An eclectic group of developers and downtown Santa Rosa business owners is proposing an unusual public-private partnership it hopes can jumpstart the long-stalled reunification of Old Courthouse Square.
A group calling itself the "AD Hoc Committee — Courthouse Square" claims it could raise $10 million for the project and have construction underway as early as next year if the City Council turned the project over to its members.
"In short, we believe that given our creative energy, commitment to Santa Rosa and relevant experience we can complete this daunting project more quickly and more efficiently than any other party," the group wrote in a letter to the City Council earlier this month.
The proposal is raising eyebrows because the members of the group include business and property owners with interests downtown as well as backers with the financial heft to pull it off.
They include Steven Oliver, building contractor and art collector; Eric Anderson, a Santa Rosa native and New York City developer; and Kent Chilcott, a Santa Rosa-based planner and designer. The three men worked together on a failed bid in 2010 to transform the AT&T building into a boutique hotel, a plan that included plans for private development of the square.
Other members include restaurateurs such as Darren Chapple, an owner of La Rosa Tequileria & Grille on the square, and Giovanni Cerrone, an owner of Spinster Sisters on A Street; attorney Pat Grattan, whose office is on the square; Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street; and Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths.
The letter was sent to the City Council as part of the public comments on the environmental impact report on the reunification project that goes before the council Tuesday.
Eric Anderson declined to discuss the group's plans before they are presented to the City Council. A member of the group plans to read the letter to the council Tuesday, he said.
"Out of respect for the process and out of respect for the council, we want to talk about this but at the right time and place," Anderson said.
Mayor Scott Bartley said he hadn't spoken to anyone from the group or reviewed their plans.
But he said it wouldn't be the first time a private group floated ideas for developing the square. Years ago, a group proposed a parking garage beneath the square similar to Union Square in San Francisco. Another project, possibly a previous iteration of the current proposal, was bogged down by the restrictions inherent in turning over public land to a private developer, he said.
"We just can't say, 'Hey, you have a great idea. Here's this public property and we are giving it to you,'" Bartley said. "We have to have a public process."
That could still be a ways off. The public hearing on the draft environmental impact report for the project is Tuesday. Staff will respond to the public comments, and the city council will be asked to approve the final environmental report several weeks later. Then the council will discuss funding of the project, phasing and other considerations.
Nevertheless, Bartley said he is interested in learning more about the group's ideas.
"We've got to find new and creative ways of dealing with this stuff, so I'm open to any possibility," Bartley said. "Show me the numbers and show me how it works."