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Five million bus passengers travel through Santa Rosa's Transit Mall annually, but starting in July more than 1 million of them likely will be catching or getting off their bus in the middle of First Street instead.

That's when the city plans to begin a $2 million overhaul of its block-long, transfer station sandwiched between the Roxy Theater and the AT&T building.

Jason Parrish, an administrative services officer with the transit department, told the City Council on Tuesday the city has $2 million in federal, state and regional grants to renovate the bus station, which has seen few improvements since it was built in 1988 despite being the busiest transfer station in the North Bay.

"We're looking at replacing everything but the roadbed," Parrish said.

Transit Director Bob Dunlavey said the mall is plagued by sidewalks that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, its shelters are outdated and its security cameras and outdoor lighting need to be beefed up.

Dunlavey said 500 buses — CityBuses, Sonoma County Transit and Golden Gate Transit buses — carrying 12,000 to 15,000 passengers pass through the mall daily making it the busiest in the North Bay.

He said the renovation, expected to take four months, cannot be done safely if passengers are in the area. An average of about 400,000 passengers pass through the transfer station monthly.

"The conflicts are just too much if you have construction equipment and crews in the middle of 12,000 to 15,000 people and 500 buses a day. There is potential for disaster," he said.

But while there was agreement the transit mall must be temporarily moved the council rejected a proposal that a section of Sonoma Avenue — a stretch traveled by 10,000 motorists daily — be blocked off to accommodate the facility.

The one-block section from Santa Rosa Avenue to D Street is sandwiched between Santa Rosa City Hall to the north and Luther Burbank's Home and Gardens to the south, a location most council members found objectionable.

Parrish said four-lane Sonoma Avenue was judged to be the best of six sites studied, partly because of its width and length that could more easily handle the number of buses and passengers.

But council members were more concerned about the location's tourist-drawing neighbor.

"I'm worried what impact a transit mall might have," said Councilman Ernesto Olivares, echoing concerns of other council members that the emission-belching buses would drive away visitors, including those who might rent the Burbank gardens for a wedding.

Councilwoman Jane Bender also worried "some rather aggressive people who hang out at the transit mall" might find the adjoining gardens a prime target for vandalism.

Councilman Gary Wysocky raised concerns about blocking off a major public safety route, Sonoma Avenue, used by police and firefighters to get across town quickly.

The council, with Mayor Susan Gorin and Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi absent, agreed a more suitable although less roomy site would be First Street, a two-lane street that bisects City Hall to the south and several city-owned buildings to the north.

The council directed Parrish to return March 30 with a more formal study of the pros and cons of shifting the transfer station to First Street but indicated it likely be their final choice.

You can reach Staff Writer Mike McCoy at 521-5276 or mike.mccoy@pressdemocrat.com.