Monday, April 1, 2013

Red Barn: Concluding Thoughts

In my last two posts, I wrote about the proposed Red Barn project in Petaluma.  In the first post, I wrote that the StrongTowns theory about financial sustainability of land uses shows the current proposal to be flawed.  I also wrote that the compromises proposed by many in the community would move the project further from sustainability.

In the second post, I offered an alternative development plan that would be more financially sustainable.  In place of up to 93 large single-family homes, I suggested perhaps 200 compact homes in a pocket neighborhood configuration, with provision for retail and a bus stop.

As anticipated, my alternative proposal received attention.  Most readers began with astonishment.  Some progressed into disbelief and disappointment that I could offer a concept that they found unacceptable.  Others gradually acknowledged the possible merit of my suggestion and its worthiness for future consideration.  Both responses are good, because they give the opportunity for ongoing discussion.  As one reader noted “If you don’t attract the occasional arrow, you aren’t challenging people to think.”

As a start to that further discussion, I’ll offer responses to several comments that were elicited.

Urbanist Advocacy: Some readers were surprised by my advocacy for urban fringe development over urban core development.  That was a misunderstanding of my intention.  I offered the 200-home concept solely as an alternative to the proposals currently under review, as a way of illustrating the fatal flaw in the current plans.  My preference remains that near-term residential growth focus on urban core as much as possible.

Nor did I argue that the 200-home concept would be superior to the no-development alternative.  That decision must await a detailed plan and further study.  My only argument was that the 200-home plan was superior to any other plan now under consideration.

However, it’s worth remembering that serious institutional impediments remain to urban-core development.  As much as I believe that most development should occur in the core, it’s likely that development will also continue on the fringes.

Park Alternative: Some argued that the best use of the Red Barn site is as an addition to the adjoining Helen Putnam Park.  It’s a beguiling thought, especially when the hills are covered in their springtime coats of green.

But there are hurdles to that idea.  There are limited funds for open space acquisition.  I can’t guess whether funds would be available for the land purchase.

More importantly, the site is within the Petaluma city limits.  Given the current municipal financial distress, it seems unlikely that the city would be willing to accept the operation and maintenance expenses for another park.

Smaller Project: One reader posed the question of whether a smaller pocket neighborhood, of perhaps 100 compact homes, might be a good solution.

It’s certainly possible.  And I would suggest that any future Environment Impact Study (EIS) of the 200-home plan include a 100-home plan as an alternative.  However, I’d note that the efficiencies of scale may favor the larger project.  Also, the retail and transit options may become unsupportable with fewer homes.

Transect Repair: One reader asked what transects could tell us about he Red Barn site.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, transects are to urban planning codes what zones are to conventional zoning ordinances.  Transects describe the size and location of land uses and buildings that should occur at increasing distances from the urban core.  T1 is the Natural Zone.  The numbers increase from there up to T6, which the Urban Core Zone.

Within Petaluma, transects are only applied to the land within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.  The remainder of the City uses zones.  However, it’s reasonable to use transects as a tool to talk about development alternatives.

The reader suggested that the less intense transects would be appropriate for the Red Barn site and for most sites at the urban fringe. 

I concur.  If I were planning Petaluma from scratch, I’d put T2, Rural Zone, on the Red Barn site.  Indeed, I’d argue that all of the land on the backside of the hills south and west of downtown should be T1 or T2.

However, there’s a problem with that vision.  Windsor and other subdivisions have already been built beyond hills.  Based on the density of those subdivisions, they are effectively T4 General Urban Zone developments.  But they don’t include the multi-family residential or neighborhood retail prescribed for T4.  This means that they won’t function well in a world that increasingly needs urbanism.

Adding the missing elements of the T4 transect on the Red Barn site is one possible approach to the deficiencies of Windsor.  Adding a small bit of retail and a possible bus stop at one end of Windsor wouldn’t repair all that is wrong with Windsor, but it would be a step in the right direction.

This leaves us with a conundrum.  Do we apply a transect to Red Barn site consistent with what would have been appropriate if we could start with virgin land?  Or do we use the Red Barn site to remediate, at least a little bit, the deficiencies in the surrounding development?  It’s a tough question that can be argued either way.  But I lean toward the latter.  Especially if we can defer Red Barn for a few years so that time can better inform us about the best remediation measures.

Walkability:  Looking at walkability leads us to similar conclusions as transects.

Walk Score is a measure of the walkability, on a scale of 1 to 100, of a home, a neighborhood, or a community.  The score considers the pedestrian accessibility of schools, stores, and community facilities.

The average Walk Score for Petaluma is 55, which is described as Somewhat Walkable.  For comparison, the average Walk Score for San Francisco is 85, which is described as Very Walkable.

The average Walk Score for the Windsor neighborhood is 23, which is described as Car Dependent.  The scoring seems accurate.

Even if we set aside the climate and traffic issues around a Walk Score of 23, there are financial issues around low walkability.  In “Walkable City”, Jeff Speck reports that a single Walk Score point, on a national average, has a $3,000 impact on home value.  Applying this factor to Windsor implies that a Windsor home would be worth nearly an additional $100,000 if it had an average Petaluma walkability.  Over the approximate 400 current Windsor homes, that represents about $40 million in home value and $400,000 in annual property tax revenues.

That number seems somewhat high to me, which isn’t surprising as the $3,000 per Walk Score point is a national average and subject to local variation.  But I can believe that the value of Windsor homes is affected by the lack of walkability.

Adding a walkable community at Red Barn that would also provide walkable destinations for the west end of Windsor wouldn’t erase the walkability issues in Windsor.  But it would be progress.

Environmental Impacts: Some questioned how I could suggest 200 homes when 93 homes were already dubious for environmental impact.  To which I must note that 200 compact homes, even with a small retail element, would likely occupy less land that the up-to-93 homes now proposed.  And the planning flexibility provided by the clustered garages allows for even less environmental impact.

Any conclusive summary of environmental impacts would await an EIS, but it seems likely that the compact home proposal would be the preferred environmental approach.

The point is that not all homes are created equal and that one needs to look deeper than a home count to get a sense of environmental impacts.

Perhaps the only environmental impact that would be greater under the 200-home proposal is traffic.  And even then, with the provision for transit, the potential for reducing the traffic impact over time would be incorporated into the project.

Precedents: Lastly, a question was asked about precedents for my thinking.  Although my Red Barn alternative is an extreme case, Oregon land use law includes elements that support my thinking on the 200-home concept.

The most pertinent Oregon land-use concepts are restrictive urban growth boundaries (UGBs) and minimum densities.  In combination, the two concepts require that development proposals must occur on limited available lands and must include a minimum number of homes.

In essence, what the Oregon land-use model dictates is that land be preserved in a non-urban form for as long as possible.  But when it is finally developed, the development must be sufficiently dense to allow other parcels to be preserved for as long as possible.

If the Red Barn site was within an Oregon UGB, it’s possible that a developer would need to provide 200 or more homes.  And one possible result would be a compact home configuration.

Many don’t concur with the Oregon land-use planning approach, but I find it a logical and reasonable way to treat land as a shared resource, to encourage a dense development pattern, and to minimize environment impacts.

There is undoubtedly more that can and should be said about Red Barn.  But for the moment, it’s time to move on.  I need to find another topic on which I can attract a volley of arrows.

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


  1. You've really opened up the box for thinking about the Red Barn, Dave. I hope this will evoke constructive dialogue in our community planning. It will matter for a long time. What especially stands out to me here is the impact walkability can have on home values, property tax and city income. Having chosen our home four blocks from the post office with walkability as a prime factor, we didn't think about the dollar value at all, just the quality of our health and enjoyment of our neighborhood. We've never regretted it. The walkability index for our block is far above the Petaluma average and I have come to appreciate the difference this makes in more ways than can be put into financial terms, but your rubric is excellent for nuts-and-bolts evaluations of development for community value.

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment. I appreciate your willingness to look at things from different perspectives. I don't know for sure that my transect and walkability analyses are solid, but they feel right to me. And I'm interested to learn what others have to say.

    2. (Note: Comment is by Diane Gentile, who was unable to post the comment herself.) I agree, Barry. Even my stubborn resistance to development of this site has for the first time been challenged by Dave's argument. And while I see the validity for this high-impact theory, I am not at all confident that the infrastructure both on the City side and within the Davidon development would be in place to support it. For instance, there are no plans included in the Davidon proposal for any significant public transportation improvements to and from this site. Further the EIR insufficiently addresses the environmental impact on the city at large. Petaluma clearly needs an updated and comprehensive plan around UGB to address development like Davidon's.

    3. Diane, thanks for the comment. I agree with your thoughts on improvements to D Street. I'm surprised by how many homes have been permitted on the backside of the hills without more street improvements. However, it's worth remembering that D Street improvements would likely have resulted in more traffic than at present. The concept is called "induced traffic" and argues that traffic will increase to fill the available capacity. Whether it's more home construction, people taking a different route to use the improved road, or people being more willing to take trips into town, it's generally understood that streets can't be improved until congestion vanishes. It's a non-intuitive finding that bedevils transportation planners.

      Regarding a comprehensive plan for development near the UGB, the General Plan is the document. But there are two downsides to any General Plan. One, a General Plan is the result of an extended political process, so tends to get fuzzy in the details. (No criticism is intended of the General Plan team. It's just a matter of how politics work.) Two, General Plans are intended to have a life of nearly twenty years. But the reality is that the world can change much more quickly than that, plus we get smarter. So a General Plan often doesn't reflect current thinking. Once again, it's no one's fault. It's just a matter of how the rules work.

  2. I agree - you are expanding the conversation in a way the is illustrative. For this project (and others like it) to be financially viable and not explode the public's expenses over the long term, there needs to be more value (in this case, units/density) provided.

    As you and many are suggesting, this is not a great place for that type of intensity.

    It just reiterates that the most enlightened environmental advocate is not anti-growth but a strong advocate of maturing existing neighborhoods. That this also happens to make good economic sense (for the community - not necessarily the developer) is serendipitous.

    Great series. Please keep up the great dialog.

    1. Charles, thanks for the comment. I agree with you on the role of enlightened environmental advocacy. But nurturing existing neighborhoods is usually non-intuitive. With so many advocates on specific projects having little training in the realities of land use, there is a never-ending need for education.