Santa Rosa’s effort to fast-track the reunification of Old Courthouse Square enters a crucial phase this week with a key City Council vote on the latest design followed soon thereafter by a sound rarely heard downtown — the roar of chainsaws.
Depending on the design the council selects during what is expected to be a well-attended meeting Tuesday, the city will need to move quickly to cut down 17 to 20 mature redwood, Monterey pine and red cedar trees in the square to prevent birds from nesting in them — and delaying a project already on a tight timeline to get underway by June 1 and be finished by the holiday shopping season.
But the realization that up to eight of the redwood trees that have shaded the square for decades could be felled by the end of the week — and that all but 23 of the square’s 114 trees are slated to be removed as part of the project — has mobilized numbers of passionate souls. More than 80 people quietly demonstrated in the square Saturday to pressure the council to find ways to reunify the square without felling the trees.
“You think Frank Lloyd Wright would have cut down those three trees?” Adam Quihius, a Santa Rosa High grad and Redwood Valley resident, asked as he pointed across the square to a trio of stately redwoods standing near the gold-domed Empire Building.
His brother, Jacob Quihuis, of Santa Rosa, said he plans to show up Tuesday to urge council members to see the tall trees as an asset to downtown.
“It seems like common sense that they wouldn’t want to cut down something 80 years old,” he said.
Officials say they are well aware that residents are concerned about the removal of the trees, having received hundreds of calls, emails and comments on the subject in recent weeks.
They say the design team has made significant modifications to the project to save several redwoods, as well as drawn up other plans to give the council the option of saving a few more.
“We know that this has really struck a chord with some members of our community, and we’re trying to figure out how to address it the best way we can,” said Jason Nutt, the city’s transportation and public works director. Tuesday’s hearing on the square design begins at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers.
The 1.5-acre square was split in two in 1966 after the county courthouse was razed. Four-lane Mendocino Avenue was run through the center of the square and side streets, Hinton and Exchange avenues, were removed.
For more than 30 years, people have talked about reversing those actions and revitalizing downtown in the process. The effort reached a decisive point last fall when downtown business and property owners convinced city officials to move forward on a cheaper, simpler design than the $17 million vision selected in 2008 and stalled by the recession. The council instructed staff to fast-track the project, build it for less than $10 million, and make it well-lit, flexible and family-friendly, with maximum parking on the side streets.
“It’s certainly a pivotal decision,” Councilman Chris Coursey said of Tuesday’s vote. “This conversation has been going on for 25 years, and now it’s our chance to say ‘yes’ and actually move it forward.”