Friday, November 1, 2013

Can Urbanism and Tourism Coexist?

Even those who are slow to grasp urbanism as a setting for daily life are often eager to be urbanists while on vacation.  It’s appealing to check into a hotel, to toss one’s car keys into the room safe, and to spend several days wandering by foot and by transit.

A few years back, I met several friends in New York City for a week of baseball and beer.  We stayed in a mid-town hotel and rode Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, and the subway to thirteen ballgames in eight days.  We used rubber-tired vehicles for only five short trips, four cab rides and a jaunt in a police cruiser.  (The last is a story for another time.)  It was a week of being committed urbanists and loving it.

But a key part of an urbanist vacation is rubbing shoulders with people who live there.  On our baseball trip, it was essential that we ate in restaurants, drank in bars, and cheered at ballgames with people who were living their lives in the cities we visited.  The trip wouldn’t have been the same without the conversation with the group of women baseball fans in a Philadelphia bar or being surrounded by observant Jews in New York’s Citifield.

There can be tourist settings where all the other people in the shops and restaurants are also tourists.  Disneyland is a good example.  But Disneyland isn’t where I choose to spend my vacation time.  I prefer authenticity.  And I’m not alone in that preference.

However, authentic walkable urbanism, if too attractive, can be drowned by a flood of tourists.  There can be a fine line between a place that is a marvelous spot to live and a place that is overrun by outsiders.

This issue is currently causing controversy in Sonoma.  A ballot measure has been proposed that would limit the size of new hotels and modify the approval standards.  The Press Democrat recently offered a report on a town forum about Ballot Measure B and an in-depth look at the how the debate is roiling the community.

In general, I’m sympathetic to the attempt.  I love downtown Sonoma and want it to remain the place where Sonomans go to enjoy their community.  And, even though I might be considered a tourist, I love hanging out in Sonoma Plaza.

But I have concerns with how Measure B is written.  For one, it limits new hotels to 25 units or fewer.  But 25 units is below the economic threshold for most hotel models.  Perhaps the only lodging formats that work at or below 25 units are bed and breakfast establishments and lodges for the uber-rich.  That seems an odd pair of exclusions.

Also, most of the Measure B standards apply until the average occupancy for a year reaches 80 percent.  For a town place with many weekend visitors, 80 percent seems unlikely.

Given a blank slate, what rules might I propose to protect a walkable urbanist setting?  I suggest three.

First, I’d bump the room count restriction to 75.  That number would allow more formats while still excluding stultifying mega-hotels.

Second, no hotel would be permitted if, in an average week, the people who pass along the sidewalks of a walkable urbanist core are more than 25 percent hotel guests or more than 40 percent hotel guests plus day visitors.  This standard would allow the locals to continue to feel as if the community is theirs.

Also, this standard would continue to allow hotels that serve people who are only looking for a place to sleep with no intention of sampling the community and hotels that serve people who are in the town for work and go directly to an office.

Lastly, recognizing that hotel entries can be pedestrian dead zones, no hotel would be allowed to occupy more than 100 feet of street frontage unless it provides amenities, such as restaurants, pubs, or shops, that can be reasonably expected to also serve the local community.

I’ll admit that only the first standard is fully objective.  The latter two are subject to interpretation and alternative judgments.  But both get to the core of the concern about community preservation more than Measure B.

I’m not a Sonoma resident.  But if I were, I’d probably vote against Ballot Measure B.  And then I’d encourage the proponents to try again with a better crafted measure.  What they’re trying to preserve is worth saving, but the effort must be more skillful than the current attempt.

Tourism and urbanism can coexist, but the relationship must be managed with care.

Other Hotel News

This topic of tourism versus urbanism has been on my schedule for several weeks.  But it’s coincidental that its time rolled around today.  Several months ago, I wrote that I had secured a consulting role on a proposed hotel in downtown Petaluma.  That hotel, which is now called The Petaluman, has taken major steps forward in the past few weeks.

The developer submitted the application to the City of Petaluma yesterday afternoon.  There are still issues to be resolved, but yesterday was is an important step.

The current proposal for room count is 54, with the both hotel guests and local residents able to enjoy a lobby bistro, a rooftop bar overlooking Petaluma Boulevard (prime seating for Butter and Eggs Days), and an underground bar for late night music.

As those who follow California land-use planning know, application submittal is a milestone, but it doesn’t mean that shovels will be turning dirt any time soon.  One observer of the city process estimated that securing entitlements would take eleven months.  We’re hoping to do better, but understand the possible timeframe.

As much as I can without divulging strategy points or undermining important negotiations, I’ll keep you informed on the progress of the application.

By the way, The Petaluman will comply with all of the tourism versus urbanism restrictions that I suggest above.

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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  2. Thanks to the Petaluma Urban Chat, I have gotten additional information about the design features of the proposed Petaluman at Western & the Boulevard, and I have learned that it would offer even more community benefits than I had learned from earlier press reports. It appears to me that not only will it complement the streetscape of our historic downtown, it will provide a community focal point for meet-ups and dining. I am especially keen on the wind-protected rooftop greenery and gathering potential. I hope the planning department, Planning Commission, and City Council will recognize that value of a well-styled downtown hotel for visitors, locals and our economic vitality.

    I will look forward to your followup comments about the town of Sonoma. Thirty years ago, when my family and I were scouting out a good location for a lifelong residence in Sonoma County, the high proportion of cars and tourists to locals in the very appealing plaza and downtown crossed that location right off our list, despite the lovely reconnaissance visits we had there. (I also perceived a troubling level of wealth/income disparity underscored by flooding of cars and tourists.)

    1. Barry, thanks for the comments. I suspect that The Petaluman enjoys broad support from a number of places. But entitlement will still be a long and complex process.

      I understand your concern about Sonoma. However, from my casual observations, I don't think the income disparity occurs as much within Sonoma as between Sonoma and communities immediately adjoining it, particularly to the north.