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Jason Walsh: The Springs – there’s something ‘happening’ here

Bill Lynch recently wrote a column reminiscing about days of his youth spent in the Springs – when the Boyes Hot Springs Bath House served as a community hub and warm summer days were whiled away splashing in its community pool, screening 10-cent matinees at the Quonset and catching the San Francisco Seals in spring training at the local ball field.

In his piece (“Golden Years in the Springs,” March 31), Bill wrote that the Springs – collectively, the neighborhoods of Boyes, El Verano, Fetters and Agua Caliente – had been a “happening place” in the Valley of his childhood, and predicted it could be again.

Gone are the days of Paul’s Resort and the Spring Bath House; the area’s reputation as a “resort town” replaced by decades of shifting demographics and changing workforce needs. Rising real estate prices and the burgeoning tourist industry focused much of the urban growth, if you can call it that, within the Sonoma city limits, while elements of sprawl that characterized late 20th century suburban planning dominated the emerging commuter corridor of Highway 12.

It’s inarguably a different Springs than it was decades ago when the beau monde of San Francisco staked out the area as a weekend getaway – today, travelers are from further afield; they seek wine and food, not peace and quiet; and they’re centralized a lot closer to the Plaza.

In many ways, this is freeing for the Springs community as, over the years, residents have been able to establish an identity that reflects them – not those they’d like to lure for the almighty tourism dollar (a dichotomy Sonoma city proper could be grappling with for decades to come).

Take, for example, the area artwork of Rico Martin, whose effervescent painting of several Highway 12 businesses – and one 9-foot tall chicken -- two years ago was championed (after some initially dubious critiques) as an aesthetic awakening for the community. The Latin-tinged designs certainly had a multicultural flavor, but that element became emblematic of something even greater: a visual representation of newness and growth. As Bill Lynch predicts: Things are happening in the Springs once again.

And they seem to be happening at a head-spinning rate.

Just this past month, I-T reporter Lorna Sheridan has written about the new farmers market planned to launch this summer at Larson Park, as well as a 6,500-square-foot shopping center called Vailetti Plaza under construction near the newly opened Fetters Apartments affordable housing complex. And earlier this year, the old Sonoma Grange re-christened itself the Springs Community Hall, meant to be rented for local events and its kitchen available for neighborhood epicureans in need of more than what they’re household galleys can handle.

Another development proposal could turn the site of the old Lanning Building into a “container park,” a hip architecture model – also known as “cargotecture” -- that uses steel cargo containers to house small, offbeat shops in a confined space.

Meanwhile, hopes for a new community pool have been making waves for several years, with projections last year by pool-group Sonoma Splash pointing toward a possible opening in 2019.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s all coming on the heels of the decade-long, $5.23 million Highway 12 revitalization project that brought sidewalks, streetlights and overall safety improvements to the vital stretch between Boyes Boulevard and Agua Caliente Road.

For more than a year, County officials and local stakeholders having been shaping the Sonoma Springs Area Plan – a community-focused “vision” for the future development of the Springs, slated for completion in 2018. But, in many ways, the Springs is forging ahead into that future – plan or no plan.

The Springs is a different place than it was two decades ago; it will be a much different place two decades from now. The march of time, real-estate values, development and demographics guarantees that – much of it will be promising, and some of it dubious. (Which is why so many eyes are on the Springs Area Plan.)

To be sure, things are happening in the Springs, but serious challenges persist – from a lower-income workforce faced middling wages and rising rents to an aging infrastructure bleached and cracked by years of neglect. It’s a community where change remains both daunting and exciting – but coming, unmistakenly coming.

The Springs is dead.

Long live the Springs.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.