One recent morning retired educators and uniformed police officers ate beside each other around the packed communal table at the new Parish Cafe in downtown Santa Rosa.
The table is a nod to the Southern hospitality of New Orleans, said owner Rob Lippincott. The reclaimed redwood slab encourages strangers to rub shoulders as they feast on beignets and po-boys and “get to know your neighbors.”
Lippincott and his wife Karla recently opened their bustling Fourth Street eatery at a time when the city of Santa Rosa has in a fashion set its own communal table. That would be the reunified Old Courthouse Square, which is drawing crowds together for political rallies, downtown markets and other community gatherings.
The $10.5 million square project opened last spring. It was an idea that had been debated in various iterations for a quarter century.
The last year has been good for some merchants and tough for others. But downtown promoters generally say the new square has done what it was supposed to do: bring more people into the city core and spur more investment there, including new restaurants and a key hotel project.
“I think we’re at the dawn,” said Peter Rumble, president/CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce. Much still must be done, but big community events, an influx of restaurants and the coming hotel on the square represent “rays of hope.”
The new happenings in the square include Saturday’s Ironman triathlon, which brought in 2,000 athletes from 43 countries. It was the second year the competition has been staged in downtown.
What boosters like Rumble want next downtown is more people, especially residents. And that goal comes as an increasing number of civic leaders want Santa Rosa’s downtown to play a major role in the effort to add as many as 25,000 housing units in Sonoma County, where the loss of 5,000 homes in last year’s wildfires has exacerbated a housing shortage.
“We’ve got to bring more jobs and more housing downtown,” said Chris Grabill, director of programs and development for the environmental group Sonoma County Conservation Action.
Conservation Action and Greenbelt Alliance made news last week by joining with the chamber and other business organizations in calling on the county government to move its offices downtown, freeing up a large portion of its north Santa Rosa campus for up to 1,400 housing units. The collaboration with the environmental groups appears to be a first for the chamber, Rumble said.
For his part, Grabill maintained downtown is the right place for new housing projects, linking people to jobs and public transportation while preserving open space outside cities. He said environmental leaders have a responsibility to support more residential construction, including a proposed housing bond to pay for it. And he lamented that “I’m losing friends monthly” who are moving out of the county “because they don’t see a future” here due to the high cost of housing.
Santa Rosa leaders have tried several steps to invigorate downtown over the last half century, a time when suburban shopping malls and office parks drained off hordes of consumers and workers. Urban development here included strengthening and renovating historic Fourth Street buildings, bringing in the Santa Rosa Plaza downtown shopping center and refashioning Fourth Street into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.