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Getting Back in the Flow

New downtown convention center will aid the $5 million Santa Rosa Creek restoration project

By Bruce Robinson

An old, ill-treated creek and a sparkling new hotel project might not seem to have much in common, but if all goes according to plans, they will prove mutually beneficial in downtown Santa Rosa. A new agreement between the city and Innkeeper Associates of San Francisco will open the door for collaboration between the preparatory work on the Railroad Square convention center site and the restoration of the creekbed as it flows along the edge of the property.

"It's one of those projects that everybody feels good about, a good marriage between economic development and environmental restoration," says Steve Rabinowitsh, chairman of the Committee for Restoring Santa Rosa Creek. "That's an area where you can do something for the business community and the environment both."

The 9.5-acre site at Third and Morgan streets, home of the former Grace Brothers Brewery, will become a new, long-awaited convention center and upscale hotel, just a block away from Railroad Square. But, like Santa Rosa Creek, which defines the southern edge of the property, the land has seen better days. Other past uses include a tannery, an auto dismantling yard, a gas station, and a railroad spur, "and many of them have resulted in contamination," says Steve Burke, director of Santa Rosa Redevelopment. "There are a variety of toxic problems we've identified. It's formidable."

All those problems will have to be cleaned up before hotel construction can begin, and the city has budgeted $3 million to get the work done during the next year. Another $5 million has been set aside to undo the channelization of the creek from Santa Rosa Avenue west to Railroad Avenue. "We're very fortunate to see the two efforts coming along at the same time," Burke observes.

Both projects have been in the pipeline for a while. The Master Plan for restoring Santa Rosa Creek was adopted in September 1993, but noted that its implementation "may take five, 10, 25 or more years to fully realize."

"Things don't happen as quickly as you would like them to, but I would say the city is committed to the process," explains Rabinowitsh. "The building blocks are getting put in place, one by one."

This first highly visible step in the overall restoration of Santa Rosa Creek will focus on the section known in the plan as "Reach C," which begins at Santa Rosa Avenue, where it emerges from beneath Santa Rosa City Hall and runs under Highway 101, past the old Grace Brothers property, then arcs northwesterly to Pierson Street.

The Master Plan envisions the creation of a "creek promenade" here, with pedestrian and bicycle trails, lighting and benches, paths connecting downtown and Railroad Square, and easy access between the creek and the four nearby parks.

"It will be a place to stroll, to get to shops and businesses, to get from downtown to Railroad Square," the plan rhapsodizes, "a place to watch nature be reestablished in the creek, a place to rest, and a place to eat."

That idyllic future contrasts sharply with the waterway's utilitarian present, a steep, trapezoidal flood-control channel with limited access and little vegetation.

"The creek is in real poor shape," agrees Mike Sheppard, the member of the Santa Rosa Community Development department staff who heads the city's creek restoration task force. "The banks have been concreted over and the bottom has a concrete lining. We want to remove the lining and take it back to a more natural state and create some areas where people can walk along the creek and get down to the water's edge, too." The process of hiring a consultant to design a specific restoration plan is now under way.

But one major obstacle still looms, according to ecologist Marco Waaland, who served as a consultant to the Santa Rosa Creek Master Plan. "They found a couple of areas along the creek that do have some toxic material under the bed of the creek and under the concrete that lines the banks," he says. While the Sonoma County Water Agency has accepted responsibility for some of the cleanup, the city and PG&E are disputing who should take care of another portion.

That's also key to the redevelopment of the Grace Brothers property. "In order to entice a developer to build a convention center on that site, one of the big detriments has been the state of the property and its need to be enhanced. One of the big assets it has is the creek environment" once it is improved, says Sheppard.

Norman Rosenblatt, president of Innkeepers Associates, agrees. Their project "could go on the site without the creek, but I feel the creek is a very definite plus . . . from a visual standpoint." The landscape plan for the center will work closely with the city to make the design mesh with the restoration work, Rosenblatt adds.

Restoration of that central segment of the creek may also bring another, less visible result--a renewed fishery. "Because of the channelized state that has existed for the past 40 years, the natural habitat along the creek has declined and [fish] find it very difficult to survive," Sheppard says. "But as strange as it is, they do find steelhead and trout and even salmon in the upper areas around Brush Creek, which means that they somehow make it up that far. It's hard to understand, but to some limited degree they do."

Waaland anticipates that creation of creekside pathways under the freeway also will be cause for rejoicing among bicyclists. "This would be a link from east to west," eventually providing a bike trail connection "all the way from the Laguna out to Melita Road, the Spring Lake area," he says. "Right now, if you want to ride across town, you really take your life in your hands on city streets."

Cyclists should have lots of company in pressing for further creek restoration work. "If you restore it and bring some greenery back and add some interesting stream features--boulders and pools--it's going to make the beauty even greater," adds Waaland. "That would generate a lot of civic support because people could see the benefit.

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From the Jan. 4-10, 1996 issue of The Sonoma County Independent

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© 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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