Close to Home: Turning a freeway right-of-way to green space

For more than 50 years, a two-mile strip of land in southeast Santa Rosa remained vacant and unused. Originally purchased by Caltrans as a right-of-way for Highway?12, the freeway was never built and the land remains neglected. When it was proposed to extend the freeway through Spring Lake Park, community opposition led to abandoning that proposal, and neighbors started thinking of converting this empty land into an asset, an urban greenway.

In 2009, local citizens formed the Santa Rosa Southeast Greenway Campaign, which developed a vision for the land and organized a campaign to plan and promote a greenway. From the start, the project attracted a team of natural leaders with extensive business and government experience. Applying their skills, they recruited a host of volunteers to spread the word and promote the Southeast Greenway.

The campaign forged alliances with local officials and agencies, environmental, educational, running and biking groups and raised funds to engage the community. In 2014, Caltrans decided to rescind the freeway designation and offered to give Santa Rosa the opportunity to purchase the land for a greenway.

Meanwhile, the campaign continued its work, creating a partnership with the Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma Water, Sonoma County Regional Parks, Land Paths and the city of Santa Rosa. It is a shining example of a public-private partnership in which grassroots activists work for the benefit of the greater community.

The success of the campaign is because it championed a vision for the greenway and then engaged stakeholders in a collaborative way. The partnership has been critical to advancing this vision, but the extensive outreach to the community through meetings, tabling, networking and a website has been just as important. The proof is the groundswell of support for the greenway generated by this effort.

This effort was rewarded in July when the Santa Rosa City Council voted unanimously to certify the environmental impact report and approve an amendment to the city's general plan that designates 47 acres of greenway and 10 acres for housing and mixed-use development, culminating a decade of community organizing and activism. The city's action sets the stage to purchase the land from Caltrans, following an appraisal of its value.

After the property is purchased, it will be owned by the city and Sonoma Water. Santa Rosa will manage the area from Hoen Avenue near Montgomery High School to Summerfield Road, and Spring Lake Park will be extended to include the land between Summerfield and the current park.

When completed, the Southeast Greenway will protect open space, restore the natural environment, create community gardens and include designated bike paths and walking trails from Farmers Lane to Spring Lake Park. Members of the community will be invited to participate in the design of the greenway during the development of a parks master plan.

This achievement is a testimony to the vision and dedication of volunteers and civic leaders who seized the opportunity to convert a neglected parcel into a valuable community resource. The Southeast Greenway Campaign is an encouraging tale of how a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens worked to improve the world for others.

In the words of Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, “This project is inspirational, not only for this community, but for others as well.” Its success will motivate others to join, make Santa Rosa vibrant and attract visitors to our town.

Thea Hensel is co-chair and Tony White is a volunteer with the Southeast Greenway Campaign. They are residents of Santa Rosa.

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