Monday, June 11, 2012

Land Use at the Petaluma SMART Station

I had lunch last week with a friend.  During the meal, she asked about the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  In particular, she noted her admiration for Sonoma Plaza and wondered if something similar could be provided next to the Petaluma SMART Station.  (For readers not in the North Bay, SMART is the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, a commuter rail system that is planned to eventually extend from Larkspur to Cloverdale.)

I love Sonoma Plaza.  A favorite meal for my wife and I is buying sandwiches from the Basque Boulangerie Café and finding a quiet corner of the plaza for lunch.  (The Parisian sandwich is my choice.  A simple but elegant repast.)

But Sonoma Plaza is a historic anomaly, a land use that was set aside when land was cheap.  It then burrowed a hole so deeply into the civic sensibility such that no one would propose yielding even the smallest part.

I wish we had a Sonoma Plaza equivalent in Petaluma, but it’s a near impossibility with a 21st century economy and land use philosophy.  Nor do I think it would be the right decision at the SMART station.  Here are some of the impediments:

First, the Petaluma Station Area Plan is being prepared under a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  Under the MTC’s Transit-Oriented Development Policy, SMART stations must provide an average of 2,200 residential units within a half-mile of the station.  (MTC is allowed to impose their standard because they’re providing funds to SMART.)  Today, Petaluma falls below the required level, so would harm the average without more residential development near the station.  Therefore, MTC was willing to provide grant funds to help Petaluma plan for more homes.  The grant wasn’t intended to encourage large urban parks.

Second, SMART itself owns the parcel nearest to the station.  SMART’s finances have been difficult because of the economy.  Their dual incentive is to have potential train riders in close proximity to the station and to maximize the value of the parcel.  Both incentives argue for residential development.

Third, I’m not sure that a park would even be the best land use.  It’s easy to dream about stepping off a train after a successful day of work and ambling toward downtown through a park of singing birds and budding trees, but the frequent reality is stumbling off a train after another day of office drudgery and dragging through a drippy and leafless park.  (I think many home purchase decisions are driven by similarly unreasonable fantasies, but that’s a subject for another time.)

I looked around Theatre Square where my friend and I were eating.  There were perhaps 200 people dining in the restaurants and shopping at the stores.  At the same time, there were perhaps 20 people in nearby Walnut Park, mostly children and chaperones.  The ratio was indicative.  We like eating, drinking, and shopping.  It doesn’t mean that we’re anti-nature, only that we enjoy conviviality and good food.  Most people would find more enjoyment in a pub near the train station than a park.

For all these reasons, the project team reached the conclusion that the best use for the Petaluma Station Area was largely residential, with retail and public spaces to complement the residential.  Train riders disembarking from the train would encounter a boulevard of mid-rise residential with streetfront retail and dining options.

But all is not lost for park-lovers.  It was also decided that the area deserved a place for outdoor enjoyment and civic festivals.  So the block nearest the station would be wide, allowing a greensward for casual picnics and providing enough room, with the street barricaded at both ends, for a celebration.  I support both the street width and detailing, which is depicted conceptually on this page.

But to illustrate the complicated land development issues, SMART is dubious about the extra street width, thinking that it may overly impact the residential unit count.  The City is working to convince SMART that the additional width will add richness to the project which will support higher prices for the homes and increase the likelihood of attracting development capital.

It’s a complicated dance that won’t end soon.

(Note about the Petaluma Station Area graphics.  They were copied from the draft report which can be found here.  They are work products of the consultant team headed by Opticos Design, Inc.  As the report is still draft, the graphics are subject to further edits before the report is finalized.  Also, even in final form, they don’t represent a pending development proposal.  Instead, they’re a concept of what a development proposal might look like.  An actual development proposal will await developer acquisition and tentative securing of construction financing.  In this economy, it might be years.)
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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