Monday, February 18, 2013

Getting from Today to TOD – Parking

Urbanists have visions of the future.  Visions that may be twenty years or farther into the future, but are nonetheless in perfect focus.

Where the focus is often less clear is on the intervening years.  The years of awkward transition between a drivable suburban present and a walkable urban future.

A frequent urbanist vision is of transit-oriented development (TOD).   An urbanist sees a delightful street scene with refreshed commuters disembarking from sleek trains and walking or biking contentedly toward nearby homes.  There would be abundant opportunities to make nightly purchases in streetfront stores or to sit in neighborhood pubs, sharing news of the day.

But even if a TOD could be magically plopped into place tomorrow, the reality is still that the surrounding community wouldn’t be ready to accommodate a TOD in its midst.   Last May, I wrote about new development being a rent in the fabric of the city, a wound that takes time to heal.  A TOD, no matter how well-designed and executed, disrupts the existing day-to-day life of a city.

Finding ways to heal those wounds, to facilitate the transition to a TOD future, is key to a successful TOD.

The City of Petaluma is currently is the final stages of a master plan for the Petaluma Station Area, a possible TOD adjoining the SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) station that will soon be built near downtown Petaluma.  The draft master plan provides an example of the transitional strategies that are required to implement a TOD.  Today, I’ll begin writing about transitional parking.  There are other issues, such as retail demand, that I’ll cover in future posts.

The initial SMART vision for Petaluma had a fully-conceived vision for commuter parking.  There were to be two stations in town.  One would be near the historic downtown and would be suited for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access.  The other would be near the north end of town and would include extensive parking.  It was a reasonable strategy.

But as often happens, even reasonable strategies can come unwound.  In this case, economic hard times reduced the sales tax revenues that were to fund the construction of the new train.  SMART had to adjust their plans.  One change was the deferral of the north station.  What remained was the downtown station that hadn’t been intended to provide much parking.

That was the challenge that faced the consulting team, headed by Opticos Design of Berkeley, who was hired by the City of Petaluma to prepare a TOD master plan.

Before discussing the Opticos solution, I’ll offer a quick summary of the lands encompassed by the master plan.  For those who know Petaluma, this is information you already know.  But for others, you may wish to download the final draft master plan.  An overview of the TOD site can be seen on page 2-6.

The potential site includes three large blocks of land.  Immediately adjoining the historic train station and the site of new train station, and further bounded by E. Washington Street, Copeland Street, and D Street, is land owned by SMART.  The land is currently being used as a staging area for rail construction.  SMART intends to seek a developer for the land after rail construction is complete.

Next closest to the station is the Haystack Landing site, bounded by E. Washington Street, Weller Street,  D Street, and Copeland Street.  Earlier development plans for the property failed and the land has been in a bankruptcy court action for several years.  Except for a pair of metal buildings in one corner, the site is vacant.

Furthest away from the station, bounded by E. Washington Street, Weller Street, and the Petaluma River, is a shopping center that was recently renamed River Plaza, but is still commonly known as Golden Eagle.  Redevelopment of this site under the Petaluma Station Area would result in a higher level of economic use, but will likely happen after the other two sites because of the productive use already in place.

The concept that Opticos proposed to address the parking concern was an incremental development of the SMART land.  If the initial development can be limited to the areas closest to the station, E. Washington, and D Street, much of the internal area of the parcel can be used for parking on an interim basis.  By my calculations, it seems that 300 to 400 parking spaces could be created.

The plan on page 2-11 shows a possible overall development of the site.  To understand the interim parking thinking, look at the parking in the middle of the two halves of the SMART site.  Those two lots would be extended toward the central street and to the street to the southwest, which is Copeland Street.

The expectation would be that the parking areas along the street frontages would eventually be replaced by the final buildings as the initial buildings were fully absorbed.  The hope is that the north Petaluma station will have been built by that time, reducing the need for parking at the downtown station.

But there is one other possibility.  If there continues to be strong demand for parking at the downtown station, one or both of the parking areas in the middle of the building sites could be converted to parking structures.  The cost would be significant, but would only be incurred if there was a need.

Do these parking strategies offer a good transitional solution?  Absolutely.  Does it mean that we needn’t worry about the parking issue again?  Not even close.  There are many possibilities for the ship of good intentions to be driven onto the lee shore of real-world issues.  I’ll talk about some of those of possibilities in my next post. 

But for today, I’d suggest that you scan the draft master plan.  It’s a large document and I don’t seriously suggest you read every word, but read as much as holds your interest.

If being a part of bringing this vision to fruition is of interest to you, including the interim parking concepts, you may wish to attend the final meeting of the citizens’ advisory committee.  It will be held this Thursday, February 21, at 6pm at the Community Center.  Everyone is welcome to attend.  The master plan will then head to the Planning Commission and City Council, where your attendance could also be valuable.

Moving from today to TOD is a complex subject.  Hopefully, Petaluma can provide lessons for the other cities in the region.

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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