Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Balancing Vision and Expediency

A pundit in a local newspaper recently penned an opinion piece about the pending Petaluma Station Area Plan.  In it, he called for “flexibility” in the implementation of the plan, suggesting that earlier land-use plans had languished in the absence of flexibility.

I wrote a response that acknowledged common ground and areas of possible disagreement.  I concurred that flexibility in looking at alternative ways of meeting the community goals was to be encouraged.  But using flexibility to disregard community goals was a poor idea.  Regarding the latter, I noted that “After decades of that kind of flexibility, we’re largely locked into land uses that are car-dependent, that have increasingly ominous environmental consequences, and that we can’t afford to maintain.”

My concluding paragraph was “Flexibility to draw on the creative ideas of multiple people to implement the core values of the community?  That’s a fine idea.  Flexibility as an excuse to again bypass those core values?  That idea should be a non-starter.”

The timing of the exchange was prescient.  Within days, the City of Santa Rosa was faced with a pair of decisions for which they had to balance immediate development versus long-term community goals.

The first decision was about the future of the New Railroad Square mixed-use project, once a highly-touted transit-oriented development adjoining the Railroad Square SMART station that will be in operation by 2015.  Due to a weak economy, the loss of California redevelopment, and other changing conditions, the proposed project had been greatly scaled back and now included only a small portion of the units initially intended.

By a 4-3 vote, the Santa Rosa City Council decided that what little remained of the New Railroad Square project wasn’t worth continuing.  Instead, they felt it was better to await better economic conditions when a more comprehensive project might again be feasible.

Barely had that decision been made before a similar conundrum was posed in downtown Santa Rosa.  A developer had proposed to reconfigure the former AT&T building into ground floor public space, with office and residential on the floors above.  Now, faced with a looming deadline and an increasingly convoluted financing package, he was proposing to eliminate the floors that would have included the residential.

The two decisions posed the same question of balance.  Given a long-term vision of what the community wants to become, the short-term economic issues that delay that vision, and the desire for economic activity to keep the local work force employed and cash registers clicking, what are the best decisions for public bodies?

Before offering my thoughts, let me say that I sympathize with the public bodies that must make these decisions.  The choices are impossibly multi-faceted.  It’s hard to believe that people actually compete to occupy the hot seats.

With that said, I think a key factor in the decision must be one’s belief in how land-use patterns will evolve over the next ten or twenty years.  If one believes that the status quo will be maintained indefinitely, then going for the immediate development makes sense.  Why delay the inevitable?

But if that is what someone believes, they haven’t been paying attention for the past decade.

I visited about urbanism with a number of engineering professionals in 2001 and 2002.  They felt urbanism was a fad that would make a few inroads, but not dramatically change the faces of our cities.  They were wrong.  Urbanism is the now the predominant form of growth in metropolises and is gaining on drivable suburbia elsewhere.

And those successes have been achieved despite the institutional biases against urbanism.  The growth of urbanism would certainly have even faster if gasoline prices had reflected the true economic and geopolitical cost of oil, if the construction liability laws had been revised to make multi-family development less troublesome, and if mortgage lending standards had ceased favoring single-family homes.

So I suspect that the Santa Rosa City Council got the New Railroad Square decision correct.  I don’t have all of the data that they did, but if their decision was based on the expectation that urbanism would continue to grow, giving the opportunity in a few years for a project that would meet all of the initial goals, it was likely a good decision.

And I hope that the City Council reaches a similar decision on the AT&T building.  Adding residents to downtown is too important to let an opportunity slip away.

In both cases, I feel sympathy for the developer and the development team.  I’ve been on teams that didn’t receive approvals.  It’s not an enjoyable experience.  But the long-term good of the community is what ultimately matters.

However, I must close with a note of caution.  Although I believe that putting a finger on the scale to tilt land-use decisions toward urbanism is correct, it must still be a balance.  Urbanists who would deny every project until it achieves their perfect vision of urbanism are equally in the wrong with those who would approve every project in the name of economic activity.  Good public service requires considering all factors, including one’s beliefs about where land use is going, and then making solid, balanced decisions.

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


  1. Another great post Dave. The complexities of urban development are endless. These two projects are of particular interest in that they will have a significant effect on Santa Rosa’s character and future development. The Railroad Square project in particular will hugely effect the currently small and distinct Railroad Square District making it imperative to be a well-thought-out and “comprehensive” project. Although I predict the SMART station itself will alone greatly impact the feel of the area and traffic flow of the area.

    1. Schuyler, thanks for the comment. It's unfortunate that the Railroad Square development has been deferred, but it will hopefully return more full of vigor than ever.