Monday, July 7, 2014

Petaluma Urban Chat: Looking at the Fairgrounds

Petaluma Urban Chat is a citizens group that has been meeting for about two years.  Generally oriented around this blog, the group, which usually numbers between six and twelve at its monthly meetings, has gone in numerous directions over the past twenty-four months, from wide-ranging conversations about local land-use issues to a video chat with StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn on the financial justifications for urbanism to a string of speakers on local projects.

Most recently, largely at my urging, we tried functioning as a book club.  I always have an urbanist book or two on my reading table.  I thought it would be good to have others reading the same books and exchanging thoughts.

But the book club has gone the way of most book clubs.  Not everyone reads the book.  Some read it two months in advance and remember the key points differently that the ones who read it the day of the meeting.  And so the conversation wanders far afield, only occasionally touching upon the book.

As a result, the Urban Chat group decided at the June meeting to try something different.  We’ll attempt to focus deeply on one particular land-use issue.  In most cases, we wouldn’t know as much as the developer, property owner, or City, but we’d have our own perspectives on the urban-type development that we think would make Petaluma a better place.

The initial land use we choose to ponder was the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The discussion will begin at our meeting of July 8.

As short background on the fairgrounds, it was established a century ago on a site to the east of Petaluma as it then existed.  The intention was to provide a place for a celebration of local agriculture combined with camaraderie for a handful of days each June.

To this day, the Sonoma Marin Fair remains the primary use of the fairgrounds, although there are other users during the remainder of the year.  A charter school is one of the primary tenants.  And a racetrack is used regularly for auto racing during the summer months.

The fairgrounds have performed admirably.  But over its life, Petaluma has changed.  Residential development reached the fairgrounds and then circled around it, extending far to the east.  The freeway came to town, passing only a short distance from the fairgrounds.

But even as the community changed around it, the fair continued in its traditional role, occupying 63 acres of land owned by the City and paying an annual lease of $1.

The current lease will expire in 2023.  Negotiations are now underway, and have been for more than a year, between the City and the Fair Board over the future of the site.  The primary goal of the Fair Board is to maintain the vibrancy of the fair, preferably in the same location.  The primary goal of the City is to secure additional revenue from the land.

There are several shapes that a new deal could take.  The fairgrounds could remain as they’re now configured, with the Fair Board making a larger lease payment.  The City could reclaim the entire site for redevelopment, with the Fair Board looking for a new location.  Or the fair could continue with a reduced footprint, with redevelopment around the periphery and perhaps with transitional buildings that meet needs both during the fair and during the remainder of the year.

Of course, there are potential complications to any of the possible solutions.

At least one party interprets the current agreement, under which the City owns the land but the Fair Board owns the buildings, as requiring the City to provide compensation for the buildings in the event that the fair must go elsewhere.

There are reports of groundwater contamination, perhaps initiating near the Speedway, with a plume now extending beneath several of the buildings.  This contamination would require cleanup.

Also, the Petaluma General Plan requires that 20 acres of the 63-acre site become a park, which, barring a change to the General Plan, would limit the financial upside to the City of complete redevelopment.

There are undoubtedly numerous other constraints of which those on the outside aren’t yet aware.

That Urban Chat is taking its own look at the Fairgrounds needn’t be understood as a complaint about the secret nature of the negotiations.  It’s understandable that multi-faceted and politically-weighted situations can’t be constantly subjected to second-guessing in the court of public opinion.  But passage of more than a year, with few hints on the progress, is uncomfortable to those who see the great opportunities for the community in the urban use of the site.

So this Urban Chat meeting is an effort to make ourselves feel more integrated with the process.  It will also serve to better educate ourselves about the site possibilities so that we can better assess a proposed solution when it’s presented for public perusal.

Even if you haven’t previously participated in Petaluma Urban Chat, I’ll hope you’ll join us for this meeting.  Tuesday, July 8, 5:30pm, the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.

If you’re wondering about my thoughts on the site, I offered a comprehensive concept for a portion of the fairgrounds over a year ago.  Admittedly, I’m on the outside trying to look in, but in the time since I wrote the post, I’ve learned nothing to convince me that my vision wasn’t sound.

 In my next post, I’ll return to block parties, particularly the results of my July 4 neighborhood tour.

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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