Secluded element of Juilliard Park attracting trouble

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There is something fitting about the fact that Santa Rosa’s historic Church of One Tree, made from the lumber of one Guerneville-area giant, today looks out on Juilliard Park through a small grove of redwood trees.

They are tall enough to create a cool forest habitat, casting shadows across the park and creating a comfortable, convenient and concealed environment that attracts trouble.

“It’s that secluded element of the park that attracts folks who don’t want to be watched,” said Jennifer Collins, a resident of Sonoma Avenue just north of the park.

Prostitution. Drug sales. Dog fights. Intimidating groups of homeless people and teens.

These and many other nuisances have been reported at Santa Rosa’s 8.8-acre central park by neighbors, parks officials and police, all of whom are trying to solve the problems.

“It’s a nice park, and people with their kids and walking their dogs shouldn’t have to be threatened by riffraff,” neighbor Fred Joyce said.

Parks officials say the troublemakers who congregate there have made it harder for the city to rent the 2,000-square-foot Gothic church for weddings and to community groups.

People have swiped food from wedding receptions. They have barged into martial arts classes to use the bathrooms. And they have scared away prospective brides who might otherwise have rented the church for their special days, generating much-needed revenue for the city.

Citing these and other challenges, the city’s parks department has asked to erect a steel fence around the Church of One Tree, which reopened after a major renovation in 2011.

They argue that the fence will protect the historic church, increase its attractiveness as a venue for all kinds of special events and make it easier for police to effectively patrol the area. The issue goes to the City Council Nov. 18.

Neighbors agree that something must be done to revitalize a charming but challenged historic neighborhood and one of the city’s oldest and best-loved parks. Many are hopeful that the fence is a step in the right direction, but not all agree that it is the best solution.

The proposal has sparked a robust debate about how best to respond.

Donated to city

In 1872, Charles F. Juilliard, a son of French immigrants who as a young man had struck it rich in Trinity County gold mines, brought his successful mercantile business to Santa Rosa.

He built a two-story Victorian house facing Santa Rosa Avenue, surrounded it with orchards and for years was a partner in a successful hardware store. He also founded a Sebastopol winery in 1882.

His children Frederic and Isabelle donated the property to the city for a park in 1931, and during the 1930s, the federal Work Projects Administration helped build a park.

Its stone bridge, pond and walkways were constructed with 10 tons of rock from a Kenwood quarry, according to Gaye Lebaron’s book “Santa Rosa, a 19th Century Town.”

The Church of One Tree, then First Baptist Church, had been built on B and Ross streets just two years after Charles Juilliard’s home.

In 1957, it was relocated to its present location, a move made possible by a fundraising campaign.

There it housed the Robert Ripley Museum for many years, displaying memorabilia from Ripley’s cartoons and popular “Believe it or Not” collection, including a two-headed calf. The museum closed in 1998 and, 13 years later, the renovated church reopened, thanks to city efforts paid for in part with state grant funds.

High-profile park

Juilliard’s proximity to downtown and its location across Santa Rosa Avenue from the popular Luther Burbank Home and Gardens have made it one of the city’s most visible parks. Concerts, car shows, footraces, cultural festivals and post-Rose Parade festivities draw thousands of visitors per year to its green expanses.

But that same easy access has created challenges. The park is close to Santa Rosa Creek and the Prince Memorial Greenway. Neighbors say that homeless people who receive services in Railroad Square often follow the greenway down into the park.

Nadia Fields, who lives with her husband, Wes, just west of the church, said she woke up at 4:30 a.m. one recent morning to find a “stumbling, inebriated, homeless guy” in her kitchen.

Both she and Wes have worked for years in emergency medicine, and have great sympathy for the plight of the homeless. But they strongly support efforts to reclaim the area.

“City Hall is right around the corner. Why shouldn’t this be a safe place?” Wes Fields said. He and Nadia are part of a new batch of residents committed to restoring the area to its former appeal.

Downtown enforcement officers often patrol the park and area near the church on bicycles, said Lt. Rainer Navarro, “but they can’t be there all the time.”

Twenty five arrests were made in the park in 2011, 38 in 2012, 53 in 2013, and 27 so far this year, Navarro said. Offenses range from outstanding warrants to fighting and narcotics. Officers initiated contact in most of those arrests.

Navarro said the department has been working closely with the parks staff to resolve issues around the church and is the one who suggested the fence would make patrolling the area easier.

Restricting that access route from Sonoma Avenue would give people engaging in suspicious behavior one less route to evade police, he said.

But closing off a key access route to the park troubles some.

No choice for homeless

Joseph Browder, who goes by the nickname “Chowder,” said he and other homeless people hang out in the park because police run them out of other downtown areas.

On his own since he was 11, Browder said he’s training to become an auto mechanic but still spends time in the park visiting friends and hanging out.

He suggests increasing police patrols or hiring security guards to deal with people who cause trouble in the park, but resists the idea of putting up a fence, saying, “We’re not in prison, man!”

The black steel fence would be six feet high along the Sonoma Avenue side and eight feet high on the park side, protruding into the park to incorporate much of the redwood grove. It would be opened during special park events, locked all other times.

Collins said she worries the city is trying to solve a societal and law enforcement issue with a piece of infrastructure and worries that people who want to feel safe will jump the fence to sleep inside the enclosure.

She suggests a host of other solutions, like video cameras, motion-activated lights and or sharp rocks that would deter camping.

She also is optimistic that the energetic South of A St. arts district, which borders Juilliard Park to the south, will spill north into her neighborhood, helping to gentrify it as well.

The city realized it needed to do something different last fall when a martial arts instructor who had been paying the city $2,000 a month to rent the church for a twice-a-week class called it quits.

He cited untenable issues that included parents who didn’t feel safe dropping off their kids and people coming into the church during class to use the bathroom, said Kelly Magnuson, the city’s recreation coordinator.

“When we have a private renter, we need to be able to able to close off that space,” she said.

Wes Fields, a 1971 graduate of Montgomery High School, agrees, saying the church is simply too valuable an asset to leave unprotected.

He also believes there are certain things the city needs to do if it wants to attract downtown visitors the way Healdsburg, Sonoma and Sebastopol do.

“Public access is a wonderful thing,” he said, “until it’s not.”

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