Monday, March 4, 2013

Getting from Today to TOD – Adjoining Land Uses

I‘ve recently written about the challenges of transitioning from a car-dependent drivable suburban land-use pattern to the walkable urban pattern of a transit-oriented development (TOD).  Here and here I wrote about the issues around parking, finding a balance between the mixed-use of a TOD and the parking requirements of those who live elsewhere.  And here I wrote about the extent of retail that a TOD might be able to support.

The transition to a TOD is a change that many, including me, believe should happen and will happen for a wide range of environmental and financial reasons.  But that belief doesn’t make the transitional steps any easier.

Today, I’ll look at the role of surrounding land uses.  In the North Bay, we often think of TOD as primarily new construction around a transit stop.  But in other parts of the world, large blocks of vacant land don’t exist near transit stops.  Instead, the success of a TOD depends greatly on the existing pattern of land use.

Atlantic Cities recently reported on a study by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development on proposed new transit stops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The study ranked each neighborhood on five parameters.

I think the graphical presentations of the findings are contrived and unhelpful.  It is rare that multiple parameters should be weighted equally.  Plus the area of the pentagon is excessively affected by a single parameter with a low number.

But the five parameters described, population density, physical form (walkability), car dependence, presence of amenities, and proximity to employment, are reasonable.

In past posts, I’ve used the pending Petaluma Station Area Plan as the prism through which to look at TOD issues.  I’ll do so again today.

To set the scene for people who may not know Petaluma well, there are four general areas that adjoin the downtown Petaluma SMART station.  Immediately to the southwest are the vacant parcels on which the TOD would be constructed.

To the southeast, across D Street, is largely vacant land.  It’s certainly likely that the eventual development of this land will be shaped by the proximity to the station and the TOD, but that development may not happen for years, so doesn’t provide any benefits during the key early years of the TOD.

To the northeast, across Lakeville Street, are the well-restored Burdell Building and the East D Street neighborhood.  The neighborhood dates to the first half of the 20th century and is largely comprised of modest homes on relatively large lots.

To the northwest, across E. Washington Street and behind some streetfront retail, is a large area of aging industrial.  The streets are unpaved and the buildings late in their lives, with the owners working to keep tenants in place until new uses for the area can be economically justified.  The general plan designates this area for further mixed use, expanding the concept of the Petaluma Station Area.

Looking at these areas versus the five parameters of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development yields these insights:

Population Density: Until the development of the TOD site, the population density of the area will be poor.  The East D Street neighborhood is the only source of residents and it’s a relatively non-dense setting.

Physical Form: The blocks are bigger than might be preferred for convenient walking.  More importantly, Lakeville and E. Washington Streets are major arterials.  They are legitimately perceived as barriers to safe or comfortable pedestrian access. 

Car Dependence: In Petaluma, and in most North Bay cities, car dependence remains high.  There are few areas where people can live convenient car-free lives.  Perhaps the Petaluma Station Area will become one of those areas, but that won’t happen for many years.  Even the early residents of the TOD will likely do many of their daily chores by automobile.

Amenities: Not surprisingly given the low density, there are few amenities in the station area.  There are shopping opportunities in the River Plaza and along E. Washington Street, but the offerings are limited and the access difficult except by car.  And there are no schools or cultural opportunities in the area.

Proximity to Employment: SMART is convinced that jobs are readily accessible at other stations along the rail line.  Which is a good thing because there are few jobs in the proximity of the downtown Petaluma station.  The largest source of employment is probably the industrial area on the other side of E. Washington Street.  Or perhaps River Plaza.  But neither is conveniently accessible to pedestrians and both offer sufficient parking to make the train an unlikely travel option.

Overall, except for the vacant parcels on which the conceived TOD would be constructed, the area around the downtown Petaluma SMART station is spectacularly unsuited for a TOD.  And other North Bay cities would likely report the same.

This doesn’t mean that TOD is a bad idea.  What it means is that we’ve constructed a world that has diverged excessively from the land uses we’ll need in the future.  And that the transitions back will be long and arduous.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Great article, though since I work at the Petaluma Arts Center, which is right next to where the new station will be, I do disagree with the statement "there are no schools or cultural opportunities in the area" - not only do we have 6 exhibitions/year, we also have classes for kids and adults. I think this does classify as cultural...

    1. Taylor, you're correct. In my mental map, I skipped over the Arts Center. Apologies for my omission. I think the cultural opportunities are still deficient, but certainly not completely absent.

    2. No apology needed, Dave - we're still getting our name out there. I just like to make sure it gets out there as often as possible! And I definitely agree that there could be more cultural opportunities nearby, and hope that we can be the centerpiece for that.

  2. Having recently a BART tour of a selected sampling of five or six current and future TOD sites in the East Bay, I'm eager for a followup to this post that would suggest ways to make TOD workable in the Petaluma station area. The obstacles and limitations are even more daunting to me now that I have been informed by my eye-opening tour, courtesy of the author of this blog!