Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Parking in Downtown Petaluma

Staying on the theme of parking, an issue has recently arisen in Petaluma.  Once again, it really isn’t a new urbanism problem today, but is indicative of the type of issues that will arise around new urbanism.

There is a commercial/office building near the north end of downtown.  Bank of America is the ground floor tenant, so the building is often called the Bank of America building, with the parking lot called the Bank of America lot, but the bank is only a tenant.  There is a local owner, whose name I’ve forgotten and wouldn’t use here even if I could remember it.

The lot is appropriately sized for the bank and the other tenants.  Perhaps 40 spaces.  But in the evening hours, those uses end and the locals have long become accustomed to using the lot for evening visits to downtown.  Personally, I’ve never used the lot for any reason other than bank visits because I understood that it was private property, but I’ve probably found on-street parking places because others were using the lot.

However, a problem arose with the evening parking.  Downtown Petaluma can have an unseemly side in the late evening hours.  The parking lot owner decided that he was tired of repairing damage and hosing fluids after an evening of excesses.  He also worried whether his insurance would cover the additional risks.

He posted that anyone who parked in the lot and wasn’t doing business in his building would have their car subject to towing.  And then a few weeks later, he began enforcing the prohibition.  (Perhaps the signs could have been larger, perhaps the towing operator could have been less forthcoming about how much money he was making in towing and impound fees, and perhaps people shouldn’t have been vomiting in the lot to begin with, but those are not the subjects I want to discuss here.)

When the local press covered the story, there were two types of comments that were made.  Some people defended the owner’s private property rights and argued that he was completely justified in his actions.  Others noted the public benefit of the lot and called for the lot to remain open for evening use.  From the tones of the comments, the two sides seemed to view themselves as irredeemably opposed.

But to me, both sides were right.  Yes, the owner does own the property.  He was within his legal rights to close it to evening parking and to tow violators.  But he also had a community obligation that might have called for a different response.

I own a home in Petaluma.  As long I maintain my home properly, I can paint it any color I wish.  There is no ordinance that would prevent me from painting the house purple, the trim green, and the front door pink.  The primary reason I don’t do so is because my wife would make me sleep in the guestroom for the rest of my days.  But right behind that is an obligation to my neighbors.  They don’t want to see a purple, green, and pink house when they open their blinds in the morning, they don’t want to explain to the friends how they come to share their block with a purple, green, and pink house, and they really don’t want to try to sell their homes with me dragging down the neighborhood.  I respect their wishes and consider the wishes completely legitimate.  Just because something isn’t specifically illegal doesn’t mean that I have the right to do it.  Moral and community obligations also deserve consideration.

To me, the same applies to the Bank of America parking lot.  Ultimately the owner had the right to close the lot to non-building users.  But his first obligation was to try to respect the needs of his neighbors, the small shops and restaurants at the north end of the downtown that need the trade from the evening parking lot users.  Perhaps a consortium of his neighbors can have reimbursed him for the cost of insurance, repairs, and cleanup.  Perhaps the City of Petaluma can have helped facilitate a solution.  But closing the lot should have been the last solution to be implemented.

This isn’t meant to criticize the parking lot owner.  Perhaps he tried to reach a resolution with his neighbors and a deal couldn’t be reached.  Instead, it’s a request to those who attempted to cast the issue as a dichotomy between property rights and public need.  Most often, the key elements in our communities are a balance of those two positions.  The world isn’t white, nor is black.  It’s a lot of different shades of grey.  And we need to deal with that palette.

To me, the best comment was to acknowledge the property owner’s right and then to ask him to try one more time to accommodate the community’s needs.

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

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