Friday, December 19, 2014

Do We Have Too Much Elbow Room?

I know a family who undertook an extended European vacation a couple of years ago.  With their children nearing the time when they would take wing, it was a final family fling.  And they flung well, with stops in several European countries, an extended visit with the family of an exchange student they had hosted, and a stop in the small Italian village from which the wife’s forebearers has emigrated.

Shortly after their return, I chatted with the husband, who was still exuberant over how well the trip had gone, how much fun his family had experienced, and what great insights they had all gained.

As the conversation waned, the husband grew pensive for a moment and then offered, “I couldn’t believe how little space in which the Europeans live, even those who are affluent.  And they seem quite content with it.”

I won’t touch the contentment element of his comment.  Charles Montgomery in “Happy City” has already covered that topic sufficiently well and perhaps conclusively.  But the husband’s home size observation fit into a topic on which I’d been giving some thought.

The U.S. leads the world in home size, and we lead by a comfortable margin.  Why is that?

Some will argue that the U.S. has been phenomenally successful in the past 75 years, first turning the tide of World War II, then jumping onto the post-war opportunities to build an industrial behemoth, and then leading the world into the era of technology.  One can make a case that never has a nation had a more successful 75 years.  And the argument follows that giant homes are part of the spoils from that success.

Except that we don’t portray that success in other aspects of our lives.  More than half of all working families have less than $10,000 in retirement savings.  We’ve reduced the funding of government to the point that critical infrastructure isn’t being maintained.  We worry obsessively that an income gap is eroding the middle class.  We’ve reduced public support for college education to the point that many young adults are beginning their working lives with a crushing load of student debt.  And all those concerns are circling about us as we sit in our giant homes.

Rather than big homes being the result of national prosperity, it seems more likely that we’ve made the choice to live in big homes to the detriment of other aspects of our lives.

(Lest anyone think that I’m pointing fingers at others, let me note that my wife and I also live in a home that’s too big for our needs.  It’s a fine house and we enjoy living in both the house and the neighborhood, but we could have sufficed with fewer square feet.

We purchased the house because it was in a part of town that we enjoyed.  Initially, we had the goal of creating a rental unit out of some of the extra space, but the challenges of the architecture, building code, zoning code, and municipal fees eventually quashed that hope.  So we now join most Americans in rattling around.)

I have a theory about how we became prone to gigantism in our dwellings.  Not surprisingly, suburbia has a role.

As we began to sprawl, we choose to support the spread by subsidizing roads and gasoline.  An interstate freeway system that was originally conceived for defense, commerce, and vacations was converted into a bird’s nest of commuter routes.

Moving to the far metropolitan fringes to get a little extra space began to seem a reasonable alternative, largely because we weren’t paying the true price.

The mortgage industry, by considering family housing expenses but not transportation costs in determining mortgage qualification, further facilitated large homes far from work.

Finally, a growing sense that a spacious, if underused, living room meant more than a thriving neighborhood and a false belief that homes were good investments, when the stock market has actually outperformed housing over time, led us to homes that we didn’t need at the cost of other elements of our lives and that often don’t make us happy.

Combining this hypothesis with the suburban musings of my previous post leads to a combined hypothesis that the national successes of the U.S. led to a hubris-based belief that suburbia was a valid solution to our land-use future, which led to subsidizing suburbia, which led to giant homes on the metropolitan fringe where we live vaguely discontent and wondering why we don’t have money for the other priorities in our lives.

The insight is almost Zen, “In the bloom of our creation were the seeds of our discontent.”

None of this is meant as a call to torch the McMansions, to don hair shirts, and to march downtown to live in tiny concrete cubes.  But changing the rules so there are more options for frugal housing options and alternative household spending priorities would seem a reasonable approach.  Personally, my wife and I would happily swap our home for a home half the size and several blocks closer to downtown, but too few options exist for that change.

However, I’ll admit that I may be piling up hypotheses into a teetering tower.  If others wish to ponder these thoughts during their holiday travels and to offer alternative suggestions, I’ll be happy to listen.

Next time, I hope to return to the great streets topic.  I had the ill-timing to propose a series of North Bay roadtrips just as the heaviest December rainfall in a century approached the coastline.  Weather permitting, I’ll take a Napa County roadtrip in the next couple of days and then write about Calistoga and St. Helena on Monday.  Weather not permitting, I’ll find another topic.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

As a Nation, Are We Wired for Suburbia?

I recently came across a question and answer on the website Quora that set me thinking.  In response, I constructed a working hypothesis, but was unsure of its validity.  Nor did I know how to test the hypothesis.  So, I’ll offer it for your consideration.

(For those unfamiliar with Quora, it follows a simple but effective question and answer format.  A member of the public asks a question of broad interest, others write answers, and the most pertinent and insightful answer is shared with readers.  Many of answers are sufficiently astute and instructive that they deserve the wider audience they receive.

For those who fear that the Internet 2.0 is comprised solely of self-styled and self-important foodies dismissing fine restaurants for having the wrong style of oyster fork, Quora proves that the Internet 2.0 can work.)

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a link to the Quora question and answer that piqued my interest, so I’ll reconstruct from memory.  The question was “In what way do Americans think differently than the remainder of the world?”

 The selected answer was written by a former exchange student who finished his year in the U.S. by hitchhiking back and forth across the country and chatting with the American he encountered.  He wrote that, unlike the citizens of other countries, Americans believe that every problem has a solution.  They don’t become mired in a muddle of self-doubt over a problem that has lasted for centuries and seems likely to persist forever.  Instead, Americans are convinced that the perfect answer needs only a bit of cogitation.

My first thought was that the answer writer was correct.  The history of Americans, starting with their escape from foreign conditions they found intolerable to the startling ease with which they assembled the first constitutional democracy and then onward to the building of an industrial and creative juggernaut that dominated the world economy, may well have engrained the idea that every problem has a solution.

My second thought was that I was proud to be part of a citizenry that believed in the absolute existence of good and permanent solutions.

My third thought, as the euphoria faded, was that assumed infallibility might have a downside.

In mathematics, it’s often difficult to prove that a problem has a solution.  But even more difficult is to prove that a problem has one and only one solution.  Having found an answer, especially an answer that is complex and of dubious application, a mathematician might continue looking for another answer that is simpler and more useful.

Similarly, an innate and shared national belief that every problem has a solution might soon yield to a belief that every problem has multiple solutions, of which one is the simplest and least painful to implement, leading to a hubris that dismisses complexity.

At this point, I could offer examples of American foreign policy that would seem to support this hypothesis of American over-simplification.  But I’d soon be out of my depth.

So instead, I’ll offer a different question.  Is it possible that suburbia is the result of an American infatuation with simple answers?

Faced with the challenge of explosive post World War II growth, did we decide that any nation that could proceed seamlessly from a successful revolution against the leading military power in the world to an inspired and durable constitution (conveniently overlooking the failed Articles of Confederation) must be able to conceive a new land-use paradigm with little effort?   And was suburban sprawl the result?

Did we reject both our own land-use history and that of all other nations because we were convinced that our intellectual prowess justified discarding the lessons of the past?

I don’t know the answers.  I find the hypothesis beguiling and perhaps useful, but don’t know how to test it.

So I’ll offer it for your consideration.  As you stare at the endless ribbon of freeway on the way to Grandma’s, at the seat back in front of you, awaiting the delayed approval to take flight, or at the flickering flame of a Yule log after a long Christmas Eve of toy assembly, please ponder my hypothesis.  I’ll await your post-holiday feedback.

Next time, I’ll offer another hypothesis for your holiday consideration.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Trying to Put Lines on a Map

Last week, Petaluma Urban Chat met to continue assessing the future reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  This effort has been described in several earlier posts, most recently in the report on the November meeting.  At that meeting, the group discussed the land-use elements that would best meet their vision for the future of the Fairgrounds.  Those uses included residential, a public market, a park, and an experimental kitchen among other thoughts.

This month, our goal was to take the next incremental step in developing the vision.  It seemed a relatively simple step, although we soon found a complication.

To set the background, before the November meeting I made the decision that the vision effort would be based on an assumption that 30 acres of the current 63-acre Fairgrounds site would be reused as something other than a fairgrounds.  There wasn’t any particular insight or data behind the assumption.  Nor do I have any authority in the matter except for helping to guide the hypothetical Urban Chat study.  About the only justification behind the 30-acre assumption is that the reuse would be approximately half of the current Fairgrounds and we’re hard-wired to intuitively grasp what half looks like.

I acknowledged that the 30-acre assumption would and should be subject to future review.  But to keep the group, which has a constantly changing membership of about twenty folks, moving ahead, I chose to make key assumptions upfront, such as the size of the reuse area, rather than getting bogged down in difficult questions  for which we lacked key information.

With that background, the task for the December meeting was to decide which 30 acres would be removed from the Fairgrounds lease and opened for reuse.  (Note: It’s also possible the land could remain within the Fairgrounds lease and be redeveloped under the auspices of the Fair Board.  That could be a key distinction to the Fair Board and to the City Council, but wasn’t relevant to our discussion.  Our interest was what the new land uses should be, not which entity would oversee the effort.)

We asked several speakers to participate in the meeting.  Unfortunately, conflicts kept some of the speakers from attending, but Matthew Morgan, the Director of the Live Oak Charter School, a current Fairgrounds tenant, gave an excellent presentation on the buildings now occupied by the school and the hopes of the school for future site expansion and improvements.  Subject to the requirement that the school end up better equipped to serve its students, Morgan felt that significant changes to the school site could be tolerated.

Building on Morgan’s presentation, I gave a brief summary of the existing site elements that might be considered historic.  My information was based on a briefing provided by a local historian several months earlier.  The key element was that some of the structures, although heavily remodeled, may date from the late 1930s and were likely constructed with Works Progress Administration funds.  Both the age of the structures and the funding source would trigger detailed historic analyses and the possible requirement for historic preservation.

I also described the boundary conditions for the current Fairgrounds, the major arterial plus civic structures on the north boundary, the conventional retail with fronting parking lots on the east, the industrial uses, some thriving and some marginal, on the south, and the quiet residential neighborhood on the west.  I explained that recognition of and adjustment to the boundary conditions was often essential to securing site entitlements and to ensuring a successful project.

With that information presented, we began our assessment of where the 30 acres of reuse should be located.  And we quickly came to a hurdle.

Before the complication, we reached consensus on two points.  First, the remaining Fair property should be at the south end of the current site.  If there are financially marginal uses on the adjoining lands to the south, uses that can be supplanted by an expansion of adjoining uses, we judged that it would be more reasonable for the new uses to be expansions of the Fairgrounds than of the reuse area.  (I’m not sure that I agree with that decision, but neither am I sure that I disagree.  It’s a complex question without an obvious answer.)

We also agreed that the Payran Street frontage was the most valuable element of the potential reuse site.  With the intersection of Payran and D Streets almost exactly the same distance from the coming SMART train station as the corner of Second and D Streets, the Fairgrounds reuse has the potential to become a second downtown for Petaluma.  And the Payran frontage is closest part of the Fairgrounds to the station.  (I hadn’t foreseen this perspective on Payran, but agreed with it enthusiastically.)

Those two decisions then led us to the conundrum.  Trying to draw a dividing line between a reduced Fairgrounds and a 30-acre reuse site, with the reduced Fairgrounds at the south and the Payran frontage maximized, the line kept bumping into the Petaluma Speedway, a long established Fairgrounds element.

Including the oval track and stands, pit area, and parking lot, the Speedway consumes about 15 acres of the Fairgrounds, a surprisingly large chunk.  And from the knowledge, perhaps dated, of an Urban Chat participant, it generates less than $50,000 in annual profit, a disappointingly low return on 15 acres of key real estate.

So the question became whether the Speedway should be preserved.  And the decision was that it shouldn’t, not only because higher and better economic uses were possible, but also because it would difficult to secure a good price on the reuse site if it adjoined a still-operating racetrack.

I know that many Petaluma old-timers will decry this decision, recalling fond memories of evenings spent at the Speedway.  I can empathize.  I would have liked a ballpark in the reuse area, but that idea never gained traction in the Urban Chat group.  And I understand why.  The ballpark didn’t make economic sense for the City.  Nor does the continuation of the Speedway make sense.  Times change and we must accept those changes.

With that decision made, it became reasonable to reconsider how much land was to be subject to reuse.  My original decision to use 30 acres for the reuse area included the implicit assumption that the Speedway would remain a Fairgrounds element.  With the Speedway eliminated, we decided to divide the land area of the Speedway between the reuse area and the reduced Fairgrounds, with 40 acres going to reuse.

 With that assumption revised, the drawing of the line became surprisingly easy.  An extension of Jefferson Street from Payran to Kenilworth, shown in the photo above, comes very close to a 40-acre reuse site north (left) of the dark line and a reduced 23-acre Fairgrounds site south (right) of the line.

Furthermore, the line can be more than a boundary. Actually extending Jefferson to Kenilworth and similarly extending D Street to Kenilworth would provide the beginnings of a grid system for the reuse area.

In the north-south direction, building a city street along the current alignment of the primary Fairgrounds concourse and realigning Kenilworth to be parallel would complete the grid system, forming six new blocks similar in size to the adjoining residential neighborhood.  (Two of the next blocks would be partially occupied by the existing library and swim center.)

This grid system isn’t a final decision, but is a good start on the next discussion.

Lastly, the earlier land allocation decision between residential, retail, manufacturing, recreation, and public facilities should be reassessed relative to the increased reuse area.  Of the 40 acres now assumed for reuse, I’ll assume that 10 acres will be consumed by streets and utilities, with the remaining 30 acres available for new uses.  My tentative thoughts on the new allocations follow, all of which are subject to reconsideration and revision.

·         Residential: Was seven acres, now bumped to ten acres. 
·         Retail: The public market needn’t be scaled up, so four acres is still assumed.
·         Manufacturing: Was six acres, now bumped to seven acres.
·         Recreation: Was three acres, now bumped to five acres
·         Public Facilities: Was three acres, now bumped to four acres.

At the next Urban Chat meeting, we’ll reaffirm some of these decisions and begin placing the actual land uses on a map.  It should be an engaging evening.  Please plan on joining us on Tuesday, January 13.  We’ll gather at 5:30pm at Taps.

In the next post, I’ll offer the first of two urbanism-related thought exercises for you to ponder as your plane sits on the tarmac, awaiting approval to fly you home for Christmas.

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Promoting Fine-Grained Urbanism

A few years back, I became acquainted with a Sacramento architect who was working as a project manager for a land development company.  Over lunch one day, he told me about selecting architects for conceptual designs on an adjoining pair of sites owned by his company.

The development company focused on less prosperous neighborhoods, trying to spur economic rebirth through well-conceived infill projects and then prospering from the revitalization.

The two parcels were in a neighborhood that had once been prosperous, but had fallen on hard times.   He and his firm were hopeful that the two building projects, which would be on lots for which the previous structures had long been demolished, would help spur better times.

When the project manager and I had lunch, his two architects were just beginning work.  But my lunch companion had made an unusual decision.  He had refused to advise either architect of the other’s identity, so neither knew who was working next door.

The two consulting architects were discomfited by his decision, and perplexed.  They were continuing to argue that the two concepts needed to be prepared in tandem, so the two buildings could work together in harmony.  But the project manager held firm.  He had specified broad parameters for the two buildings, including the height and massing consistent with the zoning code and the developer’s market perceptions, the use of brick for the exterior surface, and the floor elevations for the upper stories.  But he wanted two independent designs, so wouldn’t introduce the two architects.

There was a valid reason for his surprising decision.  His goal was a fine-grained, organic urbanism that would benefit the neighborhood over the long-term.

He perceived a future, perhaps fifty years hence, when one of the buildings might feel dated and worn, while its next-door neighbor, because of a different architectural approach, still retained vitality.  The owner of the less successful building, emboldened by the continued success of his neighbor, would be motivated to invest in a remodel, allowing the neighborhood to bootstrap its way into the future.

The project manager was willing to sacrifice a bit of coherency between the buildings on the day they opened for the long-term economic health of the neighborhood.

This concept of developing in the smallest possible chunks has long been identified as a desirable approach for community economic health.  Jane Jacobs’ described it as “fine-grained” in her masterwork “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  More recently, and with far fewer credentials, I described it as “organic” in my thoughts on the redevelopment of the former Candlestick Park.

But regardless of the name applied or the credibility of the writer, it’s the right concept for cities.

Unfortunately, cities too often implicitly encourage the reverse.  Infrastructure requirements of the 21st century, which are often transferred from cities to developers in the absence of alternative funding possibilities, force developers to build larger developments to recoup their costs.

To save on architectural fees and to reduce construction costs because it’s cheaper to build the same building twice than to build two different buildings, larger developments tend toward more uniformity.

Permitting processes such as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) don’t necessarily scale with the project size, but are often less expensive per acre, or per residential unit, for larger projects.

Because the public salivates over the number of construction jobs that could be temporarily created, projects of 20 acres often get public support while the half-acre projects that are likely more important to the long-term health of the community are ignored.

Having a developer intentionally reduce the scale of his projects, making them more fine-grained, was unusual, remarkable, and laudable.

Unfortunately, soon after the project manager and I had lunch, the economy downshifted another gear, the projects were terminated, and the adjoining lots remained vacant, one more gap in a neighborhood that already had too many.

But the idea remained sound.  Whether one calls it fine-grained or organic, small infill projects are the best way for a community to grow.

Next time, I’ll describe the most recent meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat about the possible reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Urbanism in the Local Paper

Once one begins to look at the world through urbanist glasses, there are urban-related stories all over.  There were two examples, one on downtown development and one on street speeds, in the most recent edition of the Argus Courier, the weekly Petaluma newspaper.

A year and a half ago, several members of Urban Chat took a Saturday morning walk through Petaluma.  The goal was to emulate the Jane’s Walks being taken throughout the country on the same day, honoring the contributions of urbanist pioneer Jane Jacobs.

Over the course of walk, a moment of insight came as we walked down the passageway from Kentucky Street toward Putnam Plaza.  We stopped to look both directions down American Alley and realized what a potentially great urban place it could be.  In the heart of downtown, lined with solid old buildings and interesting street art, close to transit and numerous retail stores.  Admittedly, the service uses of the alley, including store deliveries and garbage collection, would be a challenge to overcome, but other cities have found ways for urban life and urban services to coexist.

Eighteen months later, Frances Rivetti’s column in the Argus Courier is about new businesses coming to American Alley, with a new art gallery already open and a specialty food shop and a jazz club coming in the New Year.

I won’t claim that our walk or the resulting blog post had any role in the new development.  Instead, I’ll only note that our observations and the new economic activity are parallel signs that urbanism is becoming a shared vision.

Even with the good news of the businesses coming to American Alley, my favorite part of Rivetti’s column was her description of the alley as having “the quintessential urban chic of a backdrop for more student photo shoots than probably anywhere else in the area.”  One more piece of evidence that the coming generations are breaking free of the suburban model.

The same edition of the Argus Courier had a story about a family living on upper B Street whose cat had been killed by a passing car, a car that may have travelling faster than the 30 mph speed limit.  Upset by the feline death, the family was arguing for stop signs along their stretch of street to slow the traffic.

Although the City Engineer determined that the street didn’t meet the warrants needed to justify a new stop sign, the City Council expressed sympathy for the family along with a willingness to look for solutions.

To begin, I’m fully sympathetic with the family’s loss.  My wife and I have three dogs and live on a local street not far from B Street.  We’re constantly aware of the risks from the passing traffic and work hard to keep the dogs safe.

But with that said, the family has identified the wrong solution.  Stop signs don’t noticeably slow peak travel speeds.  Where my wife and I live illustrates the point.  Our block has a 25 mph speed limit and stop signs at both ends of the block.  And yet we often note travel speeds of 30 mph or above, as drivers accelerate to make up for the time they’ve lost by obeying the stop signs.  (Being a prime driving route to Petaluma High also doesn’t help.)  The problem is sufficiently evident that the Police Department occasionally stations cruisers on the street.

So stop signs aren’t a solution.  The real problem is the speed limit itself.  At the 30 mph speed limit on B Street, not only are people more at risk, with pedestrians far more likely to die in collisions with cars than when speed are lower, but drivers are less likely to see loose pets and pets have fewer opportunities to dodge approaching cars.

However, speed limits the direct result of the road design.  As I’ve written before, California speed limits are set by the speed at which we drive.  Build a wider street with fewer elements to reduce speed and people will drive more quickly, resulting in higher speed limits.

By my measurement, B Street is 44 feet wide, unfortunately wide for a street with its level of traffic.  On a recent afternoon, I observed B Street traffic for a few minutes, during which eight cars passed me traveling downhill, a direction for which a City-installed speed measuring sign was displaying velocities.  Of the eight cars, only one exceeded 30 mph, with the others traveling from 2 to 10 mph slower.  It was a small sample, but if a larger sample maintained the same pattern, a 30 mph speed limit would be consistent with the data.

But what if 30 mph isn’t good for the neighborhood or for the pets in the neighborhood?  What can we do?  Under the law, the options are limited, but there may be a few possibilities.  Drivers are sensitive to their travel space and will drive slower when they feel more confined.  For B Street, my suggestion would be start with a couple of gallons of paint.

Today, B Street is divided into two 12-foot driving lanes and two 10-foot parking and bicycle lanes.  It’s a fairly common pavement allocation, but it’s worth noting the most freeways also have 12-foot lanes.  What if we repaint the bike path lines two feet closer to centerline, reducing the travel lanes to 10 feet and widening the bike/parking lanes to 12 feet?

Bicyclists certainly wouldn’t complain about the extra width and the reduced chanced of being “doored” by newly parked drivers.

And ten feet for cars isn’t unreasonable, with the SmartCode that governs much of downtown Petaluma calling for 10-foot lanes on many streets.  (Please ponder the irony for a moment.  The travel lanes on B Street, a quiet residential neighborhood, have more in common with freeways than downtown.  That’s not right.)

It’s been shown that drivers faced with a more confined space, even if only in paint, feel more confined and reduce their speed.  It’s possible that ten-foot lanes on B Street would reduce the speed limit to 25 mph.

And the paint is cheaper than the stop signs, along with likely being more effective.

But perhaps 25 mph, although the lowest speed limit generally allowed in California, still isn’t slow enough.  I’ve previously written that many argue for 20 mph on most streets under the slogan “Twenty is Plenty”.  A speed limit that low would take legislative action, but could change our communities.

And there’s a precedent for an all-encompassing change to lower speeds.  Recently, the administration of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio implemented new rules reducing the speed limits on most New York streets to 25 mph.  It’s not 20 mph, but it’s a step in that direction and shows the growing momentum of the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  (It also provides another point of irony to ponder.  While most of New York City now has a 25 mph speed limit, we continue to allow cars to drive through North Bay residential neighborhoods at 30 mph.)

We don’t need any more cats killed. And we don’t need any more pedestrians at risk.  But stop signs aren’t the solution.  Lower speed limits are, whether by paint or by legislative action.

As I was buttoning up this post, an email arrived from StrongTowns with a new post from founder Chuck Marohn about road design and traffic safety.  The pedestrian fatality that he uses as the focus of his post was the result of a different traffic problem than B Street, but the comments that Marohn makes about the state of roadway design are dead on target and worth your time.  Read it.  It may change how you think about traffic safety.

And as you continue your day, keep your eyes open for urbanist insights.  They’re all around us.  I know I’m eagerly awaiting the next edition of the Argus Courier.

Next time, I’ll share a story about an attempt to implement the “fine-grained urbanism” endorsed by Jane Jacobs.

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

North Bay Great Streets: Petaluma and Cotati

I recently assigned myself a holiday task, searching the North Bay for great streets using the great streets criteria set forth by the Project for Public Places.  (If you haven’t read the original PPS article, I recommend it.)

The ten PPS criteria are:

·         Attractions and destinations
·         Identity and image
·         Active edge uses
·         Amenities
·         Management
·         Seasonal strategies
·         Diverse user groups
·         Traffic, transit and the pedestrian
·         Blending of uses and modes
·         Neighborhood preservation

With those criteria in mind, and with my additional standard that any street segment must be at least four blocks in length to be considered a great street, I began to plan outings through the North Bay.

I started simply, looking at my own community of Petaluma with the new perspective provided by PPS and also wandering downtown Cotati.

Petaluma: Two concepts, bypasses and jaywalking, became central to my observations in Petaluma and Cotati and will likely also apply to many other North Bay cities.

I‘ve long been puzzled by the conundrum of how to manage the evolution of communities that grew up nurtured by regional roadways.  At some point, the traffic volume grows too great to be accommodated in the downtown.  A bypass is the most common solution, but a bypass can undermine a commercial district that has been sustained by large volumes of traffic passing by its front doors.

And if stores close, the local residents who shopped at those stores are forced to find other shops, many of which wouldn’t be in the downtown.  The long-established main street can quickly wither, depriving the community of a needed element.

I’m convinced that an effective urbanism policy can help sustain a downtown after a bypass, but land-use policy is rarely a component of a bypass decision, which instead usually focuses on traffic counts and funding availability.

In Petaluma, the bypass decision was made years ago, with 101 removing regional traffic from Petaluma Boulevard.  Although it’s intriguing to ponder how Petaluma and the North Bay would be different if the main north-south traffic continued to flow through downtown Petaluma, I believe the decision was wise.

But the long-ago role of Petaluma Boulevard as a regional traffic route continues to affect the community.  The street pattern forces many local trips to make use of Petaluma Boulevard.  For many trips, there is no reasonable alternative.

Which brings me to my second concept, jaywalking.  I’m not going to encourage jaywalking.  In my personal rambles, I’m content to walk a couple of hundred feet out of my direct path to avoid jaywalking.  But I suspect that any street, to be great, must be a street where jaywalking, with a bit of caution, can be safely accomplished.   And I think that this idea is consistent with what PPS intends when they write of a balance of transportation options.

But jaywalking on Petaluma Boulevard isn’t a reasonable option, even with caution.  The traffic volumes are too great and the average speed too high.  For that reason, I tried to convince myself that Kentucky Street, parallel to Petaluma Boulevard and one block further from the Petaluma River, was the nearest thing Petaluma had to a great street.

There was much to recommend Kentucky.  It’s the street most frequently used for street fairs.  It has a number of gracefully aging buildings.  It’s the street where my wife and I are most likely to amble in an evening, compared to Petaluma Boulevard where we’re more likely to be destination-driven.  It’s the street where I’m more likely to bump into folks I know.  The jaywalking is easy.  And even the one unfortunate gap in the heart of Kentucky Street, the A Street parking lot, gives a glimpse of the historic A Street neighborhood a block away.

I was prepared to anoint Kentucky as Petaluma’s great street until I took another walk along it.  The segment of Kentucky that I enjoy is only two blocks long, from B Street to E. Washington Street.  Further north, the street features a Bank of America parking lot and an oddly awkward transition between a hotel and a stretch of historical homes.  To the south, where Kentucky has become Fourth Street but is the same street, is a hardware store that is beloved locally but doesn’t offer much of an amenity to Fourth Street and a strip mall, auto parts store, and bank, all of which are behind parking lots.

As much as I like the central two blocks of Kentucky, the remainder of the four-block segment undermines its candidacy as a great street.  I was forced to return my vote to the segment of Petaluma Boulevard from E. Washington Street to D Street. 

Not that Petaluma Boulevard is a bad candidate.  Once one acknowledges the heavy traffic and the dampening effect on streetlife, there is much to like about Petaluma Boulevard.  The activity in Putnam Plaza engages a more diverse crowd than Kentucky.  The architecture is better than Kentucky.  The recently-built Theatre Square, with its interior plaza, provides a community meeting point.  The Great American Mill and other historic structures have been lovingly maintained.  The Petaluman, the proposed boutique hotel at the corner of B Street, will hopefully provide another element to energize the street life.  (Disclaimer: I’m a member of the development team for The Petaluman.)

Petaluma Boulevard won’t get top marks on all of the PPS criteria, but it does okay.  I’d prefer to see less and better mannered traffic.  And I like to see more residences in the downtown core.  (The vacant lot between the McNear and Lanmart Buildings is an interesting site for five stories of downtown apartments.)  But overall Petaluma Boulevard works well enough.  And it’s only a block away from Kentucky Street.

Cotati: Within Cotati, the only reasonable candidate for a great street is Old Redwood Highway.  And the best four blocks of Old Redwood Highway is the segment between Page Street and the second crossing of La Plaza. 

But this segment of Old Redwood Highway, despite being the best that Cotati has to offer, illustrates another aspect of the bypass issue.  When the regional traffic was moved to 101 a few blocks away, the downtown stagnated.  It’s a pleasant place, but lacks the vitality of downtown Petaluma and other North Bay cities.

Cotati tries, they really do.  The Accordion Festival is a marvelously quirky event of which they should be proud.  But on a December Sunday morning, the street is nearly somnolent.  Jaywalking is easy, not because the traffic is well-regulated but because there is little traffic.

There is a relatively new building at the corner of Old Redwood Highway and Park that might have acted to bring energy to the street.  But there’s a gap between the remainder of downtown and the new building, a gap that includes a bridge over Cotati Creek which effectively acts as a ceremonial entrance into downtown, effectively putting the new building outside of downtown.

Overall, it’s a shame.  I want to like downtown Cotati.  Indeed, I do like downtown Cotati.  But in the way of great streets, Cotati doesn’t offer much.

When the weather and my schedule allows, I’ll wander further afield looking for great streets in the North Bay.

Calendar Notes

As a final reminder, the next meeting of Petaluma Chat will be Tuesday, December 9.  The topic will be a continuation of the well-attended November meeting on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds. 

As always, all are welcome, even if you haven’t participated before.  We’ll meet in the backroom of Taps, 54 E. Washington Street, Petaluma.  We’ll convene at 5:30 and conclude around 7:00.

Next time, I’ll write about a couple of items in the most recent Petaluma paper that touched upon urbanist issues.

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

Preserving the Shot Tower and English Code Enforcement

I promised that this post, weather permitting, would be the first report on my holiday search for great streets in the North Bay.  Weather didn’t permit.  There were a few breaks in the continuing storminess, but those breaks coincided with other obligations, so the great streets report on Petaluma and Cotati will wait until the next post.  The upcoming weather report promises a few more respites from the rain.

I may have been disappointed by the precipitation, but not greatly so because it gave me the opportunity to enjoy another episode of “The Planners”.

Some say, notwithstanding “I Love Lucy”, “Gunsmoke”, and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, that we’re currently in the golden age of television.  Those folks generally point to the production values and engrossing story arcs of shows like “The Wire”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Fargo”.  I concur with the argument.  And, at least to me, “The Planners”, with its BBC standards and its compelling stories, is also a small element of that pantheon of television greatness.  Or maybe I’m just a planning groupie.

In the fourth episode of season one, we watch the planners and planning councillors (the folks we’d call planning commissioners in the U.S.) face one of the fundamental issues of urbanism, preserving history while allowing new development.

The Lead Works in Chester were in use for nearly two hundred years, making lead shot to defeat Napoleon and later to expand and protect the British Empire.  But the world has moved on and the factory now stands unused and mouldering.  Of particular interest to preservationists is the 180-foot tall “shot tower”, down which molten lead was dropped to form shot when it hit water below.

A developer is willing to preserve the tower as part of a 53-unit housing project on the remainder of the abandoned site.  But the local historic preservationists dislike the design of the housing, which is contemporary and clad in lead-grey panels to reflect the heritage of the site.

Part of the problem is that the architect is a twit who argues that the primary role of architecture is to be controversial.  I have no problem with architecture being controversial and even believe that it sometimes must be so.  But the primary role of architecture should be facilitating well-lived lives and thriving communities, not controversy.

Elsewhere, a self-taught builder in the Scottish borderlands wants to build a large Balinese-themed home in his small village, thinking that the scale and architecture will give focus to the village.  The villager protector, whose only credential seems to be that his great-uncle was a renowned Scottish folksinger, is appalled.

Also, a former DJ, now heir to an English manor house, wants to add a large wedding venue to the estate, arguing that the income is necessary to avoid dismantling the land holdings which have been in his family for 750 years.  The neighbors fear that he only wants a stage for loud parties that will disturb their sleep.

(In a surprisingly mean-spirited production decision, one of the planning councillors weighing the wedding venue proposal comes across as inept, noting that she fell behind in her review of the project because she “had a weekend-long date with her couch and telly” and is “too fat” to retrieve the planning document from under the car seat.)

Rounding out the episode was a couple of code enforcement issues.

In the first, a small group of pub-goers, after years of debating the merit of Britain versus Sweden with the Swedish member of their group, waited until the Swede was out of town and repainted his house into the Cross of St. George.  They did a fine job, with a sharply-delineated red cross on a white background reaching the full width of the row house and from sidewalk to second story eaves.

The problem was that the home was in a historic neighborhood where the paint job violated the historic standards, so code enforcement became involved.  It’s interesting that what is considered a code enforcement issue in England would be considered vandalism in the U.S.

The other code enforcement issue was more mundane, where a simmering dispute between philosophically incompatible neighbors reached a boiling point over closed circuit cameras. 

Enjoy the stories.  And absorb the lessons necessary to become an effective land-use advocate for urbanism.

Next time, I’ll truly get to great streets assessment of Petaluma and Cotati, no matter how much rain may fall.

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