Gaye LeBaron: Santa Rosa's Railroad Square is a journey and a destination

Word around Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square is that the SMART train has turned the district into a “Destination,” using the capital D of the tourism industry.

And nary a winery in sight.

The “train people,” as one veteran shop owner termed the new visitors, seem to consider themselves “on an outing” - a little better dressed, much less hurried, more relaxed than the usual shoppers.

They arrive on the train, cruise through the stores in a leisurely manner, have lunch and, three hours later, take the “down train” home to Novato, San Rafael or points south.

And what’s more, they come back fairly often, having staked out their favorite restaurants and shops within an easy walk of the station.

I don’t know that this was one of the expectations for the return of the passenger train. Certainly, it was not anticipated so quickly. That’s the good news.

The bad news, as reported earlier this month, is that a 250-plus-unit development in SMART’s rail yard intended to provide affordable housing and boost train ridership, has fizzled.

It was the third “ambitious plan” for the area west of the tracks or on the old cannery site to be greeted with enthusiasm and then collapse since 2000.

But, true to its name, the shopping district with the railroad in its name just keeps chugging along.


IT’S NOT “big money” from out of town that has kept things going. Nor, sad to say, is it the promises city government has not been able to keep.

It’s the “pioneers” of the newly named Railroad Square of the mid-1970s. These brave souls, armed with a little capital and a lot of commercial courage, imagined, invested and revitalized an area known as “Lower Fourth Street” that had slid into a skid row - streets of vacant buildings, flophouse hotels, a perpetual rummage sale in the old macaroni factory and a number of bars that advertised “We Cash Pay Checks,” which is never a good sign.

In the ’70s it was about to be cut off from Courthouse Square and the uptown department stores by a six-block-long solid wall of shopping mall.

Vehicle access to the west side of town would be reduced to one grim underpass which, from the day it opened seemed dark, dirty and dangerous, or an S-shaped detour around the multilayered garage. Pedestrians had to walk through the mall or around it. Still do.

The city’s Cultural Heritage Board (which then doubled as the Civic Arts Commission) was granted the services of a consultant and created a “plan” for Lower Fourth, now officially known as Railroad Square.

First on the agenda was the replacement of the lost link with downtown, a way to evade the mall passage.

It has never happened.

Lawsuits delayed the mall opening for enough years that the promise of tax increments to pay for a viable linkage faded away.

In the ’90s, plans for the Prince Memorial Greenway offered hope - a pleasant creek walk with cafes and a flower shop, a candy shop, a hotel terrace, along with a couple of smaller footpaths, tastefully landscaped, leading to Third Street and Railroad Square.

Didn’t happen.

The hotel planners, spooked by the increase of creek side indigents, turned their backs on the Greenway and moved a “ safe distance” away. The walkway ends on Railroad Street, out of sight and easy access of the square.

Fortunately there were property owners who saw potential and chose not to wait for the city to solve their problems - people like Nan Taylor, who bought a narrow grocery and liquor (maybe just beer and wine) store on the south side of Fourth Street and ran it for a time before creating Stage 1 of the Omelette Express.

Son Don Taylor doubled the size, and the weekend crowds overflowed onto the sidewalk and then walked off their big breakfasts browsing the classiest thrift shops in town run by the Welfare League and Sacks-on-the-Square benefiting Face-to-Face and Memorial Hospice.


THAT WAS a jump-start but the long distance drive was accomplished by organizers of HRRSQ, the Historic Railroad Square Association. There was the late Monty Montague who owned the Lee Brothers building at the corner of Wilson Street, the first commercial structure built after the 1906 earthquake; Dee Richardson, owner with her physician husband Harry of Whistlestop Antiques, the largest and most successful antique collective in town; Lynda Angell, a Trombetta family heir, with several significant properties, including the old Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad station (Read Chevy’s).

This “Gang of Three” got the association rolling, but they pulled a train of determined merchants behind them and the Square became a happening place as vacant stores were filled, old hotels refitted for restaurants, and auto repair shops and tobacco warehouses converted to boutique shops.

In 1979, the square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And, by the ’80s there was plenty of action - fancy food in the old Silver Dollar saloon, kitschy shops like Sweet Potato and Disguise the Limit, live jazz at Sweet Life where you could buy the chair you sat in, or the table or the coat rack.

You could rent a hot tub by the hour around the corner in the old-time theater building or watch “ladies” mud wrestling at a bar called Magnolia’s.

There were, and still are, special events - car shows, Dixieland jazz festivals, horse and buggy rides, the wild and crazy Handcar Regattas, and the beat goes on.


A CONVERSATION with Dee Richardson last week brought this note about the HRRSQ Association’s 40 years of dedication to the cause:

“You got me thinking about HRRSQ and all that we have actually accomplished over the years.

“Our mission has not varied too much: to save, preserve and promote. We have always been The Little Engine That Could - or more aptly, The Little Red Hen - in our efforts to move things along. If we wanted to get something done, we often did it ourselves, including: fund the restoration of the iconic water tower, purchase Peanuts statues, form an assessment district for parking under the freeway, street lights, banners, garbage cans, flower barrels and even a sign on the highway.

“We are fortunate to have property owners and merchants who really care about our historic district and have worked since 1975 to make a difference.”


THIS IS NOT to say that the city didn’t do what it could. Once it became clear the association’s energy would carry the day, the city underwrote bonds for the first-class renovation of La Rose Hotel and, after 20 years of negotiation with Southern Pacific, City Manager Ken Blackman struck a deal to purchase the railroad depot, which has made a first-rate Visitor’s Center.

However we frame this history, it is a tale of tenacity. Which is why this current multimillion dollar stumble doesn’t worry them much.

Unlike so many “old town” projects in America’s cities, Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square is not one of those Disneyland lookalikes created by a developer who can decide to pick up his toys and go home. Or put together what he imagines it looked like in the Victorian Age.

Rather, it is overseen by a unique group of energetic property owners who have doggedly pursued their own destiny - or, shall we say, “Destination?”

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