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Put Courthouse Square on fast track

As Gaye LeBaron spelled out in her Sunday column (“Square has divided Santa Rosa for 160 years”), the vision of a central public space dates back to an 1854 map that clearly shows a square “plaza” in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa.

As she notes, the development of this public space was somewhat organic. “General Otho Hinton, an attorney who came from Maryland and a military career, took a paternalistic interest in the space, garnering donations and work parties for landscaping, trees, ornamental wrought-iron fences and benches, a pavilion, and a cannon to be fired at appropriate occasions,” she wrote.

Tonight, the Santa Rosa City Council has an opportunity to restore not only much of that original vision for a central gathering place but also some of its rudimentary development — sans the cannon.

The council essentially has two choices. It can stick with a detailed development plan approved in October for the square, which will likely take years, cost $17 million and will require some major as-yet unidentified donations from the community. Or, as encouraged by a group including downtown merchants, Chamber of Commerce representatives and property owners, the city can put the first phase of the project on the fast track. The design and funding plan by the Coalition to Restore Courthouse Square calls for a much more basic project, one that can be built for $4 million — for the first phase — and, if authorized by the council, could be completed by the end of next year.

This is not a choice. Santa Rosa has been talking about reuniting Courthouse Square for 20 years. It can’t afford to wait another two decades trying to raise the funds needed to create a square with all the bells and whistles — and a 25-foot water wall. The window of opportunity is open now as new businesses are emerging seeking pedestrian-friendly environments. Let’s build the public space first, as this coalition suggests, and then search for funding to complete it. Who knows? The city may find, after the plaza is put to use, that it can live without the water wall.

As LeBaron notes, at one time, the square was the heart of downtown public gatherings. “Existing photographs show the scope of the plaza’s importance to the community — Maypole dances in the 1930s; war bond rallies in the ’40s; the Civil Defense “spotters’ ” shack on the roof in World War II, which followed not so far behind the big decision to take the cannon off the lawn and sell it for scrap metal (to Japan!),” she wrote.

It’s time to restore the central importance of Courthouse Square to the downtown area and to the community. Let’s end the debate and end the wait.

Another water grab

Yet again, congressional Republicans are trying to use California’s drought to undermine environmental protection of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and, in turn, the salmon fisheries that support coastal communities. A bill pushed through the House last week without so much as a public hearing would stack the deck in favor of Central Valley agricultural interests. It would repeal a salmon restoration program on the San Joaquin River, limit the federal government’s ability to protect commercial and tribal fisheries on the Trinity and Klamath rivers and increase diversions into the canals serving valley growers and Southern California cities.

The bill isn’t likely to get out of the Senate, and if it does, President Barack Obama has threatened a veto.

There is a better alternative: Rep. Jared Huffman’s crowd-sourced drought bill. All interested parties are invited to participate, and Huffman’s bill already includes one provision of the GOP bill: expedited review of new water storage facilities. Unfortunately, Big Ag and its allies in Congress have shown no interest in negotiating.

Valley growers are a major food source for the nation. They’re also the biggest water users in California, and they can’t grab more at the expense of everyone else, using the drought as an excuse to ignore science and other needs for a limited resource.

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