Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Downtown Plazas: The Petaluma Reality

Healdsburg Plaza was recently named one of the thirteen most beautiful town squares in the U.S.  Rankings like these are popularity contests.  And it seems odd to name thirteen squares.  Ten, twelve, or fifteen would have all been more conventional counts.

But those quibbles aside, Healdsburg Square is a lovely place.  I walked through the square last month, enjoying the setting and the sense of a community celebrating the start of spring.  In the North Bay, I’d give the edge to Sonoma Plaza, but it’s a slight personal preference between two fine choices.

But the presence of these two lovely town squares in the North Bay raises the question of why there aren’t more town squares.  A friend emailed me bemoaning the absence of a town square in Petaluma.

My answer was that town squares are usually historical flukes with roots that usually go back a century or more.  They are the result of the early days of settlement when sole landholders owned enough property to create a plaza and still have other holdings that would benefit from the plaza.

If the landowner was a developer, he might have decided that a plaza would help sell real estate.  If the owner styled himself more of a benefactor, he might have decided that a plaza would provide good to the community.  Healdsburg had the former and Sonoma had closer to the latter.

It’s rare by our time that sufficient land holdings exist to create new plazas.  Although the Windsor Town Green may prove the exception.

In Petaluma, we didn’t have an early real estate tycoon or community philanthropist who saw fit to gift the town with a downtown plaza on the scale of Healdsburg Square.

But that doesn’t mean that Petaluma is bereft of useful public places.  The Project for Public Spaces argues for a “rule of ten”.  They contend that a community must have at ten functional public places in a walkable core before it may be considered fully walkable.  Without trying very hard, I can name at least ten in Petaluma.  But none of them are perfect public places.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem.  It may have an execution problem.

Walnut Park is roughly the size of Healdsburg Plaza, with the key difference being that the surrounding land uses are residential and low-density retail, compared to the more upscale retail in Healdsburg.  The park amenities are also less elaborate, although that’s probably the result of the adjacent uses not pushing the park upward.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has an adjacency problem.

Putnam Plaza is well located for public use, but the design encourages people to pass through rather than to linger.  Nor do the surrounding uses promote pausing in the plaza.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has a design problem.

 St. Vincent’s Plaza is well-executed and a fine place to sit and ponder.  But the pedestrian links to downtowns lack interest.   Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has a connectivity problem.

Penry Park is a fine size for a plaza.  But it sits above and aloof from its surroundings.  Perhaps it sits on the north edge of downtown, but maybe the downtown never grew in its direction because Penry Park didn’t provide a welcoming public place.  Elevation challenges can be difficult, but Pioneer Square in Portland embraces its elevation change.  Penry Park wears its elevation change like a millstone.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has a grading problem.

Water Street between E. Washington Street and Western Street was envisioned as a pedestrian way, with a public market along the river attracting throngs on foot.  It never happened, in part because a late compromise allowed parking on the street and in part because the surface was laid with paving stones that many find difficult to walk upon.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has a decision-making problem.

The Trolley Trestle functioned for years as a public meeting place and as a location for festivals.  But time and rot took their tolls and trestle now sits derelict, hoping for a multi-million dollar makeover.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has a rot problem.

The Petaluma Station Area has several well-conceived public places, the landing on the east end of the Balshaw Bridge, the green near where the Grocery Outlet is now located, the amphitheatre at the corner of the Turning Basin, the grand steps next to the amphitheatre, and the first block of Transverse Street leading away from the SMART station.  But the plan has yet to be adopted and development may be years away.  Petaluma may not have a plaza problem, it has an implementation problem.

And there is one more exciting possibility that deserves enough attention that I’ll defer a discussion until my next post.

Petaluma may lack a single glorious town square like Healdsburg or Sonoma.  But it could have something better, a string of walkable destinations that would connect together to provide a more complete community.  To bring that concept to fruition may take elbow-grease, but the effort is hopefully within the political will of the community.

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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