Monday, March 25, 2013

From Today to TOD – The Next Steps

A few years ago, a poll was taken about which planning departments in the Sacramento area were the most responsive and helpful.  The City of Sacramento came in last.  Between an organization chart that placed key reviewers in separate silos and a long-standing culture of poor responsiveness, developers found Sacramento a difficult place to do business.

Some may find that result refreshing, thinking that the role of a planning department is to make development difficult for developers.  They’d be wrong.  The best role of a planning department is to shape development so it meets that needs of the community, while creating an environment in which developers are encouraged to build projects that benefit the community because they can make a profit.

That’s the role that the Sacramento planning department was failing to fill.

In response, the city manager and city council took action.  New management was recruited and a reorganization was implemented.

Developers noted the changes, but weren’t enthusiastic.  Most had seen other cities go through similar modifications with little eventual improvement.  This time, they were wrong.

Months later, the local district of the Urban Land Institute held a meeting on the new city planning organization.  A developer told a memorable story.  Early during the transition, he was in his car when his phone rang.  On the other end was the new City of Sacramento planning director.  The director praised the concept behind a project that the developer was considering and asked what he could do to help the developer move the project ahead.

The developer was so startled that he dropped his phone.  He had rarely heard from a Sacramento planning director previously and certainly never with an offer of assistance.

Some of the initial euphoria over the changes at Sacramento has since faded, as often happens with early enthusiasm.  And economic hard times forced staffing changes.  But enough effect lingered that Sacramento now has a passel full of interesting and beneficial urbanist projects in the works.  Many hurdles remain to be cleared, but the future of Sacramento looks much brighter than it did only a few years ago.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about a number of issues surrounding the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  I’ve written about a transition in parking philosophies and the points on which a parking strategy might be tripped.  I’ve written about how much retail the Station Area can likely support.  I’ve written about adjoining land patterns and the need to recognize non-conforming land uses.  And I’ve written about the impact fee conundrum for transit-oriented development (TOD).

All of those topics, and more, are crucial and will remain crucial.  But equally important is outreach.  Talking with developers, whether in the Station Area itself or in surrounding parcels, who might be enticed to develop projects that will help bring the TOD to full fruition.

As illustrated by the accompanying photos, the area around the Petaluma Station Area has little urbanism in its current makeup.  It will take a long and sustained effort to make changes.

This doesn’t mean that the City of Petaluma, or any city, should grant broad concessions to get a TOD underway.  That’s a land-development model that has gotten us into much of the economic mess in which we now reside.

Instead, the goal should be a win-win-win.  A win for the City in the form of an immediate upswing in economic activity, a win for developers in the form of profits, and a win for the next generation of local residents in the form of economically sustainable development.   And win-win-win solutions are only found through frank interchanges of needs and concerns.  They don’t evolve in vacuums.

These comments aren’t intended to criticize the City of Petaluma planning department.  I certainly don’t have access to their call logs or know with whom they’re meeting.  I hope that they and others in City Hall are actively reaching out to, listening to, and encouraging possible developers.

Instead, the comments are meant to alert all cities that have urbanist goals to remember that adopting an urbanist plan is only a first step.  That a plan is a necessary foundation, but useless if there isn’t an ingrained commitment to implement the plan by actively working with the community and developers.

I’ve seen too many cities go through long and arduous processes of adopting far-sighted planning documents, only to be puzzled when developers didn’t immediately begin submitting conforming projects.  I don’t need to see any more failures.  We should all learn from Sacramento.

Reminder: The Petaluma Planning Commission will begin consideration of the Petaluma Station Area Plan at 7:00pm on March 26 in the Petaluma City Hall.

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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