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Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street closures to remain mostly in place through January

Santa Rosa’s experiment with the closure of three downtown blocks to afford more outdoor space for restaurant and bar patrons will continue at a smaller scale into the winter, with two of those blocks set to remain off-limits to vehicles through at least January.

The 500 and 700 blocks of Fourth Street north of Old Courthouse Square will remain barricaded through Jan. 31, while the more retail-heavy 600 block just east of Mendocino Avenue will reopen to through traffic next Friday. Barricades blocking vehicles from driving through and parking along that block will come down, and proprietors who have been seating patrons in the street will have to downsize those spaces.

The decision by the city and the Downtown District to extend the pandemic-era street closure and reduce its scope followed generally positive feedback gleaned from surveys of the public and Fourth Street business owners.

The goal over the winter, said Cadance Hinkle Allinson, executive director of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber-affiliated district, will be to come up with a plan that runs through 2021 and beyond.

“I certainly don’t want to be telling everyone, ‘Hey, check back in a couple of weeks to see if these blocks are open.’ ” Hinkle Allinson said. “We want something that people understand and that people are excited about.”

Among local cities, Windsor, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Sonoma have also closed streets to vehicles to give people more room to roam, dine and drink during the pandemic.

In Santa Rosa, the closure has allowed restaurants to set up dining areas in streets and curbside parking spaces. The latter areas will be allowed on Fourth Street even after the road partially reopens. At least one business, Perch and Plow, has gone further, setting up a beer garden on the square.

The chance to use public space has been a godsend for restaurants and bars who for months have been barred from seating customers indoors amid pandemic restrictions. At Mac’s Deli and Cafe on the 600 block of Fourth Street, the extra 11 tables have made all the difference, said owner Toraj Soltani.

“It’s kept us alive,” Soltani said Thursday in between serving lunch customers.

With the street out front reopening to vehicles, Soltani said he hoped to maintain his existing capacity by expanding into a parking spot next door with permission from the E.R. Sawyer jewelry store and with the help of Bayside Church Santa Rosa, which is responsible for building many of the outdoor seating areas up and down Fourth Street.

In theory, Mac’s and other restaurants could continue to operate outdoors, setting up canopies and heaters to shelter their customers from winter weather. Soltani questioned whether customers would want to sit outdoors amid chilly rain, and indicated that what he really wants is indoor dining to become an option again — a frustratingly elusive prospect given Sonoma County’s struggles limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s just been a never-ending nightmare,” Soltani said of the pandemic.

For some retailers, though, the restoration of vehicle traffic and parking spots outside their businesses in the 600 block can’t come soon enough.

Across the street at Treehorn Books, the impact of closing the road has been mixed, said manager Grant Hotaling. While foot traffic has increased the number of casual or curious customers, the lack of parking seems to be keeping away more committed regular customers.

“We’re not totally dead, but we’re down considerably,” Hotaling said.

He acknowledged that the pandemic was causing problems for retailers even without the street closure, but said he and his father, who owns the store, would benefit if their customers could drive closer to their shopfront.

“If there’s more parking, that’s good for us,” he said.

The change is driven by multiple surveys of the public and of business owners over the past few months.

A community survey with more than 360 responses indicated an overwhelming preference for the closure, which went into effect in late June. More than 85% of the public responses said they’d rather the Fourth Street blocks be closed than open.

Support from 29 affected businesses was more limited, with a slight overall majority (52% to 48%) in a September survey indicating they’d prefer the pedestrian-only setup.

Over 70% of businesses on the 500 and 700 blocks in a second survey said they preferred the streets to remain pedestrian areas, but more than two-thirds in the 600 block said they wanted the street to reopen.

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

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