Friday, August 22, 2014

River Front: Neighborhood Park or Community Sports Field?

In my last post, I introduced the proposed River Front mixed-use project in Petaluma.  My initial intention was to describe the project, to introduce the element of the project that became controversial, and to provide my perspective on the controversy.

It was a subject that I found fascinating.  So I kept writing and writing and writing.  And then writing a little more.  By the time I had finished my first draft, I’d written about three times the words of an average post.

My readers seem a tolerant lot.  From readership numbers, it appears that many are willing to follow me when I wander afield.  I greatly appreciate that tolerance.  But a 3,000 word post seemed an excessive demand to put on even the most tolerant readers.  So I edited the monster post into three posts.

In my last post, I limited myself to an overall perspective on River Front, including how it fits into the urbanist universe.  Today, I’ll cover the issue that improbably became the core controversy during the entitlement process.  And when I next return to the topic, which will be the post after next, I’ll offer my thoughts on the controversy.  Sitting in the City Council meeting that became the climax of the story, I found myself wandering through some intriguing byways of land-use philosophy.

The River Front developer, Petaluma-developer Basin Street, is proposing a number of parks within the project.  There will be the central green, a park along the Petaluma River, a bicycle path around a portion of the site, the set aside of a parcel on which others will build a boat house for racing shells, and an athletic field a short block from the central green.

Citing a desire for a more natural setting to serve their buyers, but probably also with an eye on the bottom line, Basin Street proposed that the athletic field have natural grass.  But when the project reached the City of Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Park Commission (RMPC), that body saw the situation differently.  (In my last post, I mentioned that I barely missed having a role in the controversy.  This is where that happened.  I sit on the RMPC, but was out of town for this meeting.)

The RMPC, noting the chronic lack of sports fields in Petaluma and with the knowledge that sport turf provides a more consistently playable surface for the local climate and soil conditions, raised the possibility of changing the field to turf.  Basin Street objected, probably with the additional $500,000 cost in mind, but the proposal passed.

When the project reached the Planning Commission, Basin Street again objected, but the Planning Commission concurred with the RMPC and again required the field to be turf.

It was only when the project reached the City Council that Basin Street found more sympathetic ears.  After an extended hearing on multiple issues regarding the entire project, the City Council voted, sometime between midnight and 1am, to approve the project without the turf, returning the field to grass.

Recreational supporters were outraged, both with the elimination of the turf and with the decision being made after midnight when few folks were in the Council chambers.  Under the onslaught, a Councilmember moved at a subsequent meeting that the decision be reopened.

To keep the project moving ahead, it was decided to hold a special meeting of the City Council solely to consider the motion to reopen the issue.  An affirmative vote would mean that turf versus grass could be debated yet again at a future Council meeting.

The legal context of the question made for an awkward public meeting.  In theory, the public who spoke and the Councilmembers who tried to explain their reasoning should have been limited to the question of whether the issue should be revisited, not the merits of grass versus turf.  But most did well at hewing to the subtle line.  Some argued that issue had sufficient public interest that the decision should have been made at a more reasonable hour.  Others argued that sometimes the Council process requires late night decisions, which the Council is capable of making with competence.

Nonetheless, the question of grass versus turf hearing kept leaking into the discussion.  The chronic shortage of athletic fields.  The difficulty of maintaining grass fields in a continually playable condition.  The soccer field at Lucchesi Park being the only current field with turf.  The two turf fields under construction at East Washington Park.  The high school fields that have been or will soon be converted to turf and may be made available for community use.

The increased water demand for grass over turf.  The installation of pipes for reclaimed water to irrigate the new field.   The fact that those pipes, although installed, won’t have water in them for a number of years.  The argument that Basin Street owed it to the community to put some of their anticipated profits back into a turf field.

Eventually, on a 5-2 vote, the Council voted not to reopen the issue, effectively reaffirming the earlier decision to allow the field to be grass.

But as I sat in the Council Chambers, watching the debate and the vote, I had multiple questions running around in my head.  Did we identify all of the reasons for turf versus grass?  Does the community have the right to tell a developer that a park should be primarily a community athletic field rather than a large neighborhood park?  And even if a turf athletic field is the right answer, is it fair to ask Basin Street to pick up the tab?

In my next post, I’ll provide updates on several issues in Petaluma, including the fairgrounds and block parties.  But in the post after that, I’ll return with my conclusions on the question of grass or turf at River Front.

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

River Front: Background to a Logical Dilemma

Within my lifetime, land-use planning processes have been defined and refined to the point that the results are expected to become nearly automatic.  Insert the proposed project, turn the crank through the various steps of expert studies, environmental analysis, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings, and expect a result to pop out the far end that best meets the public good, or at least is a moderately reasonable balance between the competing objectives.

Of course, the process sometimes chokes on the inputs and spits out a result that is a frustratingly anomaly.  And then no one seems to know how to make the world right again.

A perfect example recently arose in Petaluma.  It was a land-use process in which I should have played a role, but fate took me out of the picture.  Perhaps I should be thankful.

Because of an extended backstory, I’ll take several posts to get around to the point of the story.  But it’s a situation that I find fascinating.  I hope you to stay around when I peel away the multiple shells surrounding the kernel.  I’ll try to make it worth your time.

Looking back through my archives, I find that I’ve written very little about River Front, a mixed-use project proposed by Petaluma developer Basin Street.  That’s probably because it’s a project that I find hard to categorize.  But it’s an oversight I must correct to tell this story properly.

River Front will occupy an oddly situated parcel bounded by the Petaluma River, Highway 101, Hopper Street, and a former concrete prefabrication yard.  It’s a long block from Lakeville Highway, tucked behind a string of auto-oriented retail.  It’s within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP), so must conform to the SmartCode.  But it’s at the far boundary of the CPSP, which is much of the reason for my ambivalence toward it.

The site plan is a classic urbanist approach, with a core near the north end of the site.  The core contains a central green, hotel, office building, retail, and multi-family housing.  To the south of the core, extending toward the river, are small-lot single-family homes, all within walking distance of the core.

It’s an urbanist plan that looks great on paper, but will likely fall short on the ground, at least at first.  The problem is that it’s within the Petaluma community that offers multiple attractions, a historic downtown about a mile in one direction, a new train station that will be nearly as far away, pair of new shopping centers in another direction, and schools that are too far way to reach on foot.  Also, the location will be difficult to serve by transit.

As a result, despite an urbanist core that should be an attractive and pleasant place to visit, it seems likely that most of the trips from River Front will continue to be by car.  I can foresee a better future, perhaps thirty years from now, when the parcels between River Front and the train station have all been redeveloped, when transit is stronger, when the current generation of young adults that is less attached to their cars has reached full maturity, and when River Front will be among the most desirable addresses in town.

But for today, I suspect that River Front will be a pleasant place to live, but not truly a walkable urban place.

With my take on the project now explained, I can continue onto the issue about which I want to write, a thorny question of developer exactions.  It’s where I will continue with my next post.

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Clarifying about Schools and Eco-Villages

I’m pleased to write a blog on urbanism and feel amply rewarded by the many readers.  But editing posts for length is an on-going challenge.  There are so many interrelated aspects of urbanism that it’s often a difficult to prune a blog post into a good length for readers.  In nearly every post, I note narrative branches that logic dictates I follow, but length constraints argue that I avoid.

Sometimes, I skip the branch completely, hoping that readers will remember my comments from earlier blog posts or from other reading.  Other times, I explore the first few steps of the branch, but quickly lop it off, hoping that my truncated version will be comprehensive enough to be understood.

And sometimes, neither of those approaches works.  My last post is an example.

Within a few hours of publishing, I heard from a frequent reader taking me to task on a couple of points.  On one, I’d omitted the subject to maintain brevity.  On the other, I gave brief, and apparently unsatisfactory, coverage.

I responded to the reader privately.  Perhaps I could have considered that response sufficient.  But I spent many years working for a firm with a mantra that a client who complained was one of your best friends because he represented another nine clients who didn’t bother to complain but just stopped using your service.  The complaining client also gave you a chance to respond to the complaint.

So, on the grounds that the reader may represent another nine readers who shared her concerns, I’ll copy her complaints below, in edited form, and also provide my responses.

It makes me uncomfortable that people are sitting down to discuss the fate of the fairgrounds without, it seems, even acknowledging that there is a very successful and growing K-8 charter school on site which serves nearly 300 local families and has a high probability of staying there.  I’d really like it if that would continually be brought into the dialogue, as it is part of what’s happening on that site.

Actually, the presence of the charter school on the fairgrounds was noted in my initial post on the subject.  I’ve since been advised that there are also a nursery school and a pre-school on the fairgrounds.  And the schools have been mentioned in both meetings to-date.  I can't know the extent to which the participants will take note of it in their conceptual thinking, but the existence of the schools is certainly on the table.

Also, when the reader notes the “high probability of [the charter school] staying there”, I assume that she’s referring to the near-term, prior to 2023, when the lease is strictly a matter between the Fair Board and the charter school.

Urban Chat isn’t looking at the near-term.  Our perspective begins in 2023.

However, as long as we’re discussing the schools, I should offer my expectation that they may be in for a difficult road after 2023. The continual regeneration of healthy cities requires that economically lower-end uses, such as start-up businesses, non-profit offices, and charter schools, usually occupy buildings near the end of their economic life.  As their current buildings are demolished and new site uses constructed, the uses move to other end-of-life buildings.  Urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs have noted this process for years.

While it’s certainly possible that redevelopment can make accommodation for current site users, such as the charter school, that accommodation is effectively a subsidy for which someone will be paying.  And in the current economy, subsidies are increasingly unlikely.  Because the City is dealing with the unsustainable costs of suburbia, they'll try to squeeze every nickel out of the fairgrounds.  And that makes relocation likely, unless the school becomes capable of paying market rate for new construction.

For the record, if you’re a charter school supporter, I’m not the person with whom you should be arguing.  I’m only the messenger, describing how the process will likely work.  If you’re don’t like my projected outcome, then work to change the system.  And depending on the changes you advocate, I may be your ally.

(As one final thought on the subject of schools, if a large residential component is constructed on the current fairgrounds, it’s likely that a new public elementary school will be required.  Obviously, it wouldn’t replace the function of the charter school, but it might provide a good community focus point.)

Onward to the next query.

What is your idea of the “eco-village concept” that puts you off so much?  Would "high density, low-carbon footprint neighborhood" work better for you?  An eco-village is a place where the balance between human and nature is better designed than anything we’ve currently got going.  What could be the problem with that?

And why limit any site from food growing and agricultural uses, especially as Petaluma continues to be destroyed by poorly planned, unnecessary in-fill developments (like Freedman’s Plaza and the hideous Target Plaza), both of which threaten the water supply of our city, not to mention its scale and size, and to stretch the bounds of the necessary far beyond where they already are in our consumptive culture?

On eco-villages, yes "high density, low carbon footprint neighborhood" works far better for me.  The problem that concerns me is that "eco-village” alone often becomes a justification for reducing density, allowing room for other low-carbon uses, such as reducing building mass to allow more sunlight to reach gardens.

Many folks don't understand this, but density, if accompanied by walkability, is the single greatest carbon-reduction tool.  (Fun fact: Per capita gasoline usage in New York City is roughly the same as it was for the entire country in 1925.)  Whittling away at walkable density, even for other laudable goals, is often counterproductive.  There are ways for density and other low-carbon approaches to co-exist, but if there are conflicts, density needs to be given the higher priority.

To give one example, I suspect that a 100 unit per acre walkable urban development where people take streetcars twice a week to work family gardens at the urban fringe would have a lower carbon footprint than a 50 unit per acre development with on-site gardens.

However, I'll acknowledge that rooftop gardens can have a more meaningful role, as long as other locations can be found for photovoltaic arrays.

(For the record, I’m also not a fan of either East Washington Place or Deer Creek Village.  I think Freedman’s filled a niche, but that’s about it.)

Any other questions or quibbles?   Toss them my way.  They may end up being shared with all.

Schedule Notes

Monday, August 18, 6:00pm: This is the final reminder of the celebration of Petaluma Transit evening service.  This evening, any student with a valid Petaluma Transit student pass or a transfer dated today, can attend a movie at Boulevard Cinemas for the reduced price of $7.  And if any parents tag along to check out Petaluma Transit, please say hello.  Please we can have a beverage while the students are enjoying the movie.  I’ll be near the cinema wearing a blue ballcap.

Tuesday, August 26, 5:30pm: The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat, talking about the future of the fairgrounds, will convene at a location still to be announced.

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: The Unofficial Assessment Continues

I’ve written twice about the unofficial look being taken at the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds by Petaluma Urban Chat.  Previous posts have covered the original decision to look at the fairgrounds and about the results of the first meeting.

The second meeting has now been held and I have multiple updates to offer.

To begin, the makeup of this group for the second meeting time was somewhat different, with slightly different perspectives on where peak value could be found.  Gaining different perspectives is always good.  I missed some of the voices that participated in the July meeting, but understand that August vacation plans intervened.

To begin, the group took two site possibilities off the table.  The convention center concept was dropped because of a concern about financial viability of convention centers in general.  One participant noted a recently published book on the subject. 

The ballpark idea was also discarded.  Although there was broad approbation of the concept of a ballpark in Petaluma, it was felt that the fairgrounds didn’t provide a good ballpark site.  Or at least that there were better uses for the fairgrounds.

Balancing the deletions, it was noted that a cannery should be considered among the agri-industrial uses possible on the site.  Also, there was a strong sense that any residential development should be very environmentally sensitive, with the phrase “eco-village” used. 

As a personal aside, this last makes me slightly uncomfortable.  It’s certainly not that I disapprove of environmentally friendly development.  However, as I’ve often noted before, much of the environmental benefit of urbanism comes from living in sufficient density to allow walkability.  I wouldn’t want the eco-village concept to interfere with that.

To put my concern another way, I suspect that eschewing individual at-grade garden plots and instead increasing density and buying produce from the local Green Strings Farms might be the better environmental solution.  I wouldn’t want a commitment to the eco-village concept to interfere with an objective determination of the best environmental solution.  (Of course, rooftop gardening is a whole different matter.)

Next, the group decided to focus on redevelopment of the entire site, with the assumption that the fairgrounds would be relocated to a new site.  One participant suggested that new fairgrounds in a rural setting could incorporate groundwater recharge as response to the drought.

Personally, I suspect that the final solution between the City  and the Fair Board will involve the fair remaining in place, albeit in a smaller footprint, but also believe that any visions put forth by Urban Chat can be scaled to the smaller redevelopment area.

Lastly, Urban Chat, in looking for a way for the local community to have a role in the fairgrounds redevelopment, proposed a “citizens corporation”, perhaps a hundred or more members of the local community buying shares in a corporation which would loan the funds to the city, allowing the city to act as the master developer for the site.

Personally, I see much value in giving the community a strong voice and role in the redevelopment.  But I’m unsure if a citizens corporation quite hits the mark.  Development is a high-risk, high-reward, quickly pivoting activity.  I’m pretty sure that a hundred individual local citizens, filtered through City Hall, doesn’t meet that characterization.  Instead, it might be like trying to win the America’s Cup racing a Petaluma River scow schooner.

I believe in strong local involvement, but suspect that we haven’t yet found the best mechanism.

With those discussions behind us, the consensus was to begin putting pencil to paper.  But instead of doing it as a group activity, the decision was to prepare individual site sketches for consideration at the next Urban Chat meeting.  Furthermore, to keep the ball rolling, the group decided to hold an extra meeting, on Tuesday, August 26, to monitor progress.  (I haven’t yet confirmed with Aqus Café about availability on the 26th, so we may need to use a different meeting place.  I’ll soon make an announcement.)

Even if you haven’t yet attended one of the Urban Chat meetings on the fairgrounds, there is still plenty of opportunity to jump in.  Please take a look at the early posts and email me if you have any questions.

Can Urban Chat truly influence the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds?  Probably not.  It’s a complex, multi-faceted, high-risk, high-reward problem and our resources are virtually non-existent.

But someone offered a famous Margaret Mead quote at the July meeting that applied perfectly.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

And more recently, I came across another quote that also spoke to the challenge, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world."  The speaker of that sentiment?  Robin Williams.

I look forward to seeing the creative results on August 26th.

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

There Will Always Be Luddites Among Us

Together with seven cousins, I spent last Saturday morning using a $1.2 million surgical robot to unwrap Hershey’s Kisses for my 92-year-old aunt.

Lest you think that the adventure involved breaking and entering, I can reassure you.  The eldest cousin works for the company that makes the surgical robot.  He arranged for us to use the robot in the lobby of his office building in the hours before a family gathering.

The technology was remarkable.  Seated at a console facing away from the operating table and equipped with a high-definition screen, two handholds with Velcro loops for thumb and forefinger, and several foot petals, it quickly became intuitive to manipulate minute objects 15 feet away, including unwrapping the thin foil from a piece of candy and delivering it, intact, to my aunt.

But the topic that will remain with me was something my cousin said about the approval process for the robot.

The robot is the next step in the evolution of surgical tools, with the potential to replace laparoscopy.  Both rely on thin tools inserted through portals into the human body.  In laparoscopy the tools are operated manually by a surgeon standing at the operating table.  With a surgical robot, the surgeon works at the console, with his commands executed through electrical and mechanical connections.

The surgical robots offer clear advantages, including reduced reliance on the physical dexterity and stamina of the surgeon.  But new technology also offers opportunities for mishaps.  And that’s the point that some laparoscopists are trying to make, claiming that patients are at greater risk with surgical robots.  Of course, it’s also possible that the laparoscopists, having created successful practices in laparoscopy and lacking the resources to invest in $1.2 million robots, are viewing the world through guild-protecting lenses.

(On the off chance that a laparoscopist stumbles across this blog post and wishes to engage in a debate about laparoscopy versus surgical robots, let me quickly note that I’m unqualified to participate in the debate.

Because of a belief that the world is generally getting better, and with a tinge of family loyalty, I suspect that the surgical robots are the superior solution, but I’ll also acknowledge that objections to new technology sometimes prove valid.  On the specifics of surgical robot versus laparoscopy however, I haven’t examined the arguments and have no intention of doing so.)

The key point to me and the other cousins was that there are always those who will decry progress on the grounds that the new technology is flawed, while failing to acknowledge the likely motivation of protecting a current employment or lifestyle.

The examples we noted included the anti-industrialization 19th century English farm laborers who gave us the word Luddite, the masonry unions in pre-1906 San Francisco who argued that brick was a better material for seismic resistance than reinforced concrete (an argument that quickly tumbled down), and even the 15th century Dutch peasants who threw their wooden shoes, or sabot, into the gears of early looms, stopping the looms and giving us the word sabotage.

As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

As I later reflected on the conversation, it occurred to me that those who pushback against urbanism have much in common with Luddites.

It’s true that most Luddite movements are in opposition to technological advances that threaten employment while anti-urbanists who are rebelling against environmental and fiscal realities that threaten lifestyles, but the underlying mindset seems much the same.  Both rely on increasingly implausible arguments to defend an argument that is steadily losing against the flow of history.

Among the anti-urbanists, those implausible arguments include the contention that the fiscal problems at city halls are the result solely of ineptitude, not a flawed land-use paradigm, a denial of the induced traffic phenomenon, and a rejection of climate change coupled with the far-fetched suggestion that thousands of reputable scientists are working in a secret cabal to hide the truth.

There may also be an element of ego in the anti-urbanists.  Mick LaSalle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, recently argued that there is an inherent bias against giving awards to comedies.  He contended that a good comedy, by showing us a new way to view reality, makes us feel a little less intellectually superior for not having anticipated the alternative perspective.  And the need to reassert our egos causes us to dismiss a comedy, even one that we greatly enjoyed, as unworthy of award consideration.

The same may be true of urbanism.  By arguing that drivable suburbia is indefensible in the long run, it challenges our life-long commitment to suburbia.   Some accept that new information and change their worldview.  Others feel a need to muster every argument, no matter how unlikely, in a futile attempt to maintain their old worldview.

Luckily, the better answers are almost always victorious in the long run.  I have a pile of unwrapped Hershey’s Kisses to buttress the case for surgical robots.

Unluckily, the longer we take to accept the arguments for urbanism, the greater the environmental and fiscal holes we’ll leave for the next generation.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Pocket Neighborhood is Proposed for Petaluma

Long-time readers should be familiar with the name Ross Chapin.  Chapin is a Seattle-area architect who was a pioneer in the development of pocket neighborhoods, clusters of small-lot homes arranged in non-conventional configurations.  The arrangement allows accommodation of site constraints such as topography or trees and also creates a sense of community.

More than two years ago, I reviewed Chapin’s book, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”.   Shortly afterward, I visited several of Chapin’s projects and other projects that he recommended in Seattle, on the east side of Lake Washington, and in Davis.

Since then, I’ve suggested the pocket neighborhood approach as a better option for the Red Barn site than the conventional large home/large lot configuration now proposed.  (Although I failed to make the comment at the time, I also like pocket neighborhood concept for the site of the Beck house.)

Beyond those specific mentions, Ross Chapin and the pocket neighborhood concept has often been cited in this blog.  Thus, it was with both surprise and delight that I learned almost two years ago of a proposed pocket neighborhood in Petaluma.  Jim Soules, a developer who had often worked with Chapin and can even be said to have introduced pocket neighborhoods to Chapin, had acquired a site near the historic Oakhill-Brewster neighborhood and was beginning site planning for a pocket neighborhood.

The site was well-suited to a pocket neighborhood, with sufficient topography that clustering would be beneficial and sufficient trees that the flexibility of the pocket neighborhood approach would be needed to maintain density.  There were fine views of Petaluma that could be maximized by a careful layout.  And there was a home of historic interest at the site entrance on West Street that would set a tone for the development.

I had hoped to introduce the project to my readers some time ago, but was unable to secure permission from the developer and was hesitant to write too much lest I disrupt his planning process.  But the project is now fully public and will be on the Petaluma Planning Commission agenda for this week.  Keller Court Commons is the first item of new business on the Planning Commission agenda for Tuesday, August 12.

The proposed is as fully laudable as I had anticipated.  The site plan is reminiscent of the successful pocket neighborhoods that I visited in the Northwest.  And the project description shows sensitivity to the character of the westside of Petaluma.  It’s a project in which I’d be happy to reside and for which I encourage strong support.

If I had to pick out a flaw, I can find two, although I suspect that neither is the responsibility of the developer.

First, the number of units is less than had been originally reported to me.  From reading the project documents, it appears that tree preservation was the reason for the unit count reduction.

I’m strongly supportive of tree preservation.  But I’m also supportive of financial sustainability.  I know that creating more units while using the same infrastructure is likely to be more sustainable. Therefore, imposing an absolute tree preservation standard can undermine municipal finances.  I agree that trees deserve a place at the negotiating table, but so do the pocketbooks of our children.

Second, the approval process apparently required that the project be structured as a PUD (Planned Unit Development).  I don’t have a particular objection to Keller Court Commons being a PUD, but would argue that pocket neighborhoods are such a desirable land use that they shouldn’t be forced to resort to less conventional land use designations, such as PUDs.

I’ve previously noted the thought of urbanism pioneer Andres Duany about his love of Charleston and his dubious view of zoning codes, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”  I’d make a similar comment about pocket neighborhoods.  If you can’t build a pocket neighborhood under a zoning code without making it a PUD, then the zoning code is no good.

Those quibbles aside, I strongly support the project, will be at the Planning Commission hearing, and hope to see some of you there.

Schedule Notes and Updates

There are several approaching events that may be of interest to readers.  Reminders and updates are provided below:

+ Tuesday, August 12, 5:30pm: Petaluma Urban Chat will convene to continue our unofficial discussion on the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The meeting place will be the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets.

Late last week, I spoke with a local historian who provided a number of fascinating insights about the history of the fairgrounds, including some of the features that she thought might justify historical preservation.  That’s a topic that we’ll be folding into the conversation as we move ahead.

+ Tuesday, August 12, 7:00pm: The Petaluma Planning Commission, convened as the Heritage Cultural and Preservation Committee, will consider the Keller Court Commons project described above.  I expect that several of us will hustle from the fairgrounds discussion to the Planning Commission hearing in the Petaluma City Hall.

+ Monday, August 18, 6:00pm: Next week will be the celebration of evening bus service.  Boulevard Cinemas will offer discounted admission to any student who can present either a valid Petaluma Transit pass or a Petaluma Transit transfer dated on the 18th.  (Even if you don’t need a transfer for your trip downtown, ask the driver for one.  The driver will happily comply.)  I’m hopeful of enough students participating and having a fine time that they’ll be motivated to return downtown often on Petaluma Transit.  Your help in creating that critical mass will be appreciated.

+ Saturday, August 30, 10:00am: The Sonoma County Bicycling Coalition is hosting a Family Bicycling Workshop at Lucchesi Park.  Advance registration is required, but spaces are still available.  Details and registration information can be found on-line.

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Continuing the Discussion

A month ago, Petaluma Urban Chat began considering the future of the Sonoma Marin fairgrounds, 63 acres of real estate well situated a few blocks from downtown Petaluma, the coming SMART station, and the 101 freeway.

Of course, Urban Chat has no role in the on-going negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board over the extension of the current lease which will expire in 2023.  However, we anticipate taking part in the community discussions that will take place when the results of the negotiations are announced.  Educating ourselves about the site and considering the uses to which it might be put is good training for that participation.

Also, perhaps if we can reach particularly clever or insightful decisions about the site, we might even influence the course of the negotiations.

We had an enthusiastic turnout for the July Urban Chat meeting, with the greatest participation in several months.   There were new faces among the attendees, most participating in the discussion with vigor.  Based on the level of interest, it was decided to continue the conversation over the next several meeting, including the upcoming meeting on Tuesday, August 12.

For those who may be joining the group on this coming Tuesday or who have an interest in the site, I’ll summarize the discussions from the previous meeting.

We reviewed the boundary conditions, residential on one side, light industrial on another, retail on the third, and a major arterial partially lined with civic facilities on the fourth, and the known site constraints, such as a required hazardous material cleanup and the General Plan requirement for a large park.

With that background established, the initial question addressed was the extent to which the group felt the fairgrounds should be modified.  The options were to leave the fairgrounds as currently configured, to retain the fair at the current site but in a reduced area freeing up a portion of the site for redevelopment, or to open the entire site for redevelopment.

Not surprisingly given the self-selection of the group, no one was in favor of leaving the fair as is.  The question of whether to reduce the area of the fair or to displace it completely was more split, although the majority seemed to favor complete displacement.  It’s a question to which we’ll return.

With that issue addressed, we began tossing out and cogitating upon possible new site uses.  In no particular order, a list of these possible uses follows, with a few of my thoughts on each.

Residential: Walkable urban housing is the most obvious use for the site, with the convenient location easily served by walking, bicycling, and transit.  It’s difficult to conceive of a site plan that doesn’t include a strong element of housing.

Light agriculturally-based industrial: This is where the fair replacement idea leads.  Rather than an annual celebration of local agriculture, the site could become a setting where vintners, brewers, and cheese makers could locate in a critical mass.

Public market: This is a particular favorite of mine.  In an earlier post, I suggested a community plaza at the edge of the fairgrounds that would include retail space functioning like a public market.  In the Urban Chat conversation, The Barlow in Sebastopol and the Oxbow Public Market in Napa were mentioned as possible templates.  This use would be complementary to the agriculturally-based industrial uses.

Convention center: I know there is local sentiment for a convention center, but I also know that many communities find that convention centers require continuing subsidies.  This is an option that I’d approach with caution.

City Hall: This was an intriguing idea, particularly if it can be used to stitch together the existing library and Swim Center into a civic core.  It would also free up the current City Hall site for redevelopment that would improve westside walkability.  However, there would be significant costs and the current City Hall, although a bit insipid, hasn’t exhausted its usable lifespan.

Petaluma High School: This was an intriguing idea, with the opportunity to replace an aging campus with a modern campus.  Much like the City Hall idea, it would free up a significant parcel of land with which to change the walkability and sustainability of the westside.  However, there are major negatives, including a less convenient location for the students who come from rural locations west of town and significant costs.

Non-profit hub: This idea also has appeal, although, as Jane Jacobs would point out, low-overhead organizations usually fit best in aging buildings, not new construction.  If there are existing fair buildings that can be retrofitted for non-profit use, that would likely be the best solution.

Elder housing: I would expect that both elder housing and low-income housing would be a part of any residential plan.

New home for Cinnabar Theater: The current theater, at North Petaluma Boulevard and Skillman Lane, is a charming structure, but the site is awkwardly configured and street access is difficult.  Relocation to the fairground could grow the theater company, although it might also undermine the culture that has been created at the current site.

Ballpark: This is a concept that I’d personally enjoy.  I’m still disappointed that the suggestion of a few years back to relocate a California League ballclub to Petaluma didn’t succeed.  However, I’ll acknowledge that ballparks can be problematic to vibrant neighborhoods, with too many periods of inactivity to truly support the neighborhood.  Ballparks work best at the edge of a neighborhood, with no uses on the far side, so they don’t create pedestrian dead zones.  (AT&T Park in San Francisco is a fine example.)  I don’t see a site on the fairgrounds that meets this criterion.

My guess is that we’ll continue to chew over these ideas at the next meeting, perhaps adding new ones and discarding some of these.  At some point, either at the coming meeting or the one after, we’ll likely begin making “bubble diagrams”, placing the preferred uses in different areas of the site.  But this is a process that will likely continue for several more meetings, so our approach will be to move slowly.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please join us.  We’ll convene at 5:30pm on Tuesday, August 12th at our regular meeting place, the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.  (However, if this subject continues to attract more and more people, we may need to move to a different location for a meeting or two.)  All are welcome.

In my next post, I’ll write about an intriguing land development concept coming to the North Bay.

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