Friday, April 12, 2013

Downtown Plazas: The Petaluma Opportunity

In my last post, I wrote about the fine downtown plazas in Healdsburg and Sonoma, the regret of some that Petaluma doesn’t have a similar town square, and my thought that Petaluma’s incomplete string of promising public places might ultimately be more important to the community, although a square would still be nice.

Near the end, I offered a hint that there might be “one more exciting possibility” to add to the discussion of Petaluma public places.  Today, I’ll fill in that blank.

Several months ago, I wrote about upcoming negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma-Marin Fair Board over the fairgrounds.  The fairgrounds are City property, currently leased to the Fair Board under a fifty-year deal that will expire in the next decade.

The Fair Board would like to stay in place and argues that securing a new lease now will allow them to borrow money for new site improvements.

The City may be willing to accommodate the Fair Board’s request for early negotiations, but must first consider whether the City should reclaim some of the property.  The fairgrounds are a key parcel of land, only a short distance from downtown.  But there are a number of potential issues to be considered before the City can take back land, including the possibility of the fair operating with less land, the possible need to find a new site for the fairgrounds, and the disposition of the existing site improvements.

In my previous post, I argued that the fairgrounds had too much community value to continue with a primary use that operates for less than a week per year and secondary uses that occupy only a small portion of the site.  However, I also suggested that the agricultural aspects of the fair should be included in site redevelopment.

So, let’s draw in the final lines of the sketch.  Imagine that you’re a Petaluma resident in the year 2035.  As you move down D Street toward the fairgrounds, what do you see?  Extending in either direction on the northeast side of Payran Street, occupying a portion of the old fairgrounds, would be a town square.

The dimensions of the square might be 250 feet along Payran and 200 feet deep.  That would be slightly smaller than the 300 feet by 250 feet of Healdsburg Square, but it’d be a minor concession to the economic realities of the 21st century.

I’d prefer that the square be centered on D Street, much as Sonoma Plaza is centered on Broadway, but the notch in the corner of the fairgrounds property for the Petaluma Library may not allow it.  That can be a design decision.

The square would be enclosed by a local street.  On the other side of the street, scattered among general retail outlets such as a grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, and bookstore, would be stores marketing the best of Sonoma County agricultural bounty.  Perhaps several wine tasting rooms, a cheese shop or two, a butcher shop, and a couple of farm-to-table restaurants.  Maybe even a micro-brewery.

The amenities in the plaza would include typical town square facilities, such as a bandstand and a play area.  But it would also include a place for a standing farmers market, which would be filled by a rotation of local farmers.  Residents and visitors would be assured of being always able to pick among the best of Sonoma County produce.

Beyond the square and its retail encirclement would be new residential and mixed-use development, likely including many of the secondary uses now on the fairgrounds.  The whole would be a walkable neighborhood with the town square as its center.  It could be the best square in the North Bay, eclipsing Healdsburg and Sonoma.

I began the description with the phrase “move down D Street”.  How did you visualize yourself moving?  On foot?  Maybe, but the distance from the SMART station would be near the outer limit of normal walkability.  By car?  Perhaps, but I hope we don’t undermine the walkability of the development around the square with too much parking.

My mental image is of riding a streetcar.  A streetcar that would have a terminus in the new town square and would link the redeveloped fairgrounds, Station Area, and downtown.  Perhaps it would even continue up D Street to a far terminus in the village green at a compact home development on the Red Barn site, delivering fairgrounds residents to the walking trails of Helen Putnam Park without the use of cars.

Is this vision of a town square acting a showplace for local agriculture surrounded by a walkable community connected to downtown by streetcar possible?  Yes, it is.  But it won’t happen easily.

Many of the elements are consistent with the goals of the Fair Board and City.  Support local agriculture?  Check.  Create a more walkable community?  Check.  Create more ridership for SMART?  Check.

But the details I propose above may not be consistent with the initial visions of either the City or the Fair Board.  If a Petaluma town square is going to be born on the fairgrounds, it’ll take years of community lobbying.  What Harmon Heald could do for Healdsburg and what General Mariano G. Vallejo could do for Sonoma would take a host of people to do for Petaluma.  It’s how things work in our time.  Although having multiple fathers and mothers might actually be a good thing.  Let’s make it happen.

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


  1. No wonder you gave us a hint of this in your last post! The opportunity presented here was well worth the buildup! Clearly there are innumerable challenges and issues to reckon with, but the possibility you have described offers even more benefits than you have mentioned or could mention in one blog. The beauty of your advocacy of great urban design is to illuminate such possibility to non-planners such as me. If the city ultimately does elect to keep the fair in its current site, a town square in a corner of the site could ADD value to the fair and make it more appealing. Both the new town square and the fair would be readily accessible from the rail station, from the Regency Center and from downtown. With improved pedestrian/bike passage over/under the freeway, it is also very close to the east side, making a real and vibrant east-west connection! If the fair is moved, then a town square here would enhance virtually every other likely use of the space. In my two decades plus in Petaluma, I have been privileged to witness and sometimes be part of an several inspiring community undertakings. This vision encompasses and energizes many of them and offers a solid foundation for sustainable civic and economic vitality greater than any of them!

    1. Barry, your enthusiasm is much appreciated. I hope we can build a broad base of similar enthusiasm for the concept.