Ask any three Santa Rosans about downtown, and you're likely to get five different opinions.
But most longtime residents would agree that the city's downtown has been the victim of three historic wrongs which now complicate efforts to create one vibrant, pedestrian-friendly retail core. Those are:
; Allowing the expansion of Highway 101 to be built over and through the center of downtown rather than to the west, which, as Gaye LeBaron has reported, was what state engineers wanted. But the business community disagreed, contending that the highway needed to be closer so motorists could exit — and spend money. A Press Democrat editorial in 1948 called it the year "the city was sawed in half."
; Allowing the Santa Rosa Plaza to be built where it is in 1982, further bisecting downtown and preventing the easy pass-through of foot and bike traffic to Railroad Square.
; And tearing down the courthouse in 1966 and allowing traffic to connect from Santa Rosa Avenue to Mendocino Avenue, transforming downtown into a place where people are more inclined to go through than go to.
The city can do little about the first two obstacles. But after years of debate and analysis, Santa Rosa now has a plan and an opportunity to move forward with addressing the third. It should.
On Sept. 10, the City Council is scheduled to evaluate and take public comment on an environmental impact report on restoring courthouse square, creating a city center that would bring a sense of place and provide what downtown has been missing for years — more people.
The plan calls for transforming the area into a usable plaza with pavilions, exhibit space, picnic areas, new benches and a half-acre of gathering space for fairs, festivals and other events.
It's a worthy plan. But there are two major obstacles. One is that the city has little money for this $14 million project.
What funds the city has is for upgrading aging water and sewer lines that run beneath the square. And that work needs to be done soon. If the city decides not to move forward with reunification, Santa Rosa would be left restoring the status quo. As Mayor Scott Bartley said in a meeting with The Press Democrat Editorial Board, "Why would we want to spend the funds to put back what we don't want? It's a waste of money?"
We agree. But given that the city has already made the commitment not to use general fund money on this project, the rest of the money would need to come from somewhere. That somewhere is from the public.
Once the EIR is certified, Bartley plans to reactivate the Courthouse Square Committee and get going on a fundraising campaign, one that calls for building the square in phases. Will that be successful? We don't know. But that brings us to the second major obstacle. We recognize that the opposition to the reunification plan is formidable.
The committee has its work cut out for it not only in raising funds but in selling the plan to the public. But to those who accept the idea that the key to breathing more life into downtown is to give it breathing — and walking space — then it's an idea that sells itself.
Healdsburg, Sonoma and Windsor all get their sense of identity from their central squares. Petaluma is beginning to see the fruits of its efforts to rejuvenate its downtown. Santa Rosa long ago gave away much of its identity and downtown to motorists. This unifying plan helps take it back. Let's do it.