Close to Home: Room for trees and cars

Imagine walking through a misty redwood forest. The smell is fresh and soothing, the ground is soft with fallen needles as you walk, and a great calm comes over you.

We all love trees in a forest because of the way that they bring us out of our hectic lives and into a deeper place. Locally, we fight to preserve endangered redwood forests so that our children will be able to have this experience. Larger parks are places where we can commune with nature.

Public plazas and squares on the other hand are quite different. The plaza needs to be placed in a center of commerce where shops can do a good business on the streets that surround it. Think Healdsburg Plaza. This is a very different scenario than the large forest preserve environment.

In the case of town squares, the endangered species is the opportunity to shop on foot in a lively public street with unique, locally owned stores rather than shopping in chain stores in a privately owned mall.

According to urban planner Kent Robertson, downtown retail sales were 20 percent of the total metropolitan sales nationwide in 1954. By 1977, it was only 4 percent. Much of this loss was due to the development of malls.

Today, competition for downtown retailers comes from the Internet as well. Locally owned shops along a public street are an endangered species even though they serve a larger purpose, just as the trees do. Like visits to the redwoods, we take our out-of-town guests to areas that do the “shopping street” well, places such as downtown Healdsburg and Sonoma.

Santa Rosa is trying to decide how many redwood trees to preserve of those that were planted in 1967 in the square when Hinton and Exchange avenues were removed and the square was divided. The public outcry, including Press Democrat editorials, has been to save the redwoods.

There are 30 redwoods currently in the square area. The Courthouse Square Design Option 1 would save 73 percent of those trees; Option 2 would save 83 percent. While some redwoods would be removed, about three quarters would be preserved in the worst-case scenario. The resulting square would be 1.6 acres, or 37 percent larger than Healdsburg's plaza. Given all this, in my opinion, the ‘park' element of the unified square will definitely be retained, even with the loss of trees.

How about the “shopping street,” which is the marital partner of a park in a square? The proposed designs provide about 46 parking spaces in place of the eight that currently exist in this area.

Why is the parking such a key feature of the design of the new square? Bob Gibbs, a downtown retail expert from the Gibbs Planning Group puts it this way: “The lack of convenient on-street parking generally contributes to downtown areas not being able to compete with the surrounding suburban shopping centers. Lower retail sales, fewer retailers and weaker property (lease) rates are a function, in part, of the parking issue. Each on-street parking stall can generate up to $300,000 in annual retail sales. The importance of having stalls available to the shopper cannot be overemphasized.”

Have you been to the west side of the currently divided plaza? There is only one retail business along that side of the square. The ground floor for most of that retail block has typically sat unrented for the past 30 years. Using $300,000 value in retail sales per parking space directly in front of a local shop, we can make some comparisons.

There are eight spaces around the square now. At $300,000 each, that means about $2.4 million in sales is generated. That doesn't sound bad does it?

But the smaller town of Healdsburg has 134 parking spaces which at $300,000 each would generate $40 million. Sonoma's square has approximately 298 spaces, which theoretically could generate $89 million in sales.

The reunified square is proposed to have a grand total of 46 parking spaces, which would bring in $14 million, or roughly six times what is generated with the split square. Restaurants and shops would once again thrive along the east and west sides of the square where retail blight currently exists. Best of all, we would save most of the redwoods while creating a vital retail environment. Either design option would simultaneously rescue Santa Rosa's endangered downtown retail shopping environment while preserving the majority of the redwoods.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor and has served on the Planning Commission there for many years.

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