Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day is Here, Elections Can’t Be Far Behind

I’m not a proponent of voting by mail.  I think there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors while voting.  Just like I believe that there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors at a grocery store or a pub in a walkable neighborhood.

Living in a precinct where walking to the polling place is reasonable for most voters, I expected for a long time to see neighbors there.

But I rarely did.  And after the last few elections where the poll watchers were almost pathetically happy to see me because it gave them a respite from staring at the ceiling, I’ve given up.  I’ll vote by mail for the foreseeable future.

However, there is a benefit from much of the population voting by mail.  The election season is shorter.  To reach many voters, arguments must be made and minds swayed before the early October date when voting begins.

And so, with the days of summer only beginning to fade, I’ll offer my thoughts on the upcoming election.  As always, I wouldn’t mention names.  But I’ll give the general rules that I’ll use in selecting the candidates to whom I’ll give my votes and my donations this time around.

My current election thinking began with an insight of several months ago.  I had a casual conversation with a North Bay politician.  To my surprise, he knew my blog and had read a number of posts.

From what I knew of his political beliefs, I expected him to align well with my thinking.  And he confirmed that expectation by saying he strongly agreed with one particular post.  And then he deflated me by continuing, “But the voters will never understand it, so I can’t say publicly that I agree with you.”

He then laid out his theory of how to govern from an urbanist perspective, which is to secure election, not by disowning core beliefs, but by underplaying them, by finding words and phrases to state urbanist feelings in ways that wouldn’t ruffle the voters needed for election.

Then, once in office, the urbanist office-holder should look for opportunities to slant policies a little bit toward urbanism, but without fully acknowledging urbanist beliefs because another election was always on the horizon.

I understood his point.  I remember the Nixon/Kissinger era of Realpolitik and how it seemed reasonably credible to many during the 1970s, especially compared to the Carter Administration’s fumbling attempts to bring morality into foreign policy.

But I was nonetheless distressed that, with climate change apparently well underway and with the spectre of bankruptcy knocking on the doors of many city halls, the theory of urbanism must still be hidden under a basket in order for candidates to achieve success at the ballot box.

(By the way, I’m not arguing that urbanism is fully proven, only that suburbanism is well disproved and should no longer be the standard by which we judge our candidates.  Although I believe that urbanism is on the right path, I suspect that it will continue to evolve for many years, which is a fine and healthy thing.)

With that preamble, here are my rules for backing candidates in the fall of 2014. 

First priority: Candidates who openly espouse urbanist principles and promise to base many of their actions on those principles.  I know that most candidates who are publicly urbanist won’t win election, so I’d likely be throwing my vote away.  But I’m willing to do so to honor the candidates’ integrity and to show that an urbanist candidate can secure votes.

Second priority: Candidates who concur with urbanism, but choose to keep those beliefs largely concealed.  Their strategy might be valid, but seems sadly timid.

Third priority: Candidates who haven’t yet grasped urbanism, but seem to possess the curiosity and acuity to yet take them there.  StrongTowns tells the story of bringing City Councilmembers in the Midwest to tears when they realize the fallacy of their blind pursuit of the failed suburban ideal.  I don’t want to make anyone cry, but I believe that conversions are possible and willing to risk a vote, in the absence of more worthy candidates, on someone who might be capable of conversion.

And if I can’t fill my ballot with these three priorities, then the remaining spots will remain vacant.

Of course, these standards aren’t absolute.  I won’t vote for a candidate, regardless of urbanist credentials, who I don’t find an honorable human being.  But otherwise I’ll use these rules at all levels of government, not just local, because the biggest stumbling blocks for urbanism are often in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

Once again, I won’t mention the names of any candidates.  How to apply these priorities to your particular races is your homework assignment.  I hope you do well.  The future depends on it. 

Having started on a political path, I’ll remain here for my next couple of posts.  Next up, I’ll write about the municipal tax measures that are on many ballots this fall.  And then I’ll speculate on why it seems so hard to bring urbanism into open public discussion.

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 29, 2014

“The Planners”: Getting Underway

I’ve mentioned the BBC show “The Planners” several times.  The show is English reality television, showing land use permitting processes on the other side of the pond.  In those earlier mentions, I expressed the hope of learning something about land use entitlement under a different set of rules and complained that I couldn’t find the show on my cable system or on the BBC website.

 Eventually, a reader took pity on my naivetĂ© and emailed me that all the episodes were available on YouTube.  He was right.  Nuts.

So I was finally able to begin watching the show.  As I had expected, there were differences between the land use processes in England and California.

But what was more striking was the similarity between the personalities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  For nearly every person I watched on “The Planners”, from self-righteous applicants to dowdy planners to haughty planning councilors to unhappy neighbors, I’d seen their parallels during my years in land use.

Starting today and continuing occasionally, I’ll provide links and comments about episodes.  If your time permits, I recommend watching the show.  It’s not necessarily great television.  If you have fun social plans on your calendar, I wouldn’t cancel them to watch the show.  But if you were planning on watching “Big Brother” or another of its ilk, I’d encourage you to try “The Planners” instead.  You might gain some insight to land use planning, and to the personalities that populate the land-use world.


The most significant storyline was about 540 homes proposed for open fields near a town.  The proponents argued that more housing was needed and that the economy needed a boost.  (I can think of North Bay parallels.)  The opponents were looking for every argument possible to stop the project, including flailing about in the mud looking for great-toed newts, hoping to prove that the land was critical wildlife habitat.  (Once again, the North Bay parallels are too obvious to be missed.)

To me, I think the issue came down to two points that were seen only as flashes on the screen.  The site plan, seen only in passing, seems sprawling.  Perhaps the homes were modest in size, but they were sited on large lots that were unlikely to be walkable.  In another passing moment, an opponent outside the hearing was carrying a placard calling for “Infill, not Fields”.  Even in England, urbanism is fighting an uphill battle.

One interesting comment was the suggestion that the Planning Council would be liable for damages if they rejected a project that was later approved at a higher level.  I truly hope that the comment was wrong because that type of rule would have a chilling effect on the permitting process.

Other storylines included a neighbor peevishly complaining that a proposed dining room addition next door would block too much of her sun and an applicant peevishly complaining that it was too hard to park her BMW station wagon in the parking yard off the alley and that she should be allowed to park in her front yard like many of her neighbors.  No matter where you go, peevishness has a role in land-use planning.

The latter tale included an official suggesting that it might be “churlish” to deny the applicant the right to park in her front yard when so many of her neighbors had seemingly established a precedent.  I live for the day when I hear “churlish” used in an American land use hearing.

But the best story of the episode was a married pair of retired doctors, both in their eighties, who wanted to put solar panels on their roof.  They knew that they likely wouldn’t live long enough to garner the economic benefits, but thought they owed it to the next generation to reduce their carbon footprint.

The highlight was when they confronted the town historical preservation officer who was opposing the application because of the conflict with the adjoining town wall that dated to the Roman era.  The woman pertly advised the historical officer that he was on the wrong side of history and that within a decade solar panels would be as ubiquitous as bicycles.  It might have been the best single moment of television I saw this year.


The biggest story in the second episode was the proposed expansion of an egg farm near the Scottish border.  Unfortunately, it was a story that depended on competing scientific studies about whether chicken dung particles could be airborne during handling and whether the particles would pose a health risk.  As well “The Planners” is produced, it was a difficult storyline to squeeze into the format and became very forgettable.

A second storyline, about a proposed home of modern architecture in an older neighborhood, also fell short when it ended in an anticlimax.  (Thankfully, English reality television folks don’t feel a need to pump drama into every situation.)

But there were a couple of stories that redeemed the episode.  There was a code enforcement officer, who a citizen from an earlier enforcement action described as being like “a terrier at a trouser leg”, effectively resolving a rubbish-filled backyard.

And there was the story of the Lemon Field, a one-acre stone-walled site on the edge of a village, that had been vacant for 300 to 400 years.  The applicant was proposing a private cul-de-sac with seven homes of undistinguished architecture.  (Side note: Even on the other side of the Atlantic, planners prepare renderings of “walkable” communities with the most dominant feature being a car driving into a cul-de-sac.)

Not surprisingly, the village preferred to retain their little bit of the countryside.  A local dairywoman described the proposal as”knocking Gloucester Cathedral to put up a multi-story car park”.  However, the eventual decision seemed to focus more on the architecture than on the preservation of the open field.

If time permits, I hope you enjoy “The Planners”.

In my next post, I’ll write about the beginning of the election season.

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 27, 2014

River Front: Sorting Through the Arguments

In a pair of recent posts, I introduced River Front, a proposed mixed-use project within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, and wrote about the controversy that developed over whether the athletic field proposed by the applicant should be natural grass or artificial turf.

I closed the second post with the questions I was pondering as the climactic City Council session, reaffirming the decision in favor of grass, came to an end.  Did we identify all the reasons for turf versus grass?  Does the community have the right to require that a park be a community athletic field rather than a neighborhood park?  What should have been correct decision for the community?  And even if a turf athletic field is the right answer, is it fair to require the applicant to cover the cost?

In this post, I’ll provide my personal answers to those questions.

On the arguments for grass versus turf, I’ll add another pro-turf argument, traffic.  Turf fields are generally available for use twice as many hours per year as grass fields, so are the backbone of an athletic program.

And yet, when the under-construction East Washington Park is complete, all three turf athletic fields owned by the Petaluma Park and Recreation Department will be east of Highway 101, requiring ever more trips on E. Washington Street from west Petaluma.  (As a Parks Commissioner, I’m fully supportive of East Washington Park.  It was badly needed.  But I still regret the resulting geographic imbalance.)

Petaluma has an election approaching in which funds for street improvements and repair will be a major issue.  Against that backdrop, it seems odd to blithely accept the additional traffic generated by parks at the urban fringe without trying to reduce the impact.

It’s also indicative our approach to traffic and why we seem unable to manage traffic.  We put new uses where the land is available and/or the development costs are affordable, under the assumption that users can drive to the site.  But it’s expensive to build a road system to keep up with that increasing demand.  And the induced traffic phenomenon often makes it impossible to keep up.

Some may note that the improved high school fields, if they’re made accessible for community use, will help balance the traffic.  They’d be correct.  But none of the high schools are particularly close to the River Front area, so that part of town would remain under-served by athletic fields.  Assuming judicious league creation and scheduling, a turf athletic field at River Front could reduce traffic.

Adding the traffic argument to the other arguments that were made for turf, the increased hours of playability, safer surface, and reduced water requirements, I find that turf was the better option for the community.

I turn next to the question of whether the applicant, Basin Street, should have the right to choose their park surface.  Basin Street expressed a preference for a natural surface on which residents in the small-lot neighborhood could recreate.   (I suspect that the lower cost of grass also has a role in their decision.)

Unfortunately for the applicant, I may be the least favorable judge of that argument in Petaluma.  Having carefully monitored a handful of neighborhood that are in my purview as a Parks Commissioner, I despair of neighborhoods ever again making effective casual use of their parks and have suggested that we may wish to consider fundamental changes in how we configure neighborhood parks.

Barring those kinds of changes, I suggest that the image of fathers and sons throwing a frisbee in a neighborhood park on a sunny afternoon is another of those self-myths with which we delude ourselves and cause ourselves to make land use mistakes.  Instead, organized leagues with scheduled games is the predominant use of parks.

Besides, much as Basin Street was required to configure their proposed buildings to conform to the SmartCode that governs the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, I’d argue that they’re required to accept the park surface that is directed by the community, although with one large caveat that comes up next.

Even if turf is the correct choice, does that mean that Basin Street should pay the additional cost?  Looking at the other turf fields, existing, under construction, and proposed, all are either owned by the City (Lucchesi and East Washington), the school district (Petaluma and Casa Grande High Schools), or a church (St. Vincent High School).  Although developer impact fees played in a role in some of the turf field financing, River Front would be on the only field funded solely by a developer, which should be a red flag.

The argument was made that Basin Street should pay for the turf field because they would make millions of dollars with River Front.  But if making money in Petaluma is the criterion, why not bill Safeway, Clover-Stornetta, or a developer building homes at the urban fringe?

No, the implicit reason for asking Basin Street to foot the bill was that it was their project.  But there are already rules in place about how much developers should pay for the right to build new projects in Petaluma.  Those rules are called impact fees and require developers to pay fees for impacts such as traffic, schools, and parks.  And if developers build improvements that meet those needs, such as building a segment of a roadway that will serve the entire community, then they can deduct that cost from the impact fee that would otherwise be imposed.

Might it make sense to ask Basin Street to fund the turf field in exchange for a credit against impact fees?  Absolutely.  So, in the general mingling before the City Council meeting, I asked a Basin Street representative for his thoughts on this point.  He responded that the other park improvements required in the project has already exceeded the park impact fee.  Basin Street was already covering the cost of some park improvements in excess of the impact fees.  And any new exactions, such as the turf field, would be funded solely by Basin Street.

One of the themes voiced often during the City Council meeting was that Basin Street had “reneged” on an obligation.  Indeed, it was the only point to which Basin Street chose to respond, making the point that they had continually opposed the turf field and therefore hadn’t made a commitment from which they could renege.

But I would argue that there was reneging underway that evening.  And that was in the community’s demand that the agreement, implicit in the impact fee rules, about required park exactions be set aside with additional exactions required.  (Admitted, many of those making the reneging argument were insufficiently familiar with the impact fee mechanism to understand how their argument could boomerang back at them.)

As much as I would like the River Front field to be turf, I don’t agree with overturning the logic behind the impact fees.  If the benefit is to the public and the developer has already paid more than their fair share, then the additional cost should be borne by the public.

Indeed, there is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that is on point.  In Dolan vs. the City of Tigard, the Court ruled that cities can’t arbitrarily impose developer exactions.  Instead, there must be a reasonable “nexus” between the development impact and the exactions.  I’d argue that Dolan wouldn’t allow a condition that the River Front athletic field be changed to turf for the community good at Basin Street’s expense, especially when Basin Street had already exceeded the park costs required under the adopted impact fees.

If I’d been on the City Council, how would I have voted?  I would have voted to reopen the issue.  Clearly the public had strong emotions on the subject and deserved another chance to make their case.

I would then have used the weeks before the reconsideration to look for a way to fund the field without imposing the burden on Basin Street.  Failing that, I would have regretfully voted to leave the park as grass.

But I would have offered one final gambit.  I would have proposed a condition of approval that would have required Basin Street to convert the field to turf if, at any time prior to approval of construction documents, the community could assemble a plan to fund the incremental cost.

I consider it highly unlikely that the incremental funds could have been gathered.  At present, the community is working hard to raise funds for a restroom at East Washington Park, a goal that is only a fraction of the River Front turf expense.  But I would have left the door open.  And I would have happy to write a check toward the effort.

Completing the loop back to urbanism, I’ll ask one more question.  Should a land-use conundrum like this matter to urbanists?  I’ll respond with an emphatic “Yes!”

Although I believe that River Front will only slowly transform into a truly urban project, it is nonetheless configured like an urban project.  And urbanism means that the public space receives a higher priority than in drivable suburban projects, which is a fine thing.  But if we try to expand those public components, demanding improvements in excess of the impact fees, then we create a market disincentive to urbanism.

In a world where we should be encouraging urbanism to address our multitude of environmental and financial issues, demanding additional park improvements from urbanist developers would become one more impediment to urbanism.  And we can’t let that happen.

Before closing, I have one last point to make.  In the weeks since the final City Council decision on turf versus grass, I’ve heard many negative comments about Basin Street.  Those comments pain me.  I’ve previously written about how the public is often eager to condemn a developer for not being local, while also being unwilling to support local developers.

Basin Street is a local developer.  I don’t fully support every project they’ve done.  There are many elements that I wish they’d done differently, while also acknowledging that I don’t have full information about the regulatory, funding, and market demand issues that forced the design decisions.

(As much as many of us would like perceive developers as omnipotent monoliths that can do whatever they wish, they are more like small boats on a turbulent sea of capitalism, pushed about by forces beyond their control and trying to turn enough of a profit to remain afloat.  After all, we’ll only a handful of years removed from an economic crisis in which many developers perished.)

But, setting my quibbles about their design decisions aside, Basin Street has done good things for Petaluma.  It’d be hard to conceive of downtown Petaluma without Theatre Square.  Basin Street made downtown Petaluma relevant again.  They deserve our respect and appreciation.  And to withhold that appreciation because they refused to accede to an unfair demand for a turf athletic field makes me sad.

(Acknowledgment: I’ve never done any work for Basin Street.  However, as a member of the community, I know several of the principals.  Indeed, it would be odd if I didn’t.  Also, I’m currently engaged in a negotiation with Basin Street on behalf of a client.  Lastly, I’ve often eaten in Theatre Square restaurants.)

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

P.S. The article mentioned in the comments below can be found here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Looking Around Town: Checking on Continuing Stories

I describe this blog as a perspective, with an urbanist eye, on land use in the entire North Bay.  However, I live, work, and participate in the Petaluma community.  Unless I watch myself carefully, I can easily find myself writing only about Petaluma.  Lately, I haven’t been watching myself carefully.

That became evident when I began to write updates on several stories I’ve been following.  All of the stories were based in Petaluma.  Oops.

I promise in the near future to again begin traveling beyond the Petaluma city limits.  At least I’ll do so as soon as the broken glass is swept up.  (For those not in the Bay Area, the North Bay sustained a 6.0 earthquake early Sunday morning.  The entire household was awakened, except for the 14-year-old Golden Retriever who continued to snore blissfully.  We sustained no damage, not even a picture askew, but the towns of Napa and Sonoma weren’t as lucky.)

I have a working list of projects which I intend to visit around the North Bay.  But if readers have particular projects they’d like me to visit, or public hearings they think I should attend, let me know.  I’m always interested in inside information.

So, today will be a summing up of older Petaluma stories.  My next post will be final thoughts on the athletic field at the River Front project in Petaluma (where else?) about which I’ve recently written twice.  And then I’ll take a quick look at planning in England.  But after that, I promise, I’ll widen my perspective to include more of the North Bay.

Fairgrounds: As I’ve previously written, there will be a special meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat this coming Tuesday, August 26th.  We’ll continue our independent analysis of the redevelopment options for the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  Several members are preparing sketches for sharing and discussion.  The meeting will be at the Aqus CafĂ© at 2nd and H Streets.  We’ll begin at 5:30.  Everyone is welcome.

I’ve been corresponding with a parent who has been active with the Live Oak Charter School on the fairgrounds.  She advised me of several factors, including funding for improvements under the recently passed Petaluma City Schools bond measures, that increase the likelihood that Live Oak will remain in its current location.  Anyone who is preparing a sketch for Tuesday evening may want to include Live Oak in its current setting on the Gnoss Concourse.

Block parties: In response to my recent suggestion that readers contact their favorite City Councilmembers to advocate for loosening and clarifying the block party rules in the Petaluma Municipal Code, several readers promised to do exactly that.

One faithful reader even copied me on her emails to all seven Councilmembers.  To their credit, six of the seven responded.  The messages ranged from “That’s interesting” to “Let me look into it and see what I can do” to “Here are some thoughts for making a change in 2015.”

I’m pleased that she received responses, but would have preferred if at least one had been “Let’s get this fixed right now!”  Perhaps I was hoping for too much, particularly during an election season.  Plus, reduced City Hall staffing has an effect on the speed of administrative changes, no matter how laudable.  I’ll let this situation perk for awhile in hopes that something develops.  But failing that, at least we have a plan for 2015.

Celebration of Evening Bus Service: I haven’t yet seen the numbers, but suspect that the celebration of Petaluma Transit evening bus service was a failure to launch.  I hung out near the Boulevard Cinema for an hour in the early evening.  I saw a few students hanging about, perhaps ready to take advantage of the reduced admission charge, but it was far short of a critical mass.

The failure is disappointing.  Not so much because of the time spent by transit staff in organizing the event or the post that I devoted to the subject, but because the community needs strong transit service, including evening service.  And because local students need to achieve transit comfort to reach their full potential in the 21st century.

However, as Thomas Edison was reported to have said upon the failure of another light bulb concept, we’ve haven’t failed as much as we’ve found another idea that doesn’t work.  We’ll take a step back, reassess the opportunities, and try again.  And we’ll eventually succeed.

Keller Court Commons: I previously wrote of this pocket neighborhood project that would bring an alternative and more compact land use pattern to Petaluma.  In my post, I noted my disappointment that the zoning code required the project to become a planned unit development (PUD), arguing that the additional hurdle shouldn’t have been required for the more benign land use.

The project easily secured its first Planning Commission approvals a couple of weeks ago.  Afterwards, I finally met the developer face-to-face.  He hadn’t seen my post, but among his first comments was astonishment that he’d needed to form a PUD, noting that no other community in which he’d worked required more than a conditional use.

It was great that Petaluma was able to approve Keller Court Commons.  It was less great that the city made the process more difficult than elsewhere.

Next time, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the athletic field at River Front 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)

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)