Santa Rosa starts Old Courthouse Square reunification work this week

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Downtown Santa Rosa will be barely done cleaning up from one mess before it starts an even bigger one Monday.

With the Tour of California cycling race finished and the Rose Parade in the bag, major construction is set to begin Monday on the $9.2 million reunification of Old Courthouse Square.

The effort will turn the center of downtown in a noisy, dusty demolition zone for several weeks as workers cut down trees, remove fountains, rip out concrete, dig utility trenches and begin installing side streets to set the stage for the new square.

The work will create significant disruptions in the busy downtown commercial hub, routing pedestrians around the work zones and — later in the summer — permanently closing off the area to north-south traffic on Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues.

But when completed by the end of the year, Santa Rosa will have what numerous city leaders, urban planners, and business leaders have long said the downtown desperately needs — a central plaza and flexible gathering space designed to breathe new vitality in the area.

“This is a huge deal for the city,” said Jason Nutt, director of transportation and public works. “It’s 30 years in the making.”

It’s also nerve-racking for business owners around the square who are facing the prospect of having their front yards torn up for months to come.

Sonu Chandi, the owner of three downtown restaurants, has been a supporter of the project as a way to revitalize the downtown, but last week he sounded a cautious note.

“I’m quite nervous, actually,” Chandi said.

The owner of BiBi’s Burger Bar on Third Street and Stout Brothers and the recently opened County Bench Kitchen + Bar, both on Fourth Street, Chandi said he worries that people will avoid downtown all together or will assume businesses are not open.

The city plans to install large banners reminding people that all businesses around the square are open during construction, said Julia Gonzalez, marketing coordinator for the public works department.

Gonzalez spent part of Friday preparing where signs will go, including where gaps in the fence will be placed to allow people to get a glimpse of construction. To assist in that effort, the city has installed a live web camera atop the Museum on the Square building.

The camera, which is somewhat wobbly in windy conditions, is designed to allow both live and time-lapse views of the construction. It can be found at www.srcity.org/chs.

Crews will begin installing fencing and signs around the two sides of the square Monday, leaving the four lanes of Mendocino Avenue flowing for now. They’ll begin removing items that will be preserved or moved, like benches and planters, and preparing the site for heavy construction Tuesday.

Businesses along what will become Hinton Street on the east and Exchange Street on the west will have to make some adjustments, Gonzalez said.

Flavor Bistro, for example, will lose its popular patio for much of the summer, Gonzalez said. The awning on the neighboring shuttered Rendezvous Bistro will also be removed. The steps are necessary for crews to have the space they need to work around the utility trenches, the city said.

New water and sewer pipes are being installed as part of the project, and getting those in the ground and the adjacent buildings connected is one of the primary goals of the first phase of the work, Gonzalez said.

The first few weeks of the reunification effort are likely to be the noisiest and dustiest, she said, because the most jackhammering and soil displacement will take place, she said.

But the city is working hard to minimize those disruptions by keeping businesses up to speed, installing signs that help people get around and requiring fencing designed to dampen noise and limit dust, she said.

Pedestrians will still be able to walk north-south along six-foot-wide pathways between the fences and buildings on the east and west sides of the square. But east-west travel through the interior of the square won’t be possible, Gonzalez said.

The work is being done by Novato-based contractor Thompson Builders Corporation, which will be working on both sides of the square simultaneously in an effort to complete the most disruptive phase as quickly and efficiently as possible, Gonzalez said.

She likened it to “pulling off the Band-Aid real fast.”

Several elements of the existing square that many Santa Rosa residents care about are being preserved in some fashion during the early work.

The Rosenberg fountain — made possible by a gift from family that built the historic Rosenberg building at Fourth and Mendocino — will be demolished, but the plaque honoring the gift will be preserved and redisplayed. Two time capsules, one meant to be opened in 2018 and the other in 2068, will also be relocated and reburied.

The Ruth Asawa fountain will also be demolished, but the four panels the famed artist created depicting scenes of Sonoma County life will be removed, cleaned up and preserved in the East Bay until they can be incorporated into a new fountain at the southern end of the square.

While the six-month project timeline is aggressive, the city and contractor are reasonably confident it can succeed.

“I really think we can pull it off,” Nutt said.

The main concern is that workers might run into something underground they haven’t anticipated, like unexpected structures or soil contamination, Nutt said.

While the investigations the city has done over the years give him confidence they have a good grasp of what’s under the square, the site hasn’t been “Swiss-cheesed” with numerous exploratory holes, he said.

“Our fear is that something is going to pop up and it’s going to be more than just dealing with it and moving on,” Nutt said.

There are plenty of rumors about things crews might unearth. One predicts they’ll run into the foundation of the famously sturdy courthouse building, which was removed with great effort in 1966.

Others involve stories of an underground tunnel running between the former jail and the courthouse, or of storage tanks entombed in place long ago, Nutt said.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge. No doubt about it,” Nutt said. “But I think we’ve set the project up for success.”

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

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