The final design for the soon-to-be reunified Old Courthouse Square project heads to the City Council for its blessing Tuesday night, the last public meeting scheduled before construction of the nearly $10 million project gets underway next month.
The meeting will be the first opportunity for the public to see the latest iteration of the reunification plan, which now features fewer trees, a new location for a rebuilt Ruth Asawa fountain, and better visibility of the historic Empire Building.
It also will be the first meeting since the city awarded a $7.1 million construction contract for the project. That figure is significantly below original estimates and one that makes it more likely the project will come in under its $10 million price tag.
“I’m proud of our team and really excited to be at this point, because it feels like we’re finally about to reunify the square,” said Curt Nichols, a partner at Santa Rosa engineering firm Carlile-Macy, which is designing the project.
The city hopes to begin construction at the end of May, after it finishes hosting the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race. It also hopes to finish the job by November, an admittedly aggressive construction schedule for such a complex project.
The plan is to permanently close Mendocino Avenue to traffic between Third Street and Fourth Street, build new streets with ample parking on either side of the square, and create a more open, flexible and inviting plaza similar to those in tourist meccas like Healdsburg and Sonoma.
The idea has been around for more than 20 years as a way to revitalize the downtown by creating a central gathering space large enough for public events and making the commercial spaces that ring the square more attractive to businesses.
But the effort only gained political traction last year when the City Council, pressured by downtown landlords, fast-tracked a simpler, cheaper version of the project and ordered it built in a single construction season.
A fast-and-furious design process followed, with the public largely telling the city to preserve as many of the towering redwood trees as possible.
Twenty-two of the 30 redwood trees in the square are being preserved, as is the massive bunya bunya specimen at the southern edge of the square. The rest of the 114 trees will be removed. About 20 of the largest ones have already fallen, much to the consternation of a passionate group of protesters. The rest will go during construction.
The number and location of the dozens of new trees to replace them is one of the key changes to the design. The original plan approved in January included 117 new trees, 64 shade trees and 53 decorative flowering trees. The new design has 87 trees, 25 percent fewer. This includes 75 shade trees, and just 12 decorative trees.
The reduction in the number of decorative trees was done for several reasons, Nichols said.
One was to improve the visibility of the historic and now largely vacant Empire Building. A significant number of the flowering trees were proposed for the area in front of and across the square from the structure, which some felt might be counter-productive to the effort to highlight its attractive architecture, Nichols said.