Friday, August 28, 2015

Getting Seconded with Authority

A few posts back, while poking fun at my habit of tallying the states I’ve visited, I suggested that counting cities was a more appropriate measure of travel because cities have been more important to civilization.

The heart of my argument was “The history of civilization begins with Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Carthage before continuing onward to Venice, Vienna, London, Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Cities are where learning, government, and culture all took root.”

Thus, it was with delight that I came across an article by another writer starting with this phrase, “Although history is not usually taught this way, one could argue that cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice to Baghdad and Beijing, urban ideas and innovators have left indelible marks on human life.”

We must have been working from the same syllabus.

The other writer was Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine.  Wow, my motion was seconded with authority.  (Yeah, that may have a bit too much hubris.)

The Foreign Affairs article can perhaps be found here.  However, the link, no matter how many times I copy it, doesn’t seem to work for me, for reasons I can’t discern.  Foreign Affairs must use some kind of cloaking device.   But a Google search on “foreign affairs city century” seems to work just fine.  Free registration is required to access the article.  Going through the multi-step registration is worthwhile.  The article is that good.

Building on his great start, Bloomberg goes on to make assertion after assertion with which I bobbed my head in enthusiastic concurrence, so many solid assertions that I had to restrain myself from copying the entire article and smashing the “Fair Use” standard.  So I’ll limit myself to just a few points.

Bloomberg argues that some authority will move back toward cities in the future.  In his words, “Influence will shift gradually away from national governments and toward cities.”

And that’s a good thing because cities like to experiment, “Mayors are turning their city halls into policy labs, conducting experiments on a grand scale and implementing large-scale ideas to address problems, such as climate change, that often divide and paralyze national governments.”

And cities are also better at experimentation than nations, “cities tend to be more nimble than national governments, which are more likely to be captured or neutralized by special interest groups and which tend to view problems through an ideological, rather than a pragmatic, lens.”

Bloomberg goes on to offer a list of ways in which cities can tackle climate change, from bike sharing to better solar policies, that are beyond most national governments.

Seriously, it’s a great article.  Go through the hassle of the free registration and read with enthusiasm.  You’ll be rewarded.

Before closing, I should make a couple of observations about what the Bloomberg/Alden hypothesis about the coming power of cities (once again, too much hubris) means to the cities of the North Bay.

I foresee a future where San Francisco sets the tone for the Bay Area.  Sacramento would still have power; civilizations can’t function without nations and their subdivisions.  But here in the North Bay, we would be satellites of San Francisco, not Sacramento.  (Sorry, Oakland and San Jose.  Yes, you may have more people and land than San Francisco, but you lack the geographical authority of the city that guards the Golden Gate.)

But even though North Bay cities may look to San Francisco for guidance, we would also have our own urban power.  Much as Bloomberg write about the accumulation of intellectual power in large cities, North Bay cities would have their own local accumulations, committed to building vibrant local economies, to addressing local problems, and to formulating solutions that can be promulgated elsewhere.

And urbanism would be a key element of that power, both as a solution to local issues and as a way of creating intellectual ferment through daily interactions on the sidewalks that are the marketplace of ideas.

To illustrate the sea change, I predict that the mayor elected by Petaluma in 2052 will come not from a single-family neighborhood, but from a downtown mixed-use community, such as Haystack Landing.  And that will be a good thing.  (For the record, I’ll be 99 in 2052, so am not planning on running for mayor.  But I am planning on voting for the Haystack Landing candidate.)

Thanks again to Mayor Bloomberg for having my back.

A few posts back, in recounting some final moments of insight from the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I noted the creative tension between the structure required for the coherence of an urban plan and the anarchy in which creative fringe of urban concepts can be explored.  It’s a topic which I’ve long pondered.  I don’t have any grand conclusions to offer but, in my next post, I’ll expand on the question and on my evolving thoughts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Talking about the Need for Heroes in the North Bay

My wife and I don’t have HBO in our home.  We appreciate the many creative and groundbreaking series that HBO has done, but neither of us watches much television and we don’t need another set of shows, no matter how good, tempting us.  Besides, except for urban settings, or sometimes failed urban settings, HBO doesn’t touch upon urbanism.

Until now.

HBO is currently showing “Show Me a Hero” about a 1980s battle over low-income housing in Yonkers, New York, a short distance up the Hudson River from Manhattan and in the mists of the photo above, taken from the Empire State Building. 

A five-minute video introduction to the first two episodes lays out the story.  Having allowed their community to develop with a deeply engrained pattern of segregation, the City Council was ordered by a Federal court to allow the development of low-income housing in white neighborhoods.  The Council appealed and lost, but not until a leader of the appeal effort was elected mayor, creating the narrative tension of a reluctant hero torn between his campaign promises and the inevitable future.

I suggest that the storyline has lessons for the North Bay.

Some may scoff at the thought of similarities between the fears of Yonkers residents thirty years ago, generally described as the fear of low-income folks and possible criminals, but understood to include a stiff dose of racism, and the response to walkable urban projects in the North Bay.  And if you consider the relatively lack of African-Americans in the North Bay, they’d have a good argument on a superficial level.

But I’ve observed many North Bay land-use processes in which fear of change was a major, if largely unspoken, factor among the opponents, with those feared changes including folks of different demographic or racial/ethnic backgrounds.  I can even recall a couple of situations in which the concern was about the developmentally disabled.   And walkable urbanism, with its frequent result of people living in closer proximity, is particularly subject to those issues.

A few years back, I attended a Northern California public hearing where residents argued against allowing the split of a half-acre lot into two quarter-acre lots because it would be the first step on the path to having drug dealers in their neighborhood.  Seriously, the argument was that having 10,000 square-foot single-family lots in an upper middle class neighborhood was on the slippery slope toward neighborhood drug dealing.  I’m guessing that the drug dealers in the objectors’ imaginations weren’t white.   Luckily, the hearing body didn’t buy the barely concealed racism and unanimously approved the split.

That story didn’t occur in the North Bay, but I can think of many North Bay neighborhoods where similar attitudes might display themselves in response to land-use actions, particular those land-use actions that would further walkable urbanism.

Which brings me back around to my interest in seeing “Show Me a Hero”.  If someone wants to invite me to their home for a “Show Me a Hero” viewing marathon, I’m there, with snacks.  Failing that, I’ll wait until the show becomes available on DVD and will then host my own viewing party, hopefully with other folks providing the snacks.  Let me know if either works for you.

Regardless of the viewing option, there will be post-viewing discussions, both in person and in this space, because the issues deserve to be considered.

I recently argued that cities were more important than nations to human history, and likely also to our future.  Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes the same assertion in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.  I’ll explore his thinking 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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why Haystack Landing Can’t Be Everything to Everybody

Last time, I wrote about the tentatively-named Haystack Landing, a proposed mixed-use project, with residential over retail, midway between downtown Petaluma and the coming SMART train station.  Although I demurred slightly on the architecture, I was mostly thrilled with the project, with my principal wish being that ground-breaking could occur soon.

But, as with most land development projects, it’s inevitable that other folks won’t be as content.  Some will be querulous and others merely curious, but there will always be some who wish that their particular issue could have addressed differently.

Before, during, and after the public meeting last week, some of those concerns reached my ears.  In my role as an advocate for urbanism, I’ll try to address those concerns.

To be clear, I have no role in the Haystack Landing project.  The responses below are based solely on conversations with the project team and on knowledge gained from past projects.  Perhaps I didn’t sit at the table for Haystack Landing, but I’ve sat at enough tables to understand how the realities of zoning codes, construction financing, and marketplace preferences play out.

Why do the buildings top out at four stories?  More stories would put more people downtown: There are a several approaches that can be taken to answering this question, but I’ll tackle it through parking balance.

Each use, whether market-rate residential, affordable residential, or retail, has a parking requirement. With each home or retail space added, more parking is required, reducing the land available for the building footprint.  It becomes a dance to find the balance point between parking and building uses such that the site is fully used, and fully parked, in a form will satisfy the marketplace.

For Haystack Landing, the project team found their balance point at 140 homes plus about 20,000 square-feet of retail in four-story buildings with 180 surface parking stalls.  From my review, I have no reason to disagree with their conclusion.  If they had pushed the buildings higher, they would have needed more parking, for which there wasn’t room without eliminating building footprints.

Some may point out that structured parking could have increased the parking count without increasing the land area dedicated to parking, thereby allowing more building stories.  They’d be right, but the problem is that structured parking is expensive, perhaps $20,000 per parking space compared to $2,000 for a ground space.

Adding structured parking would significantly bump the sales prices, or rental rates, on the units, perhaps pushing those prices beyond what the market will bear.  From the early days of the recession until now, developers have reported that they can’t find a way to make structured parking pay except in the densest urban settings.  If the Haystack Landing team says that they found the same, I have no reason to dispute them.

But what if additional stories were committed to affordable units without associated parking?: This is an interesting question that forces me to dig deeper into the project.  There are four arguments against the suggestion.

First, although I’d like to believe otherwise, there may not be a market for affordable units with no parking.

Second, the assigned transects for the site (transects being the form-based code equivalents of zones which are used within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan) allow only four stories on much of the site, with six stories allowed only along the E. Washington Street frontage.  So a variance or zone change would be required to go above four stories.

Third, there is also no provision in the SmartCode for residential units without parking, so another variance would be required.

Fourth, the building code changes above four stories, requiring a more expensive form of construction.

So the taller buildings would become more expensive in order to add affordable units with an uncertain market.  That’s not a workable proposition.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of a fifth or even sixth story along E. Washington Street, liking the image it would create for Petaluma.  I’d suggest that fourth floor homes become multi-story units internally, which would get around the parking issue.  But it still wouldn’t overcome the building code constraint.

Why can’t the project look more like downtown?:  The easy answer is that construction codes and economics have changed over the last century, with the money that used to go into elaborate facades instead going into seismic code compliance, fire suppression systems, handicapped access, and union wages.

But there is also the problem that downtown Petaluma doesn’t have a single style to which Haystack Landing could conform.  I love downtown, but it has a broad diverse range of
architectural styles, leaving current-day architects at a loss when it comes to matching downtown.  Anyone who argues that downtown Petaluma has a style is confusing familiarity and fondness for coherence.

What should be done to mitigate for the increased traffic?: This is a multi-faceted question.  To begin, it’s likely that congestion won’t change.  In the obverse side of the theory of induced traffic, if more traffic is added to an already congested street, more drivers would defer or delay trips, so
congestion would remain the same, although there is still the impact of more deferred or delayed trips.

Also, there aren’t many traffic improvements that can be made in the vicinity of Haystack Landing.  There is no room for a third lane on E. Washington Street.  The D Street Bridge constricts D Street to its current one lane.  And Lakeville doesn’t offer any opportunities either.

However, Haystack Landing, with its location and its restricted parking, will generate fewer trips than other residential projects.  Because of the way that trip data is collected from other projects, we don’t know what the likely Haystack Landing trip generation would be, but with ten daily trips per home being typical for single-family homes, seven or so trips from Haystack Landing would seem likely.  And that number would decrease as the urbanism increases around the project, allowing more daily chores to be completed on foot or by transit.

Despite this lower trip generation, Haystack Landing will pay the same traffic impact fee per unit as for an apartment with unlimited parking on the urban fringe.  State law allows cities to impose lower traffic impact fees for projects in urban settings, but Petaluma has chosen not to do so.

But as there are few opportunities for traffic improvements near Haystack Landing, it is likely that the traffic impact fees would be spent on improvements in the more suburban parts of the community.

So, the complete traffic answer is that Haystack Landing will generate fewer trips that other residential projects, but will pay for more than its fair share for city traffic improvements.  However, the improvements will likely occur elsewhere other than around Haystack Landing because there are few improvement opportunities near the project.  It’s an answer that makes my head spin.

Is it best for one developer to design all 140 units?: Admittedly, this is my question, although I never asked it of anyone because I already knew the answer.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of fine-grained urbanism, believing that many small projects serve cities better than a few large projects.  (Jane Jacobs made this argument in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and for me it remains true a half-century later.)

In a perfect world, I would prefer that different teams develop the two blocks that will result when the current block is divided by the new street.  Even though the massing of the two blocks would likely remain the similar given the constraints of the Station Area Master Plan and SmartCode, I think the different teams might generate solutions sufficiently different to meet Jacobs’ goal of a fine grain.

But I also understand the financial downside of having multiple development entities.  The costs of entitlement, including CEQA compliance, aren’t halved when the project area is halved.  Indeed, those costs may not change much at all.  So the total costs of entitlement, which can be a significant percentage of the overall development costs, could be doubled if the blocks were developed separately.

As much as I think that fine-grained urbanism would be better for our cities, our current methods of entitlement and environmental protection work against it.

Why is there is an old warehouse on the Copeland Street frontage?: the aerial photo at the beginning of this post shows two warehouses along Copeland Street.  Pacifica Companies has acquired one of those warehouses, will demolish it, and will replace it with new construction.

But no purchase agreement was reached on the other warehouse, so it will remain in place, with the Haystack Landing buildings constructed on both sides of it.

In January, I noted to the Petaluma City Council that this situation is why eminent domain exists and that the City should find a way to acquire the property and to resell it to Pacifica Companies so it could become part of Haystack Landing.

I still feel that way, but I also see the possibility that, when the warehouse finally goes away years from now, a creative development team will find a quirky way to use the odd parcel, resulting in a solution that future generations of Petalumans will find endearing.  Good urbanism sometimes works out that way.

So, I’m less bothered by the warehouse than I was six months ago.

Any other thoughts on Haystack Landing?  I suggest contacting the developer, but I also remain always willing to chat about urbanist projects.

HBO is currently airing an original program that will seemingly impart lessons relevant to urbanism.  I’m intrigued by the plot and by the learning opportunities.  I’ll share what I know 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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Haystack Landing by Any Other Name Would Fill the Need as Well

Long-time Petaluma residents may remember the proposed Haystack Landing project, sited midway between downtown and the future SMART station, bounded by E. Washington, Weller, D, and Copeland Streets.

Over a great many years, the former owner of the property put forth a great many alternative plans for the site, some of which would have supported Petaluma’s urbanist future and some of which are better forgotten.

Eventually, time and a weakening economy robbed the earlier efforts of their last shred of momentum and the property moved into different hands, eventually ending up owned by Pacifica Companies of San Diego.

Pacifica has now brought forth their plan, a plan that looks much like the final iteration under the previous owner, not surprising given that some team members remain the same, but with a sense of commitment and a level of credibility that gives hope that this time the project will finally move ahead.

Although Pacifica hasn’t yet submitted land-use applications to the Planning Department, they rolled out the preliminary plans for community review earlier this week.  There was much to like in the plans.  There was also room to chat about possible tweaks.

(One thing that Pacifica hasn’t brought forth is a new name for the project.  They seem committed to moving on from the previous Haystack Landing name, but are as yet undecided on a new name.  After offering the obligatory jest about PTBNL for project-to-be-named-later, a reference to a player-to-be-named-later in a baseball trade, I’ll continue calling the project Haystack Landing for now.)

To begin my comments, please understand that I would be happy if the project as now presented could go into construction tomorrow.  Indeed, happy would understate my emotions.  If I could get my wife to agree, I’d probably put our names on the reservation list for one of the units.  I hope to one day live in an urban setting near the heart of Petaluma, a hope that has twice been stalled when earlier projects failed.  Haystack Landing is now my newest great urban hope.

But construction isn’t going to start tomorrow.   So there’s a window to talk about the good, the possible areas of improvement, and the impractical suggestions put forth by others.

The Good: As a member of the citizens committee for the Station Area Master Plan, I may be overly committed to the vision that resulted from that process, but I’m pleased that the Haystack Landing conforms well to the master plan, with a new street dividing the parcel, multiple four-story buildings mostly ringing the resulting two blocks, and parking, at the minimum allowed under the SmartCode, in the center of the blocks, largely removed from the view of pedestrians.

In a detail that wasn’t foretold by the master plan, but is a welcome addition, much of the parking is covered by a roof that will support social activities and areas of greenery.

(The project architect pointed out that the strictures in the master plan and the related SmartCode gave relatively few options for the site plan, largely dictating the proposed plan.  Short of asking for a bundle of variances, the site plan had to look much as it has been designed.  One could argue from this that the master plan and SmartCode, even if they’re stifling innovation, are still leading to good results.)

Looking at one small site plan detail, I’m thrilled by the solution along D Street.  A long-ago realignment of D Street left an awkward triangle of pavement, comfortable for neither pedestrians walking between downtown and the future train station nor drivers unsure how to steer a right turn onto Weller Street.  The triangle can’t contain buildings because of overhead power lines, but the site plan converts that space into a landscape and sculpture garden, with outdoor dining for a proposed cafĂ©.  It’s a fine solution to a vexing problem.

The Room for Improvements: I’m not an architect, don’t have the eye of an architect, and am impossibly far behind in my attempt at remedial architectural training, but I find that the Haystack Landing architecture, while well articulated and richly detailed, still screams early 21st century American development style.  I don’t intend at all to suggest that the architecture looks like a Walmart.  With its detailing and varied use of materials, it’s far from that architectural nadir.

But, to my untrained eye, it still looks too much like the same architectural solution that would be proposed for infill sites in Seattle, Denver, or Charlotte.  It’d be a good solution in any of those places, but nothing in the design says unique, Petaluma, or even California.

For corroboration of my impressions, I checked with an architect friend.  He used different words, but largely agreed with me.

I suspect that various constraints, from the site to the Station Area Master Plan to the construction economics in the second decade of the 21st century, restricted the architect such that this may been his legitimately best solution, but I can still chafe at the result.

In a situation for which an easier fix would seem to be available, Transverse Street, the interim and unpoetic name for the street that will subdivide the Haystack Landing site, will be the preferred route for most pedestrians walking from downtown to the coming SMART station.  But that route may not be obvious to first-time visitors.  Indeed, the route may seem unintuitive from downtown.  So wayfinding guidance at the Weller Street entrance into Transverse Street would be appropriate, perhaps a sculpture or signage that sends the unmistakable message that this be the way to the train.

Rounding out my thoughts on the preliminary plans are responses to some of the issues raised by the public for which there are no solutions and for which the developer should be given absolution.  But I’ve already claimed enough of your time for today, so I’ll defer those to my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Acting Independently from Sacramento and Washington

A consistent theme of this blog is that drivable suburbia is largely the result of top-down directives.  I argue that cities, more so than states or nations, have an intuitive understanding  of how civilization should be organized, an understanding that was ignored during the post World War II building boom.

(I’m currently reading “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford, who puts the blame squarely on the Federal Housing Act of 1954.  Section 701 of the act required federally approved plans before releasing federal funds for local housing projects.  Planners quickly learned that plans with a separation of uses, the defining characteristic of drivable suburbia, would be readily approved by the federal authorities.)

Given my bias toward greater local control of government, I’m pleased whenever I note a municipality exerting some independence.

A North Bay case in point is a recent action by the City of Healdsburg to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from the state standard of 18 to a Healdsburg standard of 21, becoming the first California city to do so.

Admittedly, changing a few numbers on the signage in convenience stores is orders of magnitude different from encouraging land uses that overcome the multitude of sprawl-incentivizing policies from Sacramento and Washington, D.C, but independence doesn’t come quickly or easily.  Restricting the access of young adults to tobacco is a worthy goal in itself, so is a reasonable first step toward land use independence.

Today tobacco, tomorrow North Bay zoning codes and impact fees that no longer discourage compact development.

In my next post, I’ll offer my thoughts on the transit-oriented development plans being offered for public comment in Petaluma.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Stories from CNU 23: Anarchy and More

The past April, I traveled to the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which this year was CNU 23.  Soon after my return from the Dallas meeting, I wrote several posts recounting moments of insight from the four-day meeting.  At the time, I didn’t try to dig deep.  My only goal was to give a hint of the thoughtful ideas and interchanges that flavor each CNU conference.  (The earlier posts were here, here, here, and here.)

Starting soon, I’ll begin exploring some of the topics raised at CNU 23 in greater depth.  But today, I’ll make one more pass through my notes, looking for final short thoughts that can help color in the picture of what a CNU conference is like.

Balancing Order and Anarchy: In a session that was described as an introduction for newcomers, but was insightful for all, Professor Emily Talen noted that “a lot of urban planning is rooted in anarchy”.  Then, a few minutes later, she also noted that the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on knowledge and order, was a defining moment for urbanism, an observation that can seem to be in conflict with her earlier statement on anarchy.

After exploring this tension between a desire for order and an absence of order, she concluded with the thought that “A grand manner of order provides the urban framework on which diversity and chaos can hang.”

I found that this sentence captured the creative tension which, to my mind, often characterizes the struggle to build good urbanism.  It expresses the dichotomy between master planning by experienced professionals and the creative input of unpracticed but passionate locals.  (This is the same dichotomy that StrongTowns describes as top-down versus bottom-up.)  I don’t want to sidetrack today’s short thoughts, but will return to this topic in an upcoming post for a more detailed mulling.

City Efficient: The City Beautiful movement, spearheaded by Daniel Burnham and organized around an enthusiasm for grand urban settings triggered by the Columbian Exposition of 1893, is often considered a major thread in the urbanist history.  But Professor Talen noted some of the shortcomings of City Beautiful, specifically that it was more about vistas than about the details of daily life.

She suggested the follow-up movement, which focused more on housing, health, etc., and which she describes as the City Efficient effort, was ultimately more meaningful.

One Room for Urbanists and Environmentalists: Andres Duany, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, took the podium after Talen.   Among his many themes was a concern about the direction that the environmental movement has taken, a direction that has often put environmentalists at odds with urbanists.

Noting that one of the key justifications for urbanism is the environmental benefits of compact living, Duany found this conflict to be harmful and he put much of the responsibility on the environmental side.  In his words as he addressed the CNU 23 session, “This is the only room in America where it is understood that urbanists and environmental are on the same side.”

Co-Opting the Competition: Duany also noted that CNU needn’t always overcome the other land-use organizations in order to spread the urbanist message.  Instead, the message of urbanism is so compelling that other organizations are often co-opted even as the membership of CNU remains steady.  As an example, Duany noted that editorial focus of “Urban Land”, the official magazine of the Urban Land Institute, has effectively shifted to the point where it also serves as the magazine for CNU.

The Game is Still Being Played: Urbanists can sometimes be dismayed the number of drivable suburban developments still being built, with the resulting sense that the game is nearing a conclusion with urbanism on the losing side.   I had a moment like that yesterday when I saw a new sprawling subdivision under construction near Vacaville.

But Edward Mazria, an architect who appeared late during CNU 23, noted that by 2030 sixty percent of the building stock in the world will have been built since 2015, so there is still a huge opportunity for urbanism to make a difference.

To those of us in the U.S., the sixty percent statistic may seem puzzling, but if we consider the ongoing building booms in China, India, and elsewhere in the under-developed world, the statistic becomes more comprehensible.

So the burden on U.S. urbanists is not only to change the direction of land use within the U.S., but to take a place among the role models for the rest of the world.

As always, I returned from a CNU conference with my head spinning with new ideas and ways of thinking.  Having now finished this quick review of my notes, digging deeper will soon commence.

The Healdsburg City Council recently took a step of unexpected independence.  The action has nothing to do with urbanism, but the independence can be inspiring for urbanists.  I’ll explain in my next post.

Schedule Note: For those interested in the potential for transit-oriented development near the downtown Petaluma SMART station, there is an upcoming meeting that should be of interest.

Wednesday evening, August 19, 6:00pm at the Petaluma Community Center on McDowell Boulevard, Pacifica Development of San Diego will present their plan for the proposed Haystack Landing project, a mixed-use development about a block from the train station and along the walking route between the train station and downtown.

I’ve had one previous opportunity to view the preliminary plans, but am looking forward to seeing them again at the upcoming meeting.  And I expect to share my thoughts in this space a couple of posts hence.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Working toward More Walkable Communities, One Walkable Amenity at a Time

A couple of folks have recently contacted me about the challenges of living a more car-free life in places still oriented around cars.  They noted that it is often easier to hop into an automobile rather than to walk home in the rain from a library with an armload of books or to wrestle a pair of grocery bags onto a bus.

I agree with them.  We’ve done a fine job of building a drivable world, so good that driving a car is the most efficient and convenient way to do most tasks, as is evident from the frequent traffic congestion and absence of parking.  Indeed, if one ignores the congestion and parking problems, while also disregarding the looming threat of climate change and the deep hole of municipal debt from sprawling further than we were willing to financially support, we’ve built a darned good world.

But we can’t ignore those inconvenient facts.  Unwinding from a drivable suburban world will be a reality of the next decades.  And we should be praising those who, like those who have contacted me, are the early adopters.

(The perspective here is that the shift toward more walkability is inevitable.  The goal of my writing isn’t to convince people of that inevitability.  Time will take care of that regardless of any words I can offer.  Instead, it’s to convince folks to get onboard more quickly because the longer we wait to see the obvious, the more distress, environmental, physical, and financial, we leave for the following generations.  I have affection for many of the younger folks around me.  I want to leave them as little of our mess as possible.)

There are many strategies that can be implemented toward making this fundamental change in our world, but one of the best is to build small amenities that can be experienced and enjoyed without the use of cars, implicitly showing the upside of a more walkable world.

I recently became aware of a North Bay opportunity that would conform well to that strategy.

Many residents of Boyes Hot Springs, north of Sonoma along Highway 12, have long bemoaned the absence of an open-air community meeting place, a plaza for farmers markets and summer evening concerts.  Earlier visions for a town plaza died when the State of California ended their redevelopment program, but a new vision of a public plaza has recently arisen.

With construction underway on curbs, gutters, and sidewalks through the community, itself giving the potential to increase walkability, a short length of Boyes Boulevard will be cut off, ending its traffic function.  Rather than leaving a 200-foot, single-lane, single-exit parking lot, a pair of civic boosters began beating the drum for a plaza in the space.  Sonoma County took note, agreeing to provide funds for an initial assessment. 

Intrigued by what I read, I visited the site on recent summer day.  I was immediately charmed, not only by the site, but also by the surrounding circumstances.

The curb, gutter, and sidewalk work can serve to bring more people to the plaza site.

Downtown business repainting, although not welcomed by some, should add character to the community, perhaps inducing tourists, who would otherwise hurry through on their way to wineries further up the Sonoma Valley, to stop and to partake of what Boyes Hot Springs has to offer.

The nearby residential neighborhoods, both older and more newly constructed, feature homes on relatively small lots, with narrow frontages, bringing more local folks within walking distance of the possible plaza.

Perhaps most interestingly, the plaza would be only a short distance from the Sonoma Mission Resort and Spa.  I can foresee a well-designed plaza becoming a mingling place between the spa visitors and local residents, sharing music and local foodstuffs.  (Although I can also foresee hotel management being grumpy about the possibility of late evening music only a few hundred feet from expensive guest rooms.)

Are all these outcomes certain?  Not even close.  Good design, extensive community coordination, and thoughtful space scheduling are all essential elements.  But the possibility is there and possibilities are always exciting.

In the best StrongTowns tradition, I will note that it would great if the community could build the plaza itself, with volunteers adding and subtracting elements until the right combination was achieved.  But I’ll also note that many elements, from legally vacating the street to assuring compliance with codes and assuaging the concerns of the resort and spa, mandate a role for county government.  Hopefully, a good and effective balance of government support and community involvement can be found.

I’m excited by the possibility of a town plaza in Boyes Hot Springs, perhaps almost as excited as the local residents should be.

Shortly after my return from CNU 23, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, I culled through my notes to offer various short insightful snippets from the proceedings.  For my next post, I’m going to dig into my notes one more time for few final odds and ends.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

North Bay Non Sequiturs

Perhaps it was having been away from the North Bay for nearly two weeks following minor league baseball in the South, but when I returned home, I seemed to look at North Bay land-use issues with fresh eyes, eyes that were more open to situations that felt off-kilter.  I’m not saying land-use gaffes, but land-use solutions that grated at the edge of my consciousness.

Hence, my first ever review of North Bay Non Sequiturs:

“Historic Downtown”: While I was away, the near-final touches were completed on the new interchange at the north end of Petaluma, where Old Redwood Highway meets Highway 101.

While I still think that the community would have been better served if the construction costs could have been diverted to street repairs and the infrastructure to support walkable urban projects, I’ll agree that the new interchange works well.  So well that drivers can now pay more attention to the directional signs, including the one pointing toward “Historic Downtown” at the end of exit ramp from southbound 101.

As I considered the sign last week, it dawned on me that I don’t want to live in a town with a historic downtown.  I want to live in a town with an active, vital downtown, which I’d be happy to just call “Downtown”.

I’d prefer that my downtown have lots of older buildings because it would look good and because that would imply that it hadn’t been touched by the destructive redevelopment impulses of the 50s and 60s, but I also want my downtown to be adding new buildings to fill the holes, to grow larger, and to convey a burgeoning economy.

I don’t want my downtown to be something preserved under a bell jar.  Are there signs pointing to the “Historic Downtowns” of Chicago, New York City, or San Francisco?

“Historic Downtown” sounds like an aging amusement park, a place to take the kids after they’re through playing in the pool. 

Besides, how do we reconcile newer and integral elements, such as Theatre Square, with a “Historic Downtown”?  Do visitors even know to look for Theatre Square if we only direct them to the “Historic Downtown”?

I’m not going to suggest that anyone put duct tape over the word “Historic”, but I’d chuckle if someone did.

(Postscript: Since I began working up a head of steam on this topic last week, the sign that offended me has disappeared.  But I suspect that its absence is short-term and related to the final tidying up of the interchange project.  I doubt that the marketing approach for downtown has changed because I was able to find another “Historic Downtown” directional sign only a short distance away.)

Amy’s in Rohnert Park: My wife and I occasionally use products from Amy’s Foods.  Although we’re not committed to their products, I’ve generally found their food to be tasty and am pleased to have Amy’s and their commitment to organic packaged foods firmly embedded in the North Bay.

When Amy’s first announced their plan to try a restaurant concept, I was surprised.  It’s not like Chef Boyardee or Birdseye ever opened direct-to-consumers outlets.  But Amy’s is a different kind of business run by folks who seem to have a coherent vision, so I sat back to await the result.

I never expected a Rohnert Park drive-thru on a corner parcel in front of the Graton Casino, with gas stations on two opposing corners and nary a home in sight, one of the least walkable restaurant settings that can be imagined in the North Bay.

Perhaps I was misled by a flawed mental image of the typical Amy’s customer.  I think of Amy’s as serving people who favor walking for the health benefits and who have a deep concern about the environment, with climate change a particular fear.  I can’t reconcile that image with the restaurant that now exists.

I’m not saying that the most Amy’s customers are urbanists, but I’d expect them to have much in common with urbanism.  Yet the Amy’s drive-thru is most assuredly not urbanist.

There’s nothing wrong with the architecture of the Amy’s drive-thru.  It’s quirky but fully realized in a fashion that I wish the large drive-thru chains would emulate.  But the location leaves me flummoxed.  I can’t imagine the board room conversations that led to this result.

National Night Out: For the second year in a row, the Petaluma Police and Fire Departments hosted a function on National Night Out.  Conducted in the parking lot for the Target store in the East Washington Place shopping center, the Petaluma effort was described as a “community-building campaign that promotes police and community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, better places to live.”

I wasn’t able to visit the event this year, but did stop by last year and found it a pleasant event, with children enjoying a bounce house and facepainting while parents enjoyed the food, some chatting with other folks who might have been their neighbors.

Overall, it seemed a nice evening for those in attendance.  But there is something wrong with gathering in a big box parking lot to promote “neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, better places to live”.  And it’s even more wrong in a community that still prohibits most block parties, the quintessential event that should be promoting “neighborhood camaraderie”.

It’s true that the enforcement of the Municipal Code prohibition of block parties in most locations is lackadaisical to non-existent, but the prohibition still has organizers and participants looking nervously over their shoulders and the purveyors of block party rentals asking to see copies of non-existent permits.

I understand that the City resources needed to remedy the Municipal Code issue would have to come from a different pot than the resources used to host the National Night Out.  But if we could find just enough dollars to change the Code, then maybe we wouldn’t need to trek to a big box parking lot to learn about neighborhood camaraderie.

Okay, this was fun.  If anyone has North Bay Non Sequiturs that bug them, please share.  Perhaps this can become a repeated feature.

In my next post, I’ll write about a civic plaza proposed for Boyes Hot Springs, north of Sonoma.  Having walked the site and explored the surroundings, I endorse the idea heartily.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Counting States Misses the Point

Like many folks, I keep a mental log of states visited, with the goal of spending time in all fifty before my traveling days are over.

Thus, I was pleased when the group with whom I take an annual beer and baseball trip (Baseball Odyssey 2015!) picked the South for this year’s destination.  I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard, visiting the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida on earlier travels.  Similarly, I’d checked off Tennessee and Texas in recent years.  But the Deep South of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was virgin territory for me, giving me the chance to cross off three more states.

However, it was during the trip that I realized the absurdity of an urbanist measuring travels by counting states.  Except for the multiple encounters with the Alabama police, it was still a great trip, but the tallying up of states lost its lustre.

Here’s the problem with states.  The fundamental and organic organizing unit of civilization is the city.  Nations, and their subdivisions into states, came along relatively late in human history.  A brief review of world history proves the point.  The history of civilization begins with Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Carthage before continuing onward to Venice, Vienna, London, Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Cities are where learning, government, and culture all took root.

Even the ancient places that we know today by regional names, such Mesopotamia or Phoenicia, were collections of cities where the citizens felt their principal allegiance to their towns.  The regional names were only applied by later historians.

And even when nations finally began to appear, the birthing were still difficult.  China has a legitimate claim to be the oldest nation, but its borders continued to move in and out like an accordion for much of its history.  Neither Germany nor Italy even existed until the 19th century.  Britain reached stability earlier, but that process was aided by it being an island.  And even then it took the Scots two millennia to decide to join, a decision which they continue to second-guess.

The creation of nations was probably inevitable.  It’s hard to conduct either commerce or war with vast areas of uncertain allegiance between cities.  But the slowness of nations to arise and become stable points to the fundamental superiority of cities as a form of organizing human activity.

Which leads to the question of why we’ve ceded so much of the power of cities to the later inventions of nations and states.  We have taken the birthplace of civilizations and relegated them to the back row of governance.

Using the North Bay as an example, who would we rather have setting the standards by which we run our North Bay communities, the folks in Sacramento who are trying to write rules that apply equally well to San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Eureka or a city government based in San Francisco but incorporating more of the Bay Area and thereby a government better capable of understanding Bay Area lives and desires?

My preference is for a regional/city government.  There would still be an essential role for nation and states, but I suspect we would manage our affairs better if allowed to do so at more of a city level.

So, when I count states visited, I’m paying homage to a concept that I think is fundamentally flawed and continues to impede the organic growth of civilization.  I need to stop doing that.

Cities rule.

Perhaps it was being away from the North Bay for twelve days, but upon my return I began noting local absurdities with urbanist angles.  My next post will enumerate some of these North Bay non sequiturs.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rainier Connector: What Can Urbanism Offer in the Short-Term?

Like a persistent dog, today I’ll give one more good chew to the bone that is Petaluma’s Rainier Connector and then bury it for awhile.  I’ll surely return to the bone again in the future.  After all, the public notices on the Rainier Connector, a proposed arterial in the northwest quadrant of town, have been a fifty-year skein of birth announcements and obituary notices; I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon.  But after today, I’ll let the bone age for awhile.

This will be the fourth in the current series of posts on the Rainier Connector.   I began by bemoaning the yes/no question recently posed to the City Council on the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Connector.  I argued that the binary decision failed to capture the nuances of either the process or the project alternatives.  Next, I presented the urbanist argument why Rainier might be a good project for the future of Petaluma, but not yet.  Then, I suggested an idea for what urbanism could instead offer  for the $90 million cost of the roadway project.

Today, I’ll button up with a look at what urbanism can offer in the shorter-term.  Too much of Petaluma is configured in the drivable suburban mold for extensive urbanism to have a place anytime soon.  But perhaps there are urbanist strategies that can be implemented to alleviate some the pains of drivable suburbia.

As an example, I’ll resurrect a topic on which I’ve written before, a new sports complex on the east side of Petaluma.  (The complex, unnamed when I last wrote about it, is now the Petaluma Community Sports Fields.)

When I last wrote about the sports fields, I was castigating myself, as a member of the Petaluma Park and Rec Commission, for failing to more quickly call out the drivable suburban mindset behind siting a six-field athletic complex where many users would reach the site by passing through the busiest intersection in Petaluma.

I acknowledged that I had as much chance of changing the siting decision as of stopping a locomotive with a flyswatter, but still thought I should have been quicker to note the looming traffic issues.  I even predicted that some would soon call for a traffic fix to alleviate the difficulties in reaching the sports fields.

Sure enough, one of the pro-Rainier arguments tossed about during the run-up to the City Council hearing on the FEIR was the need to provide better access to the sports fields.  Never mind that building a $90 million roadway to improve access to a $6 million sports complex is roughly akin to buying a $500 carpet shampooer to remove a stain from a $30 rug or to buying a $10 grabber to retrieve a quarter from under a car seat, induced traffic would have undermined the traffic relief anyway.

Grandparents who had previously skipped sporting events because of the expected congestion enroute to the sports fields would begin making the trip, soon returning congestion to its former level.  Perhaps the new constraint on driving could have been parking at the sports complex.  During a recent visit, I noted that there are already signs posted directing drivers to overflow parking on the far side of the fronting arterial, an arterial without crosswalks.  But I expect that ideas for more parking would soon have begun floating, perhaps suggesting elimination of one of the future fields in favor of a parking lot.

That path is obviously going in an unacceptable direction, so let’s look to urbanism for different ideas.  The possible urbanist strategies fall into two categories, facilities located closer to users and encouragement of non-automobile access options.

In a chat with a fellow Park and Rec Commissioner, I noted that the community might have been served, from a traffic congestion perspective, by building fields at multiple locations rather than clustering them.  He responded, reasonably enough, that the multi-field complex allows weekend tournaments for out-of-towners, which benefits the local economy.

I’m happy to have others enjoy Petaluma, although I wonder how many years of sales and transient occupancy taxes will be required to pay for the sports fields.  Or for the Rainier Connector.  Unless that number is reasonable, the argument is only another example of using public dollars to create private revenue.

But I’m willing to stipulate that having a multi-field sports complex is a good thing for a community as long as that stipulation doesn’t preclude parallel provision for fields that require less driving.  And there is some hope on that front.

All three Petaluma high schools have or will soon have turf fields and have expressed a tentative willingness to allow community use of those fields when not in conflict with school activities.  Having no current involvement in youth sports, I don’t know to what extent youth leagues can be jiggered to have more play at fields to which non-automotive access, or at least shorter drives, is possible, but these are topics which I’ll push in my role on the Park and Rec Commission.

But there is another sports field where an opportunity was missed.  The River Front project will be in a central location, readily accessible to much of the community by transit.  The proposed development will have a sports field, but the developer’s plan calls for grass, not the turf that would better support intensive use for community sports.

The community interest in a turf field became evident during the entitlement process when there was an effort to make the turf a further, and in my opinion unreasonable, exaction from the developer.  The debate became mired in the question of how much a developer should fund in order to receive entitlements and a pro-developer perspective on the City Council quickly quashed the idea of turf.  My belief that the community should have funded the incremental cost between the grass and turf field wasn’t raised.  It was a missed opportunity.  

And that brings us to the question of non-automobile access to the Petaluma Community Sports Fields.  There’s also some good news on that front, with a bicycle/pedestrian path currently under construction.  However, the path won’t be ready for use until about six months after play began on the sports fields, six months during which access habits, such as relying on parental transport, were formed.

I know there were easement issues to be resolved before the path construction could be commenced and that staff made a good faith effort to resolve those issues quickly.  But let me ask a pair of questions.  Does anyone know of a park that opened with the route of car access still pending?  Or is a bicycle/pedestrian path somehow considered less worthy of a timely solution?

The question of transit to the site is also interesting.  There is currently little use of transit to access any sports fields in Petaluma.  However, Petaluma Transit and the Transit Advisory Committee, on which I sit, are trying to increase that use.

Accordingly, the Committee reviewed the construction plans for the Petaluma Community Sports Fields, identified a possible transit turnaround and suggested a change that would allow the turnaround at a later date.  To be clear, we weren’t asking for the turnaround, which would have been premature, but only for a change to accommodate the turnaround at a future date.  And the change would have actually reduced the sports fields construction cost.

The suggested change was conveyed to the team managing the construction, which readily agreed to the revision.  And then forgot to implement it.

I don’t think there was any ill will in the forgetfulness.  I expect the change was simply overlooked in the fog of construction.  Plus, as someone recently noted to me, we’re still dealing with a generation of engineers who have been forced to think about bicycle and pedestrian issues, but for whom transit is still not automatic to them.

Plus, the oversight may have been partially the result of the Transit Committee still not having, despite well over two years of requesting, the official power to comment on land use matters.  (I’ve recently been advised that this issue may again be moving ahead.)

The turnaround remains a future possibility, but demolition of recently installed improvements may be necessary to accommodate it, which would be unfortunate for all.

The overall report card on the efforts to incorporate urbanist strategies to improve access to the Petaluma Community Sports Fields, without spending $90 million on the Rainier Connector, is a mixed but mostly disappointing bag.  If I squint really hard, I can see giving a C to the bicycle/pedestrian path.  But otherwise I see only Ds and Incompletes.  As always, urbanism is whispering good solutions in our ears and we’re not listening.

And now, it’s truly time to move along and to bury the Rainier Connector bone for awhile.  There’s nothing further to be seen here.

A recent vacation took me to a part of the country that was largely new to me.  As I crossed into each new state, I crossed out another line on my mental tally of states still unvisited.  In this record keeping, I suspect I was like many travelers.  But then it dawned on me that maintaining a log of states visited was a silly task for an urbanist.  I’ll explain why 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 (davealden53@comcast.net)