Seventeen years after Santa Rosa began talking about reunifying Old Courthouse Square, the City Council on Tuesday moved the project one step forward, though it still has a long way to go.
The council approved the final environmental impact report for the $14 million project, but key decisions about its final design and funding have yet to be resolved.
The report, a draft of which was first released in August, outlines in great detail how the project, which has been called the "linchpin" for the downtown's future, would affect the area both during and after construction.
The 1.5-acre square was split in two in 1966 and Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues connected through its center after the county courthouse was razed.
The reunification project, because the city doesn't have the funds, would be phased. First, the road between Third and Fourth streets would be replaced with a layer of decomposed granite. Traffic on the busy artery would be diverted around the newly unified plaza, mostly one block west to B Street.
Then, depending on the council's upcoming decision on the final design, new water and sewer lines could be installed on the east and west sides of the plaza and two former streets, Hinton and Exchange, could be rebuilt to create a Healdsburg-style central plaza.
Whether to restore those streets, just one of them or neither looms as a key decision for the council.
Some downtown merchants have said the two side streets would be too disruptive to existing businesses, particularly restaurants whose outdoor seating areas might become close to passing traffic.
Mayor Scott Bartley has cautioned against trying to rework a design selected in 2007 in part because of the reinstallation of the two side streets. But Councilman Gary Wysocky on Tuesday said he was pleased to see that the council would have the option of eliminating those streets from the project.
The next phase would see the bandstand removed, most of the trees — except for heritage species such as the Bunya Bunya tree — cut down, and the Ruth Asawa fountain dismantled. They would be replaced by a water wall 25 feet tall by 85 feet long and a 35-foot-high light arbor covering the central gathering space.
One of the most common concerns raised about the project during the environmental phase was the removal of the fountain that Asawa, a renowned Japanese-American artist from San Francisco, covered in four concrete friezes of historic scenes in 1987.
The city plans to relocate the artwork and display it in other parts of the new square. But that didn't satisfy resident Richard Canini, who called the friezes "an integral part of the fountain."
"I think your consultant would consider the Sistine Chapel chopped up and put down on planks in St. Peter's Square acceptable," Canini said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.