Monday, February 3, 2014

Gradations of Smart

We often think of the world as binary.  Black versus white.  Liberals versus conservatives.  American League versus National League.  Good versus evil.  Cal versus Stanford.  It’s a convenient way to organize our thinking.  But world usually isn’t nearly as binary as our brains would like to make it.

Land use also falls into the seductive trap.  The distinction between “drivable suburban” and “walkable urban” is a convenient dichotomy and certainly one that I use.  But not all drivable suburban developments are equally car-dependent or harmful to municipal bottom lines.  Nor do all urbanist projects take advantage of their urbanist potential to the same extent.

A currently proposed project in Petaluma illustrates the point.

The Maria Drive Apartments would occupy a wedge-shaped parcel of land on the east side of Petaluma.  The site is located within easy walking distance of the Washington Square shopping center and the McDowell Elementary School.  It’s also close to a Petaluma Transit bus transfer station from which buses run to all points of the city, including the regional rail station now under construction.

The site is currently occupied by aging office buildings, mostly of a single story, sparsely populated by tenants largely but not exclusively in the medical field.  The previous master plan seemed to have anticipated six buildings, but only four were built.  The buildings and pavement are now in steep decline, nearing the end of their design lives.  The project never reached full fruition and is now failing.  Replacement seems appropriate and reasonable.

The proposed apartment development would raze the existing buildings and replace them with 144 units of luxury apartments.
In its initial project review, the City Council asked for a reduction in the number of units and an alternative
architecture with less apparent mass.  Although claiming that any reduction in unit count would undermine financial feasibility, the developer returned to the City Council with new architecture last week.  The Council was generally pleased and directed staff, on a split vote, to proceed with the next step toward entitlement.

During the public hearing before the Council decision, several speakers who supported the project described it as “smart growth”.  (This is where I insert my standard disclaimer about preferring “walkable urban” to “smart growth” because I prefer not to slander as “dumb” those who haven’t yet seen the light of urbanism.  But the battle seems lost and I’m fighting a rear-guard action.)

I agree with the speakers who described the current proposal as smart growth.  Especially in comparison to the current failing office project, the apartment project is brilliant.  Putting more residents within walking distance of daily destinations while reducing pressure on the Urban Growth Boundary is always good.  But is the site plan as smart as it could be?

A hint comes in one of the actions required by the City for the project to proceed.  The General Plan must be modified to change the designation of the site from Mixed Use to High Density Residential.  Is this a necessary change?  Could the site support a mixed-use component?

I don’t see any reason why not.  Given the changing nature of retail, the site wouldn’t support a large amount of retail, but a convenience grocer and small deli would likely find a market.  Furthermore, small office spaces or live-work units might retain some of the current site tenants.

Also, I like to see a redesign to provide a parking field that could be redeveloped into more multi-story buildings in the future if the demand for parking decreases and the demand for housing increasing.  (The Petaluma Station Area includes a similar concept.)

Next, I’d suggest that the access within the site become city streets rather than private drive aisles.  I know that the increased maintenance would be a new burden on the municipal budget, but the new property value should be more than adequate to support the additional infrastructure.  Plus, the public streets would encourage additional use of the site by the public and perhaps allow the Jane Jacobs fine-grain pattern that would support periodical regeneration.

Lastly, I would ask for the new street grid to have a stub pointed toward the back of Washington Square.  It may seem puzzling to make provision for access into the service area of a shopping center, but the world of retail is changing.  I drove through Washington Square yesterday and noted three or four vacancies without counting the empty building that would be razed if a proposed gas station can secure approvals.  And with new retail developments opening elsewhere in the community, filling open spaces won’t be easy.

I can conceive of a future when a portion of Washington Square is demolished and one of the drive aisles within the shopping center converted to a public street that would connect with a public street on the Maria Drive site.  This new link would provide convenient pedestrian access to the remaining elements of Washington Square for all who live along the segment of Maria Drive, such as expanding Addison Ranch apartment complex.

At the bottom line, what’s wrong with the current proposal?  It’s not smart enough.  Except for better architecture and a better site, it’s not really very different from the first apartment I rented in my post-college days.  And that was 1976.

If I may stretch the smart analogy for a moment, the current proposal has an I.Q of 110.  Nicely above average and securely in the range of “smart”, but not nearly as good as possible.  In many parts of Petaluma, a site plan I.Q. of 110 would represent a fine step forward.  But this site can support more “smartness”.  It needs a site plan with an I.Q of 135.  The site is too good not to reach for a higher level of urbanism.

If I’d had a vote, I would have voted against the proposal, with a suggestion to the developer to seek a more urbanist plan.  It wasn’t a decision I would have reached lightly.  And I’m well aware that not a single Planning Commissioner or City Councilmember reached this same decision.  I’m fine with that.  I believe that the Petaluma of 2050 would be a better place with the type of site plan that I propose.  On this issue, I care more about those future residents than about compromising with current thinking.

As consideration is made of new projects elsewhere in the North Bay, I hope the question that is asked is not “Is it smart?”, but “It is as smart as it might be?”

Schedule Notes

Maria Drive Apartments: The apartment project described above will return to the City Council agenda this evening, Monday, February 3.  The meeting convenes at 7:00pm in the Petaluma City Hall.  However, the climactic meeting appeared to have been this past Monday.  Tonight, it seems like that the Council is prepared to move the project ahead, although still not unanimously.

River Front: On the same City Council agenda this evening is the River Front project, a mixed-use project bounded by Lakeville Street, Highway 101, and the Petaluma River.  It’s a project on which I’ve previously offered a few thoughts.  In general, I like the concept.  It has a central green adjoined by a hotel, office buildings, and retail space.  Multi-family and small lot single-family housing is further from the green, but still within walking distance.

The concept is a fine application of urbanist thinking, adjusted to fit real world site constraints.  My only concern is that the site is isolated.  By not being adjoined by other mixed-use settings, many of the daily tasks of life must still be accomplished by car, undermining the intent of walkable urban development.  However, that’s a typical growing pain of urbanism.  One project must lead the way.  As other, similar projects follow on adjoining lands, a more complete urban community will evolve.

The City Council will be considering the Draft Environmental Impact Report (Draft EIR).  It seems likely a few concerns will be raised, but probably nothing that can’t be addressed as the EIR is finalized.

Petaluma Urban Chat:  Another meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat is approaching.  We’ll meet on Tuesday, February 11.  We’ll convene at 5:30 at the Aqus Cafe at 2nd and H Streets.  The discussion will begin at 5:45.

Last month, we concluded our discussion of “The Smart Growth Manual”.  Because of a number of speakers during the latter half of 2013, our discussion of the book was rather disjointed, which is a shame because it has much information to impart.  However, it will form the basis for several posts as 2014 proceeds.

At Urban Chat next week, I propose that we select a new urbanism book for reading and discussion in the coming months.  If you enjoy this blog, please join us on the 11th.

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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