the contents printed in the PD, Sears told him they would be willing to sign on to the Hahn project as long as they could be guaranteed there would be an acceptable deal to sell the B Street property. The letter was dated February 23, 1972 – five weeks before Hahn was named as the chosen developer for the mall:

The Codding firm cites as evidence a letter from Sears to Hahn dated Feb. 23, 1972. Signed by B.K. Horne, property and construction manager at the Sears Alhambra office, the letter authorizes Hahn to announce that store’s interest in relocating its B Street store into the new downtown. Sears said its willingness to relocate was conditioned on an agreement by Aug. 31, 1972, and “the required disposition, whether by direct purchase or trade, of Sears current ownership of the present (B Street) Sears facility and its attendant land.” (Press Democrat, February 16, 1975)

Put this 1972 timeline under the microscope. February: Sears told Hahn they’ll need a purchase deal. March: The URA announced Hahn will be the developer. April: The URA promised Bishop-Hansel, which was just a block from Sears, they would get just the sort of market-value purchase deal Sears was requiring.

There’s a lot to unpack and it’s above my pay grade to even hypothesize whether or not all of that was completely legal. But it certainly seemed hinky; commitments were being made by a city agency to spend large sums of public money on an unapproved development project, while a wildcat developer with no connection (yet) to the city was negotiating deals that would do the same.

The 1975 PD article continued: “Nell Codding, secretary-treasurer of Codding Enterprises, the developer and former city official’s wife, said she believes Sears was demanding a good price for its B Street site before agreeing to enter Hahn’s project. She contends Hahn, in turn, pressured the city to declare Sears in the Phase Three urban renewal area to guarantee its entry into the project.”

Thus here, as best as I can piece everything together from ever-so-many Press Democrat articles, was the Big Plan: The 1972 RFP for shopping center developers was a sham because Hahn – who was recommended by URA exec James Burns – must have been secretively already chosen the designated winner. Hahn needed an anchor tenant for his future mall, and Sears was willing. For Sears to easily get market rate for its existing building they needed the city agency to buy it. In May, 1973, the City Council extended the urban renewal study area to include the blocks with Sears, the Ford dealership and the Cal Theater. Phase III was born, and with it was lost the hope for an intergral downtown.

So for the last time, imagine standing at the end of Fourth Street gazing west. Before you is the Great Wall of B Street, forever chopping off a large part of downtown Santa Rosa. As you grind your teeth and blame the 1970s City Council, the Urban Renewal Agency, the foolish downtown merchants and developer Ernest Hahn, don’t forget to aim some of your ire at Sears, which didn’t care what would happen to Santa Rosa as long as they got a good real estate deal.


1 The February 6, 1977 PD (page 3C, or #37 in newspapers.com) also shows a model for a Railroad Square “rehabilitation” and the only aerial photo I’ve ever seen of the demolished project area, although the Occidental Hotel, Cal Theater, and other Phase III structures are still standing.

2 The coalition suing to block the closure of Fourth, Fifth and A streets consisted of the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan, the Irate Taxpayers Committee, Sonoma County Tomorrow and the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee

3 Also on the City Council in 1978 (and was, in fact, then Santa Rosa’s mayor) was Donna Born, former Chair of the city Planning Commission. As discussed in the EIR chapter, she had spoken eloquently during the 1974 EIR hearing questioning the need for the mall to be enclosed and whether the mall’s design would integrate with the rest of downtown. On the Council, however, she mostly voted with the majority in favor of redevelopment although she identified herself as liberal.

4 The Press Democrat and other sources usually accuse the Coddings of being responsible for 18-22 lawsuits against the mall. See discussion in fn. 5 of the previous chapter.

5 Bishop-Hansel sued the URA in May 1975 for $500 thousand and asked another $350k in damages. The Ford dealership lost their case that November after the court ruled they couldn’t show URA statements had damaged their business. The following month they completed the move to Corby Ave.

6 The Santa Rosa Sears building was still fairly new having opened in 1949, but the chain felt it had outgrown its 75,000 sq. ft. and wanted to expand. The new store in the mall would be almost twice that size, not even counting the 18,000 sq. ft. auto center.
1978 rendering of the entrance to Santa Rosa Plaza
1978 rendering of the entrance to Santa Rosa Plaza

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Had City Council members actually read and understood their own report, they might have discovered their pet project was probably going to ruin downtown Santa Rosa.

The document was the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) related to the downtown shopping mall proposed by Los Angeles developer Ernest W. Hahn. State law requires a study be prepared before construction begins on a major project like that and it mostly addresses the sort of issues you might expect – will the project create air pollution, harm water quality, overload power lines, etc. etc. etc. A 321-page draft version written by a San Mateo company was delivered to Santa Rosa a few days before Christmas 1973.

In the following thirty days anyone could comment on what was found (or not found) in the draft. Questions were directed to city staff, the project architect or others involved. Their replies appeared in the final EIR, which was released Oct. 1974. In any EIR that last volume is worth a close read because it almost always has more of the real lowdown about what’s going on.


Remarks from over two dozen individuals, companies and firms can be found in the final EIR but many were technical in nature. For reference sake, these six people contributed most to topics discussed here:

Donna Born   Planning Commission Chairperson

Dolores Clayton   League of Women Voters President

Dan Peterson   Santa Rosa architect

William (Bill) Smith   Codding Enterprises attorney who attended every public hearing regarding the mall and redevelopment of the project area


Peter Bolles   Shopping mall architect (also son and partner of John Savage Bolles, who designed Candlestick Park)

James K. Burns   Executive Director of the Urban Renewal Agency (URA)

(Here’s also a reminder that this is part of a broader series on Santa Rosa redevelopment: “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” which includes an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s. This is chapter eight of the series just about the downtown mall)

Critics jumped on the uneven quality of the EIR, but I’ll preface that discussion by noting the consultants didn’t make much of an effort to learn about Santa Rosa or the history of the project. Not one of the well-informed commenters listed in the sidebar were interviewed. Instead, the people they spoke to included a pharmacist best known for collecting old bottles; a driver’s ed teacher; the two women who researched Carrillo family history and the guy who ran the Robert Ripley museum. As far as I can tell, none of the interviewees contributed information or expressed a public opinion about the mall and redevelopment project, either pro or con.

Some of the official replies make you wonder if these experts even visited town. Donna Born asked why it needed to be a sealed-up fortress and cited the “energy crisis,” which was the top news story of early 1974.1 She commented, “I think it is a little silly today to be espousing that large of an air conditioned area in a city like Santa Rosa that really doesn’t need air conditioning.” Architect Bolles’ answer suggested he thought the city was somewhere in the tropics and beset with monsoons:

The climate of Santa Rosa is well known for wet winters and hot, dry summers. Because of the inconvenience and hardship in either climactic extreme, an enclosed mall was considered a must…one only has to carry a shopping bag a block or so in driving rain to recognize the desirable aspects of an enclosed “shopper’s street.”

It’s a lesser quib, but even their logo on the EIR report reflects out-of-town cluelessness. It’s a drawing of a sculpture erected in 1971 near City Hall (a photo can be seen at the end of this article). From what I can gather from the Press Democrat’s coverage at the time, the Arts Council had a grant to commission a work of civic art and that was the only viable submission. The work was never mentioned by the paper again and was otherwise ignored; choosing it to symbolize a project expected to redefine the city into the next century was simply bizarre.2

Odd choices and/or naiveté aside, it seemed Santa Rosa really didn’t want the public to know what was in the EIR. Dolores Clayton remarked, “We would hope that the Urban Renewal Agency would make much greater efforts than it has in the past to get citizen input into the Project. For instance, the Environmental Impact Report is costly to purchase and there is only one non-circulating copy in the Library.”

URA director Burns countered, “The Environmental Impact Report is costly to purchase because it is costly to prepare. Our Agency is always conscious of trying to keep down the cost of governmental services to taxpayers.” He added there were “two copies in the City Clerk’s office, and three copies in our office for public use at no cost.” Please enjoy reading those 300+ pages while standing at a service desk.

Then there was the February Planning Commission meeting where they discussed the EIR. Only four members of the public attended (three of them from Codding Enterprises) because, gosh darn it, nobody from the city thought to put a meeting notice in the paper, although this would be the only time the Commission would discuss the report.

Architect Dan Peterson sent a letter to the Commission saying he would have been there if he had known it was on the agenda:

Over the past month I have discussed the shopping center layout with several persons and discovered they were not aware of the present proposals which to my knowledge have never been published in any public document other than the EIR…the Agency is not making it possible for the public to review and comment upon the project which is the intention of the Environmental Impact Review process.

It rankled all of the critics that the Planning Commission had no say about the EIR or anything else concerning the mall project, per City Council dictum. All they could do was make comments – and as noted earlier, commissioners were attacked when they even dared to raise questions.

Codding attorney Bill Smith pointed out this was unprecedented:

The Urban Renewal Agency is apparently proceeding on the basis that it will act as judge and jury of the EIR which it has caused to be prepared for its own project… [Normally] the EIR procedure would involve a review by the Planning Commission with right of appeal to the City Council. The Hahn proposal will be subject to no such review by the Planning Commission or the City Council; it will be handled internally by the Urban Renewal Agency… It is apparent that the Urban Renewal Agency will not review the draft EIR as intensively as would the Planning Commission if this were any other project.

A major shortfall in the EIR mentioned at the Commission meeting was that it contained nothing about what impact the mall might have on highway traffic – which was particularly surprising considering the mega-mall was supposed to suck up all retail trade between Marin and the redwood netherlands. CalTrans wrote two letters to James Burns complaining the issue should have been considered, although he did say the mall would probably only increase traffic volume by ten percent, so there shouldn’t be problems. Gentle Reader can guess what happened next: By the time the mall was fully opened in 1983, it appears traffic on that section of Highway 101 increased 30-40 percent – far above maximum capacity. Perhaps you remember sitting on the freeway in some of those epic backups; I sure as hell do.3

The Draft EIR also provided the first glimpse of what the future mall might look like. All freeway traffic would come and go through Third Street. Parking lots and a huge, two-story garage along B Street would effectively cut the mall off from downtown. At a February meeting with the Planning Commission, the URA said the drawing – which they had submitted only a few weeks before – was already out of date and B Street parking had been scrapped. Now there was to be underground parking and garages surrounding the mall’s other three sides.

Preliminary layout of proposed shopping center, looking east. Source: 1973 Draft EIR pg. II-3
Preliminary layout of proposed shopping center, looking east. Source: 1973 Draft EIR pg. II-3

Look closely at the layout and note there is an east/west open space through the middle – a direct passageway between B Street and Railroad Square. But was that to be inside the mall (and thus only available when the mall is open) or was it an outdoors corridor? The final EIR made it known the city and the developer were trying to have it both ways:

URA Director Burns promised “The City design staff is working on several other elements that will make the center more a part of downtown. One of the most important elements is the pedestrian link from Courthouse Square to and through the shopping complex to Railroad Square.” Elsewhere, architect Bolles wrote there would be landscape planters “on either side of the Fourth Street pedestrian walk which leads across the site on grade, from Morgan to B Street. The tree­lined Fourth Street pedestrian walk will be an important landscape feature connecting downtown with Railroad Square.”

Above all else, what everyone wanted most was for the mall to be integrated with the rest of downtown. In the EIR there was found a two page discussion revealing the developer had other ideas.4 The authors of the EIR waved the biggest and reddest of flags trying to draw our attention to the fate that would otherwise befall our town:

…the schematic project design does carry some significant, potentially adverse implications for the aesthetic character and urban design quality of downtown Santa Rosa. The progress of the design development of the project deserves the continued attention of the public and reviewing officials…one of the potential problems of the shopping center design is that it must recognize the center is not an isolated community in itself, accessible only to motorists, but should become a member of a larger commercial and social community accesible also to pedestrians…if the shopping center design were to treat the downtown area essentially as another major tenant of the center – which in effect it is – the design of these pedestrian links would undoubtedly be more heavily emphasized.

Although the City Council apparently didn’t take notice, the mall critics did. Planning Commissioner Frances Dias wanted to redefine the project: “I take great exception to anyone that calls this a ‘shopping center.’ It is downtown. It is not a shopping center, And I think it is very important to the health of the community, again, as I say, that the integrity of downtown be maintained.”

Dan Peterson gazed into his crystal ball and saw shoppers wouldn’t venture outside the mall into downtown: “I am not opposed to the commercial land use providing that aesthetics and scale relate to Santa Rosa and not San Jose. The enclosed single structure concept would not encourage shoppers to extend themselves into the downtown area because of the total air conditioned environment – including malls. The planning consideration obviously has not been extended beyond the project property lines.”

And Dolores Clayton accurately predicted the mall would lead to the decay of the downtown business sector:

The Environmental Impact report indicates inadequate provision for pedestrian access to the Project. There is also, we note, no reference to provision of links with public transportation…This lack of integration, this forbidding encapsulation, would seem to be counter productive from the stand point of enhancing the entire Downtown area. Might not the affect of such a self­contained Project rather be that of a vortex drawing all the vitality to itself at the expense of weakening the rest of the Downtown area?

The URA’s James Burns responded to Clayton (hers was the only letter he answered). “The Urban Renewal Agency is using the Central District Development Plan as a guide in developing downtown,” he replied. “The main difference between the Redevelopment Plan and the Central District Development Plan is that, by necessity, the Redevelopment Plan has more flexibility.”

Well, no. The 1968 Central District Development Plan was the result of hundreds of hours of public meetings; crucial decisions in the Redevelopment Plan were made by seven unelected URA appointees and the Agency staff. The plan from 1968 focused on remodeling and restoring existing buildings, creating a convention/arts center, a tourist center, a transit center and a hotel/motel complex. It had a four stage schedule to beautify downtown with fountains, greenspace, outdoor cafés, arcades to house cute small shops and a plaza meeting place. It wanted to make downtown ultra-friendly for pedestrians and aimed to fix traffic problems, not make them worse. It said nothing about bulldozing a third of the downtown core to build a colossal shopping center. Comparing the 1968 Plan to what Burns and his crew were planning was like comparing fluffy kittens to ATM machines.

The EIR was officially accepted at a marathon public hearing that lasted seven hours (!) and is covered in the following chapter. But before leaving this topic I yield the floor to Commission Chairperson Donna Born, whose observations perfectly summed up the train wreck that awaited us:

I have been in several centers, like I’m sure everybody has. They [are] all alike, They [are] 2-3 stories, and they have got a 2-story mall with the tile floor and piped-in music and buildings around. And they’re sometimes attractive, but they’re always worlds unto themselves. They’re completely isolated. There is no feeling of identity with anything else, And I think that, unless it has a special relationship with the rest of the downtown, then we are just setting the stage for our next Urban Renewal project. Also, I think that the design as I see it, has no human scale, and I think that is essential to what Santa Rosa is all about. And I am certainly, obviously, no designer, but I think I have hunches about what makes a human scale and I don’t see it in this kind of self-contained 3-story thing.




1 The “energy crisis” lasted approximately between Oct. 1973 and March 1974. Caused by an OPEC embargo on oil sales to the U.S. it created gasoline shortages nationwide. The Press Democrat ran front page stories describing cars lining up several blocks long, starting at dawn, as drivers waited at one of the few gas stations that remained open. Police struggled to keep intersections clear and the Highway Patrol found traffic stopped because off-ramps near stations were backing up onto the freeway. The price for premium gas at the time was about 55 cents a gallon.
2 The City Hall sculpture was created by Shirley Wastell, a Sonoma Valley artist known as something of a character. According to a Gaye LeBaron column, she drove a station wagon festooned with her sculptures of frogs, birds, dragons, and “six cats on the roof reclining in various cat positions.”
3 There was no traffic measurement given directly at the Third Street exit. Between 1974-1983 there was an increase of 32% at the College Ave. exit, so it does not include traffic from the south. The closest exit from that direction was at Todd Road, which increased 64 percent. The average between the two was 48 percent. “The flow on 101”, Press Democrat, March 10 1985, page 1B
4 Draft Environmental Impact Report Vol. II, pg. 98-99


Civic art created by Shirley Wastell, unveiled next to Santa Rosa City Hall June 19, 1971. Somewhat in the style of postmodern artist Joan Miró, the sculpture was supposed to represent "man surrounded by world involvement." The artist was paid $3,500. Photo from a 1974 URA pamphlet.
Civic art created by Shirley Wastell, unveiled next to Santa Rosa City Hall June 19, 1971. Somewhat in the style of postmodern artist Joan Miró, the sculpture was supposed to represent “man surrounded by world involvement.” The artist was paid $3,500. Photo from a 1974 URA pamphlet.

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