Friday, March 2, 2012

Good Things Happening in Petaluma

As with most North Bay cities, it has been a tough half-decade in Petaluma.  With a plummeting housing market causing frequent foreclosures, reduced property taxes undermining the finances at City Hall, and tax revenue issues in Sacramento affecting the local programs in which state participation has been integral, it hasn’t been a productive five years for new urbanism.  

(Some may argue that new urbanism doesn’t require special treatment, that if it can’t survive in the marketplace, then it doesn’t deserve to continue.  I disagree.  I’ve previously written about the how the marketplace over the past eighty years has been inadvertently slanted against new urbanism.  New urbanism needs a helping hand to reestablish its role in the marketplace.  For the past five years, that hand has been frequently withheld.  Hopefully, that will soon change.)

Despite the factors that have been working against new urbanism, there have been two recent pieces of good news in Petaluma.  Both have been covered by others, but I’ll revisit from a new urbanism perspective.

First, the groundbreaking for the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) train was recently held in Petaluma.  Funding has been difficult for the commuter train.  The economy has reduced revenues from the voter-approved sales tax increment.  Also, an uncertain bond market reduced the amount of funds that could be raised by bond sales secured by the sales tax revenues.

As a result, the length of the initial operating segment has been reduced, stopping at San Rafael on the south end and at Santa Rosa on the north.  Also, several stations have been deferred, including the second station in Petaluma that would have been the park-and-ride station.

Nonetheless, the train is still coming.  Even better, the remaining Petaluma station adjoins ten acres of land that is mostly vacant and awaiting development.  The intended use is new urbanist mixed-use development with easy pedestrian access to the station.  At a slightly greater distance, there are several existing and proposed relatively mixed-use developments that will also provide train riders.  (Disclaimer: I’ve provided engineering services for two of the proposed projects.)

There is skepticism in many places about the SMART train, doubts that the construction costs can be contained and that ridership estimates will be met.  I share some of those doubts.  Major projects are often based on optimistic assumptions.

Nonetheless, I’m an absolute supporter of the SMART train.  I believe strongly that the train will be an essential element of the North Bay fifty years from now.  For this generation to put the infrastructure in place to serve future generations is a perfect gift to our successors.  I can’t wait for the train to start running and for the groundbreaking on the adjoining and nearby new urbanist developments.

(Note: There is occasional confusion between the SMART Train and the “SmartCode” that governs development within the area of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP), including the Petaluma SMART station.  The confusion is certainly understandable, but the two Smart’s are unrelated.  “SMART” is an acronym and “Smart” is an effort by the SmartCode writers to describe CPSP-type development as “Smart-Growth”.  Their coexistence in downtown Petaluma is a coincidence.  Sometimes we’re too smart for our own good.)

Second, the groundbreaking is approaching for the final phase of the Celsius 44 project on First Street.  After building and selling earlier phases, the economy forced the original developer to defer the final phase.  Now, a different developer has acquired the parcel at the corner of First and G and promises that construction will soon be underway.

The birth of any new urbanist project is reason for celebration.  But there is something even better about this one.  The previous Celsius 44 project and other nearby infill projects have combined with the existing single-family neighborhood to create a district with growing vitality.  Two restaurants, Luma and Aqus, already serve the residents.  Adding more residents will hopefully may entice other businesses, such as a small grocery store, to join the mix.

New urbanism isn’t about individual buildings or even individual projects.  It’s about multiple projects adding density to an often existing neighborhood to create street life that will support streetfront retail.  The neighborhood around Celsius 44 is already on the road to being a new urbanist success.  Adding the final phase of the project can only help.

In other local news, the small discussion group that has been coalescing around this blog will soon have another meeting.  There were three of us who met in December, followed by a meeting of six in January.   The next meeting will be on Wednesday, March 14.  We’ll meet at 5:30pm at Aqus.

If you’ve been hesitant to attend past meetings, fear not.  Thus far, we have engaged mostly in banter about news and perspectives on local land-use planning.  I would describe much of the conversation as land-use “gossip”.  At the last meeting, I interrupted the proceedings to suggest that we consider three goals for our group, the sharing of new urbanism information perhaps through a book club approach, the advocacy of policies that would promote new urbanism, and the advocacy of specific new urbanist projects.  Everyone listened attentively, nodded sagely, and then returned to the gossip.  If that sounds like your kind of meeting, please join us, even if only to listen in.

One last bit of information before I close.  For new bloggers, a major milestone is a thousand pageviews.  That number represents a level of readership and longevity that many bloggers fail to reach.  This blog passed a thousand a few days ago, with my 40th post.  I’m thrilled with the milestone and intend it to it the first of many.

There may be a question of whether the thousand was achieved by a thousand people looking in once and never returning or by a stalker who has checked in a thousand times.  But I prefer to think that it is twenty-five dedicated readers, or thereabouts, who have visited almost all of the posts. 

I should also note that the thousand pageviews represents only my initial website.  Petaluma Patch has graciously co-published many of my posts.  From the comments and other responses, I suspect that more folks are reading me on Petaluma Patch than on my website.  Which is fine by me.

Also, Renee and Steve Kirk have allowed me to co-publish my posts on their New Futures Network, a recently-developed collaboration site for sustainable development.  I know some folks are also finding me there.

In total, I suspect that I’ve received over two thousand pageviews, which both inspires and terrifies me.  It also motivates me to continually upgrade the news and perspectives that I provide.  Thanks.

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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