Communities are delicate things; once they start to crumble, it can be difficult to make them whole again. So in a spirit of optimism the first annual “Congress for Community Progress” was held at the Flamingo Hotel in March 1963. Formed by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, its avowed mission was to “unify community thought and action” around ways to improve the city, according to general chairman Judge Hilliard Comstock, while avoiding “rehashing mistakes of the past.”
The 268 participants – drawn from downtown business interests, social clubs, churches, unions and the City Hall bureaucracy – were split into seven panels. Some of their recommendations had little or no chance: An arts festival intended to draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands, a volunteer-run “central service club” for all elderly and handicapped residents, donations of large plots of land for new parks and baseball fields, and a “United Crusade” to collect donations for all local charities.
In contrast, the streets and traffic panel did not indulge in daydreams. They pushed to lobby for a bill in the state legislature for higher gas and road taxes, plus an upcoming municipal bond vote that would fund over $1 million in streetwork. “There’s nothing wrong with Sonoma County and Santa Rosa’s road, street and parking problems that money won’t cure,” promised Press Democrat editor Art Volkerts.
Much has been written here about Santa Rosa’s urban renewal misadventures during the 1960s and 1970s, which culminated with the city bulldozing a third of downtown so a private developer could build the mall. Should you be unfamiliar with that sad story, here’s a short recap or Gentle Reader can plunge into the extensive series about it all, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”
But before we began tearing those buildings down, there was another civic program that set the stage for Santa Rosa destroying its Shadow of a Doubt character in the name of progress. That was the city’s embrace of a street improvement plan to supersize many of our streets, both commercial and residential. Because of it, Santa Rosa gradually turned from “The City Designed for Living” into “The City Designed for Cars.”
SANTA ROSA TRAFFIC IS A MESS
Jaywalking was also a persistent problem. (O Pepper, where for art thou?) The 1954 solution was to install “scramble” traffic light systems on Fourth Street at the B St. and D St. intersections. Now part of the timing cycle stopped traffic from all directions so pedestrians could cross in any direction, even diagonally. Some might recall Santa Rosa revived the concept at the Fourth and D intersection in 2007-2008 to mixed reviews; so it was in the mid 1950s. Then the police department liked it but drivers didn’t. The PD wrote, “Now almost any evening from 5 o’clock to 5:30 you will find a maddening, blaring, stalling, stop-and-go traffic jam.”
The scramble SNAFU was just another example of Santa Rosa’s stumbling management of the street situation, according to the city’s Planning Director. At a 1955 meeting he complained there were no studies being done as to what was the best course of action, with changes being made piecemeal based on “someone’s opinion” about what would improve matters. This led directly to the hiring of Jackson Faustman.
As so often happened with the later urban renewal projects, trouble can be traced to the city hiring an expensive out-of-town consultant who likely had never set foot in Santa Rosa.
The 1957 decision was to hire Jackson Faustman, a traffic engineer in Sacramento, to write an analysis of Santa Rosa’s traffic situation with “specific and detailed recommendations for the solution of both existing problems and those that will occur in the immediate future.” The report alone would cost the modern equivalent of $33,000.
Dr. Faustman would additionally make about half that much every year going forward for being available, with the odd proviso that he teach “a young man with the capacity and desire to be trained as a traffic engineer…and train him to the point where he can take over the traffic problems of the city and eliminate the need for consultation service.” (I’m sure it’s just sloppy writing in the Press Democrat, but raise your hand if you also think that reads like the city was seeking to force some kid into indentured servitude.) The job went to 36 year-old “Woody” Hamilton, who was already a city assistant engineer of some sort.1
Faustman delivered his first report to a city commission a few months later (Hamilton was credited as co-author). His primary recommendation was to make Mendocino Ave. three lanes of one way northbound traffic between Fourth St. and College Ave, with B St. being a matching three lanes headed south. City officials batted the idea around for more than a year while Faustman kept hauling in charts and warning that otherwise there would be such gridlock by 1970 no one would be able to reach downtown.
The city gave him a hard NO on the one way streets, but Faustman said from the beginning that was just the means to achieve his real goal: Increasing traffic capacity of major streets “by 50 per cent or better.” And to that end, in late 1958 he revealed his new Master Street Plan to widen 33 streets.
He helpfully offered a map showing which projects he thought should take priority, given his belief it would cost about $8 million. In today’s dollars, that worked out to about $87M – and that was before Woody Hamilton pointed out a few weeks later that Faustman was wrong and the true estimate was a million over that (figure $98M total today).
Even for the Press Democrat, where the editors never saw a construction project they didn’t like, this as a staggering amount of money for a non-emergency public works program. There was no chance the newspaper, Chamber of Commerce, and their other cronies could twist arms of voters into passing a $9M bond measure expected to require about twenty years to complete. It was also more than the city could legally put on the ballot.
The traffic commission approved a slightly modified version of the plan and estimated the cost of just the top ten projects would be about $2.8M.2 Our Grand Poobahs began musing about a bond that might cover at least that much if it were sweetened with promise of a new library, a new park and maybe a new city hall.
But spending all that money on even a scaled-back widening campaign was an affront to Santa Rosans who had been waiting years, even decades, for the city to perform basic street work, as the PD acknowledged:
There would be no money for work on mile after mile of local streets which now lace the city without sidewalks, curbs, or gutters, and without adequate base to serve the needs of heavy, modern traffic. These streets will have to be brought up to standard – if they ever are – by assessment against property owners…
Homeowners paying for their own sidewalks and whatnot? Well, yeah, the city had a long history of doing exactly that. A half century earlier there was quite a fuss about Santa Rosa forcing people to hire cement contractors to lay sidewalks in their front yards. Failure to do so meant the city would hire someone to do the work and put a lien on your house for the expense.
The city was still doing that in the mid-1950s, only now it was forcing residents to pay by means of assessments. And as that newspaper article continued, City Hall was considering using assessments to help fund street widening:
…Along major streets, where widening and resurfacing projects are to be scheduled, owners will also pay some small share, but city officials have not yet completed studies to show how much of the projects could be paid for by assessment.
WHAT’S AN ASSESSMENT DISTRICT?
In California, local governments can designate a particular area as an “Assessment District” for infrastructure work done within its borders. Usually most of the cost is billed to property owners within the District and paid off over many years via property tax surcharges.
District projects are supposed to provide specific improvements to the area which can only be provided by the government. Examples include bringing in sewer and water lines or constructing streets for a new subdivision. The money is not supposed to be spent on anything that benefits the overall community, such as parks, swimming pools, public schools, libraries or city/county offices.
An Assessment District can blanket all/most of a city or be limited to a few buildings on a certain street. There are usually public hearings before the District is approved but there will probably not be a public vote required.
It’s likely the suggestion “owners will also pay some small share” gave more than a few folks the nervous jimmies. Most of the widening projects were expected to cost over a hundred thousand dollars, with some past a half million – even a “small share” could be more than the value of someone’s house (theoretically).
There was already an ongoing 1957 lawsuit against the city for abuse of assessments. Sixteen residents on Pacific Avenue between Bryden Lane and King St. found they were expected to pay the full cost of sidewalks, curbs, gutters and most of the street paving – plus the loss of a slice of their front yards because the city also made their street about 25 percent wider. They charged the city with fraud because it was the general public, not they, who would benefit from the work, and thus was against state law (see sidebar). The case would not be resolved for twelve years.3
Despite all the hype around the Faustman report and the silly prediction of a 1970 gridlock apocalypse, nothing really happened over the next four years. Santa Rosa tried to pass a bond in 1961 that included $5.5M for streets and storm drains but it failed badly, drawing a pathetic 30 percent approval.
By the time they tried a bond proposal again in 1963, however, the ground had shifted. The city’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA) was no longer treating redevelopment as if it were a contest between architectural firms to see who could come up with the most fanciful and impractical models for Santa Rosa v. 2.0. The Agency was now deciding which actual buildings would be demolished and awarding construction contracts worth big bucks to build something else. Federal and state grant money was also starting to flow in that would pay for redevelopment.
Just before the bond vote, the state road tax bill discussed by the traffic panel at the Congress for Community Progress had passed, with Santa Rosa expecting to get over $128k annually for street work. So the pitch for the new muni bond was combining that road money with half of the city’s sales tax and…presto! The street widening would be paid for without any new taxes.
The Press Democrat gushed, “…[it] may sound like the city has found out how to print its own money without going to jail. Actually, it is so simple that one wonders why nobody worked it out before. Essentially, what the City Council has done is to make positive that existing city revenues at present tax rates will be used to buy worthwhile and needed things instead of being frittered away.” (Memo to self: Search pre-1963 editions of the Press Democrat for ANY suggestion of city frittering.)
Unable to resist a free lunch, voters approved the bond by a whopping 80 percent. But there was apparently enough pushback for the PD to feel its passage was threatened. On the eve of the vote an editorial read, in part:
The campaign has also seen the ugly banner of sectionalism waved by the opponents. They would pit the older sections of our city against the new, east Santa Rosa against west, and north against south. This has happened in other cities, and progress has passed them by while the divided sections voted down bond issue after bond issue because of jealous fear. Now the moment of truth faces the Santa Rosa voter. We trust in his common sense and judgment to see through the smokescreen.
Who were these fear-mongering jealous sectionalists? Alas, the villains were never named in the paper and nor were their positions described, which makes me wonder if the editor was denouncing straw men, particularly since so much ink was spent in promoting the bond as if passage was a civic duty. Subscribers were encouraged to send pledges to vote for it; reporters and photographers covered doings of a pro-bond group calling itself “Forward Santa Rosa;” so many wrote in support that the letters section sometimes spilled over to the next page. One example from Santa Rosan Al Ridste:4
…It is a radiant, joyful thing to realize that we can build a new front for the city. In this lovely community “designed for living” there are rare potentialities. It is a move in which everyone can win eventually. It will, of course, cause some growing pains for some and some of the usual disturbances that always comes with change, but after what will not be too long a time, there will be gladness and pride in the new look and the new usefulness of whole locality…
The bond specified ten street improvements to be completed during the first tranche of work but curiously, only two of the projects resembled anything found on Faustman’s famous priority list. Presumably traffic engineer Hamilton, the URA and others decided an update was needed because the city’s needs had changed over the four years hence, which is quite reasonable. But after the bond passed the city continued tinkering with the work plans. This was when they resurrected a developer’s 1960 proposal to connect Sonoma Ave. to Ellis Street, which culminated in the demolition of Luther Burbank’s home for no good reason.
As the city finalized street plans in early 1964, it became clear assessments were going to be more than a “small share” of the funding. As with the Pacific Ave. situation, property owners were being expected to pay for a huge share of it.
A few years earlier the City Council wrote guidelines for street improvements in assessment districts; adjoining properties would usually pay about 55 percent overall. There were tweaks for residential vs. commercial zoning and public buildings were to be billed for the full price.5
The roar of outrage began when two churches – the First Methodist Church and St. Eugene’s – learned the city was requiring them to pay for all the street work in front. Later the Junior College received a similar notice.
There were other grumblings. Protests and petitions led to a steady stream of Council assessment hearings that year: Santa Rosa Ave. Montgomery Drive. Chanate Road. Sonoma Ave. The Council had considerable leeway to negotiate costs; some districts ended up owing considerably less than others because the city or URA contributed more than usual.
Othertimes the Council showed little or no willingness to compromise. Councilman Hugh Codding commented other councilmen were “railroading” particular projects thru. His lone Council ally was Charles DeMeo, who said city staff wasn’t presenting facts which might convince residents they should agree with the assessments. Quote the PD, “…why don’t you gentlemen who prefer to overrule the protests come forth with some definite proposals[?]” DeMeo also remarked he “didn’t question the fairness of the staff… but sometimes did question their judgement.”
Codding was taken aback by strong neighborhood pushback from one district:
“It seems obvious to me that the majority of those in the area don’t wish to see the improvements made,” councilman Codding said. “It seems rather foolish to see the proceedings go ahead. I move we abandon action…” Mayor Robert Tuttle quickly gaveled Mr. Codding’s motion “…out of order,” saying “…we’ll see.”
That happened at the big fight over widening Mendocino Ave. north of College Ave. Not only would the district pay a larger percentage (65 percent) but at 84 feet the street would be wider than any of the other projects at the time.6
At a three hour public hearing, it was made clear 9 out of 10 property owners in the district were opposed. “Codding made another motion that the project be ‘permanently abandoned’ until at least 75 percent of the abutting property owners sign a petition favoring the street widening,” the PD reported. Among those speaking against the assessment was Judge Comstock, the chairman for that Congress for Community Progress the previous year where he urged the city to “unify community thought and action.” Now here was the Council saying they didn’t care a neighborhood was united in protest.
Just as the public was caught unawares the city would use assessment districts to fund streetwork, people seemed genuinely surprised when they started chopping down trees growing next to the streets being widened.
A row of catalpa trees in the curb strip fronting Juilliard Park “had to come out there was no choice” according to a city engineer, who told the PD in 1965 catalpas were also “not street trees” and prone to untidiness. Although the paper was told decorative trees would be planted in their place, today there are no trees there at all except for some unlovely arborvitae set back in the park lawn several feet away from the street.
Hundreds of other street trees must have been taken out, but only the loss of those catalpas earned a brief notice in the Press Democrat, perhaps because someone recalled they had been planted by Juilliard himself in 1916 to acclaim.
More research is needed, but something needs to be written about Santa Rosa’s great tree purge from those years. A 1967 report called for a new master tree plan where there were to be no mature trees next to streets at all. By then nearly half of the street trees that had been planted in the previous twenty years were gone or about to be removed, many replaced by shrubs in planters.
And lo, the city of Santa Rosa cut the trees, widened major streets, and charged neighbors for the pleasure of taking away some of their property. As the statistics show, daily traffic on most of the remodeled streets went up dramatically. Those who had planned this gazed upon their works and called it good because Santa Rosa was now more efficient.
(RIGHT: Traffic increases on Santa Rosa arterial routes 1961-1966. Press Democrat, September 25, 1966)
Our resident experts believed better efficiency was critical because they thought Santa Rosa was about to grow big, fast. The U.S. Commerce Dept. predicted in 1962 the greater San Francisco Bay Area population would be the size of Chicago’s by 1980. Santa Rosa’s planners took those estimates and declared over that timespan the number of people living here would more than triple.7 Our local Chamber of Commerce even produced a film on the topic – in color, boasted the Press Democrat – shown at the Congress for Community Progress. (For the record, our city planners guesstimated too high by over 50,000 people. We didn’t hit their projections until 1999.)
Dr. Faustman and city staff produced reams of studies concerning street loads, peak hour traffic volumes, circulation plans and such, all with the aim of relieving those expected 1980 traffic jams. The rallying cry was “Get the through traffic off local streets,” as a city engineer put it, turning the widened major streets into arteries that would move cars between different parts of the city as fast as possible.
But in practice those arterial streets were really connectors between shopping centers. Sonoma Ave. would make it easy to drive from downtown to Montgomery Village (there was no highway 12 expressway yet). A wider Mendocino Ave. made it an easy trip for downtown shoppers to check out sales at Coddingtown. And directly southward of Courthouse Square there was Santa Rosa Ave. with its miles of flashy neon signs.
THE HIGH PRICE OF WIDE STREETS
Urban planning critic Jane Jacobs mainly wrote about the road problems in New York City c. 1960, but if she had taken a peek at the Santa Rosa situation five years later she might have used us as the poster child for street planning gone wrong. To expand on her points about arterial streets:
* CROSSTOWN BARRIERS They act as barriers, making it difficult and dangerous to cross against traffic.
* JAMS OR SPEEDWAYS They only work as smoothly as promised under optimal traffic loads – too many rush hour cars and they choke up and when traffic is light some drivers treat them like expressways, speeding far faster than is legal.
* BIKE AT YOUR OWN RISK Even when there are bike lanes – a hit-or-miss situation all over Santa Rosa – both speeding vehicles and traffic jams make arterial streets hazardous for bicyclists and electric scooter riders, often leading them to shift to sidewalks where they feel safer but creates a set of risks for pedestrians.
All in all it was a great traffic plan for moving shoppers around town as well as a great demonstration of confirmation bias. Faustman and the others did not consider whether that plan would ultimately be a good thing to do in Santa Rosa, even if the population did balloon in the future – the point of their studies was only to show how their predetermined objectives could be achieved.
It was also an example of backward thinking. Going pavement crazy might have seemed like a swell idea during the heyday of 1950s Car Culture, but it was now the mid-1960s and there was growing consensus that overbuilding streets made cities less livable.
Jane Jacobs’ 1961 widely read book on the failures of contemporary city design, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” has a damning chapter on the topic. “Traffic arteries…are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction,” she began. Now more than sixty years later it’s even more apparent her views were prophetic.
Were Faustman and Santa Rosa’s decision makers not reading the trade journals and popular magazines where the old views on urban planning had been challenged for years? Residents here certainly weren’t informed there might be a downside to turning some streets into virtual freeways.
Much of the streetwork took place amid the flush of major projects around town, among them knocking down the Carnegie library and the courthouse, the entombment of Santa Rosa Creek into a culvert and starting construction for the elevated portion of highway 101. Widening a few streets and cutting down a bunch of old trees was hardly worth a moment of thought.
But for those today who nostalgically yearn for “old Santa Rosa,” the decision to completely surrender our main streets to automobiles stands as a milestone. The damage it did to the town is unrepairable: The uglification, increased noise and pollution, the splitting apart of established neighborhoods. It may not have been the dumbest thing we ever did – but then again, maybe it was.
1 His father, Woodman Hamilton Sr. was a pottery maker, and the work from his Glen Ellen Pottery studio was so highly regarded in the 1930s that it was exhibited at fairs to represent craftsmanship in Sonoma County.
2 A breakdown of costs for all projects can be found in the January 20, 1959 Press Democrat.
|3 The Pacific Ave. Assessment was for $53,000. The lawsuit was won by the city, then overturned by the state Supreme Court. In 1969 it went again before the City Council to reassess the properties, although most of the original plaintiffs had moved or were now dead. See: December 25, 1969 Press Democrat.
|4 Alfred Ridste was the father of movie star Carole Landis who died in 1948. He and other members of the family alleged she was murdered by actor Rex Harrison, with whom she was having an affair.
|5 No copies of the 1958 version of the city policy manual can be found at the library or in the city archives, as far as I can tell, and I did not consult the 1957/1958 minutes of the City Council when the policies were written. My observations are drawn completely from information given in the 1964 Press Democrat.
|6 The usual widening for major streets in those Santa Rosa projects was 64′ on 86′ right of way, with secondary streets 40′ on 60′ right of way. The original traffic plan called for 6 foot median on the widened major streets. See: Press Democrat, August 28 1962
|7 “Between 1960 and 1980 it is estimated that the population of the Santa Rosa planning area will increase from 36 per cent to 43 per cent of the total county population. Assuming a county population of 295,000 in 1980, we can estimate a population increase to about 135,000 in the Santa Rosa planning area.” Press Democrat, August 28 1962
TOP: Section from “Traffic Jam” by Earl Mayan, Saturday Evening Post cover, April 28, 1956