Old Courthouse Square project takes shape in Santa Rosa

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Construction crews reunifying Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square took advantage of a break in the weather last week to make major progress on the high-profile project.

Under sunny skies that have been rare this winter, crews installed light poles, laid pavers, ran irrigation lines to newly planted trees and prepared for concrete pours that should put the finishing touches on the side streets this week.

“Now that we’re on the surface, you see a lot of change happening quickly,” said Steve Dittmer, the city’s supervising engineer.

Changes in the $10.5 million project’s electrical system, surprises like an underground fuel tank and a series of drenching storms have all conspired to push the original November completion deadline back to the end of April.

But between the storms, lots has been going on behind the scenes, like the delivery of specially fabricated light poles. Now that it’s drying out, the square is buzzing with activity.

“It’s very gratifying to get to this point and be this close to being done,” Dittmer said. “We’re looking good for the next week.”

Predictions of more wet weather have largely evaporated and forecasts now call for mostly sunny conditions all week.

Crews on Friday began one of the final and most significant elements of the project — the installation of 45,000 stone pavers, which will cover a large percentage of the square’s interior.

The concrete pavers create a durable surface the city hopes will be suitable for both everyday use and special events like concerts and farmer’s markets.

The City Council opted for the pavers over less expensive materials for aesthetic and durability reasons, as well as for their permeability.

“We poured water on them and it goes right through,” Dittmer said.

In a nod to the past, the central turf area will be in the x-shape of the footprint of the old courthouse, which was damaged in the 1906 earthquake. The area has been framed with sections of the granite courthouse steps from the rebuilt courthouse that was demolished in 1966, most of which have been sitting in a city corporation yard for 50 years.

Dozens of new sycamore trees have also recently been planted into nutrient rich soil that is also loamy to encourage drainage. The root balls of the hardy trees, known as London planetrees, have been planted amid a type of subterranean scaffolding called Silva Cells that underlay much of the square.

The cells create voids that make it easier for roots to grow and form a large underground stormwater retention area that has been very effective at keeping the site somewhat dry during the heavy rains, city inspector Lionel Rocha said.

About 90 LED light posts are also being installed, many with outlet boxes at the base that will allow vendors to plug in equipment during special events and perhaps allow residents to recharge cellphones or devices. It is unclear how the use of the outlets will be managed, but access easily can be turned on and off, Dittmer said.

The expected opening is now late April, meaning the square isn’t expected to be done for Earth Day on April 22, as many had hoped, said Janet Rogers, vice president of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

There is some disappointment that yet another deadline is being missed, but mostly merchants are excited to see the end is in sight, she said.

The project is being built by Thompson Builders of Novato. Superintendent Travis Lopez said he’s pleased with the progress workers have been able to make recently and likes how the square is shaping up.

“There’s been a lot of changes, but I think for the better,” Lopez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s Note. This story has been updated to reflect that the turf area of the reunified Old Courthouse Square will be in the shape of the courthouse that was damaged in the 1906 earthquake, while the granite used in the project was from the steps of the rebuilt courthouse demolished in 1966.

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