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streetwalker - santa rosa 01

Brick Masonry

The last time I visited Sonoma County, I promised myself that I would check in on Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.  My prior visit was pre-pandemic, and since then, the changes have been dramatic.  What was once a ghostly railroad is now lively with a commuter train and a bike trail, providing opportunities for commuters, tourists, and errand runners alike.  Over the years, I have watched Railroad Square with keen interest, primarily to observe how the community has continuously revitalized itself amidst development challenges, such as when the freeway bisected downtown, cutting off Railroad Square from the town’s heart.

(Photos in the galleries below can be expanded for viewing.)

Revitalizing Railroad Square required several transformations, but this post emphasizes the adaptive reuse of its surrounding buildings.  Some existing buildings had already adopted new uses by my first visit in the 1990s: a couple of coffee shops flanking the square, and the old depot acted as a tourist information center. At the same time, few trains ever passed its depot.  Retailers, restaurants, a newly renovated older hotel, and nearby residential housing have always kept Railroad Square active. Still, there has been an uptick in liveliness since the conference center/hotel was established nearby. 

The day I visited highlighted other new developments.  Mid-rise business offices now border the west side of the freeway, and across the railroad tracks are several additional housing developments.  One is currently rising within a historic warehouse, which leads to questions about how we preserve historic places.  That is another topic, but I am relieved that the building is no longer abandoned.  Its preservation is relegated to a cosmetic overlay to the new building, but something is preserved, nonetheless.  Fun fact: when urban planners, designers, and architects are developing a property within a downtown environment, most cities today will require the “streetscape” to be pedestrian friendly: regardless of a building’s height, the sidewalk should feel safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to motivate walking over driving.  By keeping the façade of the older structure, the scale remains human.  Adding trees, benches, and other site furnishings will classify the areas as walkable, especially as it sits adjacent to a bike path.

Railroad Square is a complex entity on its own, partly due to its transformation into a separate space after the freeway and shopping mall cut it off from the rest of downtown.  Yet, the Railroad Square areas have evolved a unique identity or sense of self.  Other buildings in the neighborhood have been repurposed into restaurants, a teen center, and a dance studio, to name only a few.  The additional offices and housing will only add to the area’s dynamics, although the long-time locals will have to adjust to the newcomers.  This transformation gives rise to talks about gentrification and whether local voices are still being heard.  In the meantime, I can only observe from a distance.


design ideas & challenges

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