When a new agency of the federal government called Housing and Urban Development was established in the 1960s, one of its tenets was an urban renewal program, created in part to provide funding for sprucing up old downtown areas across the nation. The City of Santa Rosa decided its Courthouse Square needed some renewal, and subsequently divided the space by building a new motorway through the middle to connect Mendocino Avenue to Santa Rosa Avenue.
Talk of reunifying Courthouse Square had been in the air since the 1980s, but serious efforts to make it happen took many more years A group of downtown property owners and business leaders known as the Coalition to Restore Courthouse Square pushed ahead with designs and concepts. In 2004, the city commissioned the first official study of traffic and transit feasibility of a reunified square.
“One of the biggest impediments to reunification early on was lack of universal support,” says Curt Nichols, president of Carlile-Macy, the civil engineering and landscape architecture firm that designed the reunified square. “What changed before our firm got involved in drawing up plans was getting the business community’s support. It turned out that some of the people who had initially been opposed to the reunification were no longer in the picture.”
In 2007, the winner of a design competition for a reunified square was the SWA Group, an international firm with offices in San Francisco and Sausalito. It estimated the cost to undertake and complete the job at $17 million, says Nichols. “SWA’s design got many people excited because it included a huge waterfall fountain among other elements. Then the recession hit in 2008 and that stymied progress for a while. The environmental review also took about five years. Meanwhile, many points of view were taken into account for the space, such as if the old side streets [Hinton and Exchange] should be put back in the reconstruction.”
In 2015, says Nichols, the Coalition was reinvigorated, and its members and the business community began to speak in one voice. “The Coalition re-established itself, and it was pretty unanimous thinking that the square needed to be reunified. That was a huge turning point. I give [developer] Hugh Futrell a lot of credit, because he was the leader of that group and proposed that the city could achieve the reunification for much less than SWA’s estimate—somewhere closer to $7 million.”
Drawing people downtown
After decades of scant forward movement, plans for the reunification started to come quickly together. In 2015, the city council approved allocating $10 million for the project and proposed an aggressive schedule to complete it. “The council’s guiding words were that the new square’s design should be ‘simple, open, flexible, and sustainable,’” says Nichols. “They also wanted it to be a ‘smart’ site, wired for everything and with enough electrical power to handle many events of all types and sizes.”
Around Thanksgiving that same year, Carlile-Macy was selected to design the new space, and within two weeks the firm had hosted the first of several community workshops to give the public an opportunity to voice their thoughts on three design concepts.
Many civil engineers, landscape architects, and other professionals in his firm pulled all-nighters to fast-track the master plan and construction documents, he says. The master plan was approved by the city council in January 2016. Construction documents were completed in early March, and the work to reunify the square began that May.
“The goal was to have the project finished before Christmas that year, but a few unforeseen delays popped up,” says Nichols. Ultimately, the new reunified square was unveiled in April 2017 with great fanfare. “But I still run into people all the time that are not happy with it. They miss the intimate spaces and some of the trees.”
“The reunification of Courthouse Square was sorely needed,” says Don Tomasi, principal at TLCD Architecture. “It’s become downtown’s living room now, a very successful gathering spot.” Several years ago his firm was commissioned to undertake the massive design makeover of the abandoned AT&T building along Third Street, developed by the Hugh Futrell Corporation and where TLCD offices are now housed. Tomasi’s firm is also currently handling design for Futrell’s Art House and 888 Fourth Street projects.
“We are also talking to another developer about another sizable housing unit downtown,” says Tomasi.
This year, the Futrell Corporation, with its partner, Greystone Hotels, also finished the rehabilitation of the clock tower building bordering the west side of the square into a boutique hotel. The first phase opened in July, and Hotel E is receiving high ratings on social media, says Futrell. “Hotel E is pretty clearly the highest level service hotel in the Santa Rosa market, and occupancy is moving up nicely.”
New ideas for housing
A new hotel and a user-friendly square for hosting major events are bringing more visitors into the downtown area. But the city’s ambitious focus is to add a substantial number of residential housing units. Many new high-density housing fee reductions for developers have been implemented over the past year. “[Soon] we will start to see some movement,” says David Guhin, assistant city manager and director of planning and economic development. “There are a number of developers close to pulling the trigger. The city has five potential development projects in the works in the downtown, including new players to the area that are seeing downtown Santa Rosa as a place to create high-density multifamily projects.”
According to Guhin, the final recommended alternative for the updated downtown specific plan was presented to the Santa Rosa City Council on Nov. 19. During the meeting, the council and planning commission had the opportunity to provide the final input on various policies such as height, parking and land-use elements. “Along with the recommended plan, a program level environmental review will be completed,” he says. Once approved, it will provide a streamlined development process, for anything built downtown that is consistent with the plan. It also gives the public assurance of what will be built, and gives developers more certainty to build by removing some of the uncertainty.”
Guhin says under the existing downtown plan that’s already in place, theoretically, a developer could come in tomorrow and by rights construct a 10-story building downtown. “The new plan identifies some barriers in the old plan that we found very restrictive and out of date with the type of development the city is looking for. We’ve tried to make the new plan more flexible and more broad in its approach so that it will age better with time and allow future innovations in construction and development.”
In the past, there seemed to be public resistance to putting up multi-story structures downtown, says Guhin, but adding height to buildings in the downtown recently received a lot of support from the community.
“Downtown is where we should be seeing higher buildings and more density near transit and jobs,” adds Guhin. “Other California cities of our size have downtown skylines. When you start to engage with the majority of residents and younger people who want to live downtown, there’s little to no opposition to tall buildings. We reached out in many ways to the younger generation to include them in our public meetings and workshops to get input on what they want to see downtown because that segment of our population hasn’t typically been involved in these types of planning decisions and will be one of the primary demographics living in this new housing.”
The city council, he says, is laser-focused on bringing jobs and housing to the downtown core. “It’s one of the top council-stated goals, and we have enacted a number of policies to move it forward. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to put the right policies and incentives in place. Now, it’s up to the development community to leverage that work to bring the type of housing and jobs to the downtown the council has been asking for.”
Extending Fourth Street
Tomasi says “the holy grail” is to get an east-west corridor along Fourth Street that would bisect Santa Rosa Plaza in some fashion as either a vehicular street or a pedestrian/bicycle corridor. It’s a long-time goal addressed in the new downtown plan.
“A Fourth Street corridor would help to revitalize downtown even more,” adds Tomasi. “If it becomes reality, you’ll have more people coming downtown. Shopping malls are changing with the evolving retail economics. There’s even a former mall in Cupertino being redone as housing.”
Unifying Courthouse Square with Railroad Square through the shopping mall has been discussed for decades, says Futrell. “Whether it ever happens will depend on what Simon Property Group [owner of the Plaza] decides to do,” he adds. “They may decide the mall needs to be redesigned, and then the city would have a say in what happens there, but nobody should have any expectations. All malls have had some revenue drops, but Simon is a big company and the Plaza probably still makes a profit, so they may let it drift along for a while.”
Still, says Futrell, it will be great when others start to build projects. “There’s been a lot of talk about other new projects, but no real action yet. At this stage, the policy makers understand that proposals are nothing but proposals. It’s important that other projects get built in the downtown core for the betterment of the whole community.”
Developers are always coming to Santa Rosa and seeing the huge unmet need for housing downtown, according to Tomasi. “But projects typically don’t pencil out because lower North Bay rents do not support construction costs, which are a as high here as elsewhere in the Bay Area,” he says. There are a lot of false starts. California also has more restrictive energy codes and seismic regulations than other states, and they all add dollars to projects. You have to get out of a West Coast city before you see construction prices going down. Getting a project such as 888 Fourth Street off the ground could be the catalyst for showing other developers that building new housing downtown can be done.”
Tomasi would also like to see Santa Rosa Creek uncovered again. “There’s also been discussion about both county and city government complexes opening downtown that would bring people in the daytime, together with a new mix of restaurants and retail. It could be a very powerful motivator for more downtown projects.”
The vitality of downtown Santa Rosa depends on drawing people there. “To have a vital downtown, you need the messy mix of cars and people,” says Nichols. “Those who understand the dynamics of how business works in the downtown area realize that streets, and the parking options to get people to come, are essential.”
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