PD Editorial: Downtown Santa Rosa is a win-win spot for new county offices

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Sonoma County has been trying to figure out where to put a new administration building for more than a decade. Santa Rosa has been trying to reinvigorate downtown at least as long. Those two projects ought to go hand-in-hand.

It’s been a long time since anyone could say with a straight face that downtown was the place to be. It’s fine, of course, but as folks who work downtown when there isn’t a pandemic, we can honestly say that the city’s core hasn’t been the vibrant urban hub that it could be.

For years, the city talked a good game about welcoming development and improving downtown, but little changed. Then, in the past couple of years, the City Council crafted a new strategic vision for downtown and began implementing it with gusto.

Most visibly, the city reunified Old Courthouse Square, undoing a mistake of the 1960s when leaders thought it a good idea to carve the square in half to accommodate traffic. Now it’s a civic gathering place once more. Coronavirus disruption has prevented it from flourishing for the past year, but the pandemic will pass, and the square will be waiting.

In the meantime, new development rules allow taller buildings with less parking. The city also has completed the environmental studies required for new development. Already hundreds of residential units are in the works. Some is desperately needed affordable housing. Other units will appeal to climate-conscious young professionals who want an urban lifestyle and who are less wedded to car ownership. Given the amenable weather most of the year, they’re happy to walk or bike to work. More people should do the same.

A crucial element of the city’s vision calls for dedicating ground floor space in new buildings to active uses. Restaurants and shops at street level will give pedestrians a reason to stroll downtown blocks. Nothing disrupts a pleasant walk like a block devoid of storefronts that appeal to passersby. The right mix of uses also would allow carless downtown residents to buy groceries and eat out.

A downtown renaissance is on the horizon. The county’s presence could push it into forward by bringing 2,400 workers downtown. Those are people who might walk the square, eat out or shop on their lunch hour or while lingering after the workday. The most beautiful urban center becomes vibrant only when people are there to enjoy it.

Choosing downtown for the county’s office isn’t good only for downtown. It would benefit the county, too. The county could have better luck hiring people if it can offer them a chance to work in an exciting urban space. Likewise, residents who have business with the county might appreciate visiting downtown over an isolated government campus.

Finally, if the county moves downtown, it would free up much of the current campus in north Santa Rosa for redevelopment. A mix of affordable and market rate housing with some commercial and office uses could be a model for smart, modern development.

Moreover, that might providing a source of revenue to help pay for new buildings downtown, allowing the county to rethink some of the complex and potentially costly funding mechanisms now under consideration for the project.

If that can be sorted out, the question that would be left for county supervisors isn’t whether to move county offices downtown, but why on Earth they wouldn’t.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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