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IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead, Trione and his company built offices, banks and government buildings (which, I imagine, few of us have ever had reason to visit). The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base.

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

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

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

NEXT: THE TWO COURTHOUSE SQUARES

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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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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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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