Putting the ‘Square’ in Railroad Square

by Lois Fisher (Close to Home in the Press Democrat)

What if we had a proper square in Railroad Square? A place that people disembarking from the SMART train and looking toward downtown could see as a leafy, bustling urban oasis that told them, you have arrived. Stop and stay awhile. It would feature shade trees, benches, a playground, places for art displays and maybe a fountain. It would be a ready-made site for public events, farmers markets and concerts. Surrounding the square would be shops and restaurants with lots of outdoor dining on the new wider sidewalks on two sides of the square.

A square in fact has been proposed for Railroad Square. It would create a “public realm” that would offer shade and a community feel to an area that will see an increasing number of people living in new buildings in proximity to the SMART train.

Parking in the area between the back of the historic Santa Rosa Depot and the linear strip of grass along Wilson Street could be relocated to the edges of a new square while retaining the same number of parking spaces. Parking is key to the economic success of downtown retail, and it needs to be preserved.

At this point, two options are proposed for the design of the square. One is a green square like Sonoma’s, with the green space separated by a curb from the parking that surrounds it. The other option would be more like an Italian piazza. This area would be bestowed with beautiful stone structures like the Hotel La Rose and Aroma Roasters buildings that were built by Italian craftsmen. What if a stone piazza were to stretch from stone building to stone building without curbs? Shade trees would be planted in tree wells to make it a cool oasis.

This square could be seen as a smaller younger sister to Courthouse Square, with the history of the railroad — steam trains, electric trains and the Fourth Street trolley — included somehow in the final design. Whichever design is selected, the key historic characteristics of Railroad Square would need to be preserved so that Railroad Square keeps its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historic Railroad Square Association supports the idea of a public square in this area as long as common sense crime prevention through environmental design principles are incorporated into the design to discourage vagrancy.

These include being sure that surrounding business owners have a clear view of the square from their shops, that the square design is simple with no grade changes and that no areas are hidden.

The addition of a police substation and cameras to this area, along with incorporating a program similar to the Downtown Action Organization’s “Blue Shirt” patrol would help with security.

Finally, regular power washing of the sidewalks would increase the enjoyment of all who visit. Railroad Square property owners just voted to tax themselves to help with the maintenance, security and promotion of this historic part of town. This new entity is called the Railroad Square Community Benefit District, and it would implement these security policies if the plaza is included in the city’s downtown plan.

There is a City Council meeting this coming Tuesday, from 1 p.m.- 3 p.m. at Santa Rosa City Hall, to discuss the Downtown Station Area Plan update.

Happily, the idea of a square in Railroad Square is included in this preferred plan, and many City Council members support the idea. If you support this idea (or even if you don’t), please come to this meeting and let the consultants and public officials know your thoughts. We welcome a dialog on this idea to create a beautiful new addition to the public realm in downtown Santa Rosa.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor and teaches urban design as an adjunct faculty member at Sonoma State University.

Santa Rosa artist Judy Kennedy is the co-creator of this idea. This piece was written with support and input by Dick Carlile, Civil Engineer and Curt Nichols, Landscape Architect, both members of the Railroad Square Association.