Santa Rosa’s downtown was in big trouble during the 1980s, and it wasn’t very long before I began to view the story as a murder mystery. This was an unexpected offshoot of my research on the creation of the downtown mall, which culminated in the “Road to the Mall” series that just wrapped up. From personal memory I recalled the years following the mall’s debut were tough on businesses in the downtown core and in Railroad Square – but only after paging through back issues of the Press Democrat did I come to understand how bad it was. By the end of the 1980s, it appeared Santa Rosa’s downtown was not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.














Places we thought would never, ever close were shutting down with frightening regularity. The White House Department Store at Third and D Streets closed in 1985. They had constructed a cavernous 25,000 sq. ft. building and moved in only sixteen years earlier. The downtown McDonald’s had a prime location just two doors down from Exchange Bank and it closed in 1986. Note to city planners: If you have a fast food restaurant that depends on lots of foot traffic and it fails because of a lack of customers, that’s a pretty good sign your sidewalks don’t have enough feet.

The PD conducted a 1986 survey asking people why they came downtown, comparing it to an identical survey conducted in 1983. In almost every category – shopping, dining and convenience – the numbers declined sharply. The only response where downtown showed an uptick was when asked if they agreed with “[I] like downtown because of Rosenberg’s.” Two years later in 1988, Rosenberg’s closed.

Since downtown began circling the drain soon after the mall opened, it seemed easy to connect the two events directly. And there’s some data to support that view, according to a 1987 PD report.1 Between 1983-1986 Santa Rosa was attracting a growing number of shoppers but the downtown wasn’t seeing any benefit. After a rocky first year, sales at the mall grew ten percent annually while sales downtown remained flat – by 1986, the mall was pulling in 3x more. When the lights finally went out at Rosenberg’s, about a quarter of downtown’s retail space was now vacant.

This makes it tempting to blame all those woes just on the mall and particularly its developer Ernest Hahn, painting him as a real estate sharpie who conned the yokels into gambling away their town’s future. And there’s a germ of truth to that; Hahn probably knew as much about malls as anyone in the world, having built 26 shopping centers by the time ours opened, with another 29 in the works. Hahn also knew the impact a mall could have on a community; he acknowledged in a 1975 PD interview his malls – usually built in suburbs or on unincorporated land – could contribute to the collapse of nearby downtowns.

Perhaps if this really were a whodunnit, Hahn would be a classic suspect. He was the last person you would ever imagine of resorting to a salesman’s subterfuge; he was a grandfatherly man with twinkly eyes and a broad grin who gave generously to charities. (There’s even a statue of him in a San Diego park!) Agatha Christie might have used him as a model for the murderer nobody would ever consider – perhaps a kindly vicar who turned out to be poisoning village widows in order to steal their commemorative plates.

But in Santa Rosa, Hahn wouldn’t even need to exercise his skills at back-slapping salesmanship. Here, we had a redevelopment director whose résumé consisted of urban renewal projects from the 1960s and who touted the mall as something like an upgrade to Santa Rosa Downtown version 2.0. Hahn found a remarkably pliant city government eager to rubber stamp his plans without question – and even save him money by helping with construction and giving him financial subsidies. Here also was a business community that eagerly welcomed his advent, believing a mega-mall would improve their own lot (go figure).

So the answer to “who killed downtown” was that it was a collaboration between the developer, city hall, and downtown interests. They all done it – even though there were many Cassandras along the way who warned it would not turn out well.

The point of this article is not to retread ground from the “Road to the Mall” series but to take a fresh look at the crime scene, particularly in light of an excellent PD report that came out in 1987, five years after the mall opened. Maybe then we can try to unravel the truly important unanswered question: Why on earth did so many think a downtown mall would be such a good idea? Just as there were three different culprits who participated in the deed, there were three different motives.

DEVELOPER ERNEST HAHN was at the 1982 grand opening of the mall, where the Press Democrat reported he had “a feeling of great satisfaction” to have helped restore the heart of downtown Santa Rosa. Assuming reporter Clark Mason quoted him correctly (and there’s no reason he wouldn’t, as the paper was an enthusiastic backer of Hahn and his mall) it was a damned odd thing for him to say.

First, it sounded as if he was accepting our gratitude for having performed a charitable act. Galling as that was, it was a slap in the face to claim he was “restoring” anything; the mall was intended to steal away much of the retail business from Santa Rosa’s downtown core. Hahn’s engineers and architects hoped to achieve that by pulling off quite a magic trick – they would make downtown disappear.

Gentle Reader might recall from way back in chapter one that in the 1960s and 1970s shopping malls were considered key to having a successful metro area. If the one near your town – they were almost never within city limits – was more popular than the one down the road, so much the better; it meant more jobs, more tax revenue and generally a better outlook for your community. And, of course, more stores wanting to rent space from Hahn Inc. or whatever corporation owned the shopping center.

With a Macy’s and a Sears superstore announced early on, the Santa Rosa mall was anticipated to be a regional mega-mall for the entire North Bay. This meant most shoppers would be driving in on highway 101; CalTrans projected the mall would increase traffic by an additional 15,000 vehicles daily, with 20k on Saturdays.2 Even if there was only one person per car, over twice as many shoppers than the entire population of Santa Rosa would be arriving every week.

But here’s the curious thing: Although the official highway exit signs read “Downtown Santa Rosa” there was not even a tiny glimpse of anything downtown to be seen from the offramps.

Try it yourself: Imagine it’s 1984, you live in Novato and want to buy your spouse a nice coat. You’re not familiar with Santa Rosa and at the offramp traffic light there’s a small-ish sign marked “Central Business District” with an arrow pointing east. In that direction all you can see is the Sears passageway over Third Street. Directly ahead, though, there’s a parking garage. The light changes and it’s time to make a quick decision – what do you do? Or maybe you’re coming from the north. The offramp dumps you onto Davis Street and through the highway underpasses on Fifth and Fourth all you can see are the parking garages. In both cases, the shopper’s path of least resistance will likely be to use a mall parking garage. But hey, they could still park there free and walk over to Rosenberg’s or the White House department stores…right?

Perhaps so, if our out-of-town shopper was familiar enough with Santa Rosa to know what stores were downtown and was willing to walk a few blocks. But here was the trap – the parking garages led only to a mall entrance. Gaye LeBaron lamented in a 1987 column about what happened once the shopper was inside:

…Do we remember the repeated suggestions, when it became apparent that a direct walking route [through the mall] was lost, that the mall at least be designed so people could SEE through it. We couldn’t even get that. Hahn moved Mervyns to the middle and jogged the back door south to create a psychological as well as a physical barrier. From either side, there appears to be nothing beyond.

This calculated vanishing act is not a petty complaint. The greatest concern during the planning stages was that the mall would be a world unto itself and not integrated with the downtown core. The authors of the EIR and experts commenting on it specifically warned that was a serious issue (see chapter eight).

More critically, federal regulators let it be known that Santa Rosa and its favorite developer were on notice they better not screw this up. In 1975 HUD worried the mall would hurt Rosenberg’s, Petersen’s, the White House and other downtown stores. It was essential to link the mall with the downtown core, according to a HUD letter: “The land use problem…is that 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.”

Exactly what assurances were given to HUD (if any) are unknown, but they had to keep the regulators happy; the entire mall project hinged on HUD giving a thumbs-up that the “Phase III” area suffered blight. Hahn had made a quiet deal with Sears that they would be able to unload their existing store in that area in exchange for becoming an anchor tenant in the new mall (chapter ten). A blight designation would mean that the city would guarantee to pay Sears market rate for the property. In September of 1975, HUD granted blight certification. After that, little could really be done to stop Hahn’s big project – although the Coddings and several citizen groups continued to try.

THE CITY shares equal blame with Hahn for what the mall wrought – and maybe more so.

It was a project that cried for the need of close oversight. Besides being the largest and most intrusive construction in the town’s history and soaking up millions in public funds, there were also those warnings in the EIR and HUD letter that it would turn into a downtown-killer if we weren’t careful. Instead, the city was in cahoots with Hahn at every step of the way.

Once Hahn appeared on the scene, the “Road to the Mall” series showed they went to remarkable lengths to keep the project moving forward. This included preventing opportunities for critics to speak; not even the city Planning Commission was allowed to say anything concerning planning the mall. They refused to allow a public referendum vote on the shopping center and even called the referendum proposal itself illegal.

“They” are specifically the City Council between 1972 and 1982 along with the Council-appointed Urban Renewal Agency (renamed the Community Development Commission in 1975). Together with Hahn, they operated like a tag team. The way money was shuffled around in those years was dizzying. Hahn made a “good faith” deposit of $500,000 – yet still retained control of how it was spent. The Council gave a $4 million loan to the Commission to use any way they liked. “Road to the Mall” covered further deals that added up to millions, all made without voter approval. An extensive audit would be needed to figure out what really happened and while I have been called many awful things in my life, never has anyone accused me of being a forensic accountant.

They also spent like drunken cowboys on out-of-town consultants, some from as far away as New Jersey. Quality varied wildly; some came up with bold ideas, others seemed to be trying to second-guess what the Council wanted them to say, and a report from a Berkeley firm was so dumb it was unlikely the authors could have found Santa Rosa on a map.

Missing from that steaming pile of consultancy was a risk–benefit analysis, which was essential before launching a major project such as a shopping center. Such a feasibility study typically might take a year or more with a local government hiring the best experts they could afford. Instead of doing that, Santa Rosa asked Ernest Hahn’s team to take a look (chapter four).

Did Hahn’s staff produce an objective analysis? Hard to say, as only selections were released. Whereas a consultant’s work-for-hire would be a public document, the city had entered into “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn. Because of that, James Burns, executive director of the Renewal Agency, told the Press Democrat parts wouldn’t be disclosed “as a matter of procedure.”

Relying upon a developer to write his own evaluation turned out to be a bigger mistake than just asking Mr. Fox to keep an eye on the chicken coop. The redevelopment of the area west of B street started as a federally funded urban renewal project in 1970, in the same mold as other downtown urban renewal projects during the 1960s. But while Hahn’s staff was still working on their feasibility study in early 1973, the Nixon administration first scaled back the program and then cut it altogether. Urban renewal had become synonymous with wasteful government spending for multiple reasons, among them that it mainly helped to enrich wealthy developers like Hahn.

This increased Santa Rosa’s risk enormously, should we continue to pursue the mall project. Considering the city would now be expected to come up with at least $4.25 million – about $29M in today’s dollars – surely impartial advisors would have suggested the City Council take a hard look at whether they really wanted to proceed.

But proceed we did, of course. Working from best-case scenarios, director Burns promised the money could be raised through selling bonds, diverting taxes and scrounging credits from other federal programs (read the interview with him in the Sept. 2, 1973 PD for a master class in hand waving and hoop jumping). Why, things would be going so well the profits would pay for a 2,500 seat performing arts theater and major convention facility which the public actually wanted.

THE BOOSTERS were the downtown businesses and Old Guard community leaders who believed in the 1970s the future mall would actually benefit downtown. In the 1980s some came to understand they had made a terrible mistake – although others thought things were just going swell.

“Santa Rosa has to take a good hard look at having a mall that divides the town,” restauranteur Lisa Hemenway told the PD in 1987. Her Railroad Square retro-1950s restaurant Polka Dots had just closed because of poor business, and she commented it was because the mall sliced downtown into three sections that didn’t interact with each other.

Yet that same year a downtown über-booster insisted everything was fine because Santa Rosa showed foresight by building a mall on prime downtown real estate. “We are the envy of most cities in the state of California.”

The Press Democrat identified fourteen men as leaders on efforts to boost the downtown core during those decades.3 One of them was PD editor Art Volkerts which is ironic – during his editorial tenure, the newspaper was such a cheerleader for constructing the mall it could be considered in its own right as one of the main players responsible for the decay of downtown’s prospects. Their newsroom had a stable of top-notch reporters, particularly Paul Ingalls, John Adams and George Manes, who did a fine job covering all sides of the complex story as it developed. But never did the paper ask follow-up questions, such as naming sources used by the city for its increasingly delusional predictions of how much income the mall would produce. And when it came out that Hahn was making a deal with Sears on behalf of the city even before he became the chosen developer for the mall (chapter ten), the PD should have been calling for a Grand Jury investigation. In olden days, an editor would have ordered the composing room staff to dust off the screaming 80 pt. Franklin Gothic type reserved for doomsday headlines.

With 250-odd members, the Downtown Development Association (DDA) represented a coalition of merchants, bankers, restauranteurs and what have you. For such a disparate group they usually spoke with a surprisingly unified voice, and what they said was “we welcome the mall.” At a 1978 luncheon, 85 percent of the membership were not concerned about what impact it would have on the downtown area.

One reason was because they had plans for a redesigned downtown that was pretty inviting; Fourth Street would become a pedestrian “semi-mall” with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). Sadly, their optimism was misplaced if they thought that was enough to draw shoppers away from the mall. It appears they expected Macy’s would be like a stand-alone store with a main exit onto B Street – unaware modern shopping centers were designed like labyrinths, making it an effort for people to find a way out (except to the parking garage). This came up at the luncheon, where the speaker warned DDA members that malls were “not designed to have a spill-over effect.” At the same event the manager of Rosenberg’s showed naïveté by insisting traffic bottlenecks at the Third Street highway onramp would encourage out-of-towners to linger here and shop more.

Had the DDA stayed the course and built the semi-mall, it’s easy to imagine downtown would have become a vibrant place and be so today. (In my personal opinion, this was key failure that undercut downtown’s future.) And if they had strongly opposed mall construction – or simply expressed serious concerns – it wouldn’t have stopped the project, but the group might have won some concessions. As it was, the plans for the semi-mall were abandoned the following year after some merchants griped that closing Fourth street to traffic would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. So much for their “all for one and one for all” alliance.

Scoot forward to 1987, five years after the mall opened. The White House Department Store is gone, soon to be followed by Rosenberg’s. Downtown now has seventeen banks and savings & loans, which a consultant called “unheard of” for a town that size.

That was not a bad thing in the view of Sharon Wright, former head of the DDA. She told the Press Democrat merchants need to adapt and “cater to the 8,000 to 10,000 people that work downtown every day.”

Her opinion invited snorts of derision and drop-jawed disbelief. Nell Codding asked the PD, “How often would you go downtown if you didn’t work there?” A councilman remarked, “office workers [alone] cannot be expected to support the businesses downtown.”

To figure out what was needed to fix downtown – ignoring that we already had that decade old plan with a pedestrian semi-mall – the City Council hired yet another out-of-town consulting firm. These experts took notice that the downtown core was now dominated by banks and office buildings and decided what we really needed to do was to… wait for it, wait for it… double the amount of office space. Oh, it would be okay to add more small stores in Railroad Square, but only lots of new office buildings (up to ten stories high) would rescue downtown. And we should start by tearing down Rosenberg’s store. Good grief.

THE CODDINGS and Bill Smith, attorney for Codding Enterprises, also played key roles in an unexpected way: By committing the heresy of questioning the city’s efforts to ramrod through the mall project, they slowly drove the true believers nuts.

(For those who need a refresher: Hugh Codding was the earliest and most persistent critic. He hoped to block it because he planned to build his own mega-mall, “Coddingland,” west of the freeway in Rohnert Park. He also wanted to buy and redevelop the area that would be used by the mall, intending to build what the town planned to do before Hahn came along; there would have been a performance/convention center, a hotel and a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Over the years he filed ten lawsuits and financed five more in whole or in part, according to the Press Democrat.)

Chapter five, “MR. CODDING HAS SOME OBJECTIONS,” covers the early years of the Codding’s opposition, but nearly every chapter afterward shows them uncovering further eye-opening details.

Initially the Council and Renewal Agency just stonewalled Smith’s requests to see a document or memo. Oh, it will be made available soon; oh, we can’t divulge that because it is part of our “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn; oh, call our San Francisco attorney and ask him (spoiler alert: The lawyer wouldn’t take his calls).

Smith apparently raised questions or made objections at every Council or Renewal Agency meeting regarding the mall. Sometimes the officials were evasive or refused to say anything; Agency Director James K. Burns said he wouldn’t answer Smith’s questions “because one question would have led to another question and another, and another.” At other times the sessions devolved into what a PD reporter termed as “bitter shouting matches.”

Reading the newspaper stories about those doings today, now that about fifty years have passed, it’s shocking to follow along as they transformed Hugh Codding into a super villain. They saw his invisible hand behind everything that went amiss on the mall project; when citizen’s groups filed their own lawsuits, Codding had to be secretly paying the activists to do it. When the city couldn’t get a bank loan for the project, it was only because the Codding lawsuits had spooked the lenders – not that the bankers, who by nature are extremely risk adverse, might not have been willing to underwrite a project based on the old and discredited urban renewal paradigm. When the Ford dealership sued over the city breaking its promise to help with relocation costs, the Council debated how they could blame it on Codding. They remained incredibly petty even after the mall fight was over, as when the City Council passed an ordinance to stop the Coddingtown sign from turning.4

Not that the Coddings and Smith were angels themselves, however. Although they never prevailed in court with any of their mall-related lawsuits, you still expected a Codding suit to have merit and would be based on the city actually doing something hinky. The single exception was Codding’s 1975 conflicts of interest charges.

After apparently failing to get the Grand Jury to take the bait, a suit claimed three members of the URA would benefit from construction of the mall. A store on B Street directly across from the mall was partly owned by an Agency member and another worked at a bank on the same block. There was limited parking on B so the suit made the assumption their customers would use the mall parking garages. The third accused member was an insurance agent who handled a policy for one of the owners of the Bishop-Hansel Ford dealership which was in the redevelopment project area.

Others swept up over alleged conflicts included a Councilman who had an interest in a restaurant on the “fringe” of the redevelopment area and another City Council member who was a former Exchange Bank director – his supposed conflict was the bank planned to put an ATM in the mall.

It came across as a cheap ad hominem attack, even more so when Codding’s lawyer rehashed some of the charges in the following years after the suit was dismissed. Still today, however, there are echoes of this theme found on unsocial media. In comments on this series it’s regularly opined there had to be corruption of some sort, although there was never even a hint that something like that happened.

Compiling the list of WHO killed downtown Santa Rosa presents no special challenge, and the motives of the culprits were just as obvious – they shared a misguided certainty that a downtown mega-mall would usher in mega prosperity.

But the question that continued to vex me was how the mall project made it all the way through to the finish line. Santa Rosa was not known for proceeding expeditiously; it took six years for the city to get around to constructing a new main library building. Closer to hand was the example of the semi-mall. While the concept was was widely admired, the city dithered for two years – then finally dropped the plan because the (proverbial) guy who owned a shoe store threw a fit over losing a couple of parking spots.

Yet against those poor odds, the mall project was never in doubt and kept plowing forward for ten years. Pro-mall backers maintained unwavering support – at all costs, the mall must prevail. When troubling issues arose, asking Hahn to compromise was never an option; they sought to discredit critics instead. Although the Coddings were the first targets, their enemy list grew in tandem with mounting public opposition into a full-blown siege mentality.

That was the gist of comments from Derek Simmons which appeared in the Press Democrat April 3, 1980. Although brief, these are probably the most insightful observations on the mall’s development history.

A former city attorney, Simmons was speaking on behalf of the reelection of Jerry Wilhelm, the only mall skeptic on City Council. He said City Hall had an “us verses them” attitude and since Wilhelm was considered “them,” information was not shared with him.

Nobody in city management was evil or incompetent, Simmons assured, but lack of leadership from the City Council and the high competency of City Manager Kenneth Blackman led to policymaking by bureaucracy. “It was at this point in history, when the City Manager stepped in to fill the vacuum, that the City Council and City Manager roles got reversed,” he explained.

The PD quoted him as saying the desire to defend City Hall led to a siege mentality that put a priority on secrecy:

The public is made up of enemies and friends. Friends do not need information to support you. Enemies do need information to oppose you. Information given to the public will be used by your enemies, so don’t give out any information to the public.

That neatly sums up the entire downtown mall project. A blanket of secrecy smothered everything even before the project started. Why was Hahn so quickly granted approval, and why was he allegedly negotiating deals even before then? The public didn’t see a layout of the mall after early designs; we had to take the word of City Hall and Renewal Agency that it wouldn’t cutoff Railroad Square from downtown. And voters were not only blocked from expressing their opinions on whether the project was a good use of public money, they couldn’t even collect signatures on petitions to vote on it.

Any way you look at it, those were sad, dark years in Santa Rosa’s history. And we’ll have to keep living in its backwash for many years to come. Many.

A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE: This wraps the “Road to the Mall” series which runs to 41,000 words, including this whodunnit epilogue. It’s taken seven months just to write up; it’s the longest original research project I’ve ever tackled, even bypassing my series on the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake. Over four years I made clips or took notes on 287 Press Democrat articles and poured over documents from the city, particularly the three volume EIR.

I apologize to subscribers for spending so much time on this single issue – I recognize most people aren’t as interested in urban planning SNAFUs as I am. Still, this is a very important chapter in Santa Rosa history and no one else has done a deep dive into the story, so I don’t regret putting in the work.

I also apologize for not writing more about these events. There were some very interesting side streets I did not travel down, such as the 1975 efforts to recall the entire City Council. Then there’s the scandal of what was happening in South Park at the same time, which deserves a series of its own – after the city used urban renewal money to fix the streets and make other improvements to Santa Rosa’s poorest neighborhood, real estate investors swooped down and in less than six months a third of the community was forced out.

My hope is that someday the whole wretched story of what happened here in the 1970s will be told. Perhaps there’s a PhD candidate looking for a dissertation topic, or a tireless author willing to see what secrets lie inside that room down at City Hall filled with unlabeled, unindexed boxes from those times.

The Santa Rosa urban renewal debacle would make a fitting bookend on a shelf that begins with Jane Jacobs’ 1961 landmark study on the utter failure of urban renewal policies, “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Her ideas were accepted as orthodoxy by the time we started tearing down everything west of B Street and planning for a shopping mall. Even the government recognized this – recall the Nixon Administration flagged they were ending the urban renewal program in 1973, just as Hahn and the city’s Renewal Agency began getting cozy.

But in Santa Rosa, accepted wisdom and best practices be damned; we instead dusted off our dog-eared copy of the urban renewal playbook. Maybe we should drop the official motto of “the city designed for living” and change it to “Here we knew what not to do, yet we did it anyway.”


1 The “PD report” mentioned here several times refers to a Press Democrat series written by Robert Digitale and Dick Phillips which provided an invaluable look at downtown business conditions in the mid-1980s. The first part, “Downtown’s Future,” appeared May 3, 1987 with an equally interesting analysis of “Who Owns Downtown” published the following day.

2 December 1973 DEIR Volume 2, pp. 137-139 (II-127 – II-129). I am unable to find traffic numbers from right after the mall opened, but as discussed in chapter eight, CalTrans underestimated the impact on the highway by predicting it would only bump traffic by ten percent. According to a 1985 summary in the Press Democrat, the increase was closer to 30-40 percent.

3 “From the beginning, there was a core of downtown business people who worked on plans to renovate the area including Obert Pedersen, Fred Rosenberg, Bill McNeany, Chet Andrews, Elwin Hardisty, Clark Mailer, Ken Brown, John Downey, Ed Healey, Tom Cox, Art Volkerts, Jerry Poznanovitch, Jack Ryerson and Cal Caulkins.” – Press Democrat, Nov. 18, 1981

4 In 1983 the City Council considered an ordinance against rotating signs, although the only such sign in Santa Rosa was the one for Coddingtown mall. The ordinance passed in 1985. There was some debate over the following years as to whether stopping the sign was a good idea, over worries that seeing just the “Codding” or “Town” side might confuse visitors. The Council ordered the sign removed which Hugh Codding refused to do, instead briefly resuming the rotation at various times. Letters written to the PD suggest some came to view Codding as something of a rebellious folk hero because of that. Finally in 1993 the Cultural Heritage Board designated the sign a historic landmark and the Council ruled it was exempt from the ordinance.

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It was a grandest day, to hear the dignitaries tell it.

“It’s a day of celebration and a day of tribute,” said Mayor Bill Barone. “We as citizens can be very proud of what we’ve accomplished and of what we see because we’ve done it all together.” Other notables called it “fantastic” and “a very joyous occasion.” They all wore flowers on their lapels, pinned there by performers wearing tuxedos and top hats. The Santa Rosa High School marching band played the Rocky theme song and oddly, the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat” background music from ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

This was happening at the 1982 ribbon-cutting for the mall, which the mayor crowed was “the new heart of our city.”

Mall developer Ernest Hahn was also on hand and said he was gratified by all those who supported the project “through thick and thin.” The shopping center was going to provide 2,000 permanent new jobs with an annual payroll of $20 million. Oh, sure, only about sixty of the 130 spaces were actually leased at the time, but by the end of the year he expected full occupancy.

What a difference a year makes. In early January 1983 – roughly 300 days since the grand opening – Hahn Inc. sold the mall. Over half the spaces were never rented, and after a lousy Christmas shopping season prospects grew even dimmer as eight tenants moved out.

The Press Democrat had printed countless front page articles and feature spreads cheering for Hahn and portraying the mall as a no-risk road to riches while damning Hugh Codding and other skeptics. Yet when the end came, the PD buried the bombshell story of Hahn’s hasty departure in a 500-word item on page eight of a mid-week edition.1

Hahn wasn’t the only player in Santa Rosa’s urban renewal melodrama about to leave the stage. A few months later, James K. Burns, long the executive director of our redevelopment agency, announced he was leaving to take another job. Burns – who had recommended Hahn – was the the PD’s go-to guy for making grandiose predictions about all the money the mall would bring in, particularly his confident assertion that every month of delay in construction was costing the city $100,000.2

Even though prospects for the mall slowly perked up over the course of 1983, it was still far from meeting expectations. That surely was giving some in the city night sweats because there were millions of dollars in bond and loan obligations which were planned to be serviced by all the great income that was supposed to be pouring in from the mall.

I’ve never found an overview of those debts in the paper, but guesstimate it was around $9 million – and that’s not counting the $2.3M still being paid back for the Fourth Street Mall that flopped. Don’t remember that boondoggle? Read on.

An earlier article, “POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET,” touched on the Fourth Street Mall, mainly showing and discussing some of the proposed layouts. I’ve culled some of that material here to maintain this thread about the mall’s impact. That earlier article also includes a history of cruising on Fourth Street.

(Here’s also a reminder this is all part of a broader series on Santa Rosa redevelopment: “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” which includes an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s. This is the eleventh chapter of the series just about the downtown mall.)

It was first called the Fourth Street Semi-Mall and the concept predates Hahn’s appearance in town, going all the way back to 1963 when there was a proposal to remove all parking on Fourth between Mendocino Ave. and the highway. (So much for the city’s notion in the 1970s that everything west of B Street was urban blight that absolutely had to be demolished.) Later in the 1960s the concept of turning Fourth into a “meandering street” was mentioned among several spitballed ideas. Others included making most downtown streets one way and flowing counter-clockwise (Third to D to Fifth to B), a mammoth parking garage for 6,000 cars (!!) or a very large, very Hahn-like regional shopping center.

The concept didn’t have much traction until 1975, which was the year City Council gave Hahn everything on his wishlist and the mall project seemed unstoppable. But to get federal approval – as well as federal money – HUD had to give it a green light. Which they did, but only after being given assurances the mall would be (somehow) tied into the downtown core. So the city joined with the Downtown Development Association (DDA) and hired San Francisco consultants to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage.”

The plan they came up with was innovative. Fourth street became a pedestrian “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores. There were no traffic lights except where Mendocino 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. There would be lots of trees and benches, a water fountain attraction and a clock tower.

1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street "semi-mall" shown in green
1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street “semi-mall” shown in green

A $3.1 million budget was developed but come 1978 many presumed the project was dead. Fourth Street merchants didn’t want to lose parking spaces in front of their store and the expected passage of Prop. 13 would cut off property tax money that was planned to pay for it. At a DDA meeting held on the eve of the vote, the mood was grim. “I was told yesterday my attending this meeting tonight was a bit like kicking a dead horse,” a member of the city’s Redevelopment Agency told the PD.

The Downtown Design Plan limped on, albeit greatly changed. A creative financing scheme increased the budget to $3.9 million; of that $1.5M would come from the Redevelopment Agency, $1.6M via a special assessment district on downtown businesses for 15 years, and the rest through bonds.

But thrown away was everything nice in the proposed design. The clock tower was gone: Too expensive. The water feature – intended to be a meeting space – was scaled back to an uninviting modernist fountain which would have been insulting to an office park.3 Instead of human scale magnolia and plum trees, redwoods would loom over the street. Even though sidewalks were wider on some blocks the downtown would still be car-centric because the merchants got to keep those precious parking spots right in front of their stores. And to make it even less pedestrian friendly, they nixed the benches. Why? Because merchants didn’t want anyone loitering instead of shopping.

There were problems with vagrants hanging out downtown (bet you didn’t see that coming) and Police Chief Sal Rosano told the PD that city officials wanted “some control” over people who were a “nuisance and intimidate others.” But it wasn’t just the homeless whom city officials and merchants want to eject – it was people waiting for a bus.

When the city split Courthouse Square in the middle to create a four lane thoroughfare in 1966, turnouts were included specifically to act as bus stops. City Manager Ken Blackman commented that had turned the Square from a quiet park into a “bus terminal.”

Now, one might think the merchants would welcome all that foot traffic next door; a 1983 PD article quoted a Cotati woman saying, “if you miss a bus you can walk around and window-shop.” But the Chamber of Commerce director told the paper that bus stops must be moved in order to reduce the number of loiterers like her. “Anything that would potentially solve that problem” deserved consideration, he said. (Raise your hand if you’re wondering if there just may be a racist angle to this part of the story.)

That article was the first to report the city was considering turning a section of Second Street into the transit mall, which they finally accomplished in 1987. Although only a block from Courthouse Square it’s a world apart – a grim concrete canyon where not a soul would choose to loiter.

But even ridding Courthouse Square of undesirables who relied on public transit was not enough to breathe life into our moribund downtown. By the time the transit mall opened, fourteen percent of the available retail space was vacant. “No question about it, it looks like a disaster,” a commercial real estate broker told the PD. Planning Commission Chair “Tux” Tuxhorn thought downtown “seems to be dying a slow death.”

A lack of parking and traffic issues were named as problems, but John Lissberger, landlord of several downtown stores, pointed out those were solvable problems. Not so easy to fix was the main cause for complaint: “The mall has been a disaster for downtown.” A realtor (who understandably didn’t want their name used) told the paper, “The mall is closed in. No windows. It looks like a fortress. No one who shops there shops anywhere else. They park, shop and go home.” Funny, that’s exactly one of the things nay-sayers warned about before mall construction even began.

So also in 1987 the City Council paid out-of-town consultants $125,000 and appointed a 25-member citizen committee to create a Downtown Core Area Plan. Hopefully they could “figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place.” Oh, if only had the captain of the Titanic shown such boldness after striking that iceberg.

At the first public workshop about fifty speakers were eager to say what they wanted downtown. To no surprise, it was what Santa Rosans had been variously asking for over the previous 20-something years. They wanted a performing arts center, a children’s playground, a mix of residential and commercial buildings and a better transit system. Wilder suggestions included a “European-like promenade” and “skyways that would link the Santa Rosa Plaza with downtown businesses and Railroad Square,” according to the PD.

The irrepressible Bill Zane attended these workshops and as he wrote in a letter to the editor, came away unimpressed by the consultant’s presentations:

…A competent technical job, but one which does not approach the imaginative and overlooks the obvious. Santa Rosa’s soul remains thematically amorphous despite Luther’s historical roses, giant Redwood trees, wine country, California weather and Tommy Smothers. With this kind of flair, we could become the Gateway to Windsor. Come on, CACC, go for it! Put yourselves into the history books. Build the “Promenade,” dome the streets, provide for the world’s finest rose garden, live the fantasy. Any fantasy. Combine fantasies. If you do it well enough, the rest of the state/country will come here to visit and we’ll all profit by it.

But the Press Democrat balanced such calls for revolution and the wails of gloomsters by tapping local bigwigs for assurances all was well. Sure, there might be some tweaks to improve traffic and parking but downtown was going to rebound on its own, probably within the next year. “Downtown is a city in transition,” said an executive at a top real estate firm, promising good days were indeed ahead.

When the 75-page draft report was released in April, 1988 it became shockingly clear the consultants hadn’t listened to anyone, including the citizen committee. What they recommended was so absurd it’s hard to believe they saw anything in Santa Rosa other than the view from their car windows as they drove from the freeway exit to the city hall parking lot.

They wrote downtown should be more pedestrian friendly – all well and good, except most of those people would be walking to or from the office. The report called for adding nearly 600,000 square feet of more office space in buildings up to ten stories; it was crucial “to maintain the city’s position as the leading office and financial center north of the Bay Area,” as the PD summarized it.

As for retail, the consultants envisioned more small stores in Railroad Square (professional offices were also an option), shops on the east side of B Street across from the mall (PD: “the project would require cooperation from Plaza owners, the report noted”) and tearing down Rosenberg’s store (now Barnes and Noble) and replacing it with “one or more stores” and two office buildings. Mendocino Avenue from Seventh to Cherry Streets would become the cultural district with theaters and art galleries – although an “office cluster servicing professional tenants” would also be cool.

Members of the citizen committee erupted in anger. They were given only one look at the draft before it would be sent to City Council. There were major recommendations in the report which had never been discussed by the committee, such as highrise office towers. The committee wanted apartment buildings, but housing was not even mentioned in the report.

Architect Bill Knight blamed City Council as much as the consultants. He told Gaye LeBaron it was short-sighted to limit the study just to what improvements could be made before the year 2000:

I’m disappointed. We looked to the consultants for something we hadn’t seen, because maybe we’re too close. We kept challenging them to tell us, to bring us visions, to open our horizons. We didn’t get any great ideas. Things we talked about a lot, like residential development, got thrown out because they said they wouldn’t work. Not why. Just ‘It won’t work.’ We wanted them to show us ways to make it work. I think this is direction from the council. They have hamstrung the consultants by asking for a study for the next 12 years. They want what is practical and technical within the next 12 years. But 12 years is just a step.

As committee chairman Knight took the initiative and called members back together and formed them into subcommittees. Over the following six months they would scrutinize the draft report with the consultant’s team, going over it line by line.

While that was going on, the Press Democrat invited five local architects to “design a dream for Santa Rosa” – something beautiful, functional and fun, price being no object. Sure, what they came up with was impractical and would have never been seriously considered, but all were every bit as exciting as Cal Caulkins’ 1945 downtown redesign plans (see “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN“).

My personal favorite redesign came from Joel DeSilva, who took the “meandering semi-mall” concept from a dozen years before and turned Fourth Street into a park, complete with an artificial waterway. 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.
Joel DeSilva's 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek
Joel DeSilva’s 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek

Bill Knight put a second story over Courthouse Square, with a cut-out in the middle through which water cascaded from a 2½ story high waterfall down to a ground level park. He continued the raised walkway theme with a two story enclosed arcade above Fourth. It started next to the Square, passed above B Street and connected to the mall via its second floor.

But the award for the boldest design should go to Don Tomasi, who put a glass-covered promenade from B Street all the way to Railroad Square – the 24/7 passageway through the mall that so many foolishly believed Hahn intended to provide. That it shielded pedestrians from the freeway noise and exhaust from parking garages gets him even more bonus points.

Don Tomasi 1988 design for a promenade through the mall going from B Street to Railroad Square
Don Tomasi 1988 design for a promenade through the mall going from B Street to Railroad Square

Towards the end of the year – after nearly sixteen months of meetings – the committee turned in their version of the report. According to the PD, their version of the plan “…included recommendations for the greening of Santa Rosa Creek with a trail and bike path, building affordable housing downtown for young people and seniors, and putting shops at the front of Santa Rosa Plaza to tie it to the rest of the downtown.”

Sounds pretty good, eh? The City Council hated it.

“Downtown Plan Gets Brush-off,” was the PD headline. The story began, “A forward-looking plan for Santa Rosa’s downtown the result of 15 months work by a citizens’ group and $125,000 to consultants seemed headed toward oblivion Tuesday with barely a word of thanks to the authors.”

Some of the subcommittees had clocked over 800 hours preparing their section of the report. “It’s a little bit discouraging,” architect Knight told a Press Democrat reporter after the council meeting. “I didn’t hear anybody say, hey, there’s some good things here. When you spend a lot of time on a thing, you’d like to have someone say it was a good job. The council asks for citizen input because it’s politically expedient, or for whatever reason, but it’s not really desired.”

Councilman Schuyler Jeffries dismissed their work. “I think this is an interesting update, that’s all,” he said. Councilman Jack Healy implied the committee had gone rogue: “[They] had very definite ideas what they wanted to have done and weren’t willing to accept the consultant’s answers.”

The situation was so ugly that the Press Democrat – always the stalwart defender of City Hall and decisions by the Council – fired a warning shot across the bow that they had finally gone too far:

…A lingering complaint about the incumbent City Council is its tendency to rely on “experts” – frequently the city staff – instead of initiating policies tailored to Santa Rosa perspectives. The citizens committee went that extra mile, and was given the back of the council’s hand. The vacant storefronts downtown stand as mute monuments to the need for energetic and enlightened initiatives. The council’s response – to send this report through the two-year gauntlet of the General Plan Revision – is nothing short of astonishing. Is it possible that council members don’t realize how high-handed and insulated they appear to be? Or do they not care?

But as rude and insulting as it was, that’s how matters were left. The citizen’s committee did not meet again, nor was their version of the report further mentioned in the paper. A disillusioned Bill Knight told LeBaron: “People kept thinking it was our one chance to get something good done. That’s what kept us going all these months.”



Top Photo: The Santa Rosa Plaza and the Fourth Street Mall simultaneously under construction in 1981. This view is from approximately 507 Fourth. Courtesy Sonoma County Library


1 Per the article in the Jan. 25, 1983 Press Democrat, Hahn sold the mall at a reported $13M loss. Besides blaming Hugh Codding for delaying the project, it was pointed out Hahn was never able to obtain regular financing, and was paying over 20 percent interest on short-term construction loans. Also revealed for the first time was Sears and Macy’s were receiving a share of the gross income for the entire mall. Not discussed in the short article was that Hahn was building the mall at the worst possible time. The nation was enduring a severe recession with unemployment rates at the highest since the Depression along with the prime interest rate hitting 21.5% in June 1982.

2 James Burns was hired by Centennial Savings and Loan in Santa Rosa to head their division developing construction projects. The following year he was named president and COO of the S&L, a position he held for six months before resigning from the thrift in November 1984. When government regulators declared the S&L insolvent the following year for its orgy of self-dealing and outrageous acts of fraud, Burns was not indicted or accused of misconduct, all of which had happened before/after his tenure as boss.

3 The original 1982 fountain between D and E streets was made of nondescript columns, three being planters and two that spouted water into a cobblestone basin. What’s currently there is “Woman with Water Jar” a gift to Santa Rosa from South Korea sister city Bukjeju. It was installed in 2007.

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You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 15, 1978 – groundbreaking day for the downtown mall.

Twice before you’ve visited this spot; the most recent was the 1982 grand opening of the mall. In 1972 you were also here for a last look-see at the old district west of B before the city began demolishing it all. Those time machine trips were mentioned in the first chapter of this series, “HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE.”

But before you now in 1978 is a vast vacant lot, 43 acres scraped clear of the barber shops, the hotels once home to pensioners, the dive bars and the ballet school, the grand Art Deco “Cal” movie palace, the thrift shops and lunch counters. Gone are places where you could swing by after work and go home with the latest Elton John album or a live parakeet in a cage – the sort of eclectic district whose character helps a town thrive. All that remains now is the old Post Office, which will be moved in a couple of years and become the Sonoma County Museum.

About 300 yards away, near what once was the corner of Second and A streets, there’s something going on. You see a raised platform with a lectern – although so few are in the audience that a speaker could be easily heard without a microphone.

The Press Democrat allowed reporter Paul Ingalls a bit of poetic license to set the scene:

Like a Shakespearian play, groundbreaking of Santa Rosa’s downtown shopping center unfolded Wednesday, revealing the worries, dreams and bitterness of those who have struggled over the mammoth development for so long. By comparison to the huge center the crowd which appeared on the project site for the 4 p.m. ceremonies was small. But among the group were the characters who have fought and promoted the project through more than six years of studies, public hearings, official meetings and lawsuits. There were those who claim they are powerful and those who claim they are not; those who think they have won and those who think the war is not over.

Such a meager attendance seems odd, considering that morning a PD editorial boasted this is “the beginning of a new day” that will bring “a thriving shopping center in the heart of our city.” The paper will later claim a poll shows four out of five residents want the mall opened ASAP.

Yet the crowd doesn’t seem too appreciative of the blessings that are surely soon to come. In front of the rostrum a young girl marches back and forth with a protest sign. There are also adults (including a former Planning Commissioner) holding posters that read, “Don’t divide our city!” and “Don’t isolate Railroad Square” and “Did you vote on urban renewal?”

A citizen’s protest movement against a big commercial development? Sure, maybe in Berkeley or Greenwich Village but not in Santa Rosa, where the Chamber of Commerce and the Press Democrat had always steered the bus without much challenge.

Few complained when the city declared its intention in 1970 to plow under about a third of the downtown area. Nor were many (except for the Coddings) terribly upset when our redevelopment agency tossed long-promised plans to create a convention center and performing arts theater, instead inviting a Southern California developer to build a shopping center.

Not until 1974 when people realized their beloved Cal theater would be torn down did protests begin. The resistance spread deeper roots the following year after the City Council formed a citizen advisory committee which turned out to be a sham, attempting to promote their plan to spend public money on mall development while making ham-fisted efforts to intimidate community leaders into going along quietly. And did I forget to mention the Council dusted off an old law to ensure that voters could have no say in these dealings?

(Here’s also a reminder this is all part of a broader series on Santa Rosa redevelopment: “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” which includes an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s. This is chapter ten of the series just about the downtown mall.)

That it took so long for an opposition movement to coalesce doesn’t reflect public apathy so much as it was difficult to follow what was really going on. A lack of transparency and obstinance from both elected and non-elected officials is a common thread in this series; nearly every chapter has examples of the city deliberately making public information hard to find. Pivotal agenda items were sometimes not included in meeting notices printed in the newspaper; the library had only one non-circulating copy of the EIR – Urban Renewal Agency director James Burns said that was to “keep down the cost of governmental services to taxpayers;” the Community Development Commission (formerly the URA) stalled on releasing documents and sometimes wouldn’t answer even basic questions. Once the 20+ opposition groups began to form there were opportunities for people to network and share information.

Even at the time of the 1978 groundbreaking there were major issues still unresolved, including details of how the city would finance $4 million for infrastructure work needed before the mall construction. Those opposed feared traffic backups downtown because studies predicted Third Street would reach its capacity around 1990. (The city was also chastened by CalTrans because the EIR didn’t consider what impact the mall might have on highway traffic, which proved to be a far greater concern once the mall opened.) And as the protest signs said, the mall was going to further divide downtown from Railroad Square.

All of these problems were directly tangled up with “Phase III.” That was the name for the 12-acre section that covered Fifth Street to Seventh and included the Cal Theater, the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership, the old Post Office and Sears. Today it’s the site of Macy’s and the mall’s north parking garage.

There probably would have been little to no resistance to the mall if not for Phase III (except from the Coddings, of course, who wanted developer Hahn to drop out so they could build their own project). Yes, many would object to having any sort of downtown mall, but a smaller one that ended at Fifth Street – or better yet, Fourth – wouldn’t have blocked off a large section of downtown or had the funding and traffic worries.

Or if you want to visit a different alternative universe, more people would probably have fought against the mall from the beginning if they knew what it was going to look like. Either Hahn was keeping his plans close to his vest or the developer-friendly Press Democrat was negligent in keeping the public informed. Or some of both.

The first time anyone in Santa Rosa glimpsed his plans was a 1973 layout seen in the EIR. Besides showing a parking garage on B Street that blocks the mall off from downtown, this version was notable because Hahn presumed he would gain approval to include Phase III in the project, although that wouldn’t happen for another year.

Hahn presented a scale model of what he was planning to the city Design Review Board in the summer of 1974. No picture appeared in the newspaper, but he said it came “95 percent of the way” to meeting concerns about the design.

That could be the same model shown in a 1977 feature in the PD.1 The description in the paper stated the design would feature “heavily landscaped exterior mini-parks.” Note there is no parking garage on the north side next to Macy’s, nor is there that peculiar little access road that provides a shortcut between B and Sixth Streets for those in the know. (Santa Rosa Trivial Pursuit question: What year was the Sixth Street highway underpass created? A: 2012, thirty years after the mall opened.)

Scale model of the proposed mall, looking west. The street on the far right is Seventh St.
Scale model of the proposed mall, looking west. The street on the far right is Seventh St.

While that model clearly shows the mall squatting atop Fifth Street, critics believed this was a negotiable point. Two candidates for City Council replied to the PD’s “new day” editorial by insisting the sacrifice of Fourth and Fifth to the development would create a traffic mess “worse than Steele Lane.” Later in 1978, a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups filed a suit over the issue, arguing this demonstrated collusion between the city and the developer.2


With no means to drive (or bike) from downtown to Railroad Square without taking a detour through Third or Seventh Street, a pedestrian corridor through the mall was still in the plans…right?

Look again at the 1973 layout and find there’s a direct something between B and Morgan Streets. What was that? An aisle through the mall, open only during business hours? An outdoor passageway, perhaps with gates on either side that can be lowered when the mall is closed? Or was it a tunnel, as underground parking was part of the plans at the time? The EIR was silent, although the consultants who wrote the report gently chided the developer and the city for not doing enough to link the mall with downtown via pedestrian access. (This is further discussed in the EIR chapter.)

The issue remained unresolved in 1977, although the model seen above suggests a skylight over a straight line passageway. The accompanying article in the PD said, “Hahn’s architects will continue designing the 750,000 sq. ft. center…What remains is the specific appearance of the entrance at Fourth Street and treatment of the walkway through the facility toward Railroad Square.”

Depending on whom you asked, the rebels preferred Fifth to remain an open street (with Macy’s separated from the mall), become an underpass (apparently like Third St.) or a tunnel under the store, starting east of B Street and ending near Railroad Square.

Hahn and the department stores pushed back – hard. The developer said he had letters from both Sears and Macy’s that they would pull out of the mall if any of those options were approved. (FYI: The executive from Sears was named in the PD article, but not the one from Macy’s.)

Worse yet, Hahn threatened to sue the city into the next century and beyond if Fifth Street remained open. The man who normally came off as a kindly grandpa said he would kill the whole mall project and use “every legal means available to us for the recovery of the $2 million plus expended on the project to date.”

Yet a potential lawsuit was just the beginning of Santa Rosa’s nightmare: The city would have to repay Hahn’s 1973 “good faith” deposit of $500,000 (with interest), and the developer now had approval to buy the property on both sides of Third St. where the Sears store was to be built. As Hugh Codding pointed out, he would be paying roughly 15¢ on the dollar, so he could reap further millions by selling that prime real estate at market rates.

The City Council rushed to approve the street closures as expected, although this time the vote wasn’t unanimous. It seems the pro-development forces had another problem: One of the leading rebels was now sitting on the Council.

With rare exceptions (such as Hugh Codding’s tenure in the 1960s) the midcentury Santa Rosa City Council was made up of middle-aged shopkeepers and the occasional banker.3 So it came as a surprise to many when the city’s general elections held a few days after the groundbreaking found the top vote-getter for the Council was Jerry Wilhelm, a 27 year-old attorney. Wilhelm had worked at the California Rural Legal Assistance nonprofit and was attorney for the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee, which had emerged as the leading activist group opposing the mall. They had a reputation for butting heads with the city, most famously in early 1977 when the mayor was forced to admit the Council had acted illegally by rushing through approval of a subdivision so the landowner could enjoy a fat tax break.

Once on the Council, Wilhelm wasted no time in challenging the status quo. (Part of his campaign motto was, “stop special favors to the favored few.”) He was a Fifth Street tunnel advocate, insisting something to preserve the street needed to be addressed before mall construction began.

As far as Hahn’s threat to leave unless the streets were closed, Wilhelm said it was a bluff because Santa Rosa was such a “plum” he’d never walk away. The EIR was outdated and needed to be amended or completely redone, Wilhelm insisted, particularly the section on mall financing in light of Prop. 13. And speaking of which, Hahn had said he would donate $400 thousand annually to the city for ten years to make up for lost tax revenues. Wilhelm replied Hahn was going to be saving $1.2M a year in taxes under the new law, so he wasn’t really being so benevolent.

Wilhelm was invited to speak at a Downtown Development Association luncheon. Gentle Reader probably assumes the merchants in that bastion of Babbittry would be fighting mall construction tooth and claw. The addition of dozens of new chainstores just down the street couldn’t possibly help their own businesses – right?

To the contrary, Wilhelm was told 85 percent of the membership was not concerned at all. The Councilman argued the point; he told them a mall is “not designed to have a spill-over effect. It’s a little too much to expect that people will start to walk all over town after driving that far (to get to the shopping center),” the PD reported.

But the DDA loved the plans and saw the street closures working to their advantage because it would create a bottleneck on Third Street. Wilhelm taped the luncheon meeting and recorded Bill McNeany, head of Rosenberg’s Department Store, saying this:

“We want a captive shopper. And once he gets down here, let him fight his way out, to then shop in the stores on his way out – ‘I’m not going to go to my car because the traffic is too bad. I’ll go shop instead.’ Once we get him in, let’s keep him here. We want a captive audience.”

Gaye LeBaron though it rude of Wilhelm to record the meeting and it was a shame McNeany got flak for his remarks since he was really the “original Mr. Nice Guy.” But someone (Gaye suspected Codding attorney Bill Smith) took his idea and formed a parody organization, the “Committee to Close Third Street too.” T-Shirts were made and press releases handed out; one read, “Let’s close Third Street too and then instead of one vast city we can have two half vast cities!”

We fly ahead to 1980; Sears’ new store opened and there was still squabbling over what was to be done with Fifth Street. All of the many lawsuits against the mall were over, except for a Codding appeal challenging the EIR and that 1978 complaint about street closures filed by a coalition of Santa Rosa citizens’ groups as mentioned above.

captivead(RIGHT: One of several ads from the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan that appeared in the PD during 1978-1979)

Part of that coalition was the “Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan” – which was partially funded by the Coddings – and the group assumed leadership, printing leaflets and buying large ads in the Press Democrat, such as the example shown here. Some ads would list names of a hundred or so people who had signed aboard, but all included that tone-deaf McNeany “captive shopper” quote.

When the suit finally came before Superior Court Judge Bryan Jamar, they found him as sympathetic as any plaintiff could wish for. When the city attorney said traffic studies showed traffic would flow smoothly once Fourth and Fifth streets were fully closed, the judge snapped, “You wanna bet?” and he wouldn’t change his mind “even if there were a zillion traffic studies.” Still, he ruled the city had the power to abandon those public rights-of-way, as “it was the council’s decision to make based on the evidence they had at the time.” Poof! And our last hope to integrate the mall as part downtown vanished.

The Sensible Downtown group was led by Hal Coleman, a board member of the influential Santa Rosa Democratic Club and who had been a candidate for Council in 1978. Now in 1980 he was running again, this time as part of a “slate” with fellow Sensible Downtown activist Norman Boyer, the two of them vowing to join Wilhelm in creating a new “philosophical majority.”

The thought of the three of them voting in synch surely caused ice water to run down spines at City Hall, as it was the exact scenario that led Hahn to sue Corte Madera six years earlier. There an anti-mall council was voted in and they put Hahn’s shopping center development on hiatus. Hahn retaliated by filing a $10M suit for supposed lost future income. A PD editorial called the possibility of something similar happening here “disturbing:”

…They imply they would join with present Councilman Jerry Wilhelm to form that new majority. We find this disturbing, because one of the positions which all three have in common is opposition to the downtown shopping center as it is presently planned…It seems logical to us that the election of Coleman and Boyer could be considered by them, and Councilman Wilhelm, as a mandate to reopen the entire downtown plan for review. Reopening the subject of the downtown plan at this late date would be counter to the interests of the city…

That neither of them won is somewhat a surprise, as even the PD conceded the Sensible Downtown group seemed to have broad popular support. Perhaps it was because there was a sense that the game was over – which it indeed was. There would be no further lawsuits or other actions to delay construction or seek design changes of the mall.

But there was a final big lawsuit to be filed that year: In July, the Redevelopment Agency sued the Coddings for $4 million plus damages. Among the charges were “malicious abuse” of the courts by filing ten suits and financing five more to delay mall construction and prevent its financing.4 Codding agreed to a $675k out of court settlement in 1982.

Codding attorney Bill Smith was portrayed by the Press Democrat as a bully, hectoring the poor, poor members of the City Council or Redevelopment Agency who had to sit quietly through his anti-mall diatribes and aggressive questioning. For those keeping track of such things, let it be known at three hearings police were called to get Smith to hush up. On one of those occasions Smith had been challenged to a fistfight.

But besides serving the interests of the Coddings and their construction business, he deserves great respect for acting as the de facto public watchdog over Santa Rosa’s whole urban renewal/redevelopment slog from 1973 to 1980, even on points that didn’t directly impact Codding. Thanks to him we learned of Hahn’s threatened lawsuit against Corte Madera after he obtained a copy of the developer’s letter and slipped it to the PD.

Smith was in attendance at a URA meeting in January 1975 when the Agency discussed what to do about the Bishop-Hansel auto dealership and its claim the agency owed it $300,000. (For those needing a refresher in the urban renewal game: A city agency would pay market value for a property, bundle it with other parcels and then sell everything to a developer for pennies on the dollar.)

Walter Hansel said he was told in April 1972 by Lester Beldon, then the URA chair, their A Street location would be redeveloped. Then and over the following years, the agency told Hansel the purchase deal would go through “sometime in 1972,” 1973, 1974, “and perhaps April 1975.” Meanwhile, the Ford dealer had spent more than $300k preparing for their move to Corby Ave.5

Although Smith was not the attorney for the dealership, he spoke up at that 1975 meeting to point out an interesting detail: The car lot was within the Phase III area. Hansel supposedly had been told it was going to be part of the land required by the mall more than two years before the City Council hearing where Phase III would be approved.

This started “another of those bitter shouting matches” (as the PD put it) between Smith and the URA directors, who refused to answer any of the lawyer’s questions.

Said Smith, “I don’t think we’ve been told everything the agency knows. I think the taxpayers of Santa Rosa have a right to know why a reputable firm is bringing this action.” He was told to sit down and this, by the way, was one of those meetings where the police would be called to silence him. True to par, the agency followed by debating whether there was any way they could blame their broken obligations to Bishop-Hansel on Codding.

While Bishop-Hansel was reluctant to leave its downtown location, another business within Phase III was quite eager to move.6 It was Sears, and their managers had likewise started making plans in 1972, before the area got a green light for redevelopment. Only Sears wasn’t talking to Santa Rosa’s URA – they were negotiating with developer Hahn.

Architectural elevation drawing by Cal Caulkins of the Sears Department store on B Street.
Architectural elevation drawing by Cal Caulkins of the Sears Department store on B Street.

And what makes that twist in the narrative particularly interesting is that those talks were supposedly underway even before Hahn was in the picture.

Recall in early 1972 there was no developer tapped to develop the shopping center – or whether there would even be one. In March, URA Executive Director James Burns ran an ad inviting developers to contact him because they were “interested in exploring the possibility” of a downtown mall. By the end of the month the URA was in “exclusive negotiations” with Hahn which would continue on for a full year. That history is recounted in the chapter, “THE CHOSEN ONE.”

Hahn’s interest in a Santa Rosa project and his exclusive deal were first announced in the PD on March 28, 1972. (Please make note of that date.) The article also reported, “Mr. Burns said representatives for Sears in Santa Rosa have expressed some interest in the shopping center idea and are watching related steps closely.”

But a few years later, the Coddings obtained a letter Sears wrote to Hahn. According to the description of the contents printed in the PD, Sears told him they would be willing to sign on to the Hahn project as long as they could be guaranteed there would be an acceptable deal to sell the B Street property. The letter was dated February 23, 1972 – five weeks before Hahn was named as the chosen developer for the mall:

The Codding firm cites as evidence a letter from Sears to Hahn dated Feb. 23, 1972. Signed by B.K. Horne, property and construction manager at the Sears Alhambra office, the letter authorizes Hahn to announce that store’s interest in relocating its B Street store into the new downtown. Sears said its willingness to relocate was conditioned on an agreement by Aug. 31, 1972, and “the required disposition, whether by direct purchase or trade, of Sears current ownership of the present (B Street) Sears facility and its attendant land.” (Press Democrat, February 16, 1975)

Put this 1972 timeline under the microscope. February: Sears told Hahn they’ll need a purchase deal. March: The URA announced Hahn will be the developer. April: The URA promised Bishop-Hansel, which was just a block from Sears, they would get just the sort of market-value purchase deal Sears was requiring.

There’s a lot to unpack and it’s above my pay grade to even hypothesize whether or not all of that was completely legal. But it certainly seemed hinky; commitments were being made by a city agency to spend large sums of public money on an unapproved development project, while a wildcat developer with no connection (yet) to the city was negotiating deals that would do the same.

The 1975 PD article continued: “Nell Codding, secretary-treasurer of Codding Enterprises, the developer and former city official’s wife, said she believes Sears was demanding a good price for its B Street site before agreeing to enter Hahn’s project. She contends Hahn, in turn, pressured the city to declare Sears in the Phase Three urban renewal area to guarantee its entry into the project.”

Thus here, as best as I can piece everything together from ever-so-many Press Democrat articles, was the Big Plan: The 1972 RFP for shopping center developers was a sham because Hahn – who was recommended by URA exec James Burns – must have been secretively already chosen the designated winner. Hahn needed an anchor tenant for his future mall, and Sears was willing. For Sears to easily get market rate for its existing building they needed the city agency to buy it. In May, 1973, the City Council extended the urban renewal study area to include the blocks with Sears, the Ford dealership and the Cal Theater. Phase III was born, and with it was lost the hope for an intergral downtown.

So for the last time, imagine standing at the end of Fourth Street gazing west. Before you is the Great Wall of B Street, forever chopping off a large part of downtown Santa Rosa. As you grind your teeth and blame the 1970s City Council, the Urban Renewal Agency, the foolish downtown merchants and developer Ernest Hahn, don’t forget to aim some of your ire at Sears, which didn’t care what would happen to Santa Rosa as long as they got a good real estate deal.


1 The February 6, 1977 PD (page 3C, or #37 in newspapers.com) also shows a model for a Railroad Square “rehabilitation” and the only aerial photo I’ve ever seen of the demolished project area, although the Occidental Hotel, Cal Theater, and other Phase III structures are still standing.

2 The coalition suing to block the closure of Fourth, Fifth and A streets consisted of the Coalition for a Sensible Downtown Plan, the Irate Taxpayers Committee, Sonoma County Tomorrow and the Santa Rosa Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee

3 Also on the City Council in 1978 (and was, in fact, then Santa Rosa’s mayor) was Donna Born, former Chair of the city Planning Commission. As discussed in the EIR chapter, she had spoken eloquently during the 1974 EIR hearing questioning the need for the mall to be enclosed and whether the mall’s design would integrate with the rest of downtown. On the Council, however, she mostly voted with the majority in favor of redevelopment although she identified herself as liberal.

4 The Press Democrat and other sources usually accuse the Coddings of being responsible for 18-22 lawsuits against the mall. See discussion in fn. 5 of the previous chapter.

5 Bishop-Hansel sued the URA in May 1975 for $500 thousand and asked another $350k in damages. The Ford dealership lost their case that November after the court ruled they couldn’t show URA statements had damaged their business. The following month they completed the move to Corby Ave.

6 The Santa Rosa Sears building was still fairly new having opened in 1949, but the chain felt it had outgrown its 75,000 sq. ft. and wanted to expand. The new store in the mall would be almost twice that size, not even counting the 18,000 sq. ft. auto center.
1978 rendering of the entrance to Santa Rosa Plaza
1978 rendering of the entrance to Santa Rosa Plaza

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