Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Whither the Fairgrounds?

Many years ago, while living in another state, I had a friend on the board of the local county fair.  The fairgrounds were small, less than ten acres in my recollection, and almost fully encircled by urban uses, mostly light commercial and residential.

A big-box retailer was interested in the fairgrounds.  And the fair board was interested in moving to a bigger site on the urban fringe.  But there was uncertainty about whether it was the right time and what steps should be taken.

My friend knew that I was interested in planning issues, so asked me to a lunch where we could discuss the options.  We spent two hours talking over ideas.  My key point was that there had to be a shared vision of what the fair wanted to be in five years.  If the board could agree on a vision, then the steps between now and then became evident.

He took my words to heart about a vision.  He returned to his office after lunch and submitted his resignation from the fair board.  His vision apparently didn’t put him on the board in five years.

After all these years, I remain puzzled by his action.  Not by his resignation.  If he truly didn’t see himself continuing on the board, it was a good decision to step away.  But it seems odd that he made his resignation decision over lunch and didn’t bother to tell me.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t become a career counselor.

This story comes to mind because the Sonoma Marin Fair Board is currently facing a similar decision.  As covered in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and the Petaluma Patch, the 50-year contract between the Fair Board and the City of Petaluma will come to an end in 2023.  A decade may seem a long time in the future, but in the world of land use, it can pass quickly.

On one key point, the Sonoma Marin situation is different that the situation described above.  The fairgrounds are over fifty acres in size and the Fair Board isn’t looking for more elbow room.  Instead, it’s is the City wondering if the fairgrounds might not offer some elbow room for needed urban facilities such as a convention center or a public market.

Thus far, much of the conversation has been about how the lease can be modified and extended to incorporate those uses, allowing the Fair and the City to share in the proceeds.  It’s a reasonable start but it doesn’t go far enough.

Cities, particularly as we adjust to the implications of peak oil, climate change, and the StrongTowns theory about the economic sustainability of infrastructure, will need density to remain successful.  Density of housing, density of retail, and density of businesses.  And retaining facilities in core areas that are used only during the annual fair doesn’t meet that standard.

I propose that the functions of the fairgrounds that are used on a regular basis throughout the year be retained where they are, likely in new structures.  That those uses be supplemented with new uses such as a convention center and a public market.  And that the remainder of the fairgrounds be completed with housing and other urban uses.

Meanwhile, using the some of the sale price of the land, a new fairground, scaled for the annual use, would be constructed on the urban fringe.  I can see argument for any of the four compass directions, but lean toward the north, perhaps along Stony Point Road.

The redeveloped fairgrounds would have an economic vitality rivaling downtown.   The segment of East D Street that separates downtown from the fairgrounds would become a transit friendly corridor, allowing easy access between downtown, the SMART station, and the fairgrounds.  The neighborhood that currently lies on both sides of East D Street would become the most desirable homes of the late 21st century.

It’ll take time for new urbanism to occupy the fairgrounds.  Petaluma is currently working toward adoption of a new urbanism plan for the area adjoining the Petaluma SMART station.  Some have estimated that 20 years will be required for that plan to be fully implemented.  It’s possible that the fairgrounds could remain as they are until 2035.

So, if the City and the Fair Board wish to negotiate a ten-year extension to the current lease under which the status quo would be maintained, that seems reasonable.    But at the same time, long-range planning for the fairgrounds should be initiated.  Including thinking about how the next Petaluma General Plan can incorporate the fairground changes.

This proposal doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to local agriculture.  Nothing could be more wrong.  I love that Petaluma is surrounded by agricultural uses.  I even enjoy the occasional whiff of manure on the afternoon breeze because it signifies a working agricultural community.

But the agriculture of Sonoma County is fundamentally different that the agriculture of Montana.  The artisan cheeses, the fresh-to-table organic vegetables, the wine tasting rooms.  Those agriculture uses exist because they are close to productive, successful towns.  And walkable, transit-friendly density will be a key factor in the success of 21st century communities.

Moving the fairgrounds to the edge of town and letting Petaluma add the urban areas it needs to be a productive town in the coming years may be the best action that we can take on behalf of local agriculture.

Now, if we can just keep the Fair Board members from deciding that their personal visions lay elsewhere and resigning in the midst of negotiations, we should be fine.

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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