Trees take center stage at Old Courthouse Square reunification forum

About 200 people attended a public forum to provide input on the reunification of Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, and the fate of trees currently in the square was on a lot of people’s minds.|

Preliminary designs of a reunified Old Courthouse Square were both blasted and applauded during a packed public forum Saturday morning in a building space on the west side of the square in Santa Rosa.

About 200 attended the meeting, many of them standing because of insufficient seating. They voiced strong opinions about the project, ranging from opposition to eliminating some of the square's old redwood trees to ecological concerns about the installation of a lawn in the middle of downtown.

But other attendees, some of them business owners on or near the square, called the three design proposals a good compromise that would save the majority of the site's redwoods, add needed parking and revitalize an otherwise dreary urban landscape.

“If we do nothing, nothing happens,” said Michael Hyman, owner of the Pawn Advantage on Fourth Street. “I go through the square nearly every day. … It's depressing. No one goes through the square; no one goes there to look at redwoods.”

As expected, many attending the forum were concerned about the removal of nearly two dozen trees, particularly redwoods, from the site. A number of them objected to the removal of trees for what would become angled parking on the west and east sides of the reunified square.

“I don't think we need all that parking space at the expense of all those beautiful trees,” Santa Rosa resident Carlos Dabe said during the public comment section of the forum.

Several people dismissed the assurance that trees that are removed would be replaced by more trees that would result in a reduced carbon footprint. A decades-old redwood tree does far more to sequester, or store, carbon than small landscaping trees that will take many years to grow, they said.

“They're putting in little landscaping trees that take a long time to grow,” said Karin Lease, a Graton resident who said her children and grandchildren live in Santa Rosa. “No matter how much parking you put in, you'll never have enough parking.”

The 2½-hour forum, which started at 10 a.m., was held at 19 Old Courthouse Square, one of several vacant commercial spaces that ring the square. The forum featured a presentation by local engineering and design firm Carlile-Macy of three reunification alternatives.

After the presentation, members of the public were allowed to indicate their preference for the options by placing colored stickers on large design posters. Green and yellow stickers indicated a positive feedback while purple stickers reflected a negative response.

Option A, which featured a large lawn in the middle of the square and a permanent performance structure on the north end of the site, received the most yellow and green stickers. Option C, which featured no middle lawn and several rows of trees on the east and west sides of the square got a large number of purple stickers.

A number of people were disappointed with all the options, stating that the designs were bland and uninteresting. One attendant posted next to the designs a piece of paper that read, “None of these choices.” That sentiment received 13 green and yellow stickers and half a purple sticker.

“None of these iterations can be accused of being charming. They are soulless,” said Flora Lee Ganzler, a 79-year-old Santa Rosa resident. “I've got grandchildren who will be using this facility and it's important that it's wonderful.”

The goal of the meeting was to get feedback on the options and then incorporate additional comments into a preferred design to be submitted to the City Council on Jan. 26.

Other comments included requests for more art features; more feminine curves and fewer masculine angles; exclusion of the lawn; creating a more bike-friendly space; eliminating the east and west roadways (which would be called Hinton and Exchange avenues) altogether and redirecting traffic to B and D streets.

But the biggest request was to avoid the removal of the square's trees.

That sentiment was rejected by several people who decried the placement of “non-native” redwood trees in the square. Some said the redwoods cast long shadows and darken the square at certain hours, creating a “creepy” ambiance and an urban “dead zone.”

“It's creepy over there,” said Bernie Schwartz, the owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street.

“I don't think they should ever have been planted in the first place,” said Pat Grattan of Santa Rosa. “I would prefer deciduous, native trees that let light through, into the buildings and down to the ground.”

Grattan said he came to Sonoma County 63 years ago, “which by the way was before those redwoods were planted.”

Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky acknowledged the different opinions expressed during the forum and said city staff was committed to considering these ideas in crafting the final design.

“I don't think you're going get everyone happy on any matter in a room of 200 people,” Wysocky said.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm said he was happy with the turnout and the ideas expressed. He said he would consider the various concerns while trying to maintain the “big picture.”

“I'm a firm believer that the reunification of the square will enhance the vibrancy of our downtown,” Schwedhelm said, adding that he will encourage city staff and local residents to find “someplace in the middle.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.