Gaye LeBaron: The 1969 quakes and Santa Rosa’s long bid to rebuild

I’ve written a lot about change lately - how World War II changed Sonoma County, how the community’s relationship to the police has changed - so much change in fact that a friend said last week, “I’m getting really tired of the word ‘change.’”

OK. Let’s try “earthquake?”

That word comes up so often in the ongoing discussions about the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, there is danger that it will become false history. Often spoken with complete conviction and assumed authority, it is said that the decision to put the street through the middle was made “after the 1969 earthquake knocked the courthouse down.”

That’s dramatic. But it isn’t true. The courthouse had been gone for six years and Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues had been conjoined almost as long, when the most damaging earthquake in the nation that year - two of them, actually, separated by 83 minutes and the smallest fraction of a point difference - set up Santa Rosa’s central district for its most extensive make-over since 1906.

With talk of earthquakes all around - Japan, Nicaragua most recently, and the brutally vivid map in the newspaper last month showing where the fault lies - it is worth a look back at the true impact of the twin quakes of Oct. 1, 1969, and the redevelopment they set in motion.

This went way beyond the courthouse square. Way beyond.

By the numbers: 101 buildings demolished, including 13 hotels (two large and 11 smaller, displacing several hundred full-time tenants).

Some landmarks were saved, refitted at considerable expense. At least one, the classic 1910 post office, wandered off, moved ever so slowly to Seventh Street to become our museum.

And, after 12 long years of controversy, 21 lawsuits, dozens of “Committees to Save” - the Occidental and Santa Rosa hotels, the California Theater, Levin’s Hardware, the missing sections of Fourth and Fifth streets - and literally hundreds of outraged letters to the editor and, finally, at long last “The Mall,” as we old folk still refer to the Santa Rosa Plaza, was open for business.

I sat down last week with the man in the middle of it all. In ’69, Ken Blackman was the city’s community development director, navigating an Urban Renewal project that had been underway since 1959.

As the earth shook and the veteran officials around him faded away - all too literally - Blackman, still in his 30s, was about to became a major player in the post-earthquake drama and a central figure in the city’s 20th century history.

Setting the scene for us last week, Blackman recalled that “Santa Rosa was a small community in ’69. No one took things too seriously. Life moved at a relatively slow pace, including city government. It was almost like clicking a light switch when the earthquake happened.”

He was right about that. City fathers were going about their business, which included a federally-funded renewal project begun some 10 years earlier which had redeveloped land, including the old Chinatown, between Third Street and the creek, Santa Rosa Avenue and E Street.

The southern edge became the site of a new city hall, built in the mid-60s over Santa Rosa Creek.

It was so successful that Blackman and the council, even before the earth moved, began talking of an expansion to the west of B Street and the freeway where there were a number of old business buildings. But Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was clear that it was not allowing expansion of existing programs.

Then came the earthquake - like a gift or a deathblow depending on your perspective, but certainly the “light switch,” as Blackman calls it.

Thus began a dozen years of civic, well, angst, for want of a better word. The first victim was Ray Baker, the longtime chief building inspector. Baker, Blackman says, “Found himself with just a couple of days to decide about occupancy. Was it safe to allow people back into some of the most seriously damaged structures? The department was just not equipped for this.

“Property owners, who hoped to get by with some caulking and painting, were of course, upset, when offered the choice of signs - one saying it may be unsafe, enter at your own risk, or an outright red tag, entry forbidden.”

Personal disasters mounted. Within a matter of months, Baker had a stroke and died soon after. George Minturn, the city manager, had a heart attack, returned to work briefly and then retired. The veteran fire chief, Gene Duignan, whose department was the lead in safety inspections, also became ill and died.

By the summer of 1970, Blackman had been named city manager.

He and the mayor at the time of the quake, lawyer Jack Ryersen, had already staged something of a coup, flying off to Washington immediately after the quake to plead for an extension of the Urban Renewal district.

Blackman still chuckles when he recalls that they learned a government trick from Congressman Don Clausen. “He set up a meeting with the HUD people in his office at 4:30. I was surprised and asked what time they quit for day. Clausen said ‘Five o’clock. You always want to make requests when they want to go home.’”

Between Clausen’s ploy and the Blackman/Ryersen pleas, the feds took pity and authorized $5 million for the redevelopment addition.

With a few dramatic exceptions, the downtown didn’t crumble the way it did in the much-stronger ’06 quake, but it shook loose a Pandora’s box of problems.

It began a decade of “issues,” including:

1. We learned a new and ominous acronym - URMs, shorthand for Unreinforced Masonry. Buildings where the floors and roofs were not connected to the walls could separate in a quake, causing the floors to “pancake,” as Blackman terms it, or simply to collapse.

A revised code approved in ’72, required that floors and roofs be securely tied to the floors.

“We started with the toughest one first,” Blackman said, recalling the issue with the Catholic diocese over St. Rose School. The inspections showed clearly that it was a classic URM building. But the church officials refused to accept it was unsafe, with the bishop not only moving his own office there to make his point but “demanding that I fire the building inspector,” as Blackman remembers and denouncing the code and its enforcers from the pulpit. Ultimately, the school was condemned and rebuilt near Cardinal Newman High School. Years later, the Ninth Street building was successfully retrofitted as church offices and a social hall.

2. Lawsuits and protests: Hugh Codding, a developer, councilman and former mayor at the time of the quake, had declared economic war on the downtown with Montgomery Village in the ’50s and Coddingtown in the ’60s. At first, he favored the request for federal money but quickly changed his mind when it became apparent that the “earthquake clean-up” would include a shopping mall. He filed the first of 21 lawsuits against the city, the federal agency, and prospective tenants. The suits not only delayed the opening of the 30-acre, $45 million Santa Rosa Plaza, by a dozen years but split the public’s opinion of the project, fostering organized protests and no-end of street corner arguments.

Interestingly, Codding, who was an easygoing guy at heart, later expressed (at least to me) regret at having created such delays, saying, “If it had been left just to me, I would have given up long ago.”

And Blackman, last week, said of the mall and the way it has divided the town, both physically and emotionally, “I would have liked to have thought there was another way it could have been done,” he said, “ but” the city was stuck with the difference, considerable, between the $5 million HUD extended and the total costs.”

In the end, Santa Rosa came out as a model of earthquake preparedness, lauded in seismic literature for hanging tough on building codes. Blackman recalls that the League of California Cities, put out a pamphlet - “something like ‘Why it Worked for Santa Rosa.’”

The reasons, Blackman says, were many, including a succession of city councils that “never flinched” and a code development that involved so many respected professionals that “it took the fight out of the people.” Things still look better around here, despite the fault lines. In a 2014 piece occasioned by the Napa quake, Press Democrat writer Guy Kovner reported that Santa Rosa had just three commercial buildings designated as URMs - and all three were unoccupied.

Most of the safety is, of course, buried in the walls. But, if you know where to look, at Mac’s on Fourth or Omelette Express in Railroad Square among others, you can count the heavy diagonal beams and the metal bolts that secure those classy old brick walls, allowing patrons security along with ambiance.

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