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Santa Rosa to close Fourth Street to vehicles, giving more space to pedestrians and patrons

Santa Rosa is joining a growing list of cities that have temporarily closed key streets to open up more outdoor space for pedestrians and business patrons.|

Santa Rosa plans to close a stretch of Fourth Street in downtown later this month and will allow eating and drinking establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside seating to give patrons a bit more elbow room amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The three-block closure, from B to E streets, is set to run from June 26 to Oct. 15. It will be the most obvious of several steps the city is taking to loan public space to private businesses that for nearly three months have been closed or limited in operations due to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the city allowed businesses to use sidewalks and curbside parking spots to temporarily expand their operations into the public right-of-way. Early adopters of that space include Ausiello’s Bar & Grill, which has set up several tents outside its Fifth Street entrance, as well as Belly Left Coast Kitchen & Taproom on Fourth Street - both of which have existing patio space.

Gray Rollin, owner and chef at Belly, said he appreciated the ability to make up for indoor seating lost due to spacing constraints brought on by the pandemic.

“We’ve been lost for the last five years with two fires and the coronavirus and downtown parking,” Rollin said. “It’s been a crazy time, and we’ve been trying to find new ways to make more business and a more attractive downtown.”

The new option to expand outdoor seating into sidewalk and curbside space exists not just downtown but for businesses citywide, said Raissa de la Rosa, the city’s economic development manager, noting that at least one restaurant each in Montgomery Village and Roseland have taken advantage.

“They’re popping up around town,” she said.

There’s no expiration date for the sidewalk and curbside dining expansion, but businesses taking advantage will have at least a month after the health order is relaxed for normal operations before they decide whether to remove their newfound space, or seek to make it permanent.

The expanded seating options are modeled on San Francisco’s public parklet program, de la Rosa said. Down the road, Santa Rosa will have to have a broader discussion about whether it wants to privatize public passageways, and if so, to what degree, she said.

The city in April decided to temporarily waive all fees incurred by parking at metered and lot spaces downtown. However, the City Council next week is expected to consider a return to paid downtown parking starting July 1, as city staff expect business activity to ramp up downtown, along with demand for parking. The council also will consider several potential options to reduce different types of parking charges.

The closure of Fourth Street is modeled on moves by other cities in recent weeks to curb downtown vehicle traffic to give pedestrians more room to roam. Healdsburg has a similar plan in store for its downtown. Oakland and Seattle have each closed miles of roadway, creating new walking and cycling corridors for their much larger populations.

“It’s really to encourage a safe social place for people to get out of their houses,” de la Rosa said, noting that Santa Rosa has worked to take into account public safety, trash, deliveries and the will of the people and affected businesses.

Streets that intersect Fourth Street between B and E streets, including Mendocino Avenue and the roads ringing Old Courthouse Square, will remain open.

Reaction to the Fourth Street proposal was mixed last month when de la Rosa presented the idea to a group of downtown business owners. Though Rollin of Belly acknowledged some opposition exists, he said he favored the move as part of a broader effort to draw foot traffic that might otherwise wander to Petaluma, Windsor or Healdsburg.

“I think if we can make it a secured, festive area, I’m all for it,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports

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