fourth1960s

POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET

Santa Rosa is tinkering with Fourth street again, hoping to keep its moribund business district from completely withering away during the Age of Coronavirus. The latest effort is to close off traffic on the 500 and 700 blocks (but not the 600 block), allowing restaurants and bars to setup more outside tables. The city will keep the blocks closed at least until January 31, 2021 but according to the PD, over 70% of the businesses on those blocks want the street closure to be permanent.

Go back about four decades, however, and tell people that Santa Rosa was going to block cars from Fourth street in 2020 and expect surprised reactions – because they would have expected the city had already done that.

Our story begins almost exactly 45 years ago in 1975, as the City Council clears the last major obstacle to final planning for the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall. The city would allow the developer to sink Third street so part of the shopping center could be built above it while lower Fifth street and A street would be folded into the mall plans. The matter of a Fourth street passageway between B street and Railroad Square was still unsettled – that’s a major story by itself and will be handled in a future article.

As much of the money to pay for that would come from the federal government, the Housing and Urban Development Dept. (HUD) had to give its blessing to the project. Its report from earlier that same year declared the mall would be generally a good thing for Santa Rosa, but there was concern that having it downtown could suck the life out of the existing business district: “…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.”

To mitigate those concerns, the city and the Downtown Development Association – DDA to its friends – hired a respected San Francisco urban planning company, EDAW Inc. Their mission was to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage” between the mall and the downtown core. So once again it was time to play Let’s Redesign Downtown – that ever-popular game in the 1960s that had enriched many out-of-town consultants. (Those layouts were discussed here in the series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”)

Given what they had to work with, their redesign was innovative. Like earlier plans there was an emphasis on streetscaping with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). There was far more parking than we have today and it envisioned a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores.

But the highlight was turning Fourth street into a “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for the people mover. Riley street would also become pedestrian only.

1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street "semi-mall" shown in green
1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street “semi-mall” shown in green

Another unique feature was the absence of traffic lights, which were only found where Mendocino ave. and D street crossed Fourth. There was also a pedestrian bridge across B street, linking the presumed entrance to the mall with Fourth street. Otherwise, traffic flow was completely controlled by roundabouts. The plan further placed an emphasis on preserving and restoring heritage buildings.

The cost for all this would have been $2.7M and during the 1977 presentation, raising that financing didn’t seem to be a worry. Thus: In sum it was a practical and affordable design which would have greatly perked up the old downtown without much disruption (no major realignments of streets or utilities) and might have helped keep the business district competitive, no matter what temptations the future mall might fling at shoppers. The downtown property owners particularly loved the semi-mall and most signed a petition to tax themselves via a special assessment district to help pay for it (the major holdout was the telephone company).

Spoiler alert: Absolutely none of that happened.

While the semi-mall and the rest of the plan remained popular with enthusiastic backing from DDA members, its chances of being built began to slip away with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which shut off city funding – it would have died right there, if not for a ray of hope thanks to Santa Rosa getting a windfall $40M due to Pacific Telephone’s expansion. By 1979 the inflation cost was now $3.3M and some merchants had turned into naysayers, griping that closing Fourth street would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. The death sentence came in 1980, when semi-mall came to just mean there would be wider sidewalks because the street was being narrowed to two lanes. Fourth could sometimes be closed for street sales or other special events. And that’s what we still have today.

The Santa Rosa Plaza opened in 1982, and it didn’t take long for downtown merchants to realize they would not be riding its coat tails to prosperity. The city had given the developer everything he demanded and the downtown ended up with less than nothing, given that Railroad Square was now isolated on the wrong side of the Great Wall of B Street.

In 1988 the City Council hired consultants and formed committees “to figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place” and the Press Democrat invited five architects to come up with ideas. Some of the plans weren’t very functional (yes, we really needed an underground art gallery) but Joel DeSilva came up with an innovative design that embraced and enhanced Rapp’s meandering Fourth street. As described in the PD, he thought “parks are the way to invite people into the downtown:”


…He starts with a miniature, tree-lined lake at the entrance of the mall on B Street. The lake feeds a creek that meanders the length of Fourth Street (which he closes to traffic) as far as the library on E Street. There are benches and little restaurants with outdoor eating space along the creek. “There has to be something to draw people out of the plaza and down to the rest of downtown. Something impulsive. You see something there and it looks interesting,” DeSilva said.

DeSilva also followed Rapp in placing a walkway over B Street from the Plaza, as well as a covered skywalk overlooking Courthouse Square.

Joel DeSilva's 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek
Joel DeSilva’s 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek

No mention of Fourth street in the 1970s is complete without talking about cruising, which was either innocent fun or a sure sign that Santa Rosa had gone to wrack and ruin. (I polled a few friends who were here back in the day and FWIW all remembered it as the former, and were shocked when I read some of the details reported in the Press Democrat.) But cruising was intertwined with the semi-mall story, and likely was a big part of the reason the design was abandoned.

Cruising began here c. 1963, with the first letter-to-the-ed in the Press Democrat complaining about youths “tooling Fourth street” in 1965. By the end of the decade it was both Friday and Saturday nights, drawing 200-500 kids each evening. The street was so jammed that sometimes only two cars were able to crawl through a green light.

In 1970 the PD ran a titillating series, “Santa Rosa After Dark” (topless go-go girls at the Stone House, “the home of dirty ankle sex in Santa Rosa”!) that described a scene very much like the movie American Graffiti – which would be partially filmed in Petaluma two years later. It was mainly bored kids who said they were there only because there was nothing else to do in Santa Rosa, so why not watch the street-rod parade while hanging out with the gang and guzzling beer. Written by Dick Torkelson, the colorful prose in the series is best read while imagining the voice of Dragnet’s Joe Friday:


…It’s the scene for the raked rears, the big meats, the high springs, the throaty burble of the glass-pack mufflers. It’s where the Chrysler hemis sometimes vie with the Goats as they call the GTO’s. It’s where the Mustang 390’s and the 428’s snort to a lead foot…Occasionally two cars will pull to a stop, the drivers glance across, size each other up and down like two roosters in a pit. The sign changes and one will hit it in low, lay just a blip of rubber, then ease off. Then the other will nip it, down hard, then up. Just a hint of what there is…

Every year the situation grew more concerning. In April 1977 – just three months after Charlie Rapp made the semi-mall presentation to the DDA – the police barricaded downtown Fourth street for the first time. They soon found out that was a mistake: The action just moved to more residential streets, particularly Summerfield Road with the kids hanging out in the Howarth Park parking lot.

That summer there were about 1,800 arrests and citations, most related to alcohol and particularly underage drinking. Also on the police blotter were cruising while drunk, urinating in public, fighting, noise (cruising involved lots’a honking at friends), hurling bottles, graffiti, smashing store windows, possession of illegal weapons (including sawed-off shotguns) and 18 cases of stolen cars. Driving a stolen car in a parade being heavily monitored by cops deserves its own category in the Darwin Awards.

Costs for policing all this were adding up. By the time the police tried closing the street the city was paying an extra $3,000 every weekend (nearly $13k today), mainly in police overtime. The City Council approved hiring three more officers and purchasing a new patrol car. By Thanksgiving of 1977 there were 21 officers on patrol during Friday and Saturday nights to book up to 50 arrests and write 100 citations.

The crackdown also included new city ordinances. A ban on left u-turns on Fourth during cruise nights proved to be a really dumb idea because the cruisers just used residential cross streets to turn around instead. The City Council added a prohibition on “pandemoniac vehicles” (squealing tires, an ordinance still on the books – sideshow haters, take note). At first the Council balked at restricting Friday and Saturday street parking on the downtown blocks of Fourth, but finally enacted a ban on what Police Chief Sal Rosano quipped were “portable beer dispensing machines.”

But nothing seemed to discourage the partying, which used to wind down around midnight but now went on until 2:30. Prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Fourth street cruising would go on forever and probably get worse.

All that was in the air in 1980, when it came time to decide the fate of the semi-mall. Considering a permanent closure of those blocks to traffic must have now seemed like folly – they had seen how that only moved cruising into the neighborhoods. Keeping the street open but squeezing it into two lanes was a classic technique of “traffic calming” which might (hopefully) discourage cruising through downtown. At least, I presume that was their thinking; nothing about the decision-making was reported at the time. Or who knows? Perhaps the hope was that a narrower Fourth street would give downtown more of its pre-1906 earthquake look, matching the ersatz cobblestones that used to rattle your teeth while driving through Courthouse Square.

Downtown Fourth was closed for six months as the work was done, and sure enough, the police fielded more calls about raucous street parties in residential areas. The PD had a later story that some local cruisers went down to Petaluma to check out the parade on Petaluma Boulevard, but the scene felt too alien. “They were all wearing cowboy hats,” a cruiser said.

When Fourth reopened in November, 1981 there were still police barricades on Friday and Saturday nights, but to the surprise of everyone, very few cruisers showed up – cruising “disappeared just entirely when Fourth Street closed for the mall [construction],” Police Captain Sanderson told the PD in March 1982.

What killed off cruising? More than anything else it was video games.

Video arcades and home game consoles were becoming the rage in later 1981 and exploded in popularity in 1982. Seemingly overnight arcades were everywhere; Aladdin’s Castle in the Plaza was the largest with sixty games, but a machine or three could be found in barbershops, hardware stores and coffee shops. Restaurants cleared out mop closets to make room for Frogger and Donkey Kong. The Safeway on Mendocino Ave. not only had a row of arcade games by the bathrooms but shoppers could pick up an Atari and a few game cartridges as well.

Santa Rosa’s history in the 20th century was marked by a long series of unfortunate planning decisions, and abandoning the “meandering semi-mall” is high among them. Yet it makes for an unusual Believe-it-or-Not! question to ponder: Would it have been built if only the final decision was made a year later, or Pac Man came around a year earlier?

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1868deedFB

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).

1868deed


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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1966construction

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

In 1946 the Chamber of Commerce had a contest to find a new slogan “best fitting Santa Rosa.” Out of 400+ entries the winner was Mrs. B. Taylor, who came up with “The City Designed for Living.” She was awarded $25 and it was money well spent; everybody loved the motto, which was added to the city’s stationery. It was often part of the Press Democrat’s masthead and stores worked it into their newspaper ads. The Chamber wanted to update it in 2007 and paid $80,000 to Tennessee experts who came up with “California Cornucopia” – a catchphrase so hideously vapid it inspired only an abundance of invective. Nor did it help that it came with a logo which looked like someone’s doodle on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Today’s Santa Rosa would be unrecognizable to Mrs. B. (sorry, no first name I can find). Hers was a city where downtown was a destination – the place you usually were when not at home. It was where you picked up groceries, dropped off shoes for repair, visited the dentist, bought a new toaster, got a haircut or a perm. Mrs. B. saw the sidewalks filled with kids after school and if she was out late the stores beckoned evening shoppers with lighted windows. It was the world as seen in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” – and who knows, maybe Mrs. B. can be spotted in the background of some scene in the movie.

Mrs. B. might find herself lost in Santa Rosa’s tiny downtown because so many landmarks are gone. What happened to the courthouse? Where are all those blocks of stores between B street and Railroad Square? How did they get rid of Santa Rosa Creek? There’s little she will recognize beyond a few scattered buildings.

The story of how all that happened is the theme of this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner,” and the short explanation is that Santa Rosa was gripped by an epidemic of Redevelopment Fever in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, some rich people became richer because of the deals and some of the doings should have probably seen the inside of a courtroom, but it was good intentions, not greed or corruption, that led to the dismantling of “The City Designed for Living.” And Santa Rosa was far from alone; communities all over the country were making similar stupid, irreversible decisions in those days.

This chapter is about the Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body with a full-time planner and an executive director (hired from Merced) which had broad powers to make deals for redeveloping all of downtown Santa Rosa. Formed by the city in 1958, they kicked it off a couple of years later by declaring forty acres of downtown so “blighted” that it needed to be demolished. Designating sections of your town blighted was a necessary first step before applying for free redevelopment money from the government.

The appointed members of the URA had diverse backgrounds that might have served them well on some less critical civic board or committee, but as far as I can tell none of them were educated about urban planning or architecture. Members in the early 1960s included the owner of a building supply company, a retired promotion director of a packing company, a personal injury lawyer, the manager of Sears and the VP of a savings & loan.

Before the mid-1960s the URA shuffled paper. They interviewed and hired a parade of out-of-town urban planning consultants to draw plans and build models, then made a sweetheart deal with a development group led by Henry Trione to draw more plans and build more models. They facilitated fantasy projects which had no actual schedules nor budgets; nothing planned during those years was ever built.

Things began to change in 1966, the year we tore down the courthouse in Courthouse Square. That demolition was nearly a decade in the making; the building was damaged in a 1957 earthquake – mostly cosmetic, not structural – and the Board of Supervisors mulled over the idea of building a courthouse at the new County Administration Center instead of downtown. After lots of due mulling (and a legally-questionable financing deal), the Sonoma County Hall of Justice joined the other county offices at the big campus outside of city limits, and on March 22, 1966, the Supervisors officially agreed to sell Courthouse Square to the city of Santa Rosa URA for $400,000.

While that deal was in the works, the URA was focused on what to do with Courthouse Square once it was in their hands. Courthouse Square wasn’t in the blight zone but was still central to the URA’s plans to remake downtown, and they began with the presumption that it was essential to punch a four-lane street through the middle of it, connecting Santa Rosa and Mendocino Avenues. Like almost all the URA’s other sweeping decisions, this was declared as a done deal with no public input – and if the Press Democrat ever wrote a critical word about the URA’s doings, I’ve yet to find it.

An early proposal was for all city offices to be stuffed in a “Civic Tower” up to 15 stories high and straddling both sides of the new street. The description in the PD said there would be parks on either side, including two lakes (!) and a constant-flow artificial creek. This plan was abandoned but the debate over where to build the new city hall became a marathon political squabble between the URA and developer/city councilman Hugh Codding, who wanted it near Coddingtown or the County Administration Center. Finally the none-of-the-above option was chosen, and the civic center would be built on top of the filled-in bed of Santa Rosa Creek (MORE).

With no worries over the placement of city hall and the courthouse being demolished, Courthouse Square was a blank slate in the spring of 1966 – albeit a blank slate that was going to have a four-lane road through the middle. This was the URA’s own development project, which in itself probably stretched the limit of the Agency’s charter. But the URA also began taking on powers that clearly belonged to city departments and/or the City Council, such as the closing of city streets.

The URA had decided that the old side streets, Hinton and Exchange Avenues, weren’t needed any longer and would be turned into sidewalks. The former Hahman pharmacy, next to the Empire Building and built in 1908, would be torn down to create a walkway to a planned parking garage that was going to be built at Third and B streets (the old drugstore wasn’t demolished until 2018).

J. Clarence Felciano, Santa Rosa’s go-to architect during the mid-century, was awarded the contract to design the new Square; he had a 10-point plan focused on making it a place welcoming to pedestrians and holding public assemblies. There would be multiple fountains and the bunya-bunya trees would be preserved (honk if you still miss them).

The URA’s plans for Courthouse Square were revealed at a public meeting on June 1 – a day fraught with symbolism, as just hours earlier everyone downtown would have heard the wrecking ball destroying the magnificent stained glass skylight in the courthouse. In the audience were members of the Planning Commission, city planning staff and downtown business stakeholders who were hearing some of the details for the first time. And this was no dog-and-pony show of some architect’s proposal; the URA was expecting to sign construction contracts within a few weeks.

The meeting did not go well.

The arrogance displayed by members of the URA was astonishing. Planning Commissioner Ernest Thomas said the URA was “trying to move the plans too fast” and the Planning and Parks Department hadn’t been consulted – that the URA expected the Commissioners and others to “come down here and make comment and give approval in one evening.” He asked for the Planning Department to have a chance to study the plan.

“The overall plans of Urban Renewal has always been to connect the two streets through the Courthouse Square.” URA Chairman Michael Panas told the Commissioner.

URA member O. E. Christensen piled on, according to the Press Democrat’s coverage. “I’m surprised to hear you say you haven’t known about the Courthouse Square plan, Mr. Thomas, [all city officials] knew of this plan as far back as four years ago.” Thomas was “trying to make it appear we’re attempting to rush this,” he charged, and make it look like the URA was attempting to get the city to “approve something which hasn’t had prior study…we’ve been studying this thing for several years.” He also said, “we’re in no hurry, here,” apparently forgetting that at the top of the meeting Panas had announced they were expecting construction bids in six weeks.

Commissioner Thomas was not reassured. He found it “amazing” that they didn’t see a problem with their street through the square having “two-way traffic dumping into one-way traffic.” Christensen – a structural engineer who specialized in schools and large commercial buildings – replied that wasn’t the URA’s worry; working out traffic problems was a job for the city to “accomplish.”

Another voice of dissent was Wells Fargo manager James Keegan, whose bank was on the corner between the Empire Building and Fourth street. With Exchange avenue slated to be sidewalked over in the URA’s plan, he was “considerably disturbed” that bank customers would be dependent upon construction of that proposed garage at Third and B and the proposed walkway where the drugstore used to be. What assurances could the URA give that the property could be acquired for the walkway?

“None,” replied Chairman Panas, who added there were “ways” to get the land, but it was “out of the hands of the agency.” There was no money in the URA budget to buy it. Banker Keegan commented that the area designed for public assemblies should then be turned into parking, as having an assembly area was a “big joke” anyway.

The meeting closed with the URA admitting the cost for all this was “quite over” what they had planned, but was worth it. Remember the thumpity-thump faux cobblestone paving that shook your fillings loose? That cost an extra $40k.

Despite the complete lack of input on the project by the public or any other governmental body, the URA plowed ahead on building the new roadway that autumn. Suggestions were made on its name: Main street, Burbank Plaza, Central Plaza, Rosacino or Mendorosa avenue. Hugh Codding took note of all the heavy construction equipment parked on the square and quipped it should be named the “Demilitarized Zone.”

“Old Courthouse Square” was chosen as the name for both the street and the plaza on its west side (which wouldn’t be built for another year). Street signs were erected at both ends with “Old Court House Square” [sic] lettered in Ye Olde English style because Santa Rosa was apparently founded by Sir Walter Raleigh.

The ribbon cutting was November 5, 1966. Mayor DeMeo gave a shout-out to the city’s founders, albeit one slightly incoherent: “Their gift to the city even now is more enhanced than originally.” That was followed by a “Parade of Progress” where antique autos and the latest models thumpity-thumped in both directions. There was soon a traffic jam on the Fourth street side.

Aside from the roadway and the adjacent sidewalks, no other work was completed in 1966. Exchange and Hinton avenues were still open and the little west side plaza was to come the following year. As for the east side of Courthouse Square, the URA had big plans – to sell it off. “For Sale: 26,000 sq. Feet” read a Press Democrat headline.

NEXT: WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

Construction equipment in the Courthouse Square street extension, 1966 or 1967. Photo at top and this one courtesy Sonoma County Library
Construction equipment in the Courthouse Square street extension, 1966 or 1967. Photo at top and this one courtesy Sonoma County Library

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