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Photograph by Michael Amsler

I'll Hand It to Ya: Santa Rosa is still trying to atone for the feng shui nightmare that is the Plaza mall.

Brighter Lights, Bigger City

In Santa Rosa, the same old story of downtown is getting newer

By Sara Bir

Downtown Santa Rosa is like an old zombie flick. No, it's not like the streets are eerily silent or the populous is shuffling around in an undead haze--though some may feel it's that way. It's the issue of how to address downtown's faltering vitality that keeps rising from the grave.

The problems are all too familiar: Courthouse Square isn't even a square; the Plaza Mall makes for bad feng shui; on most nights, the city streets become a ghost town after 8pm. A whole slew of committees, studies, and organizations have come, gone, and come again, all with the very noble intention of giving downtown Santa Rosa an injection of class, commerce, and character.

How do you prove to 152,900 residents of the largest city in the North Bay that their downtown can sustain thriving culture, entertainment, and--here's the big one--personality? There's no denying that downtown Santa Rosa is in a midlife identity crisis. How did it get like that? Where did we go wrong, and how can we right it?

A Main Street Mentality

A few months ago, banners reading "Downtown Santa Rosa: A Main Street Community" appeared on light posts along E Street. And if they got people wondering what, exactly, a Main Street community was, they did their job.

Santa Rosa Main Street (formed officially in August 2002) is part of the Main Street Program, a nationwide group that works to revitalize individual downtown districts. "Santa Rosa Main Street came out of some of the other groups that were here prior," says Patti Bowie, SRMS' executive director. "CityVision had a lot of things they wanted to do. From that, they spun off into different groups."

Back up a few years. To find out who CityVision is, you first need to know about the 1998 report issued to the city-appointed Downtown Partnership Committee by the American Institute of Architects' Regional/ Urban Design Assistance Team. Among other things, R/UDAT recommended reunifying Courthouse Square, maintaining a year-round farmers market under Highway 101 behind the mall, moving the Luther Burbank Center (or something like it) downtown, and creating pedestrian linkage between the mall and Railroad Square that would be usable 24 hours a day.

One nonprofit group that arose from the Downtown Partnership Committee in response to the R/UDAT report was CityVision, whose goal was to see R/UDAT recommendations through. CityVision refined those recommendations to better address the community's specific issues and then released an action plan in April 2000.

The booklet had a lot of great ideas, but not many of them got too far. One of them--a food and wine center to be built in Railroad Square--took on its own entity. But CityVision fizzled out, and Main Street Santa Rosa was formed in its place to focus on Railroad Square, the Santa Rosa Plaza mall, and Courthouse Square.

The breadth of that zone makes Santa Rosa an unusual case with the Main Street Program. "Most Main Street Programs just take one little section and focus on that," says Bowie, who has worked with Main Street in four towns over 10 years. "We've decided to work with them all together. So it makes it a bigger district, but what we have to do is make sure each district retains its own character.

"What's unique about Main Street," Bowie adds, "is that it takes on smaller projects to get momentum building." Its strategy is a one-two punch: help downtown businesses grow stronger from the inside out, beautify the town from the outside in. Santa Rosa Main Street played a big part in the additional diagonal parking on Fourth Street, as well as putting in new planters with more flowers. "People might not know that Main Street's doing that, but it's more attractive and inviting, and that's when you start attracting more businesses."

The Three Big Boo-boos

What is Main Street up against? There are two elements whose hulking presence dominate downtown: Highway 101 and the Santa Rosa Plaza mall. Then there's something that's conspicuously absent: an inviting town square.

The 1968 bisection of Courthouse Square to connect Mendocino and Santa Rosa avenues literally severed the heart of downtown in two. Talk of reunifying it has ebbed and flowed since then. Currently, the city is using grant money for a study to assess the possible impact of reunification, with a plan tentatively going to Santa Rosa City Council in March 2004.

There are many unresolved issues in the reunification. Traffic circulation, for instance, would be deeply affected, and the buses would have to be rerouted from Mendocino Avenue. And the cost of reunifying the square would not be small.

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa Main Street has posted flyers depicting aerial views of Courthouse Square as it stands today (two generally featureless half-parks with four lanes of traffic barreling between them) and a vision of a reunified Courthouse Square (a central fountain with walkways radiating from it, a large outdoor performance structure, and two areas for diagonal parking buttressing the square).

The 1969 earthquake jump-started major remodeling downtown. The foundations of many historic buildings were damaged, resulting in the declaration of downtown Santa Rosa as an urban renewal zone. Of the 89 buildings in the zone, 74 were torn down for safety reasons. A lot of them were replaced with some very ugly buildings. Let's just say that the '70s were not a high point in civic architecture.

Then in 1983, the Santa Rosa Plaza mall was built where many of the prequake buildings had stood. At the time, some people saw Railroad Square as a blighted mess, which could account for the mall's damlike structure. The mall blocked easy auto and pedestrian access to Railroad Square, although a lighted, more navigable walkway connecting Santa Rosa Plaza with Railroad Square was completed along Fourth Street in April of last year. (The city and the Railroad Square Association are working on another such pedestrian linkage on Fourth Street and Wilson; it's been postponed for redesign to allocate delivery trucks.)

However problematic the mall's obliteration of connectivity between Railroad Square and the rest of downtown may be, Santa Rosa Plaza accounts for over half of the retail land use downtown and attracts thousands of shoppers every year. While most of those shoppers do not venture outside of the mall, they are still shopping locally, and the mall's signing on retailers Bebe Sport and possibly Abercrombie and Fitch could infuse the mall with new customers.

And who's to say those customers can't be lured outside? "We are working closely with mall management to try and cross-promote," Bowie says. "We're trying to keep communications open so that people know we're trying to do all of this together."

It's Hip to Be Square

The proactivity of Railroad Square's merchants and property owners has proved that it's possible to transform an area from an overlooked, undervalued neighborhood to a destination. The little district behind the mall offers an eclectic mix of fine dining, live entertainment, antique stores, vintage shops, coffee houses, and thrift stores--all with a funky, historic feel that no other corner of Santa Rosa can offer.

"Railroad Square has always been in her own little niche," says Linda Angell, president of the Railroad Square Association, a group that formed 25 years ago to get the historic district out of the dumps. "It's just that now, she finally has become a desirable niche."

Efforts of Railroad Square businesses span from large-scale (working to secure a lease for the food and wine center) to small-scale (planting flowers in barrels purchased with association funds).

"The association is the strength of Railroad Square," Angell says. "Railroad Square is where it is today because of the association. We're a very small district, but we care about what the other businesses are doing. They help each other out."

There are numerous development projects in the works--including retail space on Third Street, a live-in loft and workspace building beyond the railroad tracks, and a 29-unit housing development. Petite Syrah--a wine bar and retail wine shop connected to Syrah Bistro--will open on Aug. 24. And a little over a month ago, the California Visitors Center opened up in the depot that houses the Santa Rosa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Another big boost to Railroad Square has been the nearby 155-room Vineyard Creek Hotel, Spa, and Conference Center, which opened up last summer. "The merchants definitely see sales going up on the weekends, when visitors are here," says Angell, who notes that the Railroad Square Association works with Vineyard Creek to "bring people over to Railroad Square or vice versa."

From Plan to Action

On July 22, city officials got their first peek at the Economic Development Strategy Plan, the result of a $60,000 grant. The plan calls for developing the proposed food and wine center in Railroad Square and building a mulituse transit center next to it.

Also proposed was moving the fortresslike Sonoma County Library from Third and E streets and reestablishing it on City Hall property. The vacancy left by the library could be filled with upscale chain stores, like Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma, to create a more welcoming anchor to the downtown gateway.

Do any of these concepts sound familiar? Maybe that's because they've been volleyed around town for years. You can play with deluxe all you want, but ultimately we're going to have to stop planning and start moving.

In the works is some new life for the old J. C. Penney building at Seventh and Mendocino, with plans to remodel the nondescript building into a Mission-style retail center. And along Fourth Street, the space that once housed the Moonlight is now home to the sushi-cum-barbecue-themed Tex Wasabi's.

A few blocks down the street, the former Audio-Visual Showroom and the Old Vic are being transformed into what will soon be Russian River Brewing Company--an establishment many are hoping will pick up some of the nightlife slack created by the Old Vic's departure.

And after months of rumors circulating over Copperfield's plans to vacate its Fourth and D streets venue, it was announced in May that Copperfield's would stay, and Peet's Coffee and Tea would be coming in next door.

So that will make a grand total of five coffee shops and two brewpubs in a four-block radius. Can downtown Santa Rosa support all that, plus more?

The New Urban Hope

Increased housing downtown, which would supply downtown Santa Rosa with a readymade audience of bar hoppers, showgoers, and latte sippers, could be the answer.

It's the theory behind New Urbanism, a movement begun in the early '80s by architects who felt that increasing dependence on the automobile was not a positive direction for our society--or architecture--to go. "In order for the downtown to be vital at night, people need to live downtown. Why not have a more livable, dense, smart-growth city with an urban-growth boundary, and make it a more vital urban center?" says Ralf Konietzko of CSS Architecture in Santa Rosa. Konietzko was formerly on the City Design Review Board.

"New Urbanism is interesting in that it may be for everyone," Konietzko continues. "For example, if you live out in the suburbs and the kids are at home and need to visit their friends, they need to get in an automobile and be driven somewhere. If they lived in a more walkable, dense neighborhood, they could perhaps walk themselves.

"It also is something that could be quite good for seniors. If you are no longer able to drive your automobile, but you live in a neighborhood where you can walk to the grocery store [and] the drugstore, that still gives you some independence and vitality. Even if you can't get outside, if you could look down on the street and watch the activity below you, you're still engaged in the world.

How would this affect businesses?

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," says Konietzko. "If there are no retailers open, nobody's going to go downtown. To buy a CD, to buy a frozen yogurt, to browse through a bookstore--it's difficult to do that later at night. Railroad Square has realized that there is great synergy by having more restaurants in one location. And with the [food and wine center] coming there, I think that could help quite a bit."

"We'd like to get more housing downtown. And housing downtown brings different types of businesses. You'd need a grocery store downtown, there might be entertainment, restaurants would do much better," says Bowie. "There's less crime, because you have people there 24 hours a day. You just want to see activity. That would be our long-term vision, to see people at all hours, all days of the week downtown. Santa Rosa has grown so fast. A lot of people who have lived here forever think of it as a little town, and it's not. It's a big city population. Those changes are sometimes frightening to people who have always been around."

Anchoring the Cultural District

Make a memo on your 2007 calendar: "New Sonoma County Museum opens." Hopefully, the Sonoma County Museum's ambitious plans for expansion will have by then become reality. The museum's current home--the old 1908 Santa Rosa Post Office--will be set in an enclave of galleries, performance spaces, and a street-level cafe and store to kick-start Santa Rosa's so-called cultural district into high gear, all with one dramatic building, a signature statement for both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan was chosen from six leading international architects to design the new museum. Maltzan is known for his critically praised designs for the temporary Museum of Modern Art in Queens, as well as a renovation of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

"The museum itself is going to make up for the fact that Santa Rosa does not have a utilized public square--not like Healdsburg or Sonoma, where cultural events occur in their town square," says Natasha Boas, director of the Sonoma County Museum. "So this museum is in some ways going to become the town square."

The intention is to shift the major flow of downtown automobile traffic to B Street, which would place emphasis on Seventh and B streets--the museum's "anchor corner"--and also stream more traffic past the mall.

"It's a city block that can be the connectivity that really makes up for the problems of the shopping mall," Boas says, pointing to Zaha Hadid's design for the Cincinnati Museum, which has been heralded as a great boon for downtown Cincinnati. "The pavement actually goes inside the building so that the pedestrian is drawn into it. Michael's design is going to be very similar in that it will draw the pedestrian inside and will allow the visitor to experience Santa Rosa's downtown in a new way.

"It's sort of a healing process making up for the '70s. The mall did a lot of damage to the city, and this is a way that the museum sees itself as correcting those errors."

At a May 13 city council meeting, Maltzan spoke of the diversity of the museum's location--the historic St. Rose district, the mall, and the gateway to the heart of the businesses downtown. "In the museum, I think we've found an incredible bridge," he said. "The museum is trying to be a bridge first to what Santa Rosa and the county has been, as well as what the county and Santa Rosa has the hopes of becoming."

"Santa Rosa's North Bay, it's wine country, it's one of the wealthiest counties in the country--it's sort of the last bastion of building. It's gotta build something." Boas says. "Architecture has become the signature for towns today. And we absolutely need it."

Return of the Creek

Santa Rosa does not have to rely on new attractions to draw people downtown, though; there's a natural feature right under our feet that's slowly coming back to life. For flood-control reasons, Santa Rosa Creek was channeled in the 1960s from downtown to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Concrete on the sides and bottom destroyed the environment for salmon and steelhead trout, while the downtown portion was diverted underground, emerging at Santa Rosa Avenue.

In 1989 a group of concerned people formed the nonprofit Committee for Restoring Santa Rosa Creek. Eventually, they wrote up a plan for naturalizing the creek and building paths alongside it. "In the last several years, we've been concentrating on funding it and then designing and building it," says Santa Rosa City Council member Steve Rabinowitsh, who's been very active with the creek restoration. So far, the section behind Vineyard Creek has been restored, with bike paths on the north side and a walking path on the south side. The long-term goal of the project is to take out all of the remaining channel and make it natural, and to build a new park across from City Hall on Santa Rosa Avenue.

"One day, we may wind up building a new City Hall, and when we do that, we would unearth the creek and make it natural," says Rabinowitsh. "But that's kind of a long-term project."

Much closer to realization is the connecting of an off-street, seven-mile bikeway linking Santa Rosa Creek to the existing Prince Greenway, and going all the way out to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. By October or November, that bike path project is projected to be completed. There are also efforts with the county to connect Prince Greenway to the Joe Rodota trail leading to Sebastopol, to create a regional bike path.

The benefits of the creek restoration will hopefully not just be environmental. "We're upgrading the area," Rabinowitsh says. "It's a very important economic development project. It's the only good pedestrian connection between downtown and Railroad Square--and it is a bikeway.

"The visitor center sends people down there because it's a very beautiful place that I think one day will define Santa Rosa, this reborn creek which goes to the heart of the city. There are some commercial buildings along it that one day I believe will become businesses that serve the people along the creek--restaurants, bike rentals, ice cream shops. All of those kinds of things you see in San Luis Obispo, Boulder, or San Antonio. . . . Those projects have really helped spur economic development. And tourism. And I think this one will too."

There's also a lot of public art along the creek trails--murals and benches painted by students of ArtStart, and even a light sculpture on the bridge on the greenway. The art is part of an art walk that goes from the visitors' bureau past the creek and over to City Hall. "We're continuing to add to that, but we have 15 pieces or so that are forming a whole spine of public art," Rabinowitsh says. "It's another attempt to define Santa Rosa and its image as a community of the arts. It has a ways to go, but we are working on downtown to make it more of a cultural center."

"There's a real interest in making the downtown a place for its residents, as well as for other people that come through here," Konietzko says. "I think it's a successful business district, and we're optimistic about taking what we have and turning it around. There are a lot of ideas out there and there's been thousands of dollars put towards studies, but I think we're right on the verge of really incorporating some of those ideas and moving it forward."

Santa Rosa Main Street's Bowie, who's only lived here for a year, points out that newcomers and decade-long residents see different Santa Rosas. "When I came to Santa Rosa, to me, it looked like a bustling downtown. People who have been here for a long time see things they've been putting up with for years that they don't like. And I don't see that--I see a real positive side of the downtown. I think our downtown is pretty, it's clean. . . . I've been in a lot of cities, and I think they just don't recognize that they have a jewel here. I see this city just getting better and better."

If actions come out of all these many plans, Santa Rosa can't stay a zombie for long.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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