Reunified Old Courthouse Square brings hope to downtown Santa Rosa businesses
Santa Rosa restaurateur José Navarro enjoys a rare second-floor perch, one offering an unobstructed view 400 feet across downtown’s new square to the front of the domed clock tower rising atop the Empire Building.
“I’m excited for the square because now we get to have shows and events that we couldn’t do before,” said Navarro, standing last week in the nearly completed Vertice, an upstairs cocktail lounge on the square that will feature Peruvian tapas and drinks. The draw from such events, he said, “brings everybody into downtown.”
Business people like Navarro are keeping an eye on both the reunified Old Courthouse Square and the gleaming white Empire Building on its western edge. Both properties speak to their hopes for a new era in the downtown’s 150-year history.
The new square ties together a sizable public space that had been cut in two by auto traffic for half a century. And the 109-year-old Renaissance Revival Empire Building, one of the city’s most recognizable structures, is slated next year to become an upscale hotel. To business people, the two places together represent the promise of a city center that can attract people in ways that haven’t happened in decades.
“I do think our best days are ahead of us, and having Courthouse Square and a hotel is enormous,” said Keven Brown, whose family has owned Corrick’s stationary and gift store on Fourth Street for 102 years. The united square, he said, “is the way we’re all going to fall in love with Santa Rosa again.”
If you see Brown and other longtime merchants doing cartwheels on the square Saturday at the official opening, just consider that they’ve weathered some long down times. Most of the last half-century will be remembered for the rise of suburban shopping centers and the painful decline of downtown as a retail force.
And while significant opportunities and physical improvements came to the city center in that period, they rarely came quickly or easily. Exhibit A is the square’s reunification, an idea that residents, merchants and civic leaders have debated for the better part of 25 years.
Even in that, some see a silver lining. Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage Co. on Fourth Street, said the square’s current design is much improved over earlier proposals.
“This didn’t get cheaper, but it got better,” Schwartz said of the $10.5 million project.
One key feature for economic vitality, he said, is having streets on all sides of the square, similar to the plazas in Sonoma and Healdsburg. Another is the LED lighting system. Schwartz likened its brightness to the effect on night games at AT&T Park in San Francisco. “It’s like daylight.”
Fourteen months after tree cutters kicked off the reunification project by clearing 90-plus trees, the new square is poised to open to the public.
Not everyone in the city is applauding the final results, but downtown business leaders praise the new space. A half-dozen of them maintained the square has now become valuable enough that nearby landlords and business owners soon will agree to tax themselves to keep it clean, safe and filled with the type of events that draw crowds.
“It finally gives us a real center to the city,” said Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, which took up offices a year ago on the square.
The chamber is working with merchants, landlords and the city in an effort to create two new downtown entities to help with the square’s operation. One, an improvement district, would assess landlords a fee to provide for the security and maintenance there. The second, an improvement area, would collect money from downtown businesses to promote and market events.
Support for the square project comes not only from longtime downtown merchants like Brown and Schwartz but also from a younger generation of business people who have shown they can attract patrons to the area’s pubs and restaurants.
“I’m excited to see some new life brought into downtown,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who with her husband Vinnie have operated the popular Russian River Brewing Company pub on Fourth Street for 13 years.
The couple broke ground Friday on a $35 million brewery and brewpub in Windsor. Even so, Natalie Cilurzo insisted the Santa Rosa pub “isn’t going anywhere” and “keeping people downtown is important.”
Downtown has long been a place marked by significant renewal efforts, a response to forces both human and physical. Over a century ago, the city center was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake made rubble of the original courthouse and a good part of the retail district.