Close to home: Courthouse Square needs side streets

It is decision time again for Santa Rosa regarding the Courthouse Square reunification project. The street that currently bisects the square will be removed.

The Environmental Impact Report has options for including or omitting the proposed side streets, Hinton and Exchange avenues. Is this situation like buying a car? Are we trying to decide whether to add a sunroof or not to this proposal?

True plazas have one thing in common; they are economic engines of prosperity. Think of Union Square in San Francisco. It is a premier shopping district and the most visited neighborhood in the worlds most visited city.

In Sonoma County, Healdsburg and Sonoma’s plazas are the centers of commerce for those towns. All three of these successful squares (and towns) have public streets on all four sides.

Streets supply the lifeblood of economic activity to a square. If Courthouse Square was to have just Exchange Avenue (the western street) and not Hinton Avenue (the eastern street) it would become an “attached” plaza. Attached plazas can feel like they are the private front yard of the buildings that directly front them, instead of being truly public. Great plazas telegraph to everyone that they are public and open to all by their design - the public streets that surround them.

Circulation is another important plaza design principle. Successful plazas are placed at the center of a network of streets that bring people and commerce directly to the plaza area. Without the side streets, Courthouse Square would be a land-locked park and a barrier to north-south traffic. The square would not be able to fulfill its potential to increase economic vitality in downtown Santa Rosa.

Now consider some shopping areas that have removed streets from their shopping districts. Think of the K Street mall in Sacramento. So many businesses on K Street failed during their no-street period that Sacramento recently re-installed a street for limited car access and bus service. That shopping area is still just limping along.

In Santa Rosa, the car-free west side of the plaza (the old Exchange Avenue area) is so undesirable as a shopping area that the ground floor is mostly vacant and includes a police substation (with reflective glass). The northeast side of the square has had a destination restaurant for some years now that has managed to survive without any street or parking in front - a feat the west side has not been able to replicate.

Putting public streets with parking on all four sides of public shopping districts works every time.

What about European plazas? Don’t they do just fine without streets and cars? For example Rome has many amazing public squares including the Spanish Steps & Piazza Navona. They actually do have cobblestone streets surrounding them, but they are closed to cars most of the time. They are flooded with people at all hours of the day. Why can’t we do that in Santa Rosa?

In Rome, the sleek metro runs every two minutes. Parking for cars is incredibly difficult. The average visitor to Rome arrives by foot. Can we say the same for Santa Rosa? Once we reach a density and transit service level that allows the average person to walk instead of drive, the situation in Santa Rosa would change.

So are Hinton and Exchange avenues a ‘sunroof’ option for this project? In my opinion, they are the engine of this proposal, the economic engine of a revitalized downtown with a restored sense of wholeness and economic vitality.

A desirable option would be to drill vertical ‘sleeves’ at the north and south ends of Hinton and Exchange avenues to place temporary items called ‘bollards’ which block car traffic but not pedestrians and bikes. Beautiful bollards could be placed into these sleeves to block car traffic for special street festivals.

After the festival, the streets could be reopened to every-day commerce. This way, the timeless principles of plaza design can assure the success of the redesign, while bollards occasionally allow those who long for a European experience to fulfill their vision as well.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She is a regular guest lecturer on planning at Sonoma State University. She lives in Windsor.

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