santachernobyl

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

“This is why we can’t have nice things” was a popular quip a few years ago; it’s something to say after discovering something cherished has been trashed. Every time I step into the courtyard of Santa Rosa’s city hall complex that’s the phrase I mumble (okay, whimper) because underneath this reinforced concrete monstrosity is the filled-in bed of Santa Rosa Creek.

(This article is the back half of the story which began in “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…” and should be read first, as it explains why the creek was covered and traces the origins of the Urban Renewal Agency.)

Even in the URA’s early days – while they were still pondering how much of Santa Rosa’s historic downtown deserved to be wiped out – there was agreement there should be a “civic center” built somewhere within that area. The contrary voice in 1960 was developer Hugh Codding, who volunteered to donate “as much as you need” on Steele Lane, near where he was building his new shopping center.

Codding’s quest to sell, lease, or give away land for a civic center is one of those epic tales about our town’s wild and irrepressible developer. He first offered the city space in 1950 at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. In the mid-1950s he offered another spot near his shopping center, this time at the corner of Fourth St. and Farmers Lane. Once Coddingtown was up and running he offered either of two Steele Lane sites in 1963 and when the City Council still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal for city hall to become part of the new county administration center (which would have put Santa Rosa’s city offices on unincorporated county land). After this the Press Democrat editor wrote, “a city hall is not some toy on wheels, to be moved around from one outer boundary of a city to another where property developments happen to be going on.” Undeterred, Codding once more pushed the Steele Lane location in 1964. The next year Hugh was back again, this time with site plans. But he was now a member of the Council, and the city attorney pronounced Santa Rosa could never consider any of his properties because it would be a conflict of interest. True to form, Hugh offered to resign on the spot – as long as they would accept his deal.

Although Codding remained the key player in the overall tragedy of Santa Rosa’s urban renewal scheme, that’s the extent of his involvement in this chapter on the city hall and what was to be built over the entombed creek. This time center stage belongs to one of his main adversaries: The Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company, which was formed in 1963 to “compete” for properties under the URA’s control. (“Compete” is in ironic quotes because their bids won even though they paid nothing until the price was negotiated at a later date – a sweetheart deal that never failed to raise Codding’s ire.) The locally-owned investment company was headed by five general partners, including Henry Trione as CEO/President. In the newspapers it was commonly called “the Burbank Center” or “the Burbank group,” but since those names have other uses today they are referred to as simply SRBCRC here.

The SRBCRC hired a team of top-notch architects and redevelopment experts, launching with an ambitious $12 million proposal to redevelop the entire downtown area including Courthouse Square. It was already presumed that the courthouse would be demolished (there will be an upcoming article about that) and the square would be split in half by the new Santa Rosa Ave/Mendocino Ave connector.

Foremost among their celebrity consultants was architect John Savage Bolles who designed Candlestick Park, the spiky Birkenstock building in Novato beside Hwy 101 and most NorCal Macy’s. Straddling the divided Courthouse Square he envisioned a 6-8 story “Civic Tower,” later expanded to fifteen floors. The attorney for SRBCRC boasted it would be a “landmark…people will be able to see the tower from as far away as seven miles.” The description in the PD said there would be parks on either side, including two lakes (!) and a constant-flow artificial creek.

John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a "Civic Tower" in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square
John Savage Bolles 1963 proposal for a “Civic Tower” in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square

 

 

For the lost creek area, SRBCRC proposed to build a retail complex which would cover eight acres including a major department store with three floors, a junior department store and numerous specialty shops, according to the PD. There was to be some sort of 800-foot covered walkway from downtown. Also, “an attractive artificial creek would replace the natural Santa Rosa Creek, which has been placed underground.”

The Agency gave SRBCRC the nod in 1964 to develop the creek site, followed by tentative approval to build the retail complex there. (You just know they would have added insult to injury by naming it “Creekside Mall” or similar.) The 15-story skyscraper on Courthouse Square was less of a sure thing, although one of the SRBCRC principals said experts had assured them that the “best way” to guarantee Santa Rosa’s commercial development would be for the civic center to be on the Square. A 22-member civic center site selection committee was appointed – with Judge Hilliard Comstock, chairman – and Henry Trione quickly asked the City Council for them to delay picking a location for up to 12 months.

There were legit reasons to postpone the decision. While a large citizen’s group had earlier voted for the redevelopment area to include a “civic center,” there was no agreement on what that meant. Some were thinking it would be an art gallery, museum and cultural center with an auditorium; others interpreted it to mean a new city hall/municipal center, or a combination of both. Complicating the situation was that Santa Rosa already had a perfectly serviceable city hall next to Courthouse Square, and that building was not scheduled for demolition (yet).

oldcityhallRIGHT: Santa Rosa City Hall and county jail (California Historical Society)

Plus there were sticky legal questions of whether SRBCRC could build their civic tower at all. The deal SRBCRC wanted was to buy Courthouse Square, build the tower and lease it back to the city. But the Square wasn’t for sale – it was not deemed a “blighted” part of downtown by the URA and Washington apparently didn’t allow redevelopment projects to be amended once they were approved. Nor was it clear whether the Square was city or county property – a debate readers might recall also came up in 1883, as told in “HOW COURTHOUSE SQUARE TORE SONOMA COUNTY APART.” Site committee chair Judge Comstock looked into the issue and reported that although the county feels it owns the Square because of its long use, ownership remains unclear because it was originally the city plaza; the descendants of Julio Carrillo et. al. might have a case to demand it back if it were now sold as private property to SRBCRC.

Hilliard’s report was apparently the death sentence for Courthouse Square tower. Two months later, in April 1965, the site committee announced it had chosen the “Luther Burbank site,” meaning the current city hall location. A bond was placed on the ballot to buy it which passed with a whopping 92 percent voter approval. Curiously, this same bond deal – a city hall over the creek – had been offered two years earlier and failed badly.

Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco
Drawing of the Santa Rosa Civic Center courtyard submitted by DeBrer, Bell, Heglund Assoc. of San Francisco

 

An architectural competition followed, and out of 73 entries the winner was Richard L. Heglund of Marin County. The Press Democrat only published a drawing of the first runner-up (see below), so one has to recoil at the thought of how awful the rest of the pack must have been.

On the day it opened on June 7, 1969, the PD editor had written: “Efficiency does not have to be ugly, and the new home of incorporated Santa Rosa has not sacrificed attractiveness.” Mayor Jack Ryersen swooned that the design met “the challenge of excellence.” How things change: Recently former Mayor Chris Coursey told the paper “I’ve always thought it was one of the ugliest buildings in town…a complete waste of space.” You would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with Chris; I’ll add only this is how I imagine Chernobyl looks.

In defense of the architects, “brutalism” was much in vogue at the time for public buildings, and this is far from the worst example – take a gander at Boston City Hall which was built at the same time, likewise the spawn of a urban renewal project. And while I personally couldn’t imagine approving this design in 1966, the courtyard drawing is more appealing than real life, making the space appear light and airy instead of being overshadowed by those meaningless obelisks and oppressive, top-heavy buildings.

But is there an “attractive artificial creek” as officials had been promising ever so often? Funny you should ask.

1963siteplanGentle Reader might recall this faux creek was first mentioned while decisions were being made to enclose the real thing inside the box culvert. At the same time in early 1963, the city was preparing for the bond (the one that failed to pass) which was to pay for a city hall complex on top the lost creek location. The PD published an unattributed, back-of-the-envelope site plan seen here at right; those big squiggly areas in the middle are the fake creeks – or more likely a single fake creek with a bridge over the middle, as the accompanying article mentioned landscaping “somewhat like that in Juilliard Park.” And as noted earlier, SRBCRC said there would be an artificial creek on the site when they were planning to make it a retail complex.

Instead of any of that, we got a splash fountain in the courtyard (see photo below) and only because the Saturday Afternoon Club was willing to chip in half of the $15 thousand cost. It’s now been filled in and used as a planter.

The only upside to this dismal tale is that Santa Rosa Creek had its revenge, of sorts. The box culvert swings towards the south end of the property and the buildings are built directly above the original creek. When the contractor began pouring the foundation pilings 1967-1968, they ran into serious problems because they encountered uncompacted soil – rubble that had been dumped on the banks of the creek following the 1906 earthquake. Construction work came to a halt until it was removed.

We knew that hundreds of loads of bricks and debris were used near the E street bridge to specifically fill in the approaches for a new bridge, but apparently the whole length of the creek near downtown was used for refuse disposal.

That stretch of Santa Rosa Creek also had received quite a bit of misuse in earlier years, being an open sewer in the late 19th century and then in the early 20th, being used for the discharge of toxic waste by factories and PG&E. Despite all of that the creek always bounced back, with kids hooking trout in it through the 1950s.

The Press Democrat tried to put an inspirational spin on the delays caused by the earthquake debris, writing it was “fitting because the new would rise phoenix-like from the buried ruins of part of old Santa Rosa.” Here’s a better metaphor: Abuse Mother Nature at your own peril – because the bill always comes due, often in ways no one expects.

 

 

Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Joe Henderson, Assistant City Manager with a City Hall employee near the fountain in City Hall courtyard, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Another 1969 view of the fountain (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019
The City Hall fountain as seen August, 2019

 

Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.
Second place winner of Santa Rosa City Hall competition, Peter Bassett architect.

 

An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
An estimated 700 attended opening ceremonies on June 7, 1969 (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

 

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under1963bridge

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

Pity future historians; they will struggle to understand why we destroyed the things we loved most – and even paid for the pleasure. When the 1960s began, Santa Rosa had a lovely creek burbling through its downtown. Before the decade ended, the town’s jewel became a flood control channel buried under a pile of reinforced concrete buildings which no one would ever call lovely.

In the history of many towns there’s a chapter with an unhappy and wrong-headed tale such as this, and it’s because the nation was gripped by a collective madness called “urban renewal” during that era. Anything new would be better than anything old simply because. There was also free federal money available as long as the magic words were spoken: “urban blight.” So cities across America declared large swathes of their communities were indeed filled with areas injurious to public welfare because of being unfit, unsafe, obsolete, deteriorating, underdeveloped (read: undertaxed), subject to flooding or otherwise terribly blighted. File your blight report and don’t forget to include the address where Washington can send the money.

(This is part two of the series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner,” which examines how Santa Rosa – a city which has always had swaggering ambitions – only has limited options for betterment today because of terrible 20th century planning decisions. Part one showed the downtown core is cramped because we rejected proposals to revise its layout beyond the setting of the original 1853 village, and how highway 101 “sawed the town in half” against the advice of state engineers.)

Santa Rosa took its first redevelopment baby steps in 1958 when the City Council formed an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was soon a full-time planner, an executive director hired from Merced and out-of-town consultants to study the issues (bet you didn’t see that twist coming). Come September 1960 they discovered that Santa Rosa was indeed blighted, and in the amount of forty acres.

Meanwhile, there was another federal gravy train pulling into the station loaded with even more money, this time for flood control. Normally the Army Corps of Engineers does this kind of work but Sonoma Water (AKA the Sonoma County Water Agency, AKA the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District) wrestled away most of the project along with its $11.8M budget – the equivalent to about $106,000,000 today.

Both urban renewal and flood control projects kept a low profile over the next few years. Reports were written, best plans were laid. Surveyors surveyed. The most exciting related event was the design proposal by the city’s New Jersey consultants. A scale model of their reimagined downtown (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) circulated around several bank lobbies. Their 1960 layout is seen in the drawing below, with a county/city government center along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.
North looking view of 1960 Santa Rosa redesign by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ, with the courthouse/jail on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.

 

That they highlighted the creek was not surprising. Every prior re-envisioning of the town did the same, starting with plans for a waterpark in 1906 (which was followed by the quixotic attempt to turn it into Lake Santa Rosa). In 1945 there was local architect Cal Caulkins’ park at the junction of Matanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks to compliment his vision of a new civic center. While the URA and flood planning was underway Santa Rosa was also doing an update to its General Plan, and the Planning Commission wrote this in 1962: “It has been suggested that there is not enough emphasis upon the preservation of Santa Rosa Creek for public purposes, such as hiking, riding, and bicycling trails. The staff recommends that the general plan be changed to show a green belt throughout the whole length of the Santa Rosa Creek within the planning area.”

This shuffling rate of progress came to an abrupt end in early 1963, after the North Bay was slammed with the worst winter storm in eight years. Santa Rosa received over two inches of rain in 24 hours during Jan. 31-Feb. 1, and the Russian River flooded – according to the Russian River Historical Society, it ranked #11 among top floods. Suddenly big decisions had to made, and made fast.

In mid-February it was revealed $3.5 million of flood control funding would be lost unless work plans for the upcoming year were submitted by July 1. Unlike urban renewal money – which required little more than flashing a pretty smile in the general direction of Washington – the water money was controlled by a tightwad Congress limiting how much dribbled out each year and was awarded competitively from two different agencies.

Santa Rosa was in for a rude shock. Except for the Planning Commissioners having just recommended creek preservation as part of a greenbelt, nothing about the future of Santa Rosa Creek had been mentioned in the Press Democrat for years – undoubtedly everyone expected it to be a featured part of the beautification of the town promised as part of urban renewal, per the drawings and models by the consultants. Not so. A headline in the March 17 PD presented the grim options: “THE CHOICE ON SANTA ROSA CREEK: LINED DITCH OR CULVERT”.

It seemed that the flood experts had been planning since 1959 to use a concrete-lined culvert for the stretch of the creek running through downtown. Gentle Reader is forgiven for now muttering, “bait and switch.”

There were federal specifications connected with the project that required this, a consulting engineer explained. Otherwise, the banks of the creek would have to be gradually sloped back, which would “destroy access to and usefulness of many more acres,” according to the PD. Which, of course, was exactly what was shown in the drawings and models.

The only given alternative was to “bury the whole thing,” which URA officials “believe to be an even neater solution.” The article continued, “an artificial creek, somewhat like that in Juilliard Park, has been suggested as part of the landscaping.” A following edition of the paper illustrated the difference with a photo of an open culvert that had both banks protected by five-foot chainlink fences topped by barbed wire. Next to it was a pastoral image of Juilliard Park and its fake creek. Pick one.

A joint meeting was called with the City Council, Planning Commission, plus all their other little boards, commissions and agencies. The three side-by-side box culverts would be a total of 48 feet wide and 17 feet high, enough to handle the surge of a 100-year storm, the officials were told. Otherwise, if the creek overflowed “it would sweep through downtown.” But the consultant who said that was either ignorant or lying; during the megaflood of 1862 the Central Valley became a giant lake and Sacramento was under ten feet of water, yet here the overflow from Santa Rosa Creek barely reached Courthouse Square. It was hardly a calamity, but there was no one there to challenge his audacious claim.

So without further consideration they immediately approved the underground culvert plan, with the original creek bed to be filled in “for use as a landscaped pedestrian way, and an artificial creek as part of the landscaping.” The city would end up paying for a good chunk of that work, however, as flood control only covered the cost of it being an open channel. Thus the URA coughed up $311K to condemn to oblivion the only natural feature everyone wanted to preserve.

Putting a bright shine on the loss of something so precious, the URA Executive Director insisted they not only would save money on not having to build bridges, but the city now had additional land for development. And that raised a big new question: What should they build on top of it?

NEXT: …AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)
Water levels at the A Street bridge during the 1963 flood. Top: Under an unspecified creek bridge during the 1963 flood, probably one of last pictures of Santa Rosa Creek before it was entombed. (Photo: Sonoma County Library)

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