under1963bridge

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

Pity future historians; they will struggle to understand why we destroyed the things we loved most – and even paid for the pleasure. When the 1960s began, Santa Rosa had a lovely creek burbling through its downtown. Before the decade ended, the town’s jewel became a flood control channel buried under a pile of reinforced concrete buildings which no one would ever call lovely.

In the history of many towns there’s a chapter with an unhappy and wrong-headed tale such as this, and it’s because the nation was gripped by a collective madness called “urban renewal” during that era. Anything new would be better than anything old simply because. There was also free federal money available as long as the magic words were spoken: “urban blight.” So cities across America declared large swathes of their communities were indeed filled with areas injurious to public welfare because of being unfit, unsafe, obsolete, deteriorating, underdeveloped (read: undertaxed), subject to flooding or otherwise terribly blighted. File your blight report and don’t forget to include the address where Washington can send the money.

(This is a continuation of of the series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner,” which examines how Santa Rosa – a city which has always had swaggering ambitions – only has limited options for betterment today because of terrible 20th century planning decisions. Part one showed the downtown core is cramped because we rejected proposals to revise its layout beyond the setting of the original 1853 village, and how highway 101 “sawed the town in half” against the advice of state engineers.)

Santa Rosa took its first redevelopment baby steps in 1958 when the City Council formed an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was soon a full-time planner, an executive director hired from Merced and out-of-town consultants to study the issues (bet you didn’t see that twist coming). Come September 1960 they discovered that Santa Rosa was indeed blighted, and in the amount of forty acres.

Meanwhile, there was another federal gravy train pulling into the station loaded with even more money, this time for flood control. Normally the Army Corps of Engineers does this kind of work but Sonoma Water (AKA the Sonoma County Water Agency, AKA the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District) wrestled away most of the project along with its $11.8M budget – the equivalent to about $106,000,000 today.

Both urban renewal and flood control projects kept a low profile over the next few years. Reports were written, best plans were laid. Surveyors surveyed. The most exciting related event was the design proposal by the city’s New Jersey consultants. A scale model of their reimagined downtown (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) circulated around several bank lobbies. Their 1960 layout is seen in the drawing below, with a county/city government center along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.
North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.

 

That they highlighted the creek was not surprising. Every prior re-envisioning of the town did the same, starting with plans for a waterpark in 1906 (which was followed by the quixotic attempt to turn it into Lake Santa Rosa). In 1945 there was local architect Cal Caulkins’ park at the junction of Matanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks to compliment his vision of a new civic center. While the URA and flood planning was underway Santa Rosa was also doing an update to its General Plan, and the Planning Commission wrote this in 1962: “It has been suggested that there is not enough emphasis upon the preservation of Santa Rosa Creek for public purposes, such as hiking, riding, and bicycling trails. The staff recommends that the general plan be changed to show a green belt throughout the whole length of the Santa Rosa Creek within the planning area.”

This shuffling rate of progress came to an abrupt end in early 1963, after the North Bay was slammed with the worst winter storm in eight years. Santa Rosa received over two inches of rain in 24 hours during Jan. 31-Feb. 1, and the Russian River flooded – according to the Russian River Historical Society, it ranked #11 among top floods. Suddenly big decisions had to made, and made fast.

In mid-February it was revealed $3.5 million of flood control funding would be lost unless work plans for the upcoming year were submitted by July 1. Unlike urban renewal money – which required little more than flashing a pretty smile in the general direction of Washington – the water money was controlled by a tightwad Congress limiting how much dribbled out each year and was awarded competitively from two different agencies.

Santa Rosa was in for a rude shock. Except for the Planning Commissioners having just recommended creek preservation as part of a greenbelt, nothing about the future of Santa Rosa Creek had been mentioned in the Press Democrat for years – undoubtedly everyone expected it to be a featured part of the beautification of the town promised as part of urban renewal, per the drawings and models by the consultants. Not so. A headline in the March 17 PD presented the grim options: “THE CHOICE ON SANTA ROSA CREEK: LINED DITCH OR CULVERT”.

It seemed that the flood experts had been planning since 1959 to use a concrete-lined culvert for the stretch of the creek running through downtown. Gentle Reader is forgiven for now muttering, “bait and switch.”

There were federal specifications connected with the project that required this, a consulting engineer explained. Otherwise, the banks of the creek would have to be gradually sloped back, which would “destroy access to and usefulness of many more acres,” according to the PD. Which, of course, was exactly what was shown in the drawings and models.

The only given alternative was to “bury the whole thing,” which URA officials “believe to be an even neater solution.” The article continued, “an artificial creek, somewhat like that in Juilliard Park, has been suggested as part of the landscaping.” A following edition of the paper illustrated the difference with a photo of an open culvert that had both banks protected by five-foot chainlink fences topped by barbed wire. Next to it was a pastoral image of Juilliard Park and its fake creek. Pick one.

A joint meeting was called with the City Council, Planning Commission, plus all their other little boards, commissions and agencies. The three side-by-side box culverts would be a total of 48 feet wide and 17 feet high, enough to handle the surge of a 100-year storm, the officials were told. Otherwise, if the creek overflowed “it would sweep through downtown.” But the consultant who said that was either ignorant or lying; during the megaflood of 1862 the Central Valley became a giant lake and Sacramento was under ten feet of water, yet here the overflow from Santa Rosa Creek barely reached Courthouse Square. It was hardly a calamity, but there was no one there to challenge his audacious claim.

So without further consideration they immediately approved the underground culvert plan, with the original creek bed to be filled in “for use as a landscaped pedestrian way, and an artificial creek as part of the landscaping.” The city would end up paying for a good chunk of that work, however, as flood control only covered the cost of it being an open channel. Thus the URA coughed up $311K to condemn to oblivion the only natural feature everyone wanted to preserve.

Putting a bright shine on the loss of something so precious, the URA Executive Director insisted they not only would save money on not having to build bridges, but the city now had additional land for development. And that raised a big new question: What should they build on top of it?

NEXT: …AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

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1958fairgrounds

FAIR QUESTIONS

Anyone downtown on March 15 may have noticed an unusual dark bus slowly rolling along; inside were representatives from Santa Rosa and the Chamber of Commerce who were guiding a tour for about 70 Bay Area developers. Our visitors were promised that we would loosen rules and regs, defer or waive significant fees, all to max out every inch of buildable space near downtown as fast as possible. It makes for an awkward coincidence this was the same date that the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar croaked out “beware the Ides of March,” warning that bad things were about to happen.

(Note to readers: This is an opinion piece about current events in Santa Rosa.)

An executive with the Bay Area Council told a reporter that the incentives Santa Rosa is offering developers are “unprecedented” for the Bay Area. “Everyone I know in the San Francisco and other Bay Area markets has internalized the trauma of wrestling with city departments,” said a rep from an international investment firm. “I sort of feel like I’m in Disneyland when I’m in Santa Rosa.”

Coverage of that significant event came from the San Jose Mercury News and was reprinted by the Press Democrat (apparently the PD’s assignment editor thought their Pulitzer Prize-winning staff would be too busy preparing for the upcoming St. Paddy’s Day – those peppy “holiday tips” listicles don’t write themselves).

As the reporter wasn’t from here, she framed the story as if this was all being done because of the 2017 fires – but for the last five years, locals have heard about our “historic housing crisis” from every politician allowed near a microphone. It’s so bad, we’re told, that last year Santa Rosa and Sonoma County formed a “RED JPA” (that’s a Renewal Enterprise District created as a Joint Powers Authority, for those who like to know what things mean) to push through as much housing construction as quickly as possible. In Santa Rosa, that translates to adding 7,000 more housing units to the downtown area by the year 2040 – a total of 30k countywide.

“If the pace of housing production is not accelerated well beyond historic levels, the impacts on the economy, climate change, quality of life, and the health and well‐being of Sonoma residents could be dire,” warns the District’s problem statement.

Yow!

Did I hear Gentle Reader snorting in derision, skeptical that such a calamity is upon us? While county and city staff reports about planning goals are usually vague and cautious, that document reads like a political manifesto. (“Dire”? Seriously?) But hyperventilated or no, it seems to match the attitude of our RED officials – hence that welcome-to-Disneyland bus tour.

But let’s trust that the city and country are absolutely correct in their forecast and it’s really an unprecedented, five alarm, all hands on deck crisis – “dire,” even – and something must be done, and done swiftly. If that’s really so, here’s a modest proposal: Move the fairgrounds somewhere else and build thousands of new homes on the site.

The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is an island of county property within Santa Rosa city limits, and at 182 acres it’s more than twice the size of the former hospital campus on Chanate. It’s close to shopping, medical services, and because of easy access to Highway 12, a shuttle from the downtown SMART station can reach the neighborhood in a couple of minutes or so. In short, it’s an ideal location for infill development – except for it currently having a tenant, albeit one who uses the place only for a few weeks of the year and occasionally rents it out when friends drop by.

To many, I’m sure the notion of losing that location for the fairgrounds is unthinkable. But as I’ve just written in “THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR,” the county fair flipped between being in Santa Rosa and Petaluma several times and was once held in Cotati. The only reason it ended up staying here was because the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa civic boosters wanted to use horse racing as a tourist draw during the Great Depression. For the first 12+ years there was no permanence to the fairgrounds; tents were rented for exhibits and livestock. The Hall of Flowers is a former B-29 airplane hanger the Fair bought cheaply in 1949.

Tents at the 1937 Sonoma County Fair (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Tents at the 1937 Sonoma County Fair (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Even if the Sonoma County Fairgrounds remained at this prime location, its footprint still could be reduced to add some housing. As the PD recently noted, interest in horse racing is fading quickly; should we really continue to set aside ~50 acres for it? And speaking of horse racing, can someone please tell me why the Jockey Club – a sports bar dedicated to off-track betting – is on the county’s fairgrounds property?

Shorn of the racetrack, horse stables, the OTB drinking hole plus some of the storage barns in back and the Sonoma County Fair becomes a size manageable to move. But where should the County Fair go?

The easiest option would be to let it revert to its origins at the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds in Petaluma, either as part of their regular fair or as a separate August event. County Fair attendance is down 37 percent over the last six years, so the smaller Petaluma venue would not be a squeeze. But my preference (since no one asked) would be to have the fairgrounds swap places with the County Administration campus.

Just last month (July, 2019) the county agreed to pay a consultant up to $300,000 to ponder where to build a possible new joint city-county government center, with downtown Santa Rosa being a desirable option. The county says the Sheriff’s Office and the county jail are staying put; all those other offices could move to the fairgrounds location and there would still be enough room to build over a thousand single-family homes on the rest of the property.

A downsized County Fair, with its livestock, craft/floral exhibitions along with the usual Midway, would easily fit in the current Administration campus space. It particularly would be a better location for the Chris Beck Arena, which is increasingly used for monster truck rallies, destruction derbies and other loud motorsport events which blanket the downtown and beyond with the noise of roaring engines.

Nor would a fairgrounds/campus swap need to happen all at once. The redevelopment plan envisions stretching Santa Rosa’s population growth over the next 20 years, so any contracts and commitments regarding the existing fairgrounds have plenty of time to iron out. And construction of the new county office space could be incremental; while it’s ongoing, maybe the Supes could hold meetings in the auditorium of the Veterans Memorial Building, another underutilized public space.

None of this is under consideration, of course; as far as I can tell, no one has ever proposed redeveloping the fairgrounds before – but then again, we’ve also never had our city and county governments warning that we face a “dire” situation unless we add 7,000 places to live close to downtown.

Instead, Santa Rosa is pushing developers to build upwards, giving them generous incentives to construct 5, 7, and even 10 story buildings. All well and good, except for this: Seismologists tell us that Santa Rosa is a few decades overdue for The Big One – an earthquake of catastrophic proportion. I would not like to be inside, standing next to, or even driving past a ten story building when that hits.

The current odds are estimated at a 1-in-3 chance of our “Santa Rosa pull-apart basin” – and yes, it’s exactly as horrific as it sounds – rupturing before 2045, the highest risk in the Bay Area. Picture everything west of Brookwood Ave. suddenly shifting to the north while the east side heads south. In a quake of 7.0 magnitude or greater, that could mean a slippage of over six feet. It will be likely the worst disaster in Sonoma County history, and here’s the bonus good news: Memorial Hospital sits smack on Ground Zero.

You can read more about our earthquake fault in an earlier article (here’s also a geological study PDF), but the city should be handing a map such as the one below to every developer who comes here to look at “Disneyland.” Yes, it’s possible to build tall buildings that are seismically safe, but such engineering adds 20-25 percent to construction costs, and Santa Rosa is pitching the town as a place where they can build quickly, cheaply and hassle free.

Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (California Geological Survey)
Rodgers Creek Fault Zone in yellow (California Geological Survey)

So how will all this play out? Barring a major quake which turns all buildings into pancakes, I expect the city will have some success in attracting new development, although adding nowhere near 7,000 housing units in the downtown core. But the “Downtown Station Area Specific Plan” encompasses a far larger area (MAP); the concern is that the city will meet that quota by stuffing high density projects in the older neighborhoods. This has already happened, as the City Council approved the 185 unit DeTurk Winery complex in the West End, followed by the developer returning and asking to use a “density bonus” and bumping the number to 240 – and all this despite the location being within a historic preservation district.

Meanwhile, 182 acres sits fallow almost all of the year, a time capsule of pre-WWII Santa Rosa.

I suppose city and county staff will say fairgrounds redevelopment is off limits because it lies just outside the official Specific Plan boundary, or because of its special “Public Institutional” zoning. Well, working around such problems is the very point of having a county/city RED JPA – right?

This should also become an election year issue. Ask politicians to prioritize: Should we keep a gaming sports bar or build ten single family homes on the spot? Should we support a racetrack for a dying spectator sport or create a new infill subdivision? Do we need most to keep little-used fairgrounds or build a new community which would be half the entire size of Coffey Park? Since the City Council and Board of Supervisors tell us the situation is “dire,” these are fair questions. Very fair.

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redwoodhighway

YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (PART I)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.

This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.

This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.

There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.

THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN   Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.

Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the 40 acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.

Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.

Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.

Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad.

Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”

THE PRICE OF PARKING   Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”

For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.

Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)

Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.

Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.

The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”

OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY   City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.

As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.

prop2In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”

A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).

Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.

“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”

Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”

I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.

There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.

The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.

Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.

By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.

The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”

Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.

Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.

There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.

Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.

The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.

Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.

The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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