Friday, July 13, 2012

Another Petaluma Planning Controversy

There is another planning controversy in Petaluma, only a few feet from the now-approved Corkscrew Wine Bar.  This one has to do with parking.  At issue is the reinstitution of parking along Water Street, overlooking the Petaluma River.

For at least two strong reasons, urbanism requires that the parking be denied.  One reason is that city residents deserve more time to claim the area as a public place.  The second is that the installation could work against the reconstruction of the nearby trestle.

A decade ago, Water Street was like the waterfront streets in many old river towns.  In the early days, the river had functioned as the town sewer and as a place of noisy commerce.  Not surprisingly, the genteel downtown merchants turned their backs on it.  By doing so, they set a land-use pattern that persisted long after the initial causes were gone.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Water Street was a place of dumpsters, aboveground utilities, cyclone fencing, and parking.  It wasn’t a highlight on the city tour.

But the City of Petaluma, working through its Redevelopment Department, recognized an opportunity and embarked on a process to reclaim Water Street.

After an extended public involvement process, a new configuration was set.  The dumpsters would be tucked into less visible locations.  The utilities would be reinstalled underground.  The cyclone fence would be replaced by an ornamental rail.  Street furniture would be installed.  The existing trolley tracks would be retained.  And, most importantly to this discussion, parking would be limited to the northern end of the street.

The parking was a key item of compromise.  It certainly received the most press coverage.  Downtown merchants, ever mindful of comments from their customers, were adamant that Water Street continue to accommodate parking.  Equally adamant was a broad swath of the citizenry eager to see Water Street given a chance to function as a public plaza.

Eventually, the baby was split in half.  The northern end of Water Street would retain its parking and the southern half would be parking-free.  Neither side was fully satisfied, but both got something.  Over the next few years, the plan was implemented.

However, the public plaza use of Water Street didn’t take off.  There were several reasons for the absence of vitality.  Kiosks called for in the initial plan weren’t provided.  Occasional youthful lawlessness (see again the Corkscrew discussion) retreated slightly, but remained a concern.  Due to the broad economic downturn, the City and the adjoining merchants were unwilling to commit the additional resources to enliven Water Street.

And one more key point.  In a regrettable design decision, much of Water Street was paved with hard-rock curbstones mounted on end to give an aesthetically pleasing appearance.  The installation proved difficult for walking, especially for wheelchairs, strollers, and shoes with heels.  Remediation has been discussed, but resources are tight.

(Note: I was closer than many people to the paver decision.  I was an observer, not a participant, but knew many of the people involved in the design decision.  Despite a comment at a recent City Council meeting, the problem was strictly a design decision, not a construction problem.  Like many committee decisions, no one person was responsible for the mishap.  A poor idea was offered, some folks mistakenly supported it, and others failed to muster adequate arguments to stop it.  It’s regrettable, but stuff happens.)

Against that backdrop, the City recently embarked on a different project, a “road diet” for Petaluma Boulevard between E. Washington Street and D Street, a block over from Water Street.

(Side note: A road diet is a reduction in the travel lanes of an existing street, converting some of the pavement area to other uses, such as additional parking, center turn pockets, or sidewalks bulbs for traffic calming.

Although reducing travel lanes would intuitively seem to reduce traffic capacity, the reduction can be less than expected.  If the existing lanes are unusually narrow, as is true of Petaluma Boulevard, the current capacity may be less than indicated by the lane count.  Meanwhile, the revised configuration can improve vehicle and pedestrian safety.

Although it isn’t germane to the Water Street parking issue, I find the road diet to be a reasonable traffic modification for downtown Petaluma.  I’m pleased that it’s proceeding.  But I’m not surprised that it’s been controversial.  The City of Palo Alto is just now proceeding with a similar project after opponents took the plan to court.)

As the first step in the road diet project, the City engaged in public involvement, largely with the downtown merchants.  Although the road diet will provide a net increase of 18 parking spaces, there will be a loss of two spaces near the businesses that back on the southern half of Water Street.  That loss gave the opportunity for some merchants to again raise the parking issue, rearguing the compromise that was reached a decade earlier.

To keep the road diet project moving ahead, City staff agreed to study the possibility of returning the parking.  By their assessment, the additional parking would be eight spaces for cars and three for motorcycles.  City staff reported that the merchants, in exchange for the City’s willingness to study the situation, agreed to support the road diet.

But when the issue reached the City Council in mid-June, several Councilmembers indicated that they wouldn’t support the road diet without the additional Water Street parking.  Trading a study of the parking for support of the road diet wasn’t sufficient.  The only acceptable trade was approval of parking for road diet.  But the parking decision wasn’t ripe for a council decision.  As a result, the road diet was approved by the narrow margin of 4-3.  And the public awareness of the parking issue was heightened.

The next public vetting of the parking was at the July 11 meeting of Petaluma’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.  The debate was spirited.  Many community voices showed up to oppose the parking.  Even the merchants were split with some arguing against the parking because of the resulting increased traffic on the last block of Western Avenue, a short block this is mostly used as a pedestrian route to the Balshaw Bridge.

The sense of the committee seemed strongly against the parking.  But the committee stopped short of taking a vote, instead compiling a list of alternative approaches for further consideration.

I have sympathy for the merchants who want the parking.  There is evidence that people who are willing to walk 100 yards over asphalt at a shopping mall are unwilling to walk the same distance on a downtown sidewalk.   It doesn’t seem rational, but downtown shoppers often have the unrealistic expectation that they’re entitled to one of the few parking spaces in front of their destination.  And downtown merchants must deal with that reality.

On the other hand, the long-term health of downtown depends on presenting the district as an attractive destination for multiple uses, including eating lunch overlooking the river or enjoying a riverfront festival.  For that reason alone, I would argue that the additional parking should be denied.

But there is also another, even stronger reason to oppose the parking.  Immediately downstream is the decrepit trestle, at one time the heart of Petaluma waterborne and rail commerce.  The City and their consultant team are now proceeding with the design of the trestle replacement.  The effort is a grant-funded.  However, the grant covers only the design.  Up to $4 million may be required in further grants for construction.  It’s a sizable tab, for which no funds have yet been secured.

Complicating the grant prospects is that, under multiple Petaluma planning documents, a primary use of the trestle will be the proposed Petaluma trolley.  And resumed trolley operation has frequently been a key point in the seeking of grants.

The Petaluma Trolley Committee has been the primary advocate of the trolley.  Their intended operation is for occasional, almost ceremonial, trolley runs, which is generally perceived as a “museum” operation.

However, at least some possible grant funders aren’t interested in museum trolley operations.  They would only consider “transit” operations.  The trolley committee isn’t averse to a transit operation and has sketched a plan of what a transit operation might look like.  However, it’s clear that a transit trolley would have far more runs than a museum trolley.

And there’s the rub.   Immediately next to the trestle is the proposed Water Street parking.   The parking spaces seem to be clear of the rails, but they’re close.  The maneuvering required to access the parking would be on the rails.  And an overly long vehicle might interfere with the “dynamic window” of a passing trolley.

Water Street isn’t the only place where parking would be close to the trolley tracks.  The parking lot of the Petaluma Yacht Club comes immediately to mind.  But Water Street is the only place where parking might be added at the exact same time that the City and the community are casting about for trestle replacement funding.

One could argue that parking could be abandoned if a transit trolley is implemented.  However, what message does it send to possible funders if the parking is added at the same time that grants are being sought?  And if another contentious public process would be required to do the abandonment?

None of this is meant to imply that a transit trolley operation is imminent for Petaluma.  I think a well-conceived transit trolley could be a boon for the community, but nonetheless consider it a long shot.  However, if the trestle replacement is a high priority for the community, and it is, and if having a transit trolley is a prerequisite for trestle funding, and it may well be, then a transit trolley remains a possibility.

As often in the matter of urban decision-making and grant-funding, the lines between the dots are dashed and fuzzy.  But the trolley issues, when combined with the desired public use of Water Street, are more than enough to argue against the parking.

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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