Friday, October 24, 2014

Petaluma Urban Chat: Rebooting the Fairgrounds Vision Effort

After a one-month hiatus to chat with City Council candidate Dave King about Measure Q, Petaluma Urban Chat will return to the subject of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds for the November meeting and hopefully onward into 2015.

For newer readers, the City of Petaluma owns the 63-acre site currently occupied by the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The Fair Board makes a minimal annual payment to the City under a lease that will expire in 2023.  The City and the Fair Board have been holding closed meetings for over a year to discuss the use of the Fairgrounds after 2023.

The primary alternatives seem to be that the Fairgrounds remains in its current location, presumably with a greater lease amount, that the Fair is displaced to a new site with the City redeveloping the current site, and that some combination of the two is defined by which the Fair would remain in its current location but within a smaller footprint, freeing up some land for redevelopment.

Of course, each of the choices are tangled in various real world complications, including the financial performance of the current Fair operation, the financial capability of the Fair Board to develop a new site, the ongoing non-fair uses of the Fairgrounds, such as the Live Oak charter school, the hazardous materials cleanup that may be required within the Fairgrounds, the presence of historical elements within the Fairgrounds that must be preserved under the law, the range of boundary conditions around the site, and the need of the City to generate income to bolster sagging municipal finances.

It’s a complex problem.  Of course, it’s also an incredible opportunity.  To my knowledge, there won’t be another other opportunity within our lifetimes to reinvent the core of a North Bay city with a blank slate of this size.  Petalumans should be greatly invested in the process, but so should all residents of the North Bay, because what Petaluma does with the Fairgrounds can be a template for land-use decisions throughout the North Bay.

For that reason, Petaluma Urban Chat has been trying for months to come to grips with the site opportunities, constraints, and best alternatives.  I’m sure the Fairgrounds has been the subject of numerous informal but concerned conversations throughout the community but, to my knowledge, no other group except the City and Fair Board negotiating teams has been trying as hard to put pencil to paper to devise a new vision for the site.

However, I describe the Urban Chat efforts as “trying” because the process thus far has been challenging and not particularly successful.  We did well in identifying the range of site options, but then struggled to find consensus.

Part of the problem was that the changing cast of attendees at each meeting.  Not only did every meeting require a recap of earlier discussions, but new folks were constantly putting new ideas on the table.

Part of the problem was the lack of a good facilitator, which was my deficiency.

But the biggest part of the problem was trying to conduct the process with short monthly meetings and zero budget.  By comparison, the planning for the Petaluma Station Area, adjoining the future Petaluma SMART station, began with a three-day public charrette, continued for another year of public meetings, involved an award-winning planning firm from Berkeley, and had a budget of nearly a half-million dollars.  And the planning area was about one-fifth the size of the Fairgrounds site.

However, perhaps we can make a virtue out of our lack of funds, absence of expertise, and occasional meetings.

I’ve conceived an approach by which to reboot the Urban Chat study of the Fairgrounds.  By the very nature of our deficiency of resources, skills, and time, it won’t look like the Station Area process.  But it can hopefully be effective in its own way.

However, I need your assistance.  First, I need to know how many folks expect to attend the next three Urban Chat meetings, which will be on November 11, December 9, and January 13.  No one will come to your home and abuse you if you answer in the affirmative and then miss a meeting, but I do want a good faith commitment for the three meetings.

I doubt we’ll complete the effort in the three meetings, but I hope those meetings will generate enough momentum and enthusiasm that attendance at further meetings won’t require urging.

In terms of how many people might participate, there’s no limit, but I’d like to have thirty folks.  I know that would be more people than all but one previous Urban Chat meeting and bigger than can be readily accommodated at the Aqus Café, but I’ll happily solve the space problem.

Also, attendance needn’t be limited to Petalumans nor to people who have previously attended an Urban Chat meeting.  The future use of the Fairgrounds can be a template for all of the North Bay, so everyone is welcome to participate.

If being a part of this effort is intriguing, let me know, either in the comments below or by email.

Second, I’d like a couple of people to work with me on a steering committee for the reboot.  My preference would be folks with charrette experience, but anyone willing to put in a little extra effort would be welcome.  I’m thinking of a coordination meeting on Monday, November 3.  Once again, let me know via comments or email.

The effective reuse of the Fairgrounds can change the North Bay.  Let’s make sure that our voices are heard.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Incremental Steps to Grand Visions

The Petaluma Urban Chat meeting last week was nicely successful.  Thanks go to City Council candidate Dave King for responding to occasionally hard-edged questions with good humor and cogent responses.  Perhaps not everyone agreed with his perspectives, but he presented his thinking well.

To attend a prior obligation, King departed before the end of the Urban Chat meeting.  In the general conversation after his departure, there was a spirited discussion about the long-term vision for urbanism and the incremental steps that are often taken toward that solution.

Some found that incremental steps, local examples of which were freely tossed about but needn’t be re-enumerated here, were so inadequate as to represent little real progress.

Others felt that incremental steps were a necessary evil while markets and regulatory standards adjust to a more walkable urban future.  Those folks felt that supporting urbanism required accepting incrementalism as a necessary phase, while also trying to make the incremental steps as bold as possible.

I’m securely in the latter camp.  As many advantages as I see in a more walkable urban future and as urgently as I think we need to reach that future, I recognize that we can’t jump from today to that future.  The disruption would be significant and, more importantly, too many of our friends and neighbors don’t yet comprehend the need for the change.

And so, as urbanists, we must try to make the world a little more urban all the time and to encourage developments that can transition as we move toward urbanism.  I remain a big fan of surface parking lots that can be built upon as parking demands ease and of sidewalk cafes that can serve as personal homes until sidewalk traffic increases sufficiently to support the café.

But even a belief in incremental steps leads to the next question.  How do we increase the rate of change so we can reach an urbanist future sooner, limiting the climate change impacts and municipal finance distress of our current drivable suburban paradigm?

I’ll try to answer that question in three parts, market, financial, and regulatory.

 For the market, availing ourselves of new urban living opportunities and asking our friends to considering doing the same is the best step.  Few things incentivize the next urban project as much as the financial success of the last one.

However, it’s likely that little effort is needed as the market is already leading the charge toward urbanism, with polls showing up to half the population is eager for opportunities to live in more walkable settings.  (I recently chatted with a North Bay politician who took pride in the fact that his community was building up to 20 percent of its new housing in walkable places.  I suggested that, in a world where half of all people want to live in a more walkable world, his 20 percent number shouldn’t be a source of pride.  Yeah, being an urbanist can sometimes mean bursting balloons.)

On the financial side, continued hesitancy by lenders toward urbanist projects is a lingering concern, but market successes and time will be the remedy.  Unfortunately, urbanists can’t attend lending committee meeting for banks to push the change along, so our efforts must go elsewhere.

This leaves the regulatory side, where outdated zoning codes and obsolete ideas about where to spend public moneys continue to repress urbanism.  Luckily, the public arena is also a place where urbanists can make their voices heard.  I fantasize about 300 urbanists filling the chamber for a city council hearing on an issue bearing on urbanism.  (I love Urban Chat, but a dozen folks in a café discoursing on urbanism doesn’t move the needle at city hall.)

And that gets us to the crux of the matter.  How to rally more folks to the urbanist banner?  There are plenty of folks who are sympathetic to the goals of urbanism, but the daily demands of life, securing a paycheck, raising children, planning for retirement, etc., interfere with active commitment.  How do we convince folks to dedicate a chunk of their limited free time to support the cause?

Unfortunately, I think the only solution to that question is persistent effort.  It’s finding opportunities to chat with friends and neighbors about the issues and slowly motivating them to put forth time and effort.  It’s not an easy task nor will it be readily accomplished.  But it’s essential.

Before closing, I’ll share a recent story that illustrates the difficulty of collecting supporters for urbanism. 

I’ve worked diligently to build the readership of this blog.  Perhaps my prose isn’t perfect, but I’ve maintained a regular publishing schedule for nearly three years.  And others tell me that I occasionally find words that make a post halfway memorable.

As a result, I’ve built a sustained readership of perhaps 5,000 site visits per month.  Not every site where I publish provides numeric feedback, so the number is a little fuzzy, but I’m comfortable with its accuracy.  And if it’s wrong, the actual number is likely a bit higher.

I’m proud of the readership.  I continue to work for more, but I’m still proud of the number.

But I recently had a glimpse of the other side.  After a football game won by my alma mater, the opposing coach made an odd and peevish comment after the game, blaming bloggers for conspiring to hide an new offensive strategy that my college deployed.

The comment struck a discordant note with me.  But I wasn’t sure if my response was valid, so I began a chat room thread asking for the thoughts of others.  Within 24 hours, over 3,000 people had viewed the thread and more than 30 had commented on it.

There’s difference between reading a thousand-word blog post and checking a three-sentence chat room thread.  But still, that was as many readers in one day on a quirky point about college football as in two weeks on a subject that is pertinent to the financial and environmental viability of our communities.

It was indicative of the mountain that urbanists still must climb, whether our goal is the ultimate vision or bolder incremental steps.

Next time, I’ll write further about Petaluma Urban Chat.  After several months of talking about the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, we broke away this month to talk about Measure Q with Dave King.  The consensus for next month is to return to the fairgrounds topic.  But I have some thoughts about how to make the conversation most effective and to build our participation toward that 300 people.  I’ll offer those thoughts in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, October 20, 2014

It’s Time to be Smart about Water, Not Politically Expedient

During recent candidate forums, several contenders for the Petaluma City Council suggested that the City consider a moratorium on building permits until the drought eases.  I’ll speculate that other North Bay cities are entertaining similar thoughts.

I support the need to respond to the drought.  The water shortfall is significant, may not slacken during the coming winter, and could be indicative of a systemic change.  But a blanket moratorium is the wrong tool for several reasons.

First, a moratorium without simultaneous regulatory adjustments is tantamount to considering the drought a normal and random element of the climate cycle, thereby supporting a position taken by climate change deniers.

I’m not saying that candidates who suggested a moratorium are climate change deniers.  I’m sure that few if any of them are within that camp.  But they’ve mistakenly offered a position that aligns with a key proposition put forth by deniers.

 (I won’t delve more deeply into a climate change discussion because I don’t want this post to be sidetracked into a discussion on the validity of the theory.  It’s a worthy topic, but not for today.)

Another problem with a blanket moratorium is that it doesn’t reposition our communities for when the drought may ease.  If we get enough rain to believe the drought is over and begin issuing new building permits without a change in the water use standards, we’d have wasted an opportunity to make our communities more resilient.

Lastly, we’re in a time when our communities should be evolving in responses to multiple challenges such as municipal finances and non-drought climate change issues.  A blanket moratorium, stopping all development, would impede our progress toward other goals.

Luckily, a better alternative can be conceived.  In place of the blanket moratorium suggested by the candidates, I propose a two-phase moratorium.  Initially, North Bay cities can impose a short-term moratorium on all building permits, but only for long enough to rework development standards to define water-smart standards for new or remodeled buildings.

Some will object that North Bay cities lack funds within current budgets, particularly if tax measures fail, to undertake code revisions.  The concern is legitimate, but Petaluma, and likely other cities, has a wealth of knowledgeable engineers and developers with water backgrounds, many of whom would probably be willing to offer their expertise toward writing new rules.  In fact, there may be an opportunity for regional code-revision cooperation.

Some effort by city staffs would still be required to incorporate the information into the zoning code, but it would be far less than if the staffs had to also develop the concepts without assistance.

Next, as the first moratorium expires and emergency revisions are made to the zoning code, a second moratorium would be imposed on projects that don’t meet the water-smart standards.  The duration on this latter moratorium would be indefinite, lasting until the city councils judge that the drought has ended.  If the more pessimistic projections on climate change are valid, the second moratorium may never be lifted.  Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but it’s a possibility.

The obvious direction in which these moratoriums would push residential development would be toward multi-family homes.  It’s easier to be water-smart without either a frontyard or a backyard.  And a move toward multi-family would likely include more housing in walkable urban settings, which I would applaud.

But single-family residential would still be possible.  I recently chatted with a North Bay single-family developer who is proposing use of a treatment system that would allow use of treated greywater from showers and washing machines for surface application.  (The greywater systems now used in a few locations around the North Bay only allow subsurface application.)

The developer estimated that he could save almost 20,000 gallons per home per year.  That would be 20,000 gallons of potable water that needn’t be treated and delivered and 20,000 gallons of greywater that needn’t be conveyed away for treatment at a municipal wastewater plant.

The system he proposes is in regular use in Europe and Australia, but unknown in the U.S.  It’s that kind of innovation and adoption that the proposed two-phase moratorium would foster.

Thanks to the Petaluma City Council candidates for raising the subject.  Now, let’s hone their idea and ensure that it best meet the needs of our communities.

Before closing, one other comment should be made.  The savings from requiring new or remodeled buildings to be more water-smart is worthwhile and, with the right technology, significant.  But those savings are dwarfed by the savings that could be achieved at existing homes and businesses.  Between retrofitted fixtures, changed landscaping patterns (my wife and I removed the last of our grass nearly ten years ago), and reduced consumption encouraged by more sharply tiered rates, water use at existing buildings can be sharply curtailed.

To fall into the trap of believing that we’ve imposed a moratorium and therefore solved the problem would be both wrong and harmful.  Instead, we must look into the mirror for the most important elements of water conservation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, October 17, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: The Cases For and Against Mobile Home Parks

For several years, I was on the board of a local Rebuilding Together affiliate, a non-profit organization that provides free home repairs for low-income homeowners.  Like most affiliates, our biggest event of the year was an April workday when several hundred local citizens volunteered a day of labor.

One year, a project captain invited a group of volunteers to her home for post-workday beverages.  I found myself in her kitchen, sipping a beer and chatting with a city councilmember who had worked on a project.

I assume the councilmember had worked on a mobile home because the discussion quickly turned to the role of mobile homes in our city.  His view was that mobile homes were a temporary aberration and that the long-term goal of the city should be to replace them with stick-built homes.  His principal argument was the longer life of well-maintained stick-built construction, although he also noted the horizontal spread of single-story mobile homes and the opportunity for more compact living with stick-built residences.

With that memory in mind, it was interesting to read the suggestion by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standard that mobile home parks might have an essential role in the housing future of all of us, particularly seniors.  She looks in depth at the Pismo Dunes mobile home park, near Pismo Beach, California.

Margonelli’s argument is that mobile home parks provide a low-cost alternative to other options, while also fostering a relationship between seniors, a supportive network that others have called a “naturally-occurring retirement community”.

I’ll use the dichotomy between the councilmember’s comments and Margonelli’s article as a starting point from which to write about the possible role of mobile home parks as senior communities and to conclude a series of posts I’ve written about urbanism and senior living.  I won’t forget urbanism and seniors and will find opportunities to add more insights on the subject, but will begin focusing elsewhere in my next post.

Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile homes, but I’ll add another point.  Mobile home parks encourage alternative transportation modes.  With narrow roads, frequent driveways, and a well-gridded layout, automobile drivers intuitively reduce their speed, often as low as 15 miles per hour, well below the 20 mile per hour threshold where the dominance of cars begins to wane.

Margonelli notes the use of golf carts in the Pismo Dunes, which can be a fine choice for seniors no longer capable of handling an auto.

I can add another transportation option.  A North Bay reader emailed me extolling her adult tricycle, noting the improved mobility which it has given her and including a photo of a Napa senior on a tricycle touring the damage on the morning after the recent earthquake.  An adult tricycle can be another fine alternative transportation choice within a mobile home park.

Also, walking within a mobile home park is often safer than walking on city streets.

Against the positives noted by Margonelli and by me, there is a legitimate list of concerns about mobile home parks as a housing solution, including some that touch upon the councilmember’s concerns.

Heading the list is construction quality.  Margonelli notes that quality of mobile homes has been improving.  She’s likely correct, but mobile homes still remain at the lower-end of the construction spectrum.  And it seems inevitable that they’ll remain at the lower-end.

During my time on the Rebuilding Together board, we often debated how much money to allocate toward mobile home repair.  Although we never went as far as another affiliate which limited mobile home repairs to one-third of their annual budget, we remained aware of the potential black hole of mobile home repairs.  Many years, we could have spent our entire budget on mobile homes and still left needs unmet.  Plus we found that repairs to stick-built construction were less likely to require return visits in future years.

Next, the density of most mobile home parks is insufficient to support urban uses such as stores or pubs.  (Margonelli notes that a grocery store is within walking distance of Pismo Dunes, but the store is beyond the boundary of the mobile home park and even then remains an anomaly.)  It’s the inherent nature of the single-story, non-shared-wall development to spread out, reducing the number of residents within walkable distance of businesses.

Furthermore, the nature of most mobile home parks is to be enclosed, with limited entry points and few opportunities for others to pass through a park enroute to other destinations.  But the nature of an effective urban community to be well-gridded, allowing efficient travel, which is essential for those on foot or bicycles.

Perhaps the only location is which mobile home parks don’t undermine an urban land-use configuration is where they back against any geographical feature that would have already precluded urban connections.  It’s not coincidental that Pismo Dunes backs up to an ocean beach or that many of the Petaluma mobile home parks adjoin a freeway.

But the biggest concern about mobile home parks, at least to me, is the social insulation.  I’ve been reading “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser.  His thesis is that personalization of internet experiences, by which Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and others feed us articles consistent with what they’ve calculated to be our interest and values, undermines the free flow of objective information on which our democracy depends.

The internet personalization models against which he rails is evident in our every internet session.  In the last week, I’ve researched travel options in Ireland and senior living facilities in the North Bay.  Now, I can’t go anywhere on the internet without being bombarded by ads for Irish tour services and North Bay senior living options.  It feels both creepy and intrusive.

Similarly, I had a frequent commenter on Petaluma Patch who was continually offering links to anti-urbanism articles from obscure and credibility-challenged sources.  At first, I marveled at his misplaced diligence in finding these articles.

However, I came to realize that he had created a filter bubble in which the internet was feeding him anti-urban articles.  He had only to go on-line to have an article shoved in front of him which, with dubious fact and flawed logic, seemed to rebut something I had written.  And he then felt a need to accept the article as the truth and to share it.

It was a shame that the opportunity for the two of us to have a rational exchange of perspectives was undermined by the internet.

Urbanism combats the personalization trend on the internet.  I love the idea of a CEO and a mail clerk talking in the elevator of an apartment building where both live, each if one is in a penthouse when the other is in a micro-apartment.  Similarly, I like watching various demographic segments chatting in a downtown pub. 

My personal hell would be to live among folks who are like me and who think as I do.  Even as I age, I want to live among people who offer new and thought-provoking perspectives.  We already offer too few of these opportunities and mobile home parks, by their very nature, are part of the deficiency.

Summing it up, while Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile home parks, I favor the position of the councilmember.  As a housing solution, particularly as we move toward a more urban world, we can and should do better than mobile home parks.

By the way, nothing here is intended to disparage the residents of mobile home parks nor to criticize the choice of people who find enjoyment in their mobile homes.  Instead, it is to castigate the rest of us for creating a world in which mobile homes, with all their deficiencies, are the only option for many folks.

In my next post, I’ll write about water conservation.  Candidates for the Petaluma City Council have been talking about a moratorium on building permits while the drought persists.  I applaud the concern, but will argue that another approach would be more appropriate.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Getting Around on Foot

A theme of this election season has been strategic decision-making around the varying approval thresholds for different forms of tax measures.  Is it better to seek a general tax measure, which requires only 50 percent plus one for approval, even if it means battling skepticism about how the revenues will be spent?   Or is better to specify the uses of the revenue, even though that would bump the approval standard to two-thirds when the electorate might not be able to muster a two-thirds majority over whether the sun will rise in the east tomorrow?

Or perhaps the 55 percent rule will apply, although that option is limited to certain types of school bond measures.  (If someone wants a legal summary of the various California approval standards, the Legislative Analyst’s Office provides one here.  The flowchart is nicely done.)

Also, during my years in Oregon, I watched the double-majority standard in action, a rule that was so perverse in its unintended consequences that the voters finally repealed it in 2008.

But what if I wrote that there was a type of infrastructure for which 100 percent voter approval was required?  It may seem surprising, but it’s nonetheless true.  In large areas of our cities and towns, sidewalk upkeep, and therefore walkability, requires 100 percent participation from property owners.

In a carryover from English common law, California homeowners are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the sidewalks in front of their homes.  Originally, English landowners were responsible for the entire roadway.  The government eventually, in the interest of commerce, assumed street repair, but the takeover didn’t progress far enough to include the sidewalks.

(The original road maintenance obligation is one reason why English towns and early American towns are often characterized by multi-story common-wall houses on narrow lots.  The narrow lots reduced the repair obligation.  Coincidentally, the narrow lots also helped communities satisfy Jeff Speck’s “interest” and “usefulness” elements of walkability.  It was only when government took over road upkeep that the lots of the middle-class began sprawling sideways, which also undermined walkability.)

There may be sidewalks, such as in the downtown retail areas, where a city has assumed sidewalk maintenance to preserve commercial activity, but most sidewalks remain the responsibility of the adjoining homeowner.  As a result, as any property liability expert will avow, California homeowners also remain responsible for any personal damages that result from poor sidewalk conditions.

However, even the threat of lawsuits isn’t always sufficient to motivate sidewalk repairs.  With stagnant middle-class wages, the need to save for college educations and retirement, and the desire for the newest electronic toy, sidewalk repairs often fall far down household priority lists, below the point at which funds are exhausted.

In the recently-developed parts of a town, the sidewalks constructed as part of the initial development typically remain in good condition.  But nearly every block in the more mature areas of a town will have a stretch or two where the footing is too treacherous for 80-year-old grandmothers to walk to the store. 

Even if a neighborhood is lucky enough to have a Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern a block away, that destination, which should be the hallmark of a walkable neighborhood, may still require a car trip by the less foot-sure residents of the neighborhood.  And the only immediate solution is the impossible expectation that all property owners promptly attend to deteriorating sidewalks, the 100 percent standard I noted above.

Nor is complete neighborhood concurrence fully adequate to support walkability.  In many older neighborhoods, street repairs have often included lifts of asphalt that have raised the centerline elevation by six inches or more, without changing gutter line elevation, resulting in the frequently-seen humped street cross-section.

Even if a mobility-limited pedestrian is lucky enough to encounter an intersection which has been retrofitted with handicap ramps at their mandated 8.3 percent slope, the pedestrian may be faced with grades of 12 percent or more to cross the street.  The only solution to hump-backed street is full reconstruction, a task well beyond the financial capability of most towns.

To highlight the absurdity, my wife and I were recently sitting in our Petaluma parlor when a man in an electrical wheelchair rode by.   A few minutes later, he returned.  Both times, he was in the street, not on the sidewalk.  In a town that disgruntled drivers have dubbed the Pothole Capital of California, wheelchair users still find it safer to ride in the streets than on the sidewalks.  That should give pause.

This overview on the reality of sidewalk maintenance is part of my ongoing discussion about urbanism and senior living.  There is a strong case that seniors can live richer, fuller lives in a walkable urban setting.  But sometimes those downtown residential locations are a block or two from the social opportunities that can enrich a senior life, a distance in which the sidewalks may be in disrepair.

And for seniors who have been relegated to the suburbs by a lack of downtown options or the difficulty of selling suburban homes for an adequate price to fund retirement, good sidewalks can be essential to reaching the occasional neighborhood store or the bus stop from which downtown can be reached.

There are no easy fixes to the sidewalk repair deficiency.  We could impose fines on homeowners who are delinquent with their repairs, but that seems draconian.  We could do government repair on more sidewalks, but that would require more tax revenues.  (Even within the many tax measures on the November ballot, sidewalk repairs are barely more than a rounding error.)   Or we could build communities where the ratio of people to linear foot of sidewalk is pushed upward, making it easier to build a consensus for sidewalk upkeep.  I favor the last.

In any case, it’s ironic that we can build systems that, with the touch of a key fob, give seniors extra time to cross busy streets, but we can’t find a way to maintain the concrete to get them to the street crossing.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Disclaimer: I have a sidewalk in front of my home that is beginning to crack because of a tree root.  It isn’t yet a big trip hazard, but is heading that way.  Repair is scheduled for spring.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Tuesday Evening of Civic Involvement

This coming Tuesday evening will offer two opportunities for involvement in the Petaluma community.  Those willing to commit an extended chunk of time can be informed, and perhaps also entertained, from 5:30 until 9:30

Petaluma Urban Chat: The monthly meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will fall on the Tuesday the 14th this month.  As always, the meeting will convene at 5:30pm at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.

This month’s meeting will feature a discussion of Measure Q on the Petaluma ballot, the proposed one percent sales tax bump, the revenues from which the current City Council anticipates directing toward deferred infrastructure repairs, the needs of the emergency services departments, and the Rainier Connector

City Council candidate Dave King has accepted an invitation to join Urban Chat to discuss his views on the measure.

To set the stage for the Tuesday discussion, it’s interesting, and also confounding, to look at the positions that have been taken on Measure Q versus positions on the Rainier Connector.

All of the City Council candidates, including the mayoral candidates, express support for the Rainier Connector.  Some also support Measure Q because of the funding that it would provide for the Connector.  But others oppose Measure Q because the funding commitment isn’t sufficiently committed to the Rainier Connector.  If elected, they promise to put forth another, stronger ballot measure at a future date.

On the other hand, all the self-identified urbanists with whom I’ve spoken oppose the Rainier Connector.  Many, including me, acknowledge that it would make Petaluma a better place, but balk at the price tag, arguing that there are better uses for the money.  As a result, many urbanists oppose Measure Q because of the funding that it provides toward the Connector.  But others, again including me, support Measure Q because the other municipal needs are sufficiently dire that it would be wrong to subject the City to further financial distress.

About the only apparent conclusion that can be drawn from that intertwined spaghetti of opinions is that none of the City Council candidates are urbanists.  And I don’t believe that even that conclusion is valid.

I can’t promise that a frank discussion, even with the thoughts of Dave King, will bring clarity to the issue, but perhaps it can cut a bit of the fog.

Regular attendees know that the 5:30 start time tends to be bit soft, with some attendees still in line to secure beverages when the minute hand points straight down.  But for this month, we will start promptly at the designated time.   King has another obligation to which he must depart at 6:15, so those who don’t have a beverage in front of them at 5:30 will be asked to wait until King departs.

As always, everyone is welcome.  New attendees are particularly encouraged to join us.

Planning Commission: Immediately after the Urban Chat meeting, the Petaluma Planning Commission will convene at City Hall.  The agenda item likely to attract the greatest controversy is the proposed modifications to the Zoning Code and SMART Code to permit and to regulate rentals of private homes within mixed-use and residential neighborhoods, the types of rentals generally described as “AirBnB”.

(Disclaimer: I’ve never stayed in an AirBnB rental, but once spent several nights in a VRBO rental home.  I secured the home for an extended family getaway, but most of the participants came down ill in the days before we gathered, so there were only two of us rattling around in a big house overlooking the North California surf.  To the best of my recollection, we didn’t make enough noise to disturb the neighbors.  Also, I had earlier found rental flats in both London and Venice through Craigslist.)

The whole AirBnB controversy irritates me.  If we hadn’t collectively and wrongly turned our backs on urbanism, I don’t believe there would even be an AirBnB controversy.  Instead, there would be clusters of mixed-use multi-family dwellings near walkable cores.  Individual owners within those buildings might still wish to rent their homes on a daily or weekly basis, but that would be an issue for the homeowners association to address, not the entire city.  Besides, adding another further people to busy urban sidewalks would be barely noticeable.

And if enough rental rooms were available near the walkable core, I doubt there would be a market for rentals in the more distant residential-only neighborhoods, except for properties with special settings or views.

But we did turn away from urbanism, those buildings that should logically contain the AirBnB units of today don’t exist, and now we must decide what to do about AirBnB.

So, urbanism has little to offer us on the AirBnB subject except a severe tsk-tsk-tsk.  Instead, we’re left on our own to sort out the balance of private property rights versus the rights of neighbors to the peaceful enjoyment of their own homes.

With that grumpy preamble, I find the City staff to have done a credible job in balancing the multiple objectives.

Homeowners who wish to rent out all or part of their homes would pay an initial fee, annual renewal fee, and transient occupancy taxes to the city.

Neighbors would be notified of intended rental operations.  Although they wouldn’t be able to oppose the permits, their complaints about operations would be grounds for revocation or non-renewal of permits.

Even though the City doubts their ability to enforce them on a regular basis, maximum occupancy standards would be set so that non-compliance can be considered in actions against property owners.

Minimum parking standards would be imposed on the rental operations, although limited use of street parking would be allowed.  Any excess need for street parking would be subject to a land-use action which the neighbors could oppose.

The entire City staff report can be found here.  I find it well-written and reasonable.  Although I certainly understand the concerns of the neighbors, many of which can found here and here.

But my final test is the hypothetical question of how I would feel if the proposed regulations were to affect my neighborhood.

I don’t know of any AirBnB rentals that have been proposed near my house, but I don’t think I’d mind a few AirBnB renters sharing my sidewalks.  (Indeed, there are a couple of neighbors whom I’d happily trade for overnight renters.)  It’s a fun little neighborhood.  If I was visiting Petaluma, it’s the kind of neighborhood in which I’d enjoy resting my head, second only to staying closer to downtown.

Regarding my Tuesday evening, I’ll definitely attend the Urban Chat meeting.  I’ll try to also attend the Planning Commission meeting, although other obligations may interfere.

In my next post, I’ll return to the topic of urbanism and seniors, tackling the question of walkability and other non-motorized options for seniors.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, October 10, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: After the Driver’s License is Gone

A few years ago, my wife and I sat down one evening to continue planning our retirement.  Our goal was to decide upon a town in which we wished to spend our later years.

Like any couple, our desires didn’t fully align.  We had different visions of what would be important to us in retirement.

Nor, until our later-in-life marriage, had our lives been spent in the similar communities.  Although we both grew up near Sacramento, I’d lived 18 years in the Pacific Northwest, while she’d spent most of her adult life in California cities from Redding to Laguna Niguel, so we brought different visions of the good life to our conversation.

But we worked through our differences and reached a mutually acceptable conclusion.  We wanted to live in a place just like Petaluma, but with a Nordstrom and a transit system that would allow me to ride to and from a Cal basketball game, even if the game went into triple overtime.  (Exactly what city met that definition remained an open question.)

In our focus on transit, we were foreshadowing the concerns of an increasing number of seniors.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about the intersection of urbanism and senior living.  As should have been expected, I’m enthusiastically supportive of creating more options for downtown senior life.

But I’ve also been considering the lives of seniors who would benefit from urban life but can’t utilize that option because of the absence of suitable urban destinations or because of market finances holding them in suburbia.  Today, I’ll write about the effect of decreasing mobility on those seniors and about possible solutions.

Eventually, assuming we live long enough, we’ll all lose our driver’s licenses.  (Paraphrasing Maurice Chevalier, “It isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”)

But with so much of American life dependent on the automobile, the loss of that mobility can be life-changing.  As Pete Lehner writes for the Natural Resources Defense Council, seniors who find themselves stranded by loss of their licenses are less likely to keep medical appointments, less likely to see old friends and more likely to show signs of depression.

Lehner also points out that the number of seniors, and therefore post-driving seniors, has been and will continue to grow rapidly.

Lehner notes that transit is one solution to the senior mobility problem, but cites the low priority often given to transit funding.  He cites Wisconsin where the ratio of road to transit funding is nearly 100 to 1.

As a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, I can confirm that transit funding is limited.  The $88 million price being bandied about for the Rainier Connection would be enough to fund Petaluma Transit for thirty years.

However, I’m unsure than any amount of transit funding can solve the problem of senior mobility in cities configured like Petaluma.  The sprawling nature of many subdivisions makes it impossible to design routes that will provide good transit access to most folks while still providing timely services for those trying to keep appointments or arrive at jobs on time. Drivable suburbia is a deep wound to the independence of seniors and transit can only be a small bandage.

But there are alternatives.  Writing in City Lab, Paul Supawanich suggests that peer-to-peer ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, can also play a role.

Supawanich muses that the rides required by seniors might not occur with the same times or destinations typically served by the peer-to-peer drivers and suggests that small stipends might be needed to ensure that enough drivers are available to meet the demand.  However, he guesses that stipends plus fares would have a lower cost that alternatives such as taxis or transit vans.

 Lastly, Liza Barth in Consumer Reports writes of a modified peer-to-peer ride-sharing concept for seniors that predates Uber and Lyft.  After her young son was injured in 1995 by an older driver whose license should have been previously revoked, Katherine Freund began to look for alternatives to senior driving.

She created a community ride-share company, ITN America, that operates in thirty locations across the country.

While similar to Uber and Lyft, ITN has several key differences, in addition to its focus on seniors.  For one, many riders enroll by giving their cars to ITN in exchange for credits that can be used for rides.  For another, many of the drivers are young seniors, reinforcing the concept of peer-to-peer.  Lastly, many of the drivers aren’t paid in money, but instead get credits that they can use in their later years.

Are Uber or ITN perfect solutions to senior mobility?  Not really.  I’d still rather live in a place where I can walk a block and catch a streetcar that’ll run all night.  But they help address some of the mobility shortfall for seniors and it’s good that they exist.

Next time, I’ll step away from urbanism and seniors for a post.  Instead, I’ll write about a couple of interesting meetings that will occur in Petaluma next week.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Note: For those concerned, or perhaps hopeful, that I’ll be leaving Petaluma based on my comments above about a retirement destination, that won’t happen.   Since the conversation with my wife, various life changes have happened, including greater community involvement and more family members moving to Petaluma, so we’re in the North Bay for the duration.  Although I still miss a good transit connection between here and Berkeley.)