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A Square Is Born

A user's guide to Old Courthouse Square

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It's a hot Friday afternoon in Santa Rosa and Old Courthouse Square is not yet an urban oasis of cool comfort, but the sycamore trees are starting to grow in as lunch-goers and downtown denizens make their way through and around Santa Rosa's new center. The hot dog man is busy on the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Fourth Street. The place to be is on a shady bench near the remaining redwood trees that weren't removed as the $10.5-million Square moved from concept to build-out.

Some 30 years after the downtown business community conjured a reunited Courthouse Square, here it is, and it's frankly too easy to throw shade on the shadeless expanse of civic space—but give it time. Designed as a multi-use civic gathering space, the Square is purposefully single-level and built without a gazebo or a permanent stage to prevent any restrictions for potential events.

"The idea was to create an open space for an event planner to come in and make it their space, reimagine it, re-create without having anything already established," says Jaime Smedes, Transportation and Public Works marketing and outreach coordinator with the city of Santa Rosa.

The Square truly is a blank and inviting palette, says Jonathan Coe, director of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, whose offices are along the Square, ready to be painted at the discretion and direction of the citizens of Santa Rosa and a proposed business district that would give surrounding business owners a role in the maintenance and security of the public space.

Coe says the chamber is in the process of putting together a property-based business improvement district (PBID) "that would enable us to provide services beyond what the city is doing and what it would be doing on its own." These sorts of business districts were written into California code in 1994, and allow them to supplant, but not replace, services that are already provided by the city.

One of the key provisions of the law encourages nonprofits to deliver services normally provided by government, as a supplement to those services. These activities may include acting as an intermediary between Square-sitters and law enforcement, but Coe stresses that "it is not our intent to play a private security role per se. The team we hope to have on the streets will be a combination of litter picker-uppers and 'liaisons' to the various homeless services . . . so that they can make referrals and contacts, and then also to collaborate where needed [with law enforcement] on quality-of-life ordinance violations."

There's been significant support for the business district from merchants around the Square and adjoining blocks, as Coe acknowledges that past efforts to bring businesses together to better manage the downtown transient population "did not work out well." But he says that because the initiators of the PBID are in large measure the same business owners who have pushed for the Courthouse Square unification, he's confident the PBID will ultimately prevail. There's first a process, however, that's just getting off the ground.

As the PBID is considered, so too is a question: Should Santa Rosans be worried about a nongovernmental organization given wide latitude to manage a public space that was upgraded with public money, and where private security officials will be charged with interacting or engaging with vulnerable, homeless and/or mentally ill persons persons who may be creating a disturbance? Coe says not too worry, as does Santa Rosa vice mayor Jack Tibbetts, who insists that any downtown business district would come with city oversight and ample sensitivity to the rights of all citizens to use the Square.

Still, the proposed business district would stand in contrast to the roll-out of a revitalized and nearby Railroad Square, where business owners have an informal, "pass-the-hat" system to enhance security in the area, Coe says. Railroad Square business owners bypassed the formal and state-sanctioned PBID process.

Courthouse Square's present, reunified status was years in the making—the Square itself is 133 years old but was bifurcated by Mendocino Avenue in 1967. The original courthouse was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and a new one built in 1910; that courthouse was taken down in 1966 because it was declared seismically unfit.

That the Square is rather starkly appointed was by design. Jason Nutt, director of the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works, says the design goal for the Square—which necessitated the controversial removal of 90 trees—was to create a space that was "open, flexible and inviting."

And right out of the gate the Square hosted the successful Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa competition, whose organizer said the event was the best it's seen in North America, says Nutt. Not bad for a brand-new venue.

Before it was redesigned, the Square was less than ideal and contained numerous "hiding spaces" that transient citizens made use of, Nutt says. "That really made people feel uncomfortable," he says. But the new and improved plaza will be "the community's living room," he says.

Lesser-known design details give a sense of the local that's not immediately observable through a simple stroll across the space. Nutt's favorite design details are the light features, which are custom-fabricated by celebrated metal artist Michael Bondi. The fixtures are sheathed in stainless steel and have programmable LEDs that can change color. Each of the lights has the figure of a plant created by Luther Burbank cut into it: the Santa Rosa plum, Shasta daisy, firefly poppy and the white blackberry. Nutt calls the lights the plaza's "jewelry."

The current reunification effort dates back to 2004 when a group called the Coalition to Restore Courthouse Square launched a then-quixotic journey that would pay off more than a decade later.

"It's had quite a long history," says Curtis Nichols, vice president and landscape architect at the Santa Rosa architectural firm Carlile Macy, which designed and executed the reunified Square. "We're riding on the shoulders of a lot of people who have been trying to do this for the past 20 years," Nichols says.

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