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Old Courthouse Square reunification project gets new look

An artist's rendering of the reunified Old Courthouse Square design that includes decorative LED light features. The Santa Rosa City Council will consider the revisions to the $10 million project at its meeting on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. ( CARLILE-MACY )

KEVIN MCCALLUM,

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.

Another reason was for fire access, with the fire department wanting to make sure it had room for a ladder truck to reach the buildings, he said.

While there will be fewer decorative trees, the design team has put a lot of effort into ensuring they are attractive and prominent, he said. The plan calls for a crepe myrtle on each corner of the x-shaped patch of grass at the center of the square, with circular benches around their bases, accentuated by nearby decorative light posts.

As luck would have it, the team found four mature crepe myrtles at Sweet Lane Wholesale Nursery in Rohnert Park that had been dug up from another job and planted in boxes, Nichols said.

The bulk of the shade trees, which are on order from a nursery in Oregon, will be a common urban tree called a London planetree.

Tight groupings of the trees on either side of the square will be planted in permeable material designed to encourage root growth and act to clean stormwater, Nichols said. The trees will eventually create shade for the picnic and playground areas, he said.

Other changes include:

­—The square tree groves have been made more triangular to improve walking paths through the plaza

— Planters around the redwood trees are being shrunk to make more space for pedestrian circulation.

— The rebuilt Ruth Asawa fountain has been moved from the northern end of the square to the southern end, to act as a stage backdrop and noise dampener for traffic.

— Four electric vehicle charging stations will be added at locations to be determined.

One of the central debates about the design of the square has been striking the right balance between openness and flexibility and the desire for permanent seating and shade trees, said Jason Nutt, the city’s director of Transportation and Public Works.

If the council wants, it could decide to build the square without the four crepe myrtles and benches in the center and then add them later if the area seems too barren, Nutt said.

At Nichols put it, “There’s open, and then there’s vacuous.”

The city received four bids for the work, ranging from $6.5 million to $7.2 million. The winning bidder was Thompson Builders Corp. of Novato, for a total construction contact of $7.1 million, including a tight 10 percent contingency.

That would bring the total project cost to date, minus city staff time and the new fountain, which is slated for a later phase, to $8.9 million, according to the city.

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