Monday, May 5, 2014

Summing Up on Neighborhood Parks – Part 3

After cogitating on neighborhood parks for weeks, I have a concept to propose, a concept that may surprise many.  And that’s fine.  Many ideas, some of which turn out to be far-sighted, elicit that initial response.

I’ve recently written several posts about parks, particularly the disappointingly low usage of neighborhood parks, the smaller parks that offer mostly open grass with few amenities and little parking and that are primarily intended to serve the surrounding single-family neighborhoods.

Now, it’s time to offer some thoughts about what might be done with neighborhood parks.

My ideas shouldn’t be considered a screed against neighborhood parks or parks in general.  Indeed, my thinking is the reverse.  Much like encouraging a talented friend stuck in a dead-end job to look for a better opportunity, I’d like to find a way for neighborhood parks to become better used and more essential to the functioning of their communities.

Nor should my ideas be considered the end of the discussion.  Much as many of us have come to urbanism by incremental steps and insights, my hope is that the thoughts I offer here can serve as stepping stones on the path to the best and most practical solutions.

Lastly, I’ll refrain from mentioning parks by name.  There were a number of parks that flitted through my brain as I wrote, some in Petaluma and some in communities far from the North Bay.  But to mention specific parks would risk getting bogged down in details and defenses.  Instead, I encourage readers to explore their own memory banks for neighborhood parks and to plop the template I propose onto those parks.

Here’s the primary idea.  If a neighborhood park is big enough, which probably means at least 3 to 3.5 acres, let’s consider adding a small multi-family building near one end of the park.

This shouldn’t be a standard multi-family box, but something with a particular character.  I’m thinking at least two stories and possibly three.  And fairly small in footprint, perhaps as little as 8,000 square feet.  With three stories, that would provide up to perhaps 15 to 20 residential units ranging in size from 600 to 2,000 square feet.

With the multi-story height, the building would become the focal point of the neighborhood, attracting attention toward the local “downtown”.

The range in unit size would attract a range of tenants, although a particular target would be the seniors who spent much of their lives in the neighborhood.

“Aging in place” is a popular mantra among those active in senior living.  But polls have shown that many seniors want to age in place not because they have a particular attachment to the home in which they raised their families, but because they want to maintain long-time friendships and to continue shopping in the stores they know.  For those seniors, selling the family home and moving into a comfortable apartment a block away might work perfectly.  For seniors who still hope to host family Thanksgiving dinners, 1,500 square feet might be perfect, while others, perhaps widowed, might be most happy in 800 square feet.

If some of the apartments were even smaller, perhaps little more than micro-apartments, they might also attract young and single teachers or police officers who are just beginning their working lives.

With a good mix of apartment sizes, I could see a dynamic community arising.

I’d also argue for at least two of the ground floor units to be configured for retail use.  Perhaps the retail use wouldn’t be financially reasonable at first, so the building owner would be allowed to rent the spaces for residential use in the early years.  But my hope would be that the spaces would eventually house coffee shops where neighborhoods would congregate on Saturday mornings and delis where harried parents could buy ready-to-serve meals after a late day at work.

Also, as Leghorn Park in Petaluma is possibly showing us, there can be symbiosis between retail and park uses.  We’re ultimately a social species.  We’re more likely to have a lingering cup of coffee in an outside café if we’re overlooking a park full of laughing and playing children.

Also, provision should be made for adjoining bus stops.  They might not be used at first, but would allow plan for a future when a homeowner could buy a cup of coffee and then take the bus to the local rail station.

Parking would be a challenge.  Podium parking would be ideal, but financial realities would likely push toward tuck-under parking.

Now, let’s pull our focus back and look at site planning.  I noted that the multi-family building site should be near, but not at, one end of the park.  This configuration would separate small areas of the park from the remainder of the park.  For these small plots, I’d propose community gardens or other biologically productive uses.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a development in Davis called Village Homes.  I didn’t like the construction quality of the homes, but I thought there was much to emulate in the land plan, particularly the use of small parcels for community vineyards and fruit orchards.  It’s this kind of use that I’d propose for the small parcels separated from the rest of the park.

And in the larger part of the remaining park, I’d take hints from successful parks, such as Leghorn and McNear Parks in Petaluma, which offer a multitude of recreational opportunities.  It won’t be reasonable to assume that those multi-use successes can be endlessly cloned, but adding a few more recreational amenities to neighborhood parks would seem reasonable.  Basketball and bocce ball courts would be my top two suggestions, with sand volleyball close behind.  Of course, play equipment would remain as would grass areas for simple games of catch or three-flies-up.

Some may be asking how a city could afford these new improvements.  The answer is that a city need only spend a little seed money.

Let’s assume that a city proposes a new zone which allows multi-family housing to be integrated into an existing park and then conducts the process, including public involvement, to apply the new zone to an existing neighborhood park.   (Yes, I understand that public involvement would be filled with fireworks.  Many new ideas, no matter how well-founded, are greeted with skepticism.)  It’s even possible that grant funds would be available to defray most city expenses for this part of the development process.

The goal would be to present developers with a site where the development would be “by-right”, with the only remaining hurdle being site design and architectural approval.

For a multi-family site that is nearly entitled, a value per unit of $25,000 is often reasonable.  But this concept would require a different architectural and leasing approach.  If we use $10,000 per unit and assume 18 units, that would give us $180,000 in development value.  If instead of taking all cash, a city requires a developer to install the vineyard, fruit orchard, raised beds for community gardening, and/or sports courts, a developer might still bid perhaps $50,000 for the right to build and to own the apartments.

But a city would also collect impact fees from the new development, which may total close to $500,000.  Overall, a city could pocket something like a half-million dollars and get a park that would better suit the needs of its citizens.  Against the extent of the likely deficits looming before many North Bay cities, a half-million dollars may not be much, but it’d be a step in the right direction.  And it would move a neighborhood in a positive direction.

I expect that this idea is neither perfect nor likely to be well-received in most neighborhoods.  Indeed, I expect that a fair number of neighbors would be aghast.  But I like how it works on a number of levels.  Your input would be valued.  Ready, aim, fire.

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


  1. I love the way you not only digest and reinterpret so much useful information, but also so often come up with creative new ideas. This one is no exception. I realize you have reasons not to identify specific parks or locations, but three existing Petaluma parks come to mind - Walnut Park and the under(un?)utilized park-like public spaces adjacent to the library and City Hall. They're both smaller than what you've envisioned, but could all use the added vitality of nearby multi-family/mixed-use (senior?) housing and a set of additional reasons to frequent the park spaces, such as your suggested basketball and bocce courts, gardens and/or sand volleyball.

    1. Steve, thanks for the comment. You identify an interesting triad of parks and open areas. Personally, I'm not sure about Walnut Park. I think it may need a reconfiguration for its current uses, but I like that it's open on all sides. On the other hand, I love the City Hall lawn idea. I've always thought that a finger of urbanism extending into that area would change the neighborhood all the way up to the high school. Kenilworth Park, next to the library, is a puzzle to me. I've never really thought about whether it's currently serving a need and how it might function better. I should take a harder look. Thanks again for writing.

    2. Until now, I had never heard the name Kenilworth Park. It has never felt like a park to me - just an unused section of lawn (with some playground structures) adjacent to the back side of the library. I think it deserves better use and more respect than it has been given over the past decades. I think, however, that I should have suggested a park space nearby that would have better met your suggested criteria - the huge Fairgrounds open-space (and used space to be revisited in a few years by the Fair Board and the City Council). I believe that area is close to the bulls-eye for geographic city center.

    3. Steve, I had to look up the Kenilworth name myself. I agree with you about the fairgrounds and have previously written that a public square at Payran and D, on the current fairgrounds property, would be a great addition to the city parks inventory. Also, I suggested the plaza be adjoined by multi-family housing and retail, accomplishing by design what I can only suggest by retrofit above.