The fenced-off block in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa is looking less like a construction site and more like the new incarnation of Old Courthouse Square.
Most of the trees are planted, the new streets are nearly finished, benches and picnic tables are in place, and sod is about to be rolled across a central lawn framed by granite salvaged from the historic courthouse that gave the square its name.
A dedication ceremony is scheduled for April 29, with the Downtown Market set to begin its 2017 season at the square five days later.
In the first official map of Santa Rosa, the 1.5-acre square marked the center of the city. Today, about 160 years later, the reunified square can accelerate downtown’s economic renewal.
Delivering on that potential will depend a great deal on what happens after the construction crews and the fences are gone.
The square can be a popular venue for farmers’ markets, concerts and other gatherings, with ripple effects spreading across downtown and even Railroad Square.
But that won’t happen if the square is littered with trash, defaced by vandals or becomes a magnet for panhandlers and vagrants.
Some of the downtown business and property owners who persuaded the city to move ahead with long-stalled reunification plans are crafting a plan to ensure that people feel safe and welcome there. Moreover, they’re prepared to contribute about $500,000 a year toward that goal.
The approach is simple, and it has a track record of success in San Francisco, New York and other cities. Property owners would tax themselves to create a property-based public improvement district. The district would be responsible for programming at the square, assist with upkeep and maintenance and hire “ambassadors,” whose duties would include answering visitors’ questions and providing security and calling police if necessary. They also would look for trash and other problems in the square and on nearby streets.
In return, they want the city to tighten its rules for panhandling and camping downtown, including the potential for misdemeanor charges for repeat offenders.
Hugh Futrell, who converted the AT&T bunker on Third Street into office space, and other backers of the downtown plan emphasize that the homeless wouldn’t be rousted out of the area. Indeed, the business group is offering to join in ongoing outreach efforts to help homeless people find housing and other services.
“People have a constitutional right to sit on a bench,” Futrell said in a meeting with The Press Democrat’s Editorial Board.
Success stories for the business-improvement districts include Union Square and Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco and Times Square in New York. Smaller communities, including St. Helena and Carlsbad, are prospering with the same mechanism.
We’re pleased that downtown property and business owners want to remain engaged after the square is reunified, and we urge the City Council to give their proposal careful consideration.
The council also would be wise to postpone action on higher parking rates and longer enforcement hours. It is getting harder to park at peak hours because downtown is a more popular destination than it has been for a long time. The new square should draw even more people. Let’s not give them a reason to stay away.