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Tree removal dominates Old Courthouse Square debate

The second of two public forums meant to guide the design of a reunified Old Courthouse Square takes place Saturday morning amid increasing concern among residents about the removal of nearly two dozen trees in the heart of Santa Rosa’s downtown.

The latest designs for the long-?delayed project will be revealed at what is expected to be a well-attended public meeting from 10 a.m. to noon at 19 Old Courthouse Square, one of several vacant commercial spaces that ring the square.

“This one is very important,” Jason Nutt, the city’s director of transportation and public works, said of the meeting.

The city’s design team, led by local engineering firm Carlile-Macy, has been working to update the design to reflect comments offered by residents at a previous design meeting, a downtown committee meeting Tuesday and a city survey.

The team has done a good job of blending those comments with the guidelines for the project passed by the City Council late last year and creating multiple options based on a wide variety of input, Nutt said.

“We’re having to balance all this stuff and I actually feel the designers are doing a pretty good job of that,” Nutt said.

The goal of the meeting is to present several design options to the public, get feedback on each of them, and then incorporate those additional comments into a preferred design to be submitted to the City Council on Jan. 26.

The specific designs to be presented Saturday are still under development and will not be ready until the morning of the meeting, Nutt said. The latest - but still preliminary - plan shows some significant changes from previous iterations.

These include narrower side streets in response to concerns that they were taking up too much space, Nutt said. Instead of having two travel lanes down the center of Hinton and Exchange streets, the latest plan is to have just one, he said.

In addition, while the diagonal parking on both sides of the street is being retained, it won’t be “wall-to-wall” parking, but rather will be designed around other features, he said.

Councilman Gary Wysocky, who sits on the council’s downtown subcommittee, said he’s keenly aware of the concerns about turning too much of the city’s downtown park into parking spaces.

“To me it’s a question of how many people spaces there are versus vehicle spaces,” Wysocky said.

The council passed guidelines calling for “maximizing parking” on Hinton and Exchange, which is something downtown business and property owners have stressed is important to them and to a successful plaza design.

But Wysocky said that principle isn’t absolute and should be taken “within the context of good design.”

Nutt acknowledged that the removal of tress has become a key issue in the project and has generated the most controversy. The city will have to remove many of the trees by Feb. 1 to ensure that nesting birds and bats don’t take up residence in trees before the project begins in early June, he said.

According to the environmental review based on a previous project design, 91 of the 128 trees in the square would be removed, including five heritage redwoods greater than 24 inches in diameter.

However, the number of trees that will ultimately be removed depends on the final design. The city is soliciting bids from tree removal firms to take down 23 trees initially, including 11 coast redwoods, two Monterey pines, five red cedar and one coast live oak.

Many of the trees, some as tall as 60 feet, may be reused to provide riparian habitat in the Colgan Creek restoration project, Nutt said.

Resident Tom Sawyer is just one of dozens of residents who have petitioned the city to save as many of the trees as possible. Sawyer called it a “hot-button issue” that he thinks most residents are completely unaware of. He said he’s spoken to numerous friends and neighbors about it, and “nobody in the community knew that they were going to be cutting down that many trees.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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