Courthouse Square reunification decision Tuesday

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The long-delayed plan to reunify Old Courthouse Square in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa returns to the City Council on Tuesday for a final design approval, including whether two side streets should be re-installed nearly 50 years after they were removed.

The official design for the $17 million project envisions rebuilding Exchange Street on the west side of the reunified square and Hinton Street on the east.

But the environmental study of the project completed earlier this year reviewed three different design options.

In addition to the original design, a second option to not install either side street was considered.

A third option, reviewed at the request of some downtown merchants, would install only one of the side streets to reduce the impact on surrounding businesses.

While technically the council could opt for any one of those options, installing both streets, as called for in the plan selected in 2008, remains the city’s preferred plan, Mayor Scott Bartley said.

“Why would we suddenly change now and say ‘I think we want to leave a street off on one side?’ ” Bartley said.

The preferred design calls for closing Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, creating a large open space for community events and performances, and eventually building pavilions and a water wall.

A topic of discussion for 18 years, the reunification effort gained momentum a decade ago as city leaders pushed the project as a key to restoring downtown’s vitality. The recession and resulting budget cuts caused the project to stall, and officials now say private donations will be needed to see it through to completion.

The council’s formal adoption of the project Tuesday should put to rest any questions about the design and move the project into its next phase, Bartley said.

“It seems silly, but it’s a big advance of the project,” Bartley said.

Once that is complete “then we can actually start seriously trying to figure out how to build it,” he said.

The project will now have to be done in phases, with a community-wide fundraising campaign needed to keep the project alive, Bartley said.

The first phase would involve reunification of the now-bifurcated plaza, installing the side streets, and creating a large flat area of decomposed granite. City staff estimates that would cost about $4.4 million, of which the city has only about $1.2 million available to be used toward the replacement of water and sewer lines. The other features would be installed later as funds permitted.

That scares Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street. He supported the initial design but now worries about how a massive construction project in a commercial area will impact the modest economic recovery underway in the city. He is particularly concerned that reunifying the plaza without installing features meant to make the space a destination will actually make the downtown less attractive to visitors.

“Incremental construction in Courthouse Square is like remodeling your kitchen paycheck-to-paycheck and then hoping you’ll have enough money for a stove and a refrigerator,” Schwartz said.

Capital campaigns often have to work in phases to succeed, Bartley said, citing the Person Senior Wing of the Finley Community Center. The city committed funds for the construction of the shell of the building and private grants allowed the completion of the interior.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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