Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square brightened by new sod

Long delayed downtown project, now in the home stretch, gets a splash of color for first day of spring.|

As if to welcome the first day of spring, downtown Santa Rosa got a splash of green Monday as workers installed a cross-shaped carpet of grass in the center of a reunified Old Courthouse Square that for months has been a drab construction zone.

Crews plopped down and tucked into place hundreds of rolls of verdant, drought-tolerant turf that will cover nearly 10,000 square feet in the heart of Santa Rosa's new $10.5 million downtown square, which is fast nearing completion.

“I think the square is looking great,” said Jason Nutt, the city's director of transportation and public works. “It's starting to look complete and people are starting to see the long-term vision.”

Workers rolled the sod into a shape designed to mimic the footprint of the courthouse destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The cross-shape was even formed using pieces of the granite steps from the replacement courthouse torn down in 1966, before the square was split by Mendocino Avenue.

Before the sod was installed, workers prepared the ground with a layer of drainage rock and sand. On top of that, plastic, honeycomb-like panels were added to stabilize the soil. Those panels were filled with a sand and fertilizer mixture on which the sod sits.

The sod is made of a grass called rhizomatous tall fescue, a blend that is more drought tolerant because of its robust root system, said Kevin Evans, operations manager at the Sebastopol-based Park Avenue Turf, which delivered the sod from its Dixon location.

The roots should grow down into the sand and gravel and form a strong mat that will help the grass need 30 percent less water and repair itself if damaged, Evans said.

“It's warming up now and raining again, so it'll look like a million bucks in about 10 days,” Evans said.

Before the grass went in, the square was dominated by hardscape. Wide sidewalks, new concrete streets and parking spaces, and 44,000 permeable concrete pavers had created a sturdy but austere landscape. The dozens of dormant London plane trees and crepe myrtles planted in recent weeks have yet to brighten up the place.

So the grass provided a breath of fresh air the downtown construction zone has long been missing.

The goal of the grass was not to provide a playing field-sized space to frolic; Juilliard Park just three blocks away has large lawns for such activity, Nutt said.

Rather it was meant to “soften” the hardscape of a square that takes its design cues as much from those of urban centers like Portland as it does from small towns like Sonoma and Healdsburg, Nutt said.

Much still remains to be worked out about how the space will be managed. Downtown merchants are hoping to have more of a say in how special events are handled under a proposed Property-based Business Improvement District, or PBID.

Two of the first events after the square opens on Saturday, April 29, will offer a glimpse of how the space handles large crowds: the Wednesday Night Market and Ironman events coming up in May.

And the city has still not sorted out how to deal with use of the square by the homeless, an issue that plagued the western half of its bifurcated predecessor.

But Nutt said he's confident that the public will see the value in the design if it's managed properly.

“I actually think that what we've been able to put out there offers what we had heard everybody ask for,” Nutt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207.

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