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One recent morning retired educators and uniformed police officers ate beside each other around the packed communal table at the new Parish Cafe in downtown Santa Rosa.

The table is a nod to the Southern hospitality of New Orleans, said owner Rob Lippincott. The reclaimed redwood slab encourages strangers to rub shoulders as they feast on beignets and po-boys and “get to know your neighbors.”

Lippincott and his wife Karla recently opened their bustling Fourth Street eatery at a time when the city of Santa Rosa has in a fashion set its own communal table. That would be the reunified Old Courthouse Square, which is drawing crowds together for political rallies, downtown markets and other community gatherings.

The $10.5 million square project opened last spring. It was an idea that had been debated in various iterations for a quarter century.

The last year has been good for some merchants and tough for others. But downtown promoters generally say the new square has done what it was supposed to do: bring more people into the city core and spur more investment there, including new restaurants and a key hotel project.

“I think we’re at the dawn,” said Peter Rumble, president/CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce. Much still must be done, but big community events, an influx of restaurants and the coming hotel on the square represent “rays of hope.”

The new happenings in the square include Saturday’s Ironman triathlon, which brought in 2,000 athletes from 43 countries. It was the second year the competition has been staged in downtown.

What boosters like Rumble want next downtown is more people, especially residents. And that goal comes as an increasing number of civic leaders want Santa Rosa’s downtown to play a major role in the effort to add as many as 25,000 housing units in Sonoma County, where the loss of 5,000 homes in last year’s wildfires has exacerbated a housing shortage.

“We’ve got to bring more jobs and more housing downtown,” said Chris Grabill, director of programs and development for the environmental group Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Conservation Action and Greenbelt Alliance made news last week by joining with the chamber and other business organizations in calling on the county government to move its offices downtown, freeing up a large portion of its north Santa Rosa campus for up to 1,400 housing units. The collaboration with the environmental groups appears to be a first for the chamber, Rumble said.

For his part, Grabill maintained downtown is the right place for new housing projects, linking people to jobs and public transportation while preserving open space outside cities. He said environmental leaders have a responsibility to support more residential construction, including a proposed housing bond to pay for it. And he lamented that “I’m losing friends monthly” who are moving out of the county “because they don’t see a future” here due to the high cost of housing.

Santa Rosa leaders have tried several steps to invigorate downtown over the last half century, a time when suburban shopping malls and office parks drained off hordes of consumers and workers. Urban development here included strengthening and renovating historic Fourth Street buildings, bringing in the Santa Rosa Plaza downtown shopping center and refashioning Fourth Street into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.

The efforts helped downtown remain an important physical space for community events. And over the last 15 years the city center has added a significant number of restaurants, outdoor eateries and pubs, among them the popular Russian River Brewing Co., which draws throngs each winter for its Pliny the Younger beer release.

However, keeping a business going downtown can remain difficult.

Kevin Sprenger, co-owner of Sprenger’s Restaurant and Taproom, said he will shut his doors, likely next month. Revenues fell from over $900,000 in 2015 to slightly over $600,000 last year. Part of that drop reflects new competition in a region that has experienced significant growth in pubs and brew houses, he said. But he also points to what over 1,000 people have told him about two things that keep them away from downtown.

“They don’t like dealing with the homeless,” he said. “And they don’t like the parking.”

Sprenger, who this year plans to open the Lincoln Avenue Brewery and Beer Garden in Calistoga, said downtown has a lot of potential, but needs thousands more people living there.

Other merchants acknowledged their businesses took hits from the wildfires and from the earlier construction project to reunite the square, which included the addition and removal of streets.

“It’s been a tough year for us in downtown,” said Sonu Chandi, president of Chandi Hospitality Group, a major downtown restaurant business.

Business at Stout Brothers Irish Pub is down 25 to 30 percent over the past 18 months, Chandi said. That is one of four downtown properties the family-owned business operates, including a coming Indian cuisine restaurant slated for Fourth Street.

Chandi Hospitality has sponsored both New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations since the square reopened. The outlook for downtown remains positive, Chandi said, “but it’s going to take time.”

Nonetheless, Chandi and other business people said the redesign of the square was a necessary step in improving the business environment and in providing a key civic space. They pointed to the renovation underway to turn the 110-year-old Empire Building into a hotel, slated to open later this year. They also pointed to several new eateries that have opened in the last year.

Even events like the weekend’s Ironman competition wouldn’t have come to downtown without the renovation of Old Courthouse Square, they said.

“What I see is the investment in the square is already starting to pay off,” said Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage Co. and a longtime square proponent.

Along with new business activity, the square has made for improved Wednesday night markets, hosted large political rallies and even been used as a Halloween party for children who lost homes in the fires.

In 38 years, said Schwartz, “I have never seen a Halloween event downtown.” He voiced hope it would become an annual tradition.

City leaders also insisted the square is proving itself a key achievement.

“It sends a signal that downtown matters, that downtown is on the upswing,” said Mayor Chris Coursey.

The city now is considering ways to encourage new residential construction downtown.

“One of the ways we can help everyone in Sonoma County is to create more housing,” Coursey said.

The city is in negotiations with one downtown property owner for a possible mixed-used development on a parking lot at Fifth and B streets, a project that could include the building that now houses The Press Democrat offices at 427 Mendocino Ave. And city officials soon are expected to seek proposals from developers to build a new mixed-use project on the site of the city’s Third Street Garage next to the U.S. Bank building.

If county supervisors agree to relocate their workers and offices downtown, the move would provide a significant boost in economic activity and in demand for downtown housing, said developer Hugh Futrell. His holdings include the hotel project, the five-story office building on Third Street that houses Luther Burbank Savings and four multi-family projects built in downtown and Railroad Square.

But Futrell cautioned that new downtown housing is likely to be limited due to the difficulties involved in such projects and to the jump in construction costs after the wildfires.

“Even though rents are up, costs are up even more,” Futrell said. He said the downtown is on track to gain 500 to 700 housing units over the next five to 10 years. That includes two of his projects, for which construction drawings are now being prepared.

For downtown businesses, a significant next step involves the formation of a community benefit district that would provide funds for maintenance, promotions and safety officers in and near the square. The district would assess fees from the owners of nearly 160 properties in a 25-block area bounded roughly by Highway 101 and Seventh, E and First streets.

Property owners have until Friday to turn in petitions in support of the district. If the proposal gains the support of 30 percent of those owners, based upon their assessed property values, the City Council will be asked to allow the owners to vote by ballot on the matter this summer.

Supporters said the district would provide the money needed to present a downtown that is clean, safe and filled with regular activities that appeal to city residents. They said it would send a signal that the city center is on the upswing.

“Somebody needs to be seriously looking after the interests of downtown,” Chandi said.

While they conceded the future is far from certain, business people suggested that many Americans, especially millennials, now want to live and frequent urban spaces. And closer to home, the recent wildfires appear to have increased the value that many county residents place in community.

“People want a sense of belonging,” said Keven Brown, whose family has owned Corrick’s stationary and gift store on Fourth Street for 103 years. Of downtown, he said, “We are the history of Santa Rosa.”

Lippincott, who opened his first Parish Cafe in Healdsburg, admitted he wondered what he was getting into when he first visited Fourth Street and found a homeless person sleeping in the doorway of what is now his second restaurant. The decision to come to Santa Rosa was the right one, he said. But what made up his mind was the news that the City Council had decided to rebuild the downtown square.

“I said, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting for,’” he recalled.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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