Thea Hensel, left, and Linda Proulx, right, co-chairs of the Southeast Greenway campaign hope to convert the right-of-way land to a vital urban greenway that they hope will have a variety of public ammenities.

Specter of bridge fades to green

The ghost of the proposed Highway 12 freeway along the southern edge of east Santa Rosa has risen from the grave where it has languished for 52 years.

The good news is that it is not (as one editorial writer put it in the 1990s) "the bony-fingered specter of a bridge over Spring Lake." Today, it is more like a cheery wave beckoning citizens toward a rosy future.

Bridge fears are no longer issues, but there is no question that something is afoot along the 300-foot-wide, two-mile swath of open land that stretches from the end of Farmers Lane to Summerfield Road. And it's definitely not a freeway.

It could be a park, a pedestrian walkway, a bikeway, some cluster housing, small family farms, a heritage orchard, a sculpture garden, or all of the aforementioned.

But don't hold your breath.

The state still owns the property. And a request from the city and the Sonoma County Transportation Authority for a project study report is said to be "in the queue at Caltrans." In Sacramentospeak that could mean something like "dead in the water."

Described as "a legacy project" by Thea Hensel, who, with Linda Proulx, heads what is now known as the Southeast Greenway Committee, this is a plan for what could, might, maybe, possibly happen down the road (you should pardon

the expression.)

Although discussions have been going on for five years, the campaign has "flown under the radar here," as Proulx terms it. It is funded under the nonprofit umbrella of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and Economy and has attracted some important academic attention. Professor Michael Southworth, from UC Berkeley's Urban Design Studio, assigned the greenway as a semester project for 10 of his master's-degree candidates.

The eight plans the students devised were presented to a standing-room crowd of interested citizens at the Glaser Center last month.

There was a wide range of ideas - as one viewer suggested, "a lot of bits and pieces to put together." And, throughout, tempering the enthusiasm, was the message that the project is "the really long view," and an optimistic one, considering that, as we have said, Caltrans still owns the land.

A little history is in order here.

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time - routing Highway12, as a freeway, along the southern edge of eastern Santa Rosa to take traffic off the city streets.

But that was 1959. And it didn't happen.

Then, of course, there was the matter of the opposition to the Spring Lake Bridge.

Proponents of the freeway argued, correctly, that the highway right of way had come first. And when the county dammed Santa Rosa Creek for flood-control purposes in the 1960s and created a 100-acre lake, surrounded by a 400-acre park, the right of way wasn't considered a problem. Caltrans promised to build a bridge and that seemed just fine with local officials.

But there were several factors in play that would change attitudes toward that bridge dramatically. The first one was the overwhelming success of Spring Lake Park, which drew 35,000 paying visitors in its first three months - and that was only for the automobiles that drove in. It didn't count people who came by foot, bike or horse, or parked outside the entrance. Most of these became "regulars" who jogged, walked, biked and dearly loved the natural beauty and the accessibility. (Today the park draws more than 700,000 visits per year.)

Then there was Annadel, which became a state park just as mountain biking was becoming a popular pastime.

Now those cyclists and hikers could enter the city's Howarth Park at Summerfield Road, go to Spring Lake, be joined by horseback riders, and go on into the adjoining Annadel - some 15 linear miles of parkland at the city's eastern edge.

The very idea of a freeway bridge across the lake became unthinkable to the park lovers, who rallied in fierce opposition.

They mobilized, led by activist park neighbor June Moes. They formed the Committee to Save Spring Lake, waging political warfare at every city vote to keep it in the general plan and at every letter to the editor extolling the transit benefit of the bridge.

You can judge that an issue has reached critical mass when people began to joke about it, as in the '70s when a small group of political satirists protesting the blocking of Fourth and Fifth streets by the downtown mall, organized as the Committee to Close Third Street, Too, and proposed building the Spring Lake Bridge over the mall.

(The issue is also where I, personally, had my closest brush with eco-terrorism. Still a daily columnist, I wrote in a wild moment that if Caltrans started to clear land for the bridge footings, I would lie down in front of the bulldozers. I received a packet in the mail containing an Earth First! T-shirt and note promising that, if I did this, the environmental group would see to it that the bulldozers wouldn't be able to move.)

A small elevated portion of Highway 12 was built in front of the fairgrounds in the '80s, but the costs had become staggering and the state budget less than healthy. Caltrans plans to continue on to Melita Road dropped lower and lower on the priority list.

And, in the late '80s, the county removed the freeway from its general plan. The City of Santa Rosa kept it, just in case, until the late '90s.

With that news, the Committee to Save Spring Lake responded by disbanding and using what money was in its coffers to set a commemorative bench smack in the middle of the freeway right of way through the park.

So now the attention is focused on the western two miles of right of way, no longer the southern edge of town, as development has brought not only housing but commerce, parks and a golf course to the other side.

This attention can be traced to the months before 2005, when residents of the co-housing project built on Yulupa Avenue where Mayette Swim Center once stood leased an acre of the adjoining right of way from Caltrans for a community garden and small orchard.

When negotiations to extend the lease broke down, and Caltrans crews took out the garden and mowed down the young heritage fruit trees, outraged residents, including Hensel and Proulx, responded with the formation of the Neighborhood Association for Bennett Valley. Following the guidelines of the city's Neighborhood Alliance, they organized to ensure protection of their environment, beautification and emergency planning. The freeway land was uppermost in their minds.

When, in 2009, there were rumblings that Caltrans might be ready to dispose of it, the association gave birth to the Southeast Greenway Campaign.

Sheltered by the tax-exempt Leadership Institute for Ecology and Economy, they broadened the membership to include interested citizens from all over Santa Rosa and began, very quietly, to seek community input.

The campaign now includes such stakeholders as LandPaths, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Sonoma County Water Coalition, Solar Sonoma County, the Bicycle Coalition, Empire Runners, Santa Rosa Cycling Club, Community Alliance with Family Farmers and Wild Birds Unlimited.

They talk about open space, urban forest, restored creeks, aquifer recharge, urban gardens, natural habitat and a link with the Prince Memorial Greenway that would connect to the Rodota Trail and open a path from Annadel to Forestville.

It is, when you think about it, the quintessential grass-roots movement, with everything that political term implies - a "shout-out," one might say, for a chance to run barefoot though the grass on land that belongs to everyone.

We leave the last word to Thea Hensel. "Remember, this is not instant gratification. It's an idea that could, in 20 or 30 years, change Santa Rosa," she said.

Very interesting. Just think if there had been something like this in the 1940s, when the route of the "new" Highway 101 cut the old town in half.

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