Santa Rosa downtown businesses' hope renewed by reunified Old Courthouse Square

Santa Rosa restaurateur José Navarro enjoys a rare second-floor perch, one offering an unobstructed view 400 feet across downtown’s new square to the front of the domed clock tower rising atop the Empire Building.

“I’m excited for the square because now we get to have shows and events that we couldn’t do before,” said Navarro, standing last week in the nearly completed Vertice, an upstairs cocktail lounge on the square that will feature Peruvian tapas and drinks. The draw from such events, he said, “brings everybody into downtown.”

Business people like Navarro are keeping an eye on both the reunified Old Courthouse Square and the gleaming white Empire Building on its western edge. Both properties speak to their hopes for a new era in the downtown’s 150-year history.

The new square ties together a sizable public space that had been cut in two by auto traffic for half a century. And the 109-year-old Renaissance Revival Empire Building, one of the city’s most recognizable structures, is slated next year to become an upscale hotel. To business people, the two places together represent the promise of a city center that can attract people in ways that haven’t happened in decades.

“I do think our best days are ahead of us, and having Courthouse Square and a hotel is enormous,” said Keven Brown, whose family has owned Corrick’s stationary and gift store on Fourth Street for 102 years. The united square, he said, “is the way we’re all going to fall in love with Santa Rosa again.”

If you see Brown and other longtime merchants doing cartwheels on the square Saturday at the official opening, just consider that they’ve weathered some long down times. Most of the last half-century will be remembered for the rise of suburban shopping centers and the painful decline of downtown as a retail force.

And while significant opportunities and physical improvements came to the city center in that period, they rarely came quickly or easily. Exhibit A is the square’s reunification, an idea that residents, merchants and civic leaders have debated for the better part of 25 years.

Even in that, some see a silver lining. Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage Co. on Fourth Street, said the square’s current design is much improved over earlier proposals.

“This didn’t get cheaper, but it got better,” Schwartz said of the $10.5 million project.

One key feature for economic vitality, he said, is having streets on all sides of the square, similar to the plazas in Sonoma and Healdsburg. Another is the LED lighting system. Schwartz likened its brightness to the effect on night games at AT&T Park in San Francisco. “It’s like daylight.”

Fourteen months after tree cutters kicked off the reunification project by clearing 90-plus trees, the new square is poised to open to the public.

Not everyone in the city is applauding the final results, but downtown business leaders praise the new space. A half-dozen of them maintained the square has now become valuable enough that nearby landlords and business owners soon will agree to tax themselves to keep it clean, safe and filled with the type of events that draw crowds.

“It finally gives us a real center to the city,” said Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, which took up offices a year ago on the square.

The chamber is working with merchants, landlords and the city in an effort to create two new downtown entities to help with the square’s operation. One, an improvement district, would assess landlords a fee to provide for the security and maintenance there. The second, an improvement area, would collect money from downtown businesses to promote and market events.

Support for the square project comes not only from longtime downtown merchants like Brown and Schwartz but also from a younger generation of business people who have shown they can attract patrons to the area’s pubs and restaurants.

“I’m excited to see some new life brought into downtown,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who with her husband Vinnie have operated the popular Russian River Brewing Company pub on Fourth Street for 13 years.

The couple broke ground Friday on a $35 million brewery and brewpub in Windsor. Even so, Natalie Cilurzo insisted the Santa Rosa pub “isn’t going anywhere” and “keeping people downtown is important.”

Downtown has long been a place marked by significant renewal efforts, a response to forces both human and physical. Over a century ago, the city center was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake made rubble of the original courthouse and a good part of the retail district.

A half-century later, in 1959, the city began an urban development program. The results were meager until a pair of earthquakes in 1969 forced the demolition of 100 downtown commercial buildings and led to the eventual strengthening and renovation of scores of remaining structures. In time the greater renewal efforts led to a smattering of new mid-rise bank and office buildings, an expansive two-story shopping mall and a reconfigured roadway and curving sidewalk along lower Fourth Street.

The multimillion-dollar investments were made largely to help downtown compete for consumers and white-collar workers in an era of suburban malls and office parks. But the results were mixed.

For years the downtown remained a prominent financial and services center for the North Bay. But bringing in the regional Santa Rosa Plaza shopping center didn’t stem the demise of many Fourth Street retailers, perhaps most prominently Rosenberg’s department store, whose location is now home to the Barnes & Noble bookstore.

“Santa Rosa’s downtown was never derelict,” said Hugh Futrell, the developer of the Empire Building hotel and the owner of a renovated five-story office project on nearby Third Street. But while the area had a certain vitality, property owners and merchants “knew it could be a lot more.”

With the completed square and other coming developments, Futrell said, “I think the signs are very positive that it will be more, a lot more.”

The business people are quick to defend the City Council’s decision to appropriate funds for the new square. Many agreed that the new street on the west side has removed what Schwartz called a decades-long “dead zone” for business activity. There the Empire Building and a former bank building to its south are slated to be used for Futrell’s hotel project.

Futrell said the city “in very short order” will recoup its investment through increased tax revenue. His new hotel, slated to open in 2018, alone will generate about $400,000 a year in bed taxes for Santa Rosa, he said.

Also, tourism officials have said that hotel guests typically spend significantly more during their stays than day trippers. Business leaders voice hope that a jump in economic activity could prompt more improvements, including at the shuttered former bank building across from the square on the southwest corner of Third Street and Santa Rosa Avenue.

Others maintained that in an era of mobile banking and shopping malls reinventing themselves, the city needs to keep looking for new ways to keep the downtown active.

“The banks don’t bring people here anymore,” said Sonu Chandi, president of Chandi Hospitality Group, which operates three restaurants near the square and this summer is slated to open a fourth, Beer Baron, in the former Rendez Vous Bistro space on Fourth. The city center matters, he said, because “if the downtown succeeds, it’s good for the whole city.”

Real estate brokers said the square could provide downtown landlords and businesses a shot in the arm, though the results will depend on how the space is cared for and used.

“I think everybody’s hopeful,” said Barry Palma, a senior managing director for Newmark Cornish & Carey Commercial in Santa Rosa. “But the truth will be in the sauce.”

He noted the success of the renewal efforts in downtown Healdsburg, and recalled how “the place was buzzing” when he walked around that town’s plaza on a Saturday night earlier this year.

Of all the ingredients needed for success, one of the most sensitive items could be dealing with homeless people who have been hanging out on Fourth Street and now may migrate into the new square.

“The homeless population exploded downtown this winter,” said Schwartz, perhaps partly due to the wet winter that resulted in tents popping up beneath freeway overpasses.

Business people said police and social service agencies already have made strides in responding to their pleas for help. But they maintained that nearby property owners will need to tax themselves in order to hire “ambassadors” who will serve as a combination of private safety officers and liaisons with police and social agencies.

The new taxes also are needed to maintain the public space. “It has to be kept nice,” Cilurzo said. “It has to be well lit. It has to be kept clean at all times.”

During the months of the square’s construction, three nearby eateries closed: Flavor Bistro, Seed to Leaf and the combined Ancient Oak Cellars and Downtown Deli. Chandi said business at his three restaurants - Bibi’s Burger Bar, Stout Brothers Irish Pub and The County Bench - dropped 20 percent. The chamber’s Coe acknowledged, “It’s fair to say for some it was difficult” among the downtown businesses.

Even so, the Fourth Street storefronts appear to have kept a relatively high occupancy rate.

When Rosenberg’s closed in 1988, a Press Democrat survey counted 10 other vacant buildings on Fourth between B and E streets. Last week a survey of the same strip found seven shops on Fourth that are or soon will be vacant. But four of those sites already have announced plans for new eateries: Beer Baron, Acre Coffee, Parish Cafe and Miso Good Ramen.

The preponderance of new food places shouldn’t come as a surprise. For two decades, sidewalk dining and the growth of coffee houses and pubs have given patrons new reasons to come to downtown. And with existing pubs like Russian River and the pending opening of Beer Baron and 2 Tread Brewing Co. on B Street, the city can stake a claim as “the beer capital of Wine Country,” said Brown.

At the site of the future Vertice, Navarro and partner Amos Flint are preparing to offer their small plates and to feature pisco, a Peruvian brandy distilled from fermented grape juice. Navarro, who also owns the restaurant Sazón on Sebastopol Road, and Flint are planning a June opening, saying they wanted to make sure to catch the business bump from people’s interest in the newly opened square.

“We didn’t want to open up to a fence,” Flint said of the cyclone barrier still up last week around the construction zone.

Flint also is working with the building’s owner, Charles Evans, to secure a new eatery in the downstairs space formerly occupied by Flavor restaurant, which closed its doors last November. The two men say it’s too early to make any announcements, but the buzz all over Fourth Street is that the new establishment could be tied to a local brewery.

Evans, a former city planning commissioner, has owned the building for nearly two decades. He acknowledged it is too early to know what the square will mean for downtown, but he remains optimistic.

If the benefits amount to half as much as what Healdsburg enjoyed from its renewal efforts, he said, “everybody will be joyous.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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