For downtown RP: How about a flower garden?
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By Jud Snyder  June 28, 2013 12:00 am

WHAT DO PEOPLE WANT in the way of a downtown Rohnert Park? That’s an interesting question in The Community Voice’s reader survey last week and this week. The problem is when most people think of downtown, they think many shops, sidewalks, parking meters, parking lots within walking distance of retail stores; all anchored by a big box store like Costco. Or maybe Nordstrom’s or Trader Joe’s. Why change the formula?

I’d say change the old formula, for what’s gonna be downtown except things to buy? For more than 50 years, RP’s been thriving without a downtown, mostly because everybody has a car. If your hometown doesn’t have what you need there’s always Santa Rosa or Petaluma. But RP does have big box stores, lots of franchised (especially restaurant) outlets but a scarcity of small “mom and pop” shops, so what belongs in a future downtown? Not just small shops, for they’re mostly single-purpose stores and need a lot of sidewalk traffic to attract walk-ins. Big boxes can do this and you don’t necessarily want them in a downtown. Most downtowns in Sonoma County cities don’t have them. The closest they have are supermarkets.

When you think about it in a non-commercial manner, the problem is Rohnert Park doesn’t have a history. Look at Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Cotati. They all have deep roots in California history. All RP has for its history are acres and acres of flower gardens grown for their blossoms and seeds by the Rohnert family.

 

OK. STOP RIGHT THERE. There’s your downtown. Take five, ten or twenty acres of those barren asphalt and gravel parking lots west of the library and convert them to flower fields all the way to State Farm Drive. 

Get the original layouts from the Rohnert family to guarantee authenticity. They’ll be owned by the city and cultivated, weeded and harvested by public works department crews. 

Then on two parallel streets to RPX, build your small retail outlets with seed stores, bags of potting soil, garden tools, cut-flower shops, flowers to take home for your own garden, bicycle stores, boutiques, coffee shops and even coax one of the tractor franchise outlets on North Commerce Boulevard to move in. Add wide sidewalks, benches and trees. Maybe you could get a national seed company like Burpee to participate.

You could also bring down the original home of the Rohnert Seed Farm’s field manager, Tex Snyder, now sitting empty next to the former Holy Family Episcopal Church on Maurice Avenue and turn it into a Rohnert Museum.

In other words, make downtown RP a tourist attraction. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when people were driving on the Old Redwood Highway or the new 101freeway, the Rohnert Seed Farm flowers always drew a lot of oohs and aahs as they cranked down car windows and inhaled the aromas.  

 

I CAN HEAR THE howls of disbelief from scoffers reading this. “What? That land’s worth millions of dollars an acre and you wanna turn it into a flower garden! Are you crazy!”

Well, maybe I am. Rohnert Seed Farm is our only historical anchor, even though it’s only 50 or 60 years old. But in 15, 25 or 50 years from now it will have increased historical value and people won’t care how old it is. 

There’s a commercial angle here, too. RP flower shops and supermarkets selling cut flowers and potted plants get their wares from wholesale growers. Most of them occupy vast acreages in the Sacramento and San Joaquin flatlands, where growing conditions are predictable and they’re trucked here. 

I don’t know of any huge flower-growing acreages in Sonoma or Marin and Mendocino counties. But we could have one in RP.

 

THE LAND IS IN what RP calls a Priority Development Area (PDA), and so far the only plans mentioned have been based on “mixed use,” which means retail stores at ground level and apartments above. The designation is very popular these days in city halls. That process is merely repeating what the city already has. Urban planners are mired in present-day layouts, they’re not specialists in long-range thinking. The future is rather “iffy” in these days of economic recession. But the nation is slowly crawling out of this current quagmire. Give it six or eight years to emerge. “Mixed use” will still be here. 

I wouldn’t even move RP City Hall here. By now, it’s an obsolete idea, and it’s not in the PDA anyway. It could be moved to the vacant State Farm Insurance property to give it adjacent SMART commute train access for its workers.

 

BUT THERE’S NO reason not to plan ahead now. Thinking in the same old “mixed-use” box isn’t the only alternative out there. Go outside the box. 

I contend a historical link is needed as part of the plan. There’s a deeper psychological angle here with it’s own historical roots. All the cities except for Rohnert Park and Windsor, have deep historical roots. Kids learn about them in schools and many schools are named after them, like John Reed and Waldo Rohnert in RP and Thomas Page in Cotati. 

Setting up a Rohnert Seed Farm acreage in the middle of RP could quickly thrust RP into the countywide panoply of historical cities. No longer would it be floating on the edge of the historical pool, from Fort Ross to Petaluma to Sonoma, like an intrusive newcomer not allowed in the pool. Windsor is in the same category. It doesn’t have any history, deep or shallow. But Rohnert Park does, even though it’s shallow compared to Thomas Page and John Reed.

But the Rohnert Seed Farm story has been largely ignored except for naming Seed Farm Drive. (It was my idea and city hall bought it). You’ve got to remember, history on this planet has been around for thousands of years and will continue to be so for possibly another thousand years.

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