Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Downtown Plazas: The Petaluma Challenge

A few weeks ago, I wrote a pair of posts about urban public places in Petaluma.  I listed the downtown public places that were already in use or well into the planning stage, along with the most evident shortcoming of each.  I noted that downtowns are best supported by strings of public places that fill slightly different niches.  And I suggested that, with some remediation, Petaluma might have a fine set of downtown gathering places.

I went on to suggest that at least one more major park was required, a park that could rival the community value of Healdsburg Plaza or Sonoma Plaza.  I suggested that this missing park be built on a portion of the current fairgrounds site.  I proposed that this new park, which I’ll call Petaluma Square, be edged by businesses showcasing local agriculture, to support local agriculture and to recognize the history of the fairgrounds.

I also proposed that the area around Petaluma Square be filled by multi-family urban development to provide a base level of activity to the square, to which the remainder of the community could add.

Not surprisingly, I received a number of comments.  Most were positive, but some also raised topics that seemed worthy of further response.  My thoughts follow.

Make park bigger: Some thought that I was shortchanging the community by proposing only a square on the fairgrounds site.  They suggested that it would be better to use the entire fairgrounds for Petaluma’s equivalent to New York City’s Central Park.

I appreciate the passion, but disagree.  For one, I don’t know if Petaluma could make good use of a park of that size.  I know that park enthusiasts believe that communities can never have enough park space.  But when I look around the town, I see existing parks that are underused, with far more folks enjoying culture, dining, or shopping.  (The one exception is athletic fields.  Petaluma, like pretty much every community, can use more athletic fields.)

Also, there’s the adjacency issue.  The fairgrounds site is large, but not big enough to hide that it’s tucked between a car-oriented shopping center, a construction yard, and a school bus yard.  Central Park can sell the concept of a wilderness in the city.  I don’t think the fairgrounds site can do the same.

But the biggest issue is financial.  With a long era of government austerity looming before us, it seems a dubious strategy to take a piece of property than can generate significant economic activity and to redirect it to a use that would require government support.  About the only way to make the dollars work would be voter approval of a tax increase that would pay any compensation due to the Fair Board, fund the construction and operation of the park, and make up for the lost revenue from other possible uses of the site.  I doubt anyone believes that’s possible.

Perhaps Petaluma can support its version of Central Park, but if so, it needs to be on the urban fringe, not on a site that can contribute so crucially to the local economy.

Reduce adjacent development: Some thought the idea of the square was okay, but didn’t seen the need for the surrounding retail or residential uses.  They weren’t even sure that the community needed more residential or retail.

To the first comment, I can only point to the squares in Healdsburg and Sonoma.  Those places are energized by the surrounding development.  Petaluma Square without adjoining development would be another Walnut Park, a nice place but without the vibrancy that could be possible.

To the latter comment, the Petaluma General Plan envisions growth to 80,000 people.  Where better to house and to provide services for those new people than in a walkable urban core around an active square?

Make better use of existing parks: Some thought that I was undervaluing the current parks, particularly Walnut Park.

I disagree.  I think I objectively laid out the value and shortcomings of each existing public place.  Walnut Park is a fine setting, but with the development currently surrounding it, it can’t rival the squares of Healdsburg or Sonoma.

Plus, there is a need for a range of public places, with different community events distributed according to the needs of each event.  Healdsburg is finding that their square is becoming overused and is looking to relocate some events.  I can foresee a future in which Walnut Park and Petaluma Square each host a range of events and activities.

Wake us when the date is closer: However, the biggest single response was that my 2035 date for having Petaluma Square in place was impossibly far away.  Those commenters couldn’t see a reason to pay attention to the opportunity for ten or fifteen years.

To which I can only point out that the City and the Fair Board have indicated a willingness to negotiate the future of the fairgrounds this year.  For all we know, the negotiations may already be underway.

I think the urbanist energies of Petaluma should be directed toward the Station Area for the immediate future, which is how I derived the 2035 date for Petaluma Square.  But unless we offer our thoughts and our visions this year or next, the opportunity for Petaluma Square may go away.

It’s the nature of long-range planning for all land uses, but particularly for urbanism.  Sometimes we must plant the seeds for a crop that a future generation will harvest.

I believe in the vision of Petaluma Square.  But getting from today to the square will be a slog.  It’ll have long periods of inactivity, interspersed with opportunities to make key comments or offer crucial support.  And this year may be one of those opportunities.

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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