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Six years after Santa Rosa settled on a plan to reunify Old Courthouse Square, the city is no closer to being able to afford turning the bifurcated plaza into a $14 million downtown "living room."

It has, however, recently published an environmental report describing in the greatest detail yet just what it would take to pull off a remodel of that magnitude.

Traffic would be rerouted off Mendocino Avenue, dozens of trees would be removed, contaminated soils would likely be uncovered, and nearby businesses would be disrupted during construction, according to the draft environmental report released earlier this month.

But once the dust settles, the heart of downtown would be restored to its original layout with a unified central plaza suitable for concerts, art shows, farmers markets and a range of other public activities, according to the report.

Mayor Scott Bartley said he started out a skeptic of the project but has since "done a complete 180," fully supporting reunification and the design chosen by a city committee in 2007.

"My feeling is we've got to make this work, and I'm absolutely confident it's workable," Bartley said.

The good news from the report is that there were no major surprises, with most of the impacts foreseeable ones common to major public construction projects, Bartley said.

The bad news is the city doesn't have any money to actually build the thing.

A few years ago, the city was counting on the sale of the former AT&T building for about $2 million in seed money toward construction of the first phase of the project.

But since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies, the money from that sale, if consummated, will be dispersed to other taxing districts, such as the schools.

"That money all went up in smoke," said Rick Moshier, the city's director of Transportation and Public Works.

That leaves the city with just $119,000 raised years ago for the project, plus some limited funding for the restoration of streets or sidewalks after the aging water and sewer lines beneath the square are replaced, Moshier said.

The shortfall means the project will have to be built in stages and it will only happen with the help of private donations, Bartley said.

Once the report is certified and the council approves the final project design, Bartley said he plans to reactivate the council's Courthouse Square Committee, appoint some new faces with fundraising experience, and start making the pitch to the community.

"We recognize we have to go and act like a nonprofit does in the private sector and do a good old-fashioned capital campaign," Bartley said.

Private donations helped build the Prince Memorial Greenway, Finley Community Center and, most recently, the Person Senior Wing, Moshier noted.

Before the recession, Bartley said he and others envisioned raising the entire $14 million to build the project in one go. The new financial realities mean the fundraising and construction will have to be phased, Bartley said.

"I think we can break it into chunks that are doable," he said.

The first phase of the project would be to block off Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, replace the road with a layer of decomposed granite, install new water and sewer lines under the east and west sides of the plaza, and rebuild Hinton and Exchange streets. A portion of the Rosenberg fountain in the northeast corner would be removed.

The second phase would involve the removal of the bandstand, raised lawn and Ruth Asawa fountain, whose panels would be reintroduced into the new square. This is also when the majority of the trees would be removed.

Of the 128 trees in the existing square, 91 would be removed, including five coast redwood trees large enough to be considered "heritage" under the city's rules. The large Bunya Bunya tree, which was on the grounds of the original courthouse, will be preserved.

About 74 new trees would be planted to replace the five heritage trees alone, some in other locations such as city parks. Care would be taken to ensure disruption for any endangered species of bats and nesting birds would be minimal.

At this point, the signature features of the new square would be installed, including the water wall and light arbor. The water wall would be a plate glass fountain 25 feet tall by 85 feet long. As envisioned by SWA Group of Sausalito, whose design was selected by a committee in 2007, the wall also could be used — when the water is turned off — as a stage or projection screen.

The light arbor would consist of a series of small lights strung high above the central half-acre gathering space. They would run east to west between 16 pylons up to 35 feet high. Hardscape sidewalks and benches also would be installed in this phase.

Finally, the third phase would involve the installation of four pavilions for smaller exhibits or gatherings, picnic areas and restrooms.

Throughout the construction, use of heavy bulldozers will be restricted within 25 feet of historic buildings to minimize potential harm to the structures, such as the Empire and Kress buildings.

Engineers also will have to plan to run into contaminated soil, which the report indicates is likely to be present.

An environmental study found several areas of soils contaminated by petroleum products. There have been at least three gas stations facing the square in its history, the latest on the corner of Third Street and Santa Rosa Avenue where the Bank of America building is located.

In addition, the original courthouse building was heated by boilers that were typically fed by underground fuel oil tanks, which the project might come across, the report found.

The city performed the extra environmental study because it didn't want to get halfway through the project only to discover a significant contamination issue. The test results are typical of many downtown sites and should not prove extraordinarily expensive to deal with, Moshier said.

"I'd be surprised if there wasn't any," Moshier said.

Public comments on the 193-page document will be accepted through Sept. 16. A public hearing before the City Council starts at 5 p.m. Sept. 10.

For more information visit: http://ci.santa-rosa.ca.us/departments/communitydev/Pages/ReunificationofCourthouseSquare.aspx

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

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