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Reunited: Santa Rosa Courthouse Square

Author: Mallorie Kerrigan & William Rohrs
September, 2017 Issue

This year is a time of change for the city of Santa Rosa. Returning to its roots, the city embarked on a $10 million project to restore the divided Courthouse Square to its previous design, creating an event and leisure space in the heart of its downtown. To say the decision brought division would be an understatement: proponents lauded the revival of a common meeting space that fits today’s needs, while the opposition balked at the costs, arguing the money (which largely sourced from the general fund) would be better served addressing homeless services and rehabilitation.
NorthBay biz went to several businesses around the square to assess business owner’s opinions now that the square is finally open after a six-month delay for rain and construction.

A force for good

Doug Van Dyke of E.R. Sawyer Jewelers on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa has been in the same building since 1980. E.R. Sawyer’s place in the community has been growing over their tenure. Last year, they raised $250,000 for local nonprofits. The changes in the new downtown aren’t a concern for Van Dyke. In fact, he is thrilled. “I’m biased about the square. Although the delay was painful, I’m thrilled the project got done,” says Van Dyke.
The decrease in noise on the streets since Mendocino Avenue’s reroute has already brought a sense of improvement and ease to Van Dyke. “The original plan when creating the downtown streets were meant to feed cars into town along the freeway. It was a speed zone causing excess noise,” he says.
The downside, according to Van Dyke, was project time. Other than that, he recognizes the positive impact on the Santa Rosa downtown with events like the Iron man race, Wednesday Night Market and Mini Car Rally. Events like these draw crowds from beyond Santa Rosa, benefiting the tourism and economy.
Compared to other bustling North Bay squares, Santa Rosa will have more flexibility for events, and people can park and walk. “We’re not trying to be Healdsburg,” Van Dyke says of the renovations. But people should be forewarned, “Aggressive parking policy is coming.”

An unnecessary investment?

“Is the square more beautiful now than it was before the work? I believe it is,” says Kat Tripoli, owner of Powerhouse Gym on Fifth Street. “But did $10 million for the project help my business? No. In fact, it’s done just the opposite.”
Powerhouse Gym is nestled one block away from the square. Across the street is the ever-popular outside parking lot on Fifth Street, which bridges the mall and the first retailers and restaurants along Fourth. While the project has increased daily foot traffic and piqued interest for business owners directly around the square, businesses outside the zone have run into problems.
“When my gym members drive around to the parking lot and see not only the lot, but the side streets full of cars, they don’t have time to drive around again or go three or four blocks away. They drive off,” says Tripoli. “And that problem gets worse when every parking lot is a two-hour maximum. No one wants to interrupt their routines to feed a meter.”
To add to the parking congestion, part of the Courthouse Square project also converted Fifth Street from a one-way to a two-way street, without increasing its width. “Sometimes delivery trucks are too large to enter the parking lot where the back end of the Fourth Street restaurants are,” says Tripoli. “Before, they could stop at the edge of the street, and the one-way traffic would go around. Now, they have to stop in the middle of the street, in the turn lane to B Street, and cross the middle of the road with their cargo. It makes the work dangerous and laborious.”
Tripoli is considering relocating her business, which she founded in 1992. “We have thrived here for more than 20 years,” she says. “But now, it may be time to move on.”

Optimism for a busy future

Approaching their 21st year as a business on Fourth Street, Skeeter’s Gallery owner Carolyn Jansen is optimistic about the changes to downtown. Skeeter’s loyal customers frequent the boutique gallery for handcrafted jewelry, wood, pottery and art glass, as well as women's clothing.
During the construction delays from Thanksgiving to April, Jansen recalls business at an all time low. However, remaining in the same location for as long as Skeeter’s has, Jansen has seen the ebbs and flows of business and is excited for what the renovated square will bring. “The potential is incredible,” says Jansen. “People need to be patient; it’s going to be great. The homeless issue has improved, it’s gotten a lot better.”
Jansen hopes to acquire new customers, as the downtown reunification hopes to draw visitors from outside the county. “The renovation is bringing new blood to downtown,” she says. As for Skeeter’s surviving the potential wait? “We’re gonna be fine.”


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