Reunified at last, Santa Rosa celebrates its new Old Courthouse Square

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Santa Rosa’s downtown square came to life Saturday as a reunified public space made its long-awaited debut, returning a central plaza to a city of 170,000 with hopes it becomes a hub for civic activity, a catalyst for commerce and a new source of urban identity and cohesion.

A throng turned out to Old Courthouse Square under sunny skies to gaze at the finished $10.5 million project, the culmination of an idea that has gripped the city for decades as a way to revive its ailing downtown.

The 1.5-acre site, bisected by Mendocino and Santa Rosa avenues since 1966 after the city’s second courthouse was torn down, now features scores of newly planted trees, an expanse of paving stones and a cross-shaped lawn marking the spot of the original courthouse, felled by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

On Saturday, it was the scene of jubilation and curiosity, as families played on the grass and others strolled the flat ground dotted with metal benches, picnic tables and light poles.

“We’ve got sunshine, we have blue skies, and we have a brand-new, indivisible courthouse square,” Mayor Chris Coursey told a crowd of residents, downtown business owners and city officials before cutting a ceremonial ribbon.

Years in the making

Since the 1990s, the square has been envisioned by supporters as a new heart for the city’s core, but the project, which has its opponents, was long held up by budget constraints, political gridlock and disagreements over its design. The City Council unanimously approved the final design in early 2016, and work began last summer.

Several finishing touches remain to be completed. One is a redesigned fountain from artist Ruth Asawa that will grace the south side of the plaza. And the city is awaiting the fabrication of four Luther Burbank-themed light columns to be placed at the corners of the grass.

“There’s more to come,” Coursey said. “Let’s celebrate what’s here today.”

People who turned out Saturday gave mostly positive reviews, although some complained about the extensive use of concrete and small size of the planted sycamore trees. At the start of construction last summer, crews cut down more than 90 trees including eight of the 30 redwoods.

“I don’t know if I’ll be around long enough to see some of these trees come to fruition,” said Donna Endicott, 83, of Santa Rosa, a descendant of the original landowner, Julio Carrillo, who died in 1889. “But it should work. It’s nice to see someone try to revive it.”

We asked readers how they felt about the new square, here is their response:

A place to gather

Others were excited about the prospect of using the square for rallies and events, including the downtown farmers market, which begins its seasonal run this Wednesday. It will allow people a better vantage point to watch the rerouted Luther Burbank Rose Parade on May 20. Also in the offing is the Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon series, which kicks off next month and in July.

Of course, protesters will have a new place to gather.

“It looks big and lovely,” said Beverly West, also of Santa Rosa, who carried a sign reading, “Science Trumps Ignorance.” Demonstrators with Saturday’s March for Climate, Jobs and Justice arrived at the already crowded square about 3 p.m.

Others said they were just glad it was open after the long stretch of construction and being cut off from the space by cyclone fencing.

“I love that it’s finished,” said hot dog vendor Ralph Morgenbesser, who stationed his food cart on the old bisected plaza for 25 years. “I’m the happiest guy in the world. This is my home.”

And some, like Santa Rosa homeless man Jeff Warnick, wondered aloud if he would he be allowed to spend time on the square or be rousted.

Among the posted rules of the square are a ban on dogs, smoking and camping.

“Now that they got this open you’ll see a lot less people hanging around businesses and sleeping in doorways,” said Warnick, standing on the edge of the square and holding a rolled up blanket.

Reflecting on its history

As families explored the new open space and frolicked on the grass, they heard an abridged history of the property from Gaye LeBaron, the longtime Press Democrat columnist and author.

She said Carrillo, often described as Santa Rosa’s “first citizen,” envisioned the property as a public plaza in the first plot map of the city, which he filed in 1854. It was home to the county fair, had a house built on it and, later, two courthouses, the first of which Carrillo worked at for five years until his death.

Now, it’s in its second iteration as a gathering place. LeBaron said the property embodies a theme of change.

“A lot of things have happened in Julio’s plaza,” she said.

Coursey promised the reconfigured square “will energize the entire downtown,” bringing people together while ushering in new wave of businesses such as a boutique hotel planned for the historic Empire Building on the western edge of the plaza.

“Add to that the jobs they provide and the tax revenue they will generate and you begin to understand the square is just the first domino that sets off a chain of events that has positive impacts throughout the city,” Coursey said. “That’s what this investment is about.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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