The Church of One Tree: A civic parable

Juilliard Park is one of the jewels of Santa Rosa. It occupies 8.8 acres downtown, adjacent to the SOFA Arts District where, last weekend, thousands gathered for the 10th annual WinterBlast festival. Here’s how the Press Democrat describes the SOFA district:

Loosely gathered around the intersection of South A Street and Sebastopol Avenue, the neighborhood once had a shady reputation, but about a decade ago it began to change, and over those years it emerged as a destination for cuisine and culture.

And it continues to evolve. Today, you’ll find a picturesque cluster of small, independently owned shops, galleries, restaurants and even a live theater company.

We love the neighborhood and its energy. It was a major factor in our decision to move to Santa Rosa. When a small studio became available next door to the Atlas Coffee Company (labeled 1 on the map), Luann jumped at the opportunity. The timing was perfect. WinterBlast introduced hundreds of people to her work and to the stories that inspire it.

On the other side of the park is a landmark labeled Ripley Museum / Church of One Tree (2 on the map). Here’s the history:

The Church of One Tree was built in 1873 from a single redwood tree milled in Guerneville, California. The tree used to construct the Church stood 275 feet high and was 18 feet in diameter. Robert Ripley, a native of Santa Rosa, wrote about the Church of One Tree — where his mother attended services, — as one of his earliest installments of “Believe It or Not!” In 1970, Ripley repurposed the Church of One Tree as the Ripley Memorial Museum which was stocked with curiosities and “Believe it or Not!” memorabilia for nearly two decades. In 2009, the City of Santa Rosa restored the site adding several modern upgrades so that it could be utilized for every type of occasion.

Although that city web page doesn’t say so, the building was moved to Juilliard Park in 1957. It’s one of several landmarks that the city rents out for private events, so it’s no longer open to the public. The building is oddly sited. During the meeting Mayor Scott Bartley called it “backwards.” The front entrance faces the park, not the street, and is sheltered by a grove of redwood trees. That’s made it a magnet for the homeless who use the park. Private events have been disrupted; prospective renters have been spooked; a martial arts class that regularly rented the space found the situation untenable and bailed out.

To address these issues the city’s recreation and parks department proposed a fence that would enclose both the building and the nearby grove of redwoods. I’m not sure when or how I heard about the proposal (Luann hadn’t), but I attended this week’s city council meeting in part because the fence was on the agenda. I wanted to learn more about the issue, and to see how Santa Rosa would handle it.

Both the process and the outcome made me feel good about our new home town. Here’s the item that appeared on the council’s agenda for November 18:


BACKGROUND: The Recreation and Parks Department desires to increase use of the Church of One Tree and protect the building. The Church of One Tree site abuts Juilliard Park. The Master Plan for Juilliard Park was established in 1932, and was most recently amended on February 11, 2014. The Church of One Tree (Church) was placed on the site adjacent to Juilliard Park in 1957, and the building was used as the Ripley Memorial Museum from 1970 to 1998. The building was designated by City Council as a Landmark in 1998. The building has been restored and also modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A motion to recommend approval of the fence was approved by the Board of Community Services on July 23, 2014. A resolution to approve the fence design, with conditions, was approved by the Cultural Heritage Board on November 5, 2014.

RECOMMENDATION: It is recommended by the Department of Recreation and Parks that the Council, by resolution, approve the
Juilliard Park Master Plan Amendment, adding a fence to enclose the Church of One Tree.

When the item came up at the council meeting I thought it might be a done deal. Kelley Magnuson, deputy director of Recreation and Parks, opened her presentation with a slide summarizing the rationale for the fence:

  1. Increase use of the Church of One Tree
  2. Protect the building
  3. Incorporate redwoods within Church of One Tree

Slide 7 showed how the fence would reach into the park to enclose the redwood grove in front of the building. Slide 8 showed the view from Sonoma Avenue. Here, at the back of the building, the fence would block two entrances to the park. The gates (we later learned) would open only to admit guests to private events.

Although two bodies had endorsed the plan — the Cultural Heritage Board and the Board of Community Services — the council immediately began to ask about alternatives.

Councilor Erin Carlstrom:

Instead of building a fence, if we were to engage in more person-to-person contact — enforcement, security, interaction, funding homeless service providers…for example, what would it cost to increase our downtown bicycle patrol? Or adding security for events?

Councilor Ernesto Olivares:

I’m trying to understand how just having a fence solves the problem, it sounds like we have a bigger issue. If the drug use that was on the back porch of the church is now on the other side of the fence, we’re still dealing with an issue. What’s the broad plan to make the park — and the church — safer?

Kelley Magnuson was now in a tough spot. It was becoming clear that the problem she’d been tasked to address had been defined too narrowly. “Our objective today was to get your input on how to increase the use of the building, and protect it,” she said, “but I do agree there’s a larger issue.”

Mayor Scott Bartley, who is an architect, now made a not-entirely-facetious comment:

Why don’t we just pick the building up and turn it around so it faces Sonoma Avenue? Then we can just lock the door, it’ll look like a normal church, and nobody will think anything about it.

He then opened the public comment period.

First up was Ray Killion, who lives three doors down from the Church of One Tree. Here was the opening of his three-minute statement:

I’m against the direction of this fence. Aesthetically, a black iron fence is forbidding, it’s uninviting, it’s put there to say “you’re not welcome here,” and that’s not what I see as a proper message we want to send about our neighborhood.

Ray Killion made the following points, which were echoed by subsequent speakers:

  • Blocking both Sonoma Avenue entrances to the park would deny access to neighbors and visitors, as well as police, fire, and ambulance personnel.
  • The fence wouldn’t solve the crime and nuisance problems in the neighborhood.
  • If the fence must be built, at least keep the gates to the park open.
  • The Juilliard family had given the land to this city on the condition that “the whole of said property shall be forever used for park purposes only and for the use and benefit of the public in general and particularly the citizens of the city of Santa Rosa.” (This quotation from the deed was repeated several times during the evening.)

Referring to the language of the deed, Ray Killion concluded:

I would like to contrast that with what the parks department puts in the agenda tonight: “reserving this part of the park for the use of paid customers.” That’s not the purpose of a public park maintained with public money for the use of the public.

Jack Cabot has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, owns 8 properties, and was deeply involved in the redevelopment of the SOFA district. In his statement he stressed how “eyes on the street,” which have multiplied thanks to the SOFA renaissance, would again diminish if the paths around the church were blocked.

Bob Wishard, another longtime resident, said that he and his wife had founded Juilliard Park’s original neighborhood watch 23 years ago. He added his voice to the “eyes on the street” chorus.

Floyd Fox reiterated the deed’s stipulation that the whole property was granted for public use. He added this quote: “a breach of any of the foregoing conditions shall cause said premises to revert to the said grantor, his heirs, or assigns.” He also cited resolution 23412 (1998), which established landmark status for the Church of One Tree. Quoting from the resolution — “the proposed Landmark has specific historical, cultural, and architectural value” — he concluded by asking: “Have you weighed the impact the fence would have on those values?”

Jim Macken extolled the park as a resource that should enhance the city’s ability to rent the building. Inappropriate uses of the park are “symptomatic of a larger problem” that the fence won’t fix, he said.

Edward Collins, a neighbor, opposed the fence because it would cut off access to the park and reduce citizen oversight. He also reiterated the deed’s stipulation of full public use. And he closed by referring to this clause in resolution 23412: “the Council found that the proposed Landmark designation is a Class 8 exemption under CEQA.” That exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act would, he argued, be jeopardized by the fence. He cited California Public Resources Code, Section 21084 and CEQA guideline 15300.2 in support of this argument. “If the city wants to proceed with the fence,” he said, “I think it will require a full CEQA review.”

(This was a nice civic moment. I don’t know what the councilors and city attorney were thinking but their faces said: uh oh.)

Next up was Jennifer Collins. “Being closed when not rented excludes the public from a cultural heritage landmark for the benefit of the paying few,” she said. “It punishes the neighborhood, not only by preventing us from using paths we all use regularly without incident, but also by sending a message to everyone that they are not welcome, and that this is a bad neighborhood.” She advocated for better lighting and for surveillance. And she argued that the city’s failure to maximize its revenue from the property is mainly a marketing failure. “There are no signs encouraging visitors to the Luther Burbank Gardens to come on over. Share a docent from there during peak tourist season to show off the church.”

Duane Dewitt, who often appears before the council, spoke next. “I’ve been going to this park since the 1950s,” he said. “When I was a boy we could sit under the redwoods on a hot day, and then go into the Ripley Museum.” He suggested using private security guards during events, and finding ways to open the building to the public at other times.

In her presentation, Lucinda Moore affirmed the historical value of the building, reiterated the importance of open access, and supported the idea of event security as an alternative to a fence.

Matt Martin, who is executive director for Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), was the next speaker. “The best practice for engaging with the homeless community,” he said, “is to do so face to face.” The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors recently allocated $925,000 for that purpose. In Santa Rosa, he said, it will fund outreach teams to engage with the homeless who live along the city’s creeks. He suggested that the city and SAY might be able to collaborate to bring such a team to Juilliard Park.

Next up was Cat Cvengros who is chair of the Board of Community Services. It was her board’s recommendation to build the fence. Now that idea was clearly in trouble. “When this item came before our board back in July,” she said, “we looked at the church as a revenue generator.” The fence does address the revenue problem, she said. “But you’re right, it does not address the larger issue.”

Anne Seeley, chair of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa, put her finger on the underlying issue. “We have at war here two different concepts. One is that a previous council directed Recreation and Parks to maximize income (unlike all other departments that aren’t required to) versus all the people who want keep the park open and free.”

That concluded the public comment period. Councilor Julie Combs now made a moving statement, part of which was quoted in the Press Democrat’s story (Santa Rosa council rejects fence at Juilliard Park) the next morning:

We are in some ways defining who we are as a community. We are making a decision about whether we put up fences and increase policing and security, or whether we fund park maintenance and alternatives for homelessness. If we fund park maintenance workers we put eyes on the park, we have a cleaner park, and we encourage people to attend. We have historically put our parks department in an untenable situation. We ask them to provide clean parks without providing them with alternative maintenance funds. I know that this council has turned down increased park maintenance funding on several occasions. So I ask staff to come back with a proposal for park maintenance.

The fence was now dead in the water. But since it was the active agenda item there needed to be a motion not to amend the park’s master plan to allow the fence. Some comments from discussion on that motion:

Councilor Robin Swinth:

As number of the neighbors pointed out, we’re dealing with a larger issue here. It’s an issue of homelessness, and it’s actually a regional issue. We need to get all the stakeholders at the table to resolve this. It’s the neighbors, it’s the homeless advocates, it’s the business owners, it’s the council, there needs to be a broader discussion.

Councilor Carlstrom:

I serve as our representative to the Russian River Watershed Association. One day a very excited woman came to us from the city of Oakland, extolling the virtues of a project they had implemented to install a new water filtration whiz-bang deal, and they’d gone through and cleaned out this big old homeless encampment. I looked at her and said: “Where’d they go?” She looked at me with a blank stare. I get it. You’ve got a siloed job. That’s what we’ve got here. I want to make sure we recognize my appointee to the Board of Community Services, Cat Svengros, as well as our Cultural Heritage Board, for their efforts on this. I know you took a lot of time to discuss this, and it was brought to you in a siloed way, and that’s your job. I want to be clear that I don’t overturn lower boards’ decisions lightly.

Mayor Bartley (echoing citizen comments about marketing the Church of One Tree):

We developed this building as a rental space. It was restored to be an income generator. The big issue — and it’s a different, more global issue — is how we do that. And I think it can be done. When I hear $350 to rent a church for three hours — that’s the bargain of the century. There should be more zeroes. We’re not marketing like we should. If we do that, and fill it with people, it’ll be a success.

Well done, Santa Rosa! Everyone involved was thoughtful, well-spoken, and open to compromise. Homelessness is a major issue here, and there’s plenty of frustration simmering, but the dominant tone wasn’t anger, it was compassion and a determination to work together to do the right things for the community as a whole. That’s part of what I came to see, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I also came to see how well the city’s online services support governance and citizen engagement. On that front there’s room for improvement. The video capture system works impressively well. You can find meetings — including the most recent one I attended on Tuesday — here. The service provider is Granicus, the same company that serves our former home town, Keene, as well as many other cities. It’s wonderful to be able to review council meetings online, anytime and anywhere. Back in 2008, in an interview with Tom Spengler, who was then CEO of Granicus, I was excited about the possibilities it opened up.

Soon after Keene implemented the Granicus service, though, I had to temper my enthusiasm. In Gov2.0 transparency: An enabler for collaborative sense-making I reflected on a key challenge: building accessible context around civic issues. Immediate stakeholders — government officials, citizens directly involved in decisions — create that context in meetings that are open, to be sure, but still often opaque to the uninitiated. Participants share a context that isn’t accessible to more casual observers.

Consider my situation. Our small investment in the SOFA district makes us minor stakeholders in issues affecting Juilliard Park. We’d like to be as well-informed about those issues as I am, now that I’ve plowed through hours of video and dozens of online documents. But that exercise was far too time-consuming to undertake on a regular basis, with respect to Juilliard Park or any other issue that affects us. And in fact, another such issue was on this week’s council agenda. We live in a neighborhood called the West End, near Railroad Square. There’s a train coming to town, and it runs right through our neighborhood. It’s a wonderful thing, and was in fact another factor in our decision to relocate here. But there’s always a tradeoff. In this case, it’s the possible closure of one of the streets in our neighborhood. Here’s a sign I pass every time I walk downtown:

It’s easy to joke about the URL for the draft environmental impact report, which is so long the sign can barely accommodate it. I’d rather my city’s content management system enabled it to form mnemonic URLs, like:


Which, of course, would also make a nice hashtag. In Tags for Democracy I showed how a city can promote a tag, like #SantaRosaRailroadCrossings, as a magnet for conversations that span multiple social networks and institutional websites.

But here I just want to focus on the page behind that formidable URL. It’s an overview of the project, with links to the draft environmental impact report as a whole (600+ pages!) and to the report’s individual sections.

The SMART train will stop at two stations in Santa Rosa, one of which doesn’t yet exist. Construction of the new Guerneville Road station will require a new railroad crossing at Jennings Avenue. Whether it should be an at-grade crossing or an elevated crossing is one key issue under discussion. A related issue is the possible closure of an existing crossing. An at-grade crossing at Jennings Avenue would be the simplest solution, but the California Public Utilities Commission rations the number of these. So adding a new at-grade crossing would require closing a street in our neighborhood. The elevated crossing wouldn’t entail that tradeoff. But as the visualization in the report shows, it’s a monstrosity.

I’ll bet few Santa Rosans have seen that illustration. Yes, the document is online, but it’s daunting. During upcoming conversations about the tradeoffs involved in choosing an at-grade or elevated crossing, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to link directly to that illustration?

Actually you can, and in fact I did just that two paragraphs above. Here’s the link behind the word visualization in that paragraph:

It’s a little-known fact that you can form a link to any page within a web-hosted PDF file by appending #page=NUMBER to the URL. It’s challenging to get people onto the same page in open civic discussions; I wish this mechanism were more widely known and used.

Here’s another bit of information that could usefully be highlighted with a link. James Duncan lives near the Jennings site, and has crossed the tracks there for decades. In his statement to the council, he zeroed in on the state requirement to ration the number of crossings:

The pivotal, threshold issue — that isn’t really being discussed — is the position of the Public Utilities Commission to close a crossing in exchange for an at-grade crossing at Jennings.

It’s true there’s a general policy to maintain the status quo. And the interpretation, as I understand it, is that the crossing that exists at Jennings, and has been used all these years, is not [air quote] legal. But there’s no information about what constitutes legal. The federal government maintains an inventory of railroad crossings in the entire nation. But they have a category for what they call uninventoried crossings, and there’s a simple procedure for adding uninventoried crossings to the inventory.

Has James Duncan correctly identified a way out of the painful tradeoff at the heart of this issue? I don’t know, the council doesn’t know, James Duncan doesn’t know, but somebody knows. That person might be a government official or a private citizen (residing in Santa Rosa or elsewhere). A connection between that person and this issue might be brokered by a government official or by a private citizen. But one thing’s for sure. That person won’t want to wade through a 600-page report and hours of video. We’ll want to focus his or her attention on specific parts of documents, and specific parts of video testimony.

The Granicus service enables such linking. That’s how I was able to form the above link to James Duncan’s three-minute statement within the nearly 7 hours of video from Tuesday’s marathon session. But it’s cumbersome to create a link that jumps into the video at specific points. And using those links require a plugin (Flash or Silverlight), which rules out playback on most mobile devices.

If you do create a link, you’ll notice that the URL looks like this:

In this example, entrytime=18150 denotes the number of seconds from the start of the video. It works out to 5 hours, 2 minutes, and 31 seconds, as you can see in this screenshot of the beginning of James Duncan’s statement:

Here’s what you see when you invoke the tool that helps you form a link:

The player pauses, and the clipping tool opens in a new window overlaid on top of it. Note that the beginning of the proposed clip doesn’t correspond to the 5:02:31 point at which the video is paused. (Click the image to enlarge it and see that more clearly.) You can scroll to that point within the clipping tool, but since the player is paused there’s no audio or video to guide you. To appreciate how clumsy that mechanism is, consider this screenshot from a Santa Rosa city council meeting that’s been posted to YouTube:

Right-clicking the video brings up a menu from which you can select Get video URL at current time. If you’re at the 1:20 mark in that video, the link you can copy and paste looks like this:

That’s how simple and convenient it can be. And YouTube offers a further convenience. People navigate videos in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. We’re not good at converting between that notation and raw numbers of seconds. But computers are really good at that. So YouTube supports this alternate syntax:

So really, you don’t even need a special clipping tool to link into a YouTube video at a specific point. You can just add minutes and seconds to the end of any YouTube URL. Their computers will figure out that 1m20s adds up to 80 seconds. Why should referring to a specific point in a city council meeting be any harder than that? It shouldn’t.

The programming to make deep linking in the Granicus player as convenient as deep linking in the YouTube player isn’t rocket science. Why hasn’t it been done? In my experience, these omissions happen because people don’t expect or demand capabilities that software could easily deliver.

Here’s something else that would expand access to archived council videos. Closed captions aren’t part of the service package that Granicus provides to every city, but Santa Rosa’s service includes them. If you turn on the closed captions while watching a Santa Rosa council video, you’ll see that they’re quite good — much better than the auto-generated captions available for YouTube videos. I suspect that’s true because Granicus provides a human transcriber as an optional part of its service.

Transcription quality notwithstanding, text synced to video is a powerful asset. In the Granicus implementation, it enables videos to be searched. For example, you can search the closed captions for Floyd Fox. Here’s the result:

The search returns three items because Mayor Bartley mentioned Floyd Fox three times: twice as an on-deck speaker, and then once as the current speaker. The third link jumps to Floyd Fox’s statement. Although you don’t land in quite the right spot — Floyd’s remarks begin at 3:06:40, the link based on caption search takes you to 3:07:00 — it’s amazing that you can search nearly 7 hours of video and quickly locate Floyd Fox’s statement.

But what if you didn’t know Floyd Fox was speaking? The names of citizens who make public comments don’t appear on the agenda, because they aren’t known in advance. During a meeting, people who wish to speak submit requests written on yellow cards. If the closed caption transcript were available alongside the video, you could scan within it to quickly absorb the sense of various parts of the meeting, and to find things that you didn’t know to look for. The transcript obviously exists. It can be displayed during video playback, and it can be searched. Why isn’t it available as a complete document? Again, it’s trivial for the software to do that. But nobody expects that feature, so nobody asks for it, and it doesn’t happen.

I first wrote about open government technology back in 2006, when Washington DC became the first city to publish data directly from its internal systems. In 2008 I explored a then-new service called Granicus. All along I’ve envisioned a world in which governments run transparently, publishing data that enables citizens and governments to work together. We’ve come a long way. But I am not yet satisfied. Even when meetings and supporting documents are available online, as they often now are, it’s harder than it should be to create the contexts needed for effective collaboration.

Context is, ultimately, a service that we provide to one another. If you’ve read this far, you know more about the fence around the Church of One Tree than anyone who didn’t attend the meeting. I created that context for you. Somebody else could do the same for the railroad crossing issue, and for any other issue in any other town. But it’s so painful to assemble that context that few will try, and fewer will succeed. Better tools aren’t the whole answer. Engaging with online civic proceedings isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if it were easier to do — fun, even — the motivated few could do powerful good for their communities.

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2 thoughts on “The Church of One Tree: A civic parable

  1. I know of a similar church and tree but it is a sad story to me. A friend I knew long ago, Monty Williams, had told me stories of “the big tree”. It was high on a ridge that connected two mountains in coastal Washington just outside of Southbend. I worked on commercial fishing boats with Monty and had heard many tall tales of his. Monty had grown up in the area and the big tree was a meeting spot or sorts. This was in an area were a big tree was no big deal but after a century of cutting, trees of this size were seldom seen. One day we found ourselves with a rare day off and Monty announced we would drive out to see the big tree. We packed up some food, drink and a smoke and headed out. It was a couple of hours and a deteriorating series of roads before he started to get excited. We were on a 4 wheel drive logging road high up on the ridge and we would see the tree off in the distance as we rounded the bend. It was supposed to be the only old tree left on the ridge after all the cutting and stood like as giant sentinel to what had been there before. We rounded the bend and Monty’s face slowly dropped. As if to wonder if he was dreaming he did a double take but the tree was not there. He frantically did a mental check to see if he was in the wrong spot but no. This was where you got first sight of the big tree. It had to be one of the saddest moments of my life. Like seeing someone witness the killing of a loved one. The tree was gone. What could have happened to it? We drove ahead and made our way to the spot the tree had stood. There was an enormous stump 15 feet across. I have analog photos of me lying across it. The days elation fell and we quietly drove back to the boat pondering what could have happened to such an impressive tree. When we got back to town Monty called his dad to ask about the tree. It turned out that Weyerhaeuser paper company had donated the tree to build a church. Pray tell they built the whole church with that tree and had some left over…pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Oh well.

  2. That tree might have been, what do you think, 2000 years old? Just standing there, minding its own business for all that time. And then, one day, welcome to the anthropocene.

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