Santa Rosa approves final unified Courthouse Square design

This story was first published by The Press Democrat on Jan. 28, 2016.

The final design for the reunification of Old Courthouse Square won unanimous approval from the Santa Rosa City Council early Wednesday morning, a decision hailed by business leaders as a crucial step toward revitalizing the economic heart of the city and denounced by critics as denuding a verdant downtown park of its cherished trees to build roads and parking spaces.

The decision, made shortly after midnight following testimony of dozens of residents for and against the latest iteration of the high-profile project, was punctuated with a group of unabashed tree lovers storming out of the meeting claiming their input had been ignored.

“None of us are happy with cutting down trees, there is no joy in that,” Councilman Chris Coursey said as project critics filed out. “Serving on this council is about balancing competing interests and it's about making decisions for the greater good. And that's the decision that I'm making tonight.”

The final vote was greeted with whoops and cheers from the audience that remained remarkably large despite the hour, a testament to the passions of both the tree advocates and the group of dedicated downtown business and property owners who've lobbied city officials for more than a year to redesign, streamline and build the project by the end of 2016.

“I love this project,” declared Keven Brown, owner of Corrick's on Fourth Street. “The economic vitality that this will bring to the downtown is unspeakable.”

While that construction deadline is tight and many questioned the rush, Mayor John Sawyer, the longest-serving council member and a retailer who owned a downtown business for 35 years, reminded the audience that the project has been debated in some form for three decades.

“This is actually one of the slowest projects I've ever seen happen in Santa Rosa,” Sawyer said.

Even so, the decisions made last fall to simplify the design, cap the project at $10 million, borrow the balance of the money needed to get it built and try to complete the work in a single construction season have left many people's heads spinning.

Nicholas Haig-Arack said he grew up in Santa Rosa and his dad used to work in the historic Empire Building, so he remembers the trees fondly. But to him, he said, the project is being “pushed through very quickly and very suddenly” without enough time for thoughtful consideration of various project elements, such as the safety of having two rows of parking on the reinstalled Hinton and Exchange streets.

“I really want to have a unified downtown square, but I don't see what the time crunch is about,” Haig-Arack said.

Many critics, some who don't live in Santa Rosa, said they had only become aware of the project in recent weeks and questioned whether the city had done enough to notify people about it.

Sebastopol resident Magick Altman pleaded with the council to consider the trees as living beings, not merely as “props” or furniture to be moved around at will.

“We need to stop being judge, jury and executioner,” Altman said. “If you want a heart in the center of Santa Rosa, save the trees.”

“Cars are a problem, not a solution,” added George Schult of Forestville.

After the changes in traffic patterns that will result from the removal of one block of Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, the felling of trees will undoubtedly be the most significant change to the downtown landscape.

Up to 91 of the 114 trees on site today, or nearly 80 percent, will be removed as part of the project.

City officials say there will be 25 percent more trees in the square after the project is completed and they'll be better suited to the urban environment. They said they'll try to plant the largest new trees possible so the square has a leafy feel almost immediately.

The trees being removed include eight of the 30 redwood trees, all of which are considered heritage trees because of their size, which in some cases are several feet in diameter at the base.

The city has stressed that the latest design preserves a large majority of the redwood trees, including three in front of 50 Old Courthouse Square that were worked around following public input.

The council was given, but didn't select, a second option that would have saved three more redwood trees on the west side of the square. An arborist reported that one with a split trunk isn't a great specimen and two others in the southeast corner might not survive the root damage from being boxed in by a concrete wall to allow Hinton Street to jog around it.

The sidewalk in front of 50 Old Courthouse Square would also have been narrowed under that option, which some said would be counterproductive.

Preserving wide sidewalks is vital because businesses facing the square will one day want to convert their first floors into retail or restaurant space with room for patio dining, said Hugh Futrell, developer of the Museum on the Square building on the southwest corner of the square.

This made staff's preferred design removing eight redwoods “incontestably the superior urban design option,” Futrell said.

He also pushed back on those who called the project regressive for its focus on automobiles over the environment. He stressed that urban-centered, transit-oriented growth and affordable housing are the most important decisions communities can make to help slow down global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“And it also creates the soul of our city once again,” he said.

Sawyer similarly stressed the importance of making the downtown livable again, saying the reunited square will be the “front yard” for new downtown residents and it needs to be attractive, comfortable and inviting.

“I'm willing to compromise those few trees for the future of this square,” he said. “This to me is an investment in the future.”

While the council's direction to the design team to maximize parking resulted in wider streets, the narrative that park space was being sacrificed for parking spaces was false, as was the charge that council members were bowing to pressure from bankers and business interests, Coursey said.

“That makes for great signs and banners and slogans. It makes a good story, but is a fiction,” Coursey said.

Councilman Gary Wysocky said he originally had felt that a single row of parking would be sufficient on each side street, but he said he was willing to compromise and defer to the needs of the downtown merchants.

“I want to move this forward and make this square the heartbeat of our city,” he said.

Even downtown fixture Ralph Morgenbesser, owner of Ralph's Courthouse Classic Hotdogs, who is going to see his cart upended by the construction, agreed the city needs to try something.

“As it is Courthouse Square is not working,” Morgenbesser said.

He said he doesn't see regular folks eating lunch or relaxing in the square the way they once did, and instead sees a square ringed with vacant buildings.

“We have to do something to bring positive sunlight into the area,” Morgenbesser said.

Lots of work is already underway in the square, including crews doing test borings and marking utilities. The removal of the trees, some of which are more than 60 feet tall, is going to begin in a matter of days.

The city says it needs to take them out before the bird nesting season gets underway on Feb. 1. The city opened bids Tuesday morning and will be awarding the $130,000 contact for the work to Atlas Tree Surgery.

The cost includes the work needed to protect the public during the removal, ensure no birds are harmed, and chop up the redwoods into sections that can be reused to create riparian habitat in the Colgan Creek restoration project, explained Colleen Ferguson, deputy director of capital projects for the city.

The work should be completed by mid-February, she said.

City officials said they have heard rumblings that protesters may try to block the tree removal, and they've spoken with the police department about how to best deal with a demonstration, should it arise.

Early Wednesday contractors installed fences around the eight redwood trees slated for removal, including one with a sign that inaccurately declared “Private Property: No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted!”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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