Long delayed plans to reunify Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square got a big boost Tuesday when city officials supported borrowing the money needed to get a scaled-down version of the project underway by the spring.
The City Council’s unanimous decision to slash the project from $17 million to no more than $10 million and instruct city staff to explore financing a portion of the cost represented a significant step forward for the controversial project.
“Today is the time to stop studying it, stop talking about it and start working on it,” Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said. “Let’s get it done.”
The decision was a coup for the group of downtown property owners and business leaders who have been urging city staff for months to back away from the more elaborate design endorsed by the previous council in favor of a less elaborate, more traditional square similar to plazas in popular tourist destinations like Healdsburg and Sonoma.
“This is a huge day,” said developer Hugh Futrell, one of the leaders of Coalition to Restore Courthouse Square. “This is as definitive an action as anyone could have hoped for.”
By scaling back the project and expressing willingness to borrow to build it, the council made it clear it was serious about moving forward with a project that has been discussed for more than 20 years but has never gained traction.
“Timing is everything and the timing seems to be right now,” said Councilman Gary Wysocky.
The latest design was selected by the council in 2007 after an extensive design competition. It included bold features such as a glass water wall, light arbor and several kiosks. The previous council signed off the design over the objections of downtown business leaders who called the design dated and the price excessive.
Then-Mayor Scott Bartley suggested a fundraising campaign tapping private donors would be needed to pay for the project.
The 1.5-acre square was split by Mendocino Avenue in 1966. The current council has voiced strong support for reunited its two halves.
Mayor John Sawyer, whose family owned a downtown business for 66 years, said he remembers when the former courthouse was demolished and the square bisected. He said he felt the city had lost its heart in the process.
“I believe it’s time to replace that heart with a usable space for our citizens,” Sawyer said.
Many questions remain about just what that space will look like. A $10 million version or the project will be substantially different than the current design, on which the city spent more than $500,000. How quickly the project can be redesigned with input from the public remains to be seen.
City officials said the project would have to be redrawn with a funding plan on track by the end of the year in order for the project to be able to begin construction by May, to take advantage of a full construction season.
The business coalition has vowed to speed that process by paying for the construction drawings for the first phase of the project, installing streets on the east and west sides of the square with about 40 more parking spaces than the existing plan. It would also shrink the size of the central park.
Futrell said he estimated those costs at about $200,000, $115,000 of which the group has already set aside.