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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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 (Series Index)

“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.


THE REDEVELOPMENT SERIES

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

 

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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