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Hopper Wall, important symbol of Coffey Park resilience, is finished

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Insult, meet injury.

That’s what some residents of Coffey Park were thinking 18 months ago, upon learning they were on the hook for more than $18,000 apiece, the result of a mix-up with the city over the burned, crumbling, unwanted wall in their backyards.

The turbulent saga of the Hopper Wall will officially end with a Saturday morning celebration at the northeast corner of Hopper Avenue and Coffey Lane. Completion of the new-and-improved sound barrier represents one more milestone in the comeback of this plucky Santa Rosa neighborhood, much of which was leveled in the October 2017 Tubbs fire.

The handsome, fire resistant 8-foot stucco partition lines, for a third of a mile, both sides of the main drag through this working-class community.

But the Hopper Wall is more than that. This project, which cost $650,000 and took 18 months to finish, is “a symbol of our resilience,” said Steve Rahmn, a resident of the neighborhood that spearheaded the reconstruction.

It is a “tangible, visual deliverable — proof of progress and a reason for hope” in the ongoing recovery, said Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of Rebuild NorthBay Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to fire recovery that collaborated on the project with neighborhood group Coffey Strong and AshBritt Environmental, the Florida-based debris removal company that donated $450,000 for the Hopper Wall.

“Unity Is Strength,” proclaims the plaque embedded in the wall at the corner where residents will gather Saturday. That plaque, donated by D&S Awards in Santa Rosa, is actually a duplicate of the original, which ended up in the back of a contractor’s truck and was accidentally driven to Southern California, before it was returned scratched, dented and “folded like a taco,” said Rahmn, a Coffey Strong board member.

“That’s quarter-inch-thick cast bronze,” marveled D&S owner Dennis Wilkinson. “It doesn’t bend easily, but this was definitely bent.”

The trashed plaque was but one setback in an undertaking that proved far more convoluted and complicated than anyone had reason to expect.

Early in 2018, a few months after the fire tore through Coffey Park, city officials met with Coffey Strong members. Debris removal was nearly complete. But one highly visible, 40-year-old eyesore remained.

Scorched and blackened, the walls on either side of Hopper Avenue still stood, a grim and dispiriting reminder of the disaster.

Asked at that meeting last year when the city intended to knock down those walls, a Santa Rosa official delivered bad news: While the city had been maintaining it for years, the wall actually belonged to the 42 homeowners on whose property it sat. Those residents, not Santa Rosa, were on the hook for the money it would take to raze and rebuild it. The price tag for each homeowner: $18,250.

To the rescue rode AshBritt, which had asked Rebuild NorthBay how best to spend $450,000. After directing the money to Coffey Park, the nonprofit also donated its labor. Rebuild NorthBay was founded by Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. Anderson has not been involved with the nonprofit since January 2019.

But demolition work on the old wall couldn’t start until Coffey Strong had collected “right of entry” agreements signed by each of the 42 homeowners — many of whom had departed for parts unknown.

After Martin Hirsch, a Santa Rosa lawyer, drew up the agreements, pro bono, it fell to Rahmn and his fellow board members Sasha Butler and Anne Barbour to track down the far-flung homeowners.

Many of the phone numbers they had were no longer current. Barbour enrolled in a background check service, and used it to reach neighbors and relatives of missing homeowners.

“I’d call people about a certain homeowner,” she recalled, “and they’d say, ‘This isn’t his number.’ And I’d say, ‘Well do you have his number?’ And there would be a pause. When I heard that pause I knew I had to talk fast.”

Barbour would assure the person on the other end of the line that she was not collecting a bill. She would explain that she was trying to rebuild the neighborhood — in particular the Hopper Wall.

It took five months, but the trio wrangled all 42 signatures. Groundbreaking on the wall began in November 2018. Contractors Farrow, Mountain G and Wolff Contracting donated labor for demolition and disposal of the old wall.

The new wall consists of 8-foot-by-4-foot panels with polystyrene cores, covered on both sides by wire mesh, then sprayed with a layer of concrete. Those panels are reinforced every 20 feet by columns that were anchored in drilled shafts. During the exceptionally wet winter, those shafts kept filling up with rainwater, delaying the project.

Once the new wall was upright, at long last, workers added a stucco finish. Another important milepost in the rebuild soon would be reached.

All they needed now was a new plaque.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect date when Darius Anderson ceased involvement with Rebuild NorthBay Foundation.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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