A reunified Old Courthouse Square, called the "linchpin" to the future of downtown Santa Rosa, moved a step closer Tuesday as the City Council declared a winner in its contest to redesign the space.
The council unanimously named SWA Group of Sausalito the winner, following the recommendation of a seven-member jury assigned to make a selection from five finalists.
Councilwoman Jane Bender, a juror, said the reunified square "will be the back yard, front yard and the entertainment center of our downtown."
The 1.5-acre square was split in half in 1966 and Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues were connected through its center after the county courthouse that occupied the site was razed because it had been declared earthquake unsafe.
But over the past decade with downtown businesses struggling, calls grew louder to reunify the square to create an atmosphere more welcoming to consumers, tourists and businesses, similar to squares in Healdsburg and Sonoma.
"We want you downtown," Bender said Tuesday, describing the impetus for the design contest. "That is the reason to do this."
Mayor Bob Blanchard called a reunified square the "linchpin" to plans to build more downtown housing, entice a greater variety of stores and make downtown play a key cultural role in the city's future.
"This is a huge step," he said. "This is not just window-dressing."
All council members agreed, however, that one large obstacle remains: how to pay the estimated $7.5 million needed to reunify the square.
Transportation planner Nancy Adams, who helped coordinate the competition, said price tags for the designs of the five finalists ranged from $7 million to $13.5 million. The council had set its original spending guideline at $7 million.
Council members previously promised that they would find the money to pay for the new square without touching the general fund, the money that pays for most of the city's key operations from police and fire to public works and parks and recreation.
Council members reiterated that position Tuesday and said they probably will be looking at a combination of grants, redevelopment money and utility funds to pay for parts of the project.
Blanchard said they also may find money somewhere else.
"When something exciting takes place, people get on board and money will follow," he said, echoing sentiments of other council members who are hoping local benefactors step forward.
While the council embraced SWA's concept, not everyone spoke in glowing terms at Tuesday's meeting.
A half-dozen people called the proposal a waste of money and predicted that eliminating the Santa Rosa/Mendocino avenue connection that accommodates 16,000 cars a day will cause many to avoid the downtown.
Before the roads were connected, the courthouse sat in the middle of the square. Two side streets, Hinton and Exchange avenues, were at the west and east ends of the courthouse providing for a more circuitous route for those traveling crosstown north and south.
Laura Graham, a longtime resident, said that simply created a "big traffic mess."
Exchange and Hinton were eliminated when Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues were connected.
The conceptual design submitted by SWA calls for the reintroduction of Hinton and Exchange avenues, parking along both streets, a glass fountain, an arbor of overhead lights and several areas to stage musical and cultural events.
Despite the council's action Tuesday, construction isn't expected to begin for at least a year.
Adams said it will take that long to negotiate a design contract with SWA, hold public workshops to tweak the design and complete final design work.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin suggested critics take a wait-and-see attitude.
"Let us create something and reserve your judgment for a couple of years," she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mike McCoy at 521-5276 or email@example.com