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Old Courthouse Square design plans

Click here to view the latest plan preferred by city staff

Click here to view the compromise option that would save three additional redwoods

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.”

The latest design, arrived at over the past several months, contains a number of changes from ones presented at two recent public design workshops. Gone is the permanent stage, which had a preliminary design that did not fare well in public feedback. The decorative panels designed by Ruth Asawa will be preserved in a new fountain at the north end, and three additional large redwood tress are being preserved.

Much of the public debate now rests on how many trees will be removed and when that felling will occur.

The latest design preferred by city staff members calls for the removal of 91 of the square’s 114 trees, defined as 4 inches or more in diameter at chest height. The removal includes eight coast redwoods considered “heritage” trees.

The 23 trees to be preserved include 22 of the 30 redwoods and the historic bunya bunya tree, which is more than 100 years old.

A previous version of the plan by SWA Group with narrower side streets preserved 25 redwoods, but the newest version by Carlile-Macy, which includes streets with wide sidewalks and parking on both sides, calls for three additional redwoods to fall.

The majority of the 22 redwoods to be preserved are in groves at the north end of the square. In response to public comment, the city found a way to preserve three additional redwoods in a planter in front of 50 Courthouse Square.

Of the eight redwoods to be removed, three are large trees on the west side of the square that for decades were lit every year during the holiday tree-lighting celebration. Five others are on the east side of the square.

Five of those to be removed are in the path of the two side streets, Hinton on the east and Exchange on the west, and cannot be saved under any configuration. Three others — one beside the Rosenberg Fountain and two on an ivy covered knoll in front of 50 Old Courthouse Square — could be saved under a compromise option before the council.

The two redwoods on the knoll could be preserved by shrinking the sidewalk, jogging Hinton Avenue around them and boxing them into a 5-foot-tall raised planter.

That option would reduce the number of side-street parking spaces from 46 to 41.

Problems with that option include that it is unclear if the trees, which have shallow roots, would survive the wall being installed so close to their base.

The box also would have to be fairly high, which would be contrary to the design goal of an open, safer-feeling square with better lines of sight.

“It creates the kind of thing that we’re trying to avoid out there,” Coursey said. “It creates a hiding place, really.”

The double-trunked redwood by the fountain is slated for removal largely for aesthetic reasons.

Designers feel it is best for that tree to be removed to create a consistent and symmetrical landscape plan between the two halves of the squares. Its removal will offer better east-west sight lines that highlight the historic Empire Building, the square’s signature architecture feature, and convenient pathways to the new x-shaped patch of grass in the center mimicking the footprint of the original courthouse, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

But opponents of the plan said it makes no sense to cut down trees for roads and parking spaces. They argued the square needs more natural beauty, not more space for cars.

On Saturday, protesters held signs and repeatedly circled the four-lane street that divides the square in two. One sign read “What would Luther Burbank do?” Another featured a former town motto, “Santa Rosa — the City Designed for Living” but modified the word “living” to read “paving.”

Stacy Sincheff and friend Judith Iam recalled Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” which speaks of paving paradise to “put up a parking lot.”

“We’re still doing this,” lamented Sincheff, a Santa Rosa resident.

Colleen Ferguson, deputy director of capital projects for the city, is both a civil engineer and an ardent naturalist. She loves trees and noted there will be 25 percent more of them — 143 versus the 114 that stand today — when the project is completed.

“This is an urban landscape and the heritage trees that are well suited for their location are going to be kept, and some of them need to make way for a beautiful people space in the heart of downtown,” she said.

She said there has been a “false narrative” in the community that eliminating a row of parking spaces will save additional trees. A more nuanced conversation needs to take place about trade-offs between the two options facing the council, she said.

If the city’s goal of having more people live downtown is to become a reality, the city needs to create a nice, comfortable, safe place to serve as their urban “living room,” she said. “Santa Rosa deserves this.”

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

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