Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Walkable Urban Hotels and Sonoma's Measure B

The joint meeting of City Repair Petaluma and Petaluma Urban Chat is finally behind us.  It was an enthusiastic and productive meeting.  I’ll offer a summary in my next post.

For now, I’ll return to the subject I’d broached before City Repair began my primary focus, tourism versus urbanism.  To recap, I expressed the concern that well-functioning and attractive urban places become a magnet to tourists.  The possible result is that a wash of tourist feet and dollars undermines what initially made the places well-functioning and attractive.  (It would be a variant of Yogi Berra’s purported line about a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”)

In that opinion, I shared the concerns of the backers of Ballot Measure B in the City of Sonoma.  However, I didn’t agree with the wording of Measure B, finding that it was too blunt an instrument, an opinion to which I clung despite determined attempts by Measure B backers to sway my thinking.

But the dialogue caused me to think about fine hotels I’ve seen in walkable urban settings, particularly settings that have a look and feel similar to the Sonoma Plaza.  (I’ve stayed at some fine value hotels in New York City, but that’s a different topic.)

Two hotels came to mind, one in the Mid-South and the other in the Upper Sacramento Valley.

I haven’t yet stayed there, but as soon as I realized what the developers had done, I fell in love with the River Inn of Harbor Town, in Memphis, Tennessee.   Harbor Town is an urbanist community which I reviewed early in the history of this blog, here and here.  Although nominally located in the city of Memphis, Harbor Town is on an island in the Mississippi River, across from downtown Memphis, so functions as its own community.

The photo above shows what appears to be a small hotel office with a very few hotel rooms upstairs.  But the hotel is more expansive than that.  Hotel rooms are located above several storefronts along the main retail street of Harbor Town.

The diffuse location is probably a management challenge.  During my brief visit, I watched a crew wheel a cleaning cart down a sidewalk.  But the configuration doesn’t interfere with the neighborhood retail core either architecturally or functionally.  It’s a brilliant concept that I’ve love to see elsewhere.

I didn’t note a parking location for the River Inn, but suspect that parking is provided by street parking and use of the retail center parking lot a short distance away.

The Hotel Diamond in Chico, California takes a different, but still effective, approach.  A complete reconstruction of a historic hotel that had a brief period of prominence early in the 20th century, the Hotel Diamond occupies a narrow lot, but incorporates a fair number of rooms into a four-plus story building on a deep lot.  Parking is provided in a municipal garage on the other side of a pedestrian alley.

Although the Hotel Diamond is a relatively massive building for downtown Chico, it’s location a half-block from the downtown couplet mostly hides that bulk.  From the city plaza only a few hundred feet away, the only visual evidence of the hotel is the quirky widow’s walk atop the structure.

Although every community is different, it’s worth looking at the River Inn and Hotel Diamond versus Sonoma’s Measure B.  The River Inn has 28 rooms and the Hotel Diamond has about 40 rooms, so both would be prohibited under Measure B.

Neither Harbor Town nor Chico has the tourist load of Sonoma.  The River Inn is the only lodging in Harbor Town, so most folks on the sidewalks live in the community.  There a couple of budget lodging options in downtown Chico, but most of downtown pedestrians are either Chico State students or local residents.  So neither the River Inn nor Hotel Diamond is facilitating a tourist overload.

On the other hand, from my casual observation, the tourists in Sonoma do seem to be pushing the  locals away from the plaza.  I was in Sonoma for brunch last Sunday.  Obviously, I didn’t wander the restaurant checking on zipcodes, but my sense was that the establishment was largely filled with folks who didn’t call Sonoma home.  And the same was true of the sidewalks.

A couple of example hotels and an unscientific assessment of a Sunday afternoon outing don’t prove anything.  But neither do they shake my initial concerns about Sonoma.  There is a legitimate worry about the local flavor being lost among the tourists.  But a cap on the rooms in individual hotels is the wrong tool.

Given the forces that work against urbanism, it is crucial to devise urban preservation tools that are carefully crafted to achieve the desired effect.  Whether through citizen backlash or court challenges, poorly crafted urbanist tools may create more problems than they solve.  Measure B still feels like trying to repair a fine watch with a ballpeen hammer.

In other North Bay hotel news, the Kessler Collection has withdrawn their proposal for a new Healdsburg hotel.  They report that they intend to rework the site plan before resubmittal.  From the rendering that was offered, I hope they can find a way to make the look less formal, to make it more compatible with the small town feel that Healdsburg hopes to retain.  Perhaps the River Inn or Hotel Diamond can offer useful hints.

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

1 comment:

  1. So as the title says - its walkable urban hotels, so I assume these places are pretty close to malls, leisure parks and other major city hubs.

    Hotel in Bryce Canyon