Santa Rosa is tinkering with Fourth street again, hoping to keep its moribund business district from completely withering away during the Age of Coronavirus. The latest effort is to close off traffic on the 500 and 700 blocks (but not the 600 block), allowing restaurants and bars to setup more outside tables. The city will keep the blocks closed at least until January 31, 2021 but according to the PD, over 70% of the businesses on those blocks want the street closure to be permanent.
Go back about four decades, however, and tell people that Santa Rosa was going to block cars from Fourth street in 2020 and expect surprised reactions – because they would have expected the city had already done that.
Our story begins almost exactly 45 years ago in 1975, as the City Council clears the last major obstacle to final planning for the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall. The city would allow the developer to sink Third street so part of the shopping center could be built above it while lower Fifth street and A street would be folded into the mall plans. The matter of a Fourth street passageway between B street and Railroad Square was still unsettled – that’s a major story by itself and will be handled in a future article.
As much of the money to pay for that would come from the federal government, the Housing and Urban Development Dept. (HUD) had to give its blessing to the project. Its report from earlier that same year declared the mall would be generally a good thing for Santa Rosa, but there was concern that having it downtown could suck the life out of the existing business district: “…the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place.”
To mitigate those concerns, the city and the Downtown Development Association – DDA to its friends – hired a respected San Francisco urban planning company, EDAW Inc. Their mission was to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage” between the mall and the downtown core. So once again it was time to play Let’s Redesign Downtown – that ever-popular game in the 1960s that had enriched many out-of-town consultants. (Those layouts were discussed here in the series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”)
Given what they had to work with, their redesign was innovative. Like earlier plans there was an emphasis on streetscaping with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). There was far more parking than we have today and it envisioned a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores.
But the highlight was turning Fourth street into a “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for the people mover. Riley street would also become pedestrian only.
Another unique feature was the absence of traffic lights, which were only found where Mendocino ave. and D street crossed Fourth. There was also a pedestrian bridge across B street, linking the presumed entrance to the mall with Fourth street. Otherwise, traffic flow was completely controlled by roundabouts. The plan further placed an emphasis on preserving and restoring heritage buildings.
The cost for all this would have been $2.7M and during the 1977 presentation, raising that financing didn’t seem to be a worry. Thus: In sum it was a practical and affordable design which would have greatly perked up the old downtown without much disruption (no major realignments of streets or utilities) and might have helped keep the business district competitive, no matter what temptations the future mall might fling at shoppers. The downtown property owners particularly loved the semi-mall and most signed a petition to tax themselves via a special assessment district to help pay for it (the major holdout was the telephone company).
Spoiler alert: Absolutely none of that happened.
While the semi-mall and the rest of the plan remained popular with enthusiastic backing from DDA members, its chances of being built began to slip away with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which shut off city funding – it would have died right there, if not for a ray of hope thanks to Santa Rosa getting a windfall $40M due to Pacific Telephone’s expansion. By 1979 the inflation cost was now $3.3M and some merchants had turned into naysayers, griping that closing Fourth street would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. The death sentence came in 1980, when semi-mall came to just mean there would be wider sidewalks because the street was being narrowed to two lanes. Fourth could sometimes be closed for street sales or other special events. And that’s what we still have today.
The Santa Rosa Plaza opened in 1982, and it didn’t take long for downtown merchants to realize they would not be riding its coat tails to prosperity. The city had given the developer everything he demanded and the downtown ended up with less than nothing, given that Railroad Square was now isolated on the wrong side of the Great Wall of B Street.
In 1988 the City Council hired consultants and formed committees “to figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place” and the Press Democrat invited five architects to come up with ideas. Some of the plans weren’t very functional (yes, we really needed an underground art gallery) but Joel DeSilva came up with an innovative design that embraced and enhanced Rapp’s meandering Fourth street. As described in the PD, he thought “parks are the way to invite people into the downtown:”
…He starts with a miniature, tree-lined lake at the entrance of the mall on B Street. The lake feeds a creek that meanders the length of Fourth Street (which he closes to traffic) as far as the library on E Street. There are benches and little restaurants with outdoor eating space along the creek. “There has to be something to draw people out of the plaza and down to the rest of downtown. Something impulsive. You see something there and it looks interesting,” DeSilva said.
DeSilva also followed Rapp in placing a walkway over B Street from the Plaza, as well as a covered skywalk overlooking Courthouse Square.
No mention of Fourth street in the 1970s is complete without talking about cruising, which was either innocent fun or a sure sign that Santa Rosa had gone to wrack and ruin. (I polled a few friends who were here back in the day and FWIW all remembered it as the former, and were shocked when I read some of the details reported in the Press Democrat.) But cruising was intertwined with the semi-mall story, and likely was a big part of the reason the design was abandoned.
Cruising began here c. 1963, with the first letter-to-the-ed in the Press Democrat complaining about youths “tooling Fourth street” in 1965. By the end of the decade it was both Friday and Saturday nights, drawing 200-500 kids each evening. The street was so jammed that sometimes only two cars were able to crawl through a green light.
In 1970 the PD ran a titillating series, “Santa Rosa After Dark” (topless go-go girls at the Stone House, “the home of dirty ankle sex in Santa Rosa”!) that described a scene very much like the movie American Graffiti – which would be partially filmed in Petaluma two years later. It was mainly bored kids who said they were there only because there was nothing else to do in Santa Rosa, so why not watch the street-rod parade while hanging out with the gang and guzzling beer. Written by Dick Torkelson, the colorful prose in the series is best read while imagining the voice of Dragnet’s Joe Friday:
…It’s the scene for the raked rears, the big meats, the high springs, the throaty burble of the glass-pack mufflers. It’s where the Chrysler hemis sometimes vie with the Goats as they call the GTO’s. It’s where the Mustang 390’s and the 428’s snort to a lead foot…Occasionally two cars will pull to a stop, the drivers glance across, size each other up and down like two roosters in a pit. The sign changes and one will hit it in low, lay just a blip of rubber, then ease off. Then the other will nip it, down hard, then up. Just a hint of what there is…
Every year the situation grew more concerning. In April 1977 – just three months after Charlie Rapp made the semi-mall presentation to the DDA – the police barricaded downtown Fourth street for the first time. They soon found out that was a mistake: The action just moved to more residential streets, particularly Summerfield Road with the kids hanging out in the Howarth Park parking lot.
That summer there were about 1,800 arrests and citations, most related to alcohol and particularly underage drinking. Also on the police blotter were cruising while drunk, urinating in public, fighting, noise (cruising involved lots’a honking at friends), hurling bottles, graffiti, smashing store windows, possession of illegal weapons (including sawed-off shotguns) and 18 cases of stolen cars. Driving a stolen car in a parade being heavily monitored by cops deserves its own category in the Darwin Awards.
Costs for policing all this were adding up. By the time the police tried closing the street the city was paying an extra $3,000 every weekend (nearly $13k today), mainly in police overtime. The City Council approved hiring three more officers and purchasing a new patrol car. By Thanksgiving of 1977 there were 21 officers on patrol during Friday and Saturday nights to book up to 50 arrests and write 100 citations.
The crackdown also included new city ordinances. A ban on left u-turns on Fourth during cruise nights proved to be a really dumb idea because the cruisers just used residential cross streets to turn around instead. The City Council added a prohibition on “pandemoniac vehicles” (squealing tires, an ordinance still on the books – sideshow haters, take note). At first the Council balked at restricting Friday and Saturday street parking on the downtown blocks of Fourth, but finally enacted a ban on what Police Chief Sal Rosano quipped were “portable beer dispensing machines.”
But nothing seemed to discourage the partying, which used to wind down around midnight but now went on until 2:30. Prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Fourth street cruising would go on forever and probably get worse.
All that was in the air in 1980, when it came time to decide the fate of the semi-mall. Considering a permanent closure of those blocks to traffic must have now seemed like folly – they had seen how that only moved cruising into the neighborhoods. Keeping the street open but squeezing it into two lanes was a classic technique of “traffic calming” which might (hopefully) discourage cruising through downtown. At least, I presume that was their thinking; nothing about the decision-making was reported at the time. Or who knows? Perhaps the hope was that a narrower Fourth street would give downtown more of its pre-1906 earthquake look, matching the ersatz cobblestones that used to rattle your teeth while driving through Courthouse Square.
Downtown Fourth was closed for six months as the work was done, and sure enough, the police fielded more calls about raucous street parties in residential areas. The PD had a later story that some local cruisers went down to Petaluma to check out the parade on Petaluma Boulevard, but the scene felt too alien. “They were all wearing cowboy hats,” a cruiser said.
When Fourth reopened in November, 1981 there were still police barricades on Friday and Saturday nights, but to the surprise of everyone, very few cruisers showed up – cruising “disappeared just entirely when Fourth Street closed for the mall [construction],” Police Captain Sanderson told the PD in March 1982.
What killed off cruising? More than anything else it was video games.
Video arcades and home game consoles were becoming the rage in later 1981 and exploded in popularity in 1982. Seemingly overnight arcades were everywhere; Aladdin’s Castle in the Plaza was the largest with sixty games, but a machine or three could be found in barbershops, hardware stores and coffee shops. Restaurants cleared out mop closets to make room for Frogger and Donkey Kong. The Safeway on Mendocino Ave. not only had a row of arcade games by the bathrooms but shoppers could pick up an Atari and a few game cartridges as well.
Santa Rosa’s history in the 20th century was marked by a long series of unfortunate planning decisions, and abandoning the “meandering semi-mall” is high among them. Yet it makes for an unusual Believe-it-or-Not! question to ponder: Would it have been built if only the final decision was made a year later, or Pac Man came around a year earlier?