courhousedemolition

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

Ask baby boomers who grew up in Santa Rosa what they miss from downtown: Chances are many will name the courthouse. Now climb into a time machine. Go back to the years those boomers were born and ask anyone working downtown what they wouldn’t miss if it were gone: Chances are most would name the courthouse.

In the mid-1950s downtown Santa Rosa was bustling, but not in a particularly healthy way. The population had grown by about 150 percent over the previous ten years1 and more people meant more businesses. But since this was also the Sonoma county seat, those retail stores or professional services were competing with city, county and state offices. Making matters worse, any available space was extremely tight because the downtown core still had the same footprint as the original tiny 1853 village as discussed in the intro to this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”

As a result, government offices were mainly scattered between Third and Fifth streets with addresses subject to change. The county probation office was above the Topaz Room (Santa Rosa’s premier cocktail lounge) until it was moved to the Rosenberg building; you paid the water bill at the City Hall Annex before the Water Dept. was shuffled a block away to Third st. and the Annex – a small, one story building which was originally a gas station – became the Police Identification Bureau. Got all that? And this was just a small sample of the ongoing game of municipal musical chairs; when you see photos from that era with lots of people downtown, assume that a goodly portion are simply wandering about trying to find where the hell they’ve moved Parks & Rec.

But even before the population boom made matters so much worse, the courthouse was bursting at the seams from all the county offices housed in there. In 1945 they considered adding a third floor “penthouse on stilts” to the existing building, with most of the expense going to reinforce the structure. The solution settled upon in 1954 was to build a new county center (the present location) and migrate all administrative offices out there starting in 1956.2 By the year 1970, downtown Santa Rosa would only have the county jail and the courthouse which would still house the County Clerk, Tax Collector, and other offices that dealt with the public over a counter.

And then came the 1957 earthquake.

The March 22 quake was magnitude 5.5, which was the worst seen here since 1906. People were rattled but no one was injured and no buildings fell. The only damages reported at the courthouse initially were some fine paint cracks in one section of the building.

Then someone noticed the quake had “jiggled the overhanging cornice blocks a little farther out from the building,” according to the Press Democrat (They really meant the corbels underneath the cornice) and a contractor was hired to do a preliminary inspection.

County administrator Neal D. Smith told the PD the situation appeared “a lot worse than we thought,” and the contractor was afraid to touch them because it “might start a chain reaction” causing a hail of heavy, hard blocks, Smith added.

Smith continued by saying he was worried about the entire exterior veneer of the building, according to the paper. “We don’t know, frankly, what we’re getting into.”

Structural engineers from San Francisco were brought in and their report dropped the Supervisor’s jaws. Estimated cost of repairs was up to $452k – equivalent to over $4 million today. They found the corbels – which were only ornamental – were hollow and made of terra cotta so they weren’t very heavy, but they were attached to the building using tie wires, which were now badly rusted and wedged into holes held by wooden pegs that had rotted. Also, the 10-foot high concrete parapet wall above the cornice was generally in “poor condition,” was “apparently of low strength when built” and at risk of falling from its own weight as well as earthquake and high wind. Beyond that, they said further study was needed to see if the concrete in the building itself was similarly low grade and to see how well the pretty terra cotta cladding was attached to the concrete beneath.

Sonoma County Courthouse in 1957, before the corbels were removed. Photo Sonoma County Library
Sonoma County Courthouse in 1957, before the corbels were removed. Photo Sonoma County Library

Objectively it wasn’t really a terrible report, other than the decorative corbels had to be fixed or taken off. The big price tag was for stripping off all the terra cotta, bracing the underlying concrete and putting on modern ceramic cladding. If the county chose to simply do repairs the bill would be much smaller, as shown by the Supervisors approving an emergency $25,000 contract to have the corbels removed.

But that report was the camel’s nose; from that point onwards, the sad – and supposedly dangerous – condition of the courthouse became a recurring item on the Supervisor’s agenda and a running theme in the Press Democrat. The newspaper hyped the discovery of a ceiling crack in the Coroner’s office by noting it was directly below the “massive safe” in the treasurer’s office and new bracing was required because of the “questionably strong floors.” (Finalist in the competition for worst PD headline ever: “Engineers Find Many Bad Faults”.)

It’s important to understand the mindset of those times. The earthquake had left the town unnerved and learning that the courthouse may be in structurally “poor condition” was not reassuring to all those who worked there or just needed to do business there. Second: The new County Administration Center was still nearly a year away from having even the first building ready; should the courthouse be condemned as unsafe, there was no place to relocate all those many county employees.

Further complicating matters was another big issue which the Board of Supervisors was simultaneously grappling in the spring and summer of 1957: The creation of the county’s first set of uniform building codes. In one part of a meeting the discussion might be the politically hot potato of whether the new standards should be applied to older buildings that were being altered in some way – a scenario which would very much fit the courthouse. Later in the same meeting they might be wringing hands over the latest developments in the courthouse situation, particularly how far they should go with repairs. Petaluma’s Leigh Shoemaker was the first to say explicitly that it should be demolished, but all of the Supervisors joined in spitballing “what-if” scenarios about what should be done with Courthouse Square sans courthouse.3 Here was the first mention of splitting it in half with a roadway connecting Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues.

More engineers were called in. This company drilled core samples and found the average strength of the concrete was around two-thirds of the minimum required in 1957 standards (the PD again pushed a negative angle, calling this “very low”). They also found that the huge slabs of terra cotta cladding were secured to the building in the same funky manner as the corbels – rusty tie wires held in place by dowels hammered into holes in the concrete wall. They reported there was a gap between 2-8 inches behind the terra cotta, but it was not explained whether that appeared to be caused by new slippage or how it was constructed.

Even the subpar concrete and discovery of the wall gap was not (yet) a death sentence for the courthouse. County administrator Smith told the Supes that for as little as $50k the terra cotta could be anchored to the back wall with the space between filled with an adhesive grout.4

And all was not bad news – addressing the earthquake safety risk, the final engineering report said the courthouse “is capable of withstanding only relatively minor earthquake shocks,” but cryptically added that like many similar buildings in the state, it “will no doubt remain in use for many years to come.” No, the building wasn’t up to modern building codes, but based on the average concrete strength found in the core samples it “just about” met the state’s standards for public buildings.

The year 1957 ended with the Board of Supervisors indecisive, agreeing only that the Fourth street scaffolding should be left standing and places where the terra cotta had been removed by the engineers should protected with plastic sheets until the end of the rainy season. It was expected that all of the cladding would come off the following year and the building would be covered in plaster.

Sonoma County Courthouse in 1958, with all the terra cotta cladding removed. Photo Sonoma County Library
Sonoma County Courthouse in 1958, with all the terra cotta cladding removed. Photo Sonoma County Library

Had all of this played out a year or two or three earlier, I have little doubt that the courthouse would have been repaired and preserved – that was, after all, the most economic route. At the start of 1958, four out of the five Supervisors agreed. But that was the year Santa Rosa caught a serious case of redevelopment fever and the Supes were not immune. Plus, they had a new prestigious consultant.

The recommendations from Ernst & Ernst were more radical than expected. Their experts guesstimated it would cost over one million dollars to rehabilitate the building; better to abandon it ASAP and sell Courthouse Square. (Hugh Codding had already made an offer of $350k – I’m sure Gentle Reader was waiting for him to pop up somewhere in this story about development, just as Alfred Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in all of his movies.)

All hope of saving the courthouse was now dead, even though there was no clear path forward. The rest of the cladding was removed along with the parapet wall. The building was waterproofed and the scaffolding removed, leaving the once-beautiful building stripped down to its unlovely concrete bones.

Little happened for more than a year, but it was still desired to keep the courthouse near downtown. Santa Rosa’s newly formed Urban Renewal Agency (URA) had enormous powers to declare parts of the town “blighted” and had hired New Jersey architects to come up with an urban redesign that incorporated the courthouse and jail. A drawing of this plan can be found in the recent article about Santa Rosa Creek because the courthouse/jail were to be built on the south side of the waterway.

But the Supervisors – who had agreed to delay a decision for six months to give the URA a chance to present that plan – voted unanimously (with one abstention) to rebuild at the new County Administration Center instead. Now all they had to do was raise $3+ million to pay for it. The county put a bond measure on the ballot in 1960 and it was voted down. In 1961 they tried again and it was voted down. In 1962 it was voted down. Twice. In 1963 it was voted down. Methinks a pattern was beginning to emerge.

Meanwhile, it came to the attention of the State Division of Industrial Safety that people were still working and being held behind bars in those buildings, even though the county was no longer making improvements or doing needed maintenance. An investigation began just days before the first of the 1962 bond votes. The safety department’s report gave the county two months to submit an detailed schedule for making repairs or to evacuate both the jail and the courthouse. The Supervisors instead raised the county’s liability insurance by a million bucks.

The standoff intensified, with the state issuing still more fixit orders and the county appealing for delays until the next bond vote. Some of the repair demands were fairly trivial – move filing cabinets further apart so the weight wasn’t concentrated in one place – but others would have involved extensive work, such as rewiring parts of the courthouse so electrical office equipment would be grounded. The state had the Santa Rosa Fire Department do an inspection and the Fire Marshal found the courthouse to be an “extreme hazard.”

After the bond failed for the fifth time in 1963 the county finally gave up trying, and that summer a non-profit corporation was formed to provide funding (much to the ire of anti-tax activists).5 The Industrial Safety office stopped saber rattling.

Sonoma County Courthouse c. 1963. Photo Sonoma County Library
Sonoma County Courthouse c. 1963. Photo Sonoma County Library

And so we come to 1966 and the end of our tale, with the judges and clericals and supervisors all nestled snugly into their new digs at county central. It was time to knock down the courthouse.

There’s a story I’ve heard ever since I came to Sonoma county. Maybe you’ve come across it too; supposedly that old courthouse – which was supposed to fall down at the slightest earthquake – turned out to be so sturdy the company hired to demolish it went bankrupt trying to do the job. Welp, that story’s true. Sort of.

1908courthouseconstruction(LEFT: The courthouse under construction in 1908. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

A company called Bay Cities Excavators was hired and given 75 days to finish the job. Around day 18 the PD interviewed the wrecking-ball crane operator. “There’s a little more steel than I thought, but it doesn’t create too much of a problem,” adding that the courthouse would be down by the end of the following week. Had any of the workers bothered to look at the photos of the building when it was under construction they would have known there were tons and tons of steel inside that crumbly concrete – if anything, the structure had been overbuilt for strength.

courthouse1966A week passes. Another month passes. Eight days from the deadline, the job still isn’t finished and the company has stopped work, claiming to have encountered a “sizable underground structure” which was unanticipated. (I’m guessing it was the old cesspool from the previous courthouse, a topic mentioned here earlier.) After the county whacked them on the nose with the rolled-up contract they continued work “under protest” and threatened to sue. Bay Cities Excavators likely lost money on the job but they didn’t go bankrupt and did several more projects in Santa Rosa over the following years.

The same day demolition began, there was a ceremony where the county sold Courthouse Square to the city of Santa Rosa and its URA. That moment was long the fevered dream of developers; very soon half of it would be up for sale.

NEXT: IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY


1 Santa Rosa population 1946: 14.9k (within city) 39.4k (metropolitan area). Santa Rosa population 1957: 32.5k (within city) 56.8k (metropolitan area). Source: Polk city directories

2 The Recorder’s office was the first to move out of the courthouse to the County Administration Center in April, 1958. Strangely, the original 1953 plan called for the County Library to be relocated there as well.

3 It was presumed in 1957 that Courthouse Square was county property, although the question of title would not be even addressed until 1963.

4 Smith later mentioned using gunite on the building, which would have worked well to fill the gap between the concrete wall and the terra cotta cladding.

5 Sonoma County Courthouse Inc. was founded to solicit about $5 million from private individuals to pay for the estimated $4.5 million cost of the building, which would be leased to the county for about $350k/mo for twenty years.
Image courtesy Larry Lepeere collection
Image courtesy Larry Lepeere collection

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santachernobyl

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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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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