Depending on what the Santa Rosa City Council decides to do, Railroad Square could assume dimensions and character befitting its name, and become the most important and lively train station area on the 70 mile SMART line. But at this time the outlook is unclear. The City has an unfortunate record of turning in the wrong direction at critical junctures. Chris Smith talked about this in his Press Democrat column of Sunday, May 30, 2004 –
“TO DO THE UNDOABLE: We might all agree that years ago many things were done in downtown Santa Rosa that we now wish weren’t done. The grand old courthouse was demolished. City Hall was built over the top of Santa Rosa Creek. Highway 101 was routed right through downtown rather than around it. Those two phone-company monoliths were erected side-by-side in the heart of downtown. And Old Courthouse Square was separated in two. The thing that stands out about the splitting of the square is that it is the one downtown mistake that we`ve got a shot at correcting. Let’s make it a good shot.”
Although Smith is focusing on undoing an old decision, another lesson that could be learned from his list is that even difficult decisions are easier to get right than to undo sometime in the distant future. Furthermore, there are other decisions made recently or currently pending that have similar potential for public regret over the next several decades. More recent decisions such as the following could bring his list up to date:
Constructing Santa Rosa Plaza as a monolith to further plug up traffic across the freeway,
Letting HP build in what became Fountaingrove, when flat industrial land was still plentiful,
Building up all the rest of Fountaingrove, including the ridges, as high cost housing,
Approving a ring-road at the rural south end of the city,
Approving a ten story parking building on E Street.
Only with hindsight will we know which of these would become the most regrettable. But the one that should concern us the most at this time is a decision yet to be made: Is Railroad Square going to be a the thriving center of Sonoma County’s multimodal transportation system, or just another auto-oriented tourist attraction that sits astride a train track?
If the people now living in the area overplay the historical designation and succeed in blocking Transit Oriented Development, Railroad Square is likely to become the North Bay’s equivalent of the North Berkeley BART station, currently having the lowest transit mode share of any BART station area (2.7%). Ideas about how Railroad Square should be developed seem to be proceeding along two separate paths. [chronology of car-oriented and transit-oriented events]
Putting the Railroad back in Railroad Square
For all the emphasis on an image of trains, the recent evolution of Railroad Square is strangely standoffish from any real understanding or willingness to support the revival of actual passenger train service. Most of the planning activities so far are aimed at continuing the city’s overwhelming reliance on automobile access. For instance, with all its emphasis on assuring that modern deviations from early architecture will not encroach on the Railroad Square Historic District, the writers of the 1979 Railroad Square Plan saw no inconsistency in changing the function of the historically more rail intensive western portion of the District in order to provide a very unhistoric level of parking accommodation to serve the entire District.
Place and Node
The dissonance in the dialogue about the future of Railroad Square may have to do with a district that must be both a place and a transportation node. Railroad station areas can be both. Major auto-highway nodes can never good places for people on foot. The people that have been spending years trying to make Railroad Square a good place undoubtedly believe that strong auto access is essential. What they fail to appreciate is the downside of intensive auto access; the parking either kills a ring of land around the place, or kills the place itself.
Planning process and plans
Planning for Railroad Square since the 1980s has lacked public involvement and input, other than consultation with the stakeholder business people of Railroad Square and the West End homeowners.
The Conceptual Masterplan by VBN that was released in July 2002 reflected the pre-ordained parking expansion of the west side of the District. In May 2003 a public design forum was held at the Vineyard Creek Hotel, where a wide variety of views were expressed by the invitees and public. After that, the only public participation was in regard to the Program EIR for TORPA Phase 1. That EIR intentionally contained few specifics on what would be done, andwas adopted by the City of Santa Rosa.
As part of the SMART project EIR, conceptual plans were prepared for all stations except Railroad Square. Santa Rosa requested to take that responsibility on itself. After quite some time, that was granted through a Memorandum of Understanding between SMART and Santa Rosa.
Although the MOU itself didn’t resolve the conflicting interests between the two entities, it is hoped that the process outlined there will lead to resolution.
Railroad Square happened to be in the middle of a very large planned redevelopment project, called “The Gateway Project”, a joint project of City of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. It is so large that it would take a very long time to move through all the hoops. In order to move more expeditiously in Railroad Square, a piece was broken out, now called Phase 1, with the bulk of the redevelopment area being designated as Phase 2. The urgency for moving on Phase 1 was that development was already getting under way, large expenses were being incurred, and developers wanted questions settled.
Redevelopment districts, with their ability to use tax increment financing to build new public infrastructure, provide a strong and useful tool for reclaiming blighted areas. It could work hand-in-hand with a rail transit undertaking, where station areas are often blighted due to rail service being eclipsed by autos-highways-parking-lots for so many years. But there must be a clear public purpose and benefit for taking the tax increment for use within the district where the increment is generated, since that amounts to a tax loss for the rest of the community.
If the net effect of redevelopment funds leads to development practices at cross-purposes with transit development, there will be no net public benefit. The complex rules of redevelopment came about in response to the shenanigans that commonly enriched the development community at the expense of the taxpayers without producing the requisite public benefits.
While the use of the redevelopment mechanism in Railroad Square appears to be useful and justifiable if focused on enhancing multi-modal access to that area, it is hard to see a rationale in the formation of the entire redevelopment district. Gateway Phase II is too large and too irregular to be relevant to TOD at Railroad Square, or anything else for that matter. What is needed, but still missing, is a planning and development area sized to reflect a reasonable walking distance from the train platform. And there needs to be a real commitment to housing.