Monday, August 11, 2014

A Pocket Neighborhood is Proposed for Petaluma

Long-time readers should be familiar with the name Ross Chapin.  Chapin is a Seattle-area architect who was a pioneer in the development of pocket neighborhoods, clusters of small-lot homes arranged in non-conventional configurations.  The arrangement allows accommodation of site constraints such as topography or trees and also creates a sense of community.

More than two years ago, I reviewed Chapin’s book, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”.   Shortly afterward, I visited several of Chapin’s projects and other projects that he recommended in Seattle, on the east side of Lake Washington, and in Davis.

Since then, I’ve suggested the pocket neighborhood approach as a better option for the Red Barn site than the conventional large home/large lot configuration now proposed.  (Although I failed to make the comment at the time, I also like pocket neighborhood concept for the site of the Beck house.)

Beyond those specific mentions, Ross Chapin and the pocket neighborhood concept has often been cited in this blog.  Thus, it was with both surprise and delight that I learned almost two years ago of a proposed pocket neighborhood in Petaluma.  Jim Soules, a developer who had often worked with Chapin and can even be said to have introduced pocket neighborhoods to Chapin, had acquired a site near the historic Oakhill-Brewster neighborhood and was beginning site planning for a pocket neighborhood.

The site was well-suited to a pocket neighborhood, with sufficient topography that clustering would be beneficial and sufficient trees that the flexibility of the pocket neighborhood approach would be needed to maintain density.  There were fine views of Petaluma that could be maximized by a careful layout.  And there was a home of historic interest at the site entrance on West Street that would set a tone for the development.

I had hoped to introduce the project to my readers some time ago, but was unable to secure permission from the developer and was hesitant to write too much lest I disrupt his planning process.  But the project is now fully public and will be on the Petaluma Planning Commission agenda for this week.  Keller Court Commons is the first item of new business on the Planning Commission agenda for Tuesday, August 12.

The proposed is as fully laudable as I had anticipated.  The site plan is reminiscent of the successful pocket neighborhoods that I visited in the Northwest.  And the project description shows sensitivity to the character of the westside of Petaluma.  It’s a project in which I’d be happy to reside and for which I encourage strong support.

If I had to pick out a flaw, I can find two, although I suspect that neither is the responsibility of the developer.

First, the number of units is less than had been originally reported to me.  From reading the project documents, it appears that tree preservation was the reason for the unit count reduction.

I’m strongly supportive of tree preservation.  But I’m also supportive of financial sustainability.  I know that creating more units while using the same infrastructure is likely to be more sustainable. Therefore, imposing an absolute tree preservation standard can undermine municipal finances.  I agree that trees deserve a place at the negotiating table, but so do the pocketbooks of our children.

Second, the approval process apparently required that the project be structured as a PUD (Planned Unit Development).  I don’t have a particular objection to Keller Court Commons being a PUD, but would argue that pocket neighborhoods are such a desirable land use that they shouldn’t be forced to resort to less conventional land use designations, such as PUDs.

I’ve previously noted the thought of urbanism pioneer Andres Duany about his love of Charleston and his dubious view of zoning codes, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”  I’d make a similar comment about pocket neighborhoods.  If you can’t build a pocket neighborhood under a zoning code without making it a PUD, then the zoning code is no good.

Those quibbles aside, I strongly support the project, will be at the Planning Commission hearing, and hope to see some of you there.

Schedule Notes and Updates

There are several approaching events that may be of interest to readers.  Reminders and updates are provided below:

+ Tuesday, August 12, 5:30pm: Petaluma Urban Chat will convene to continue our unofficial discussion on the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The meeting place will be the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets.

Late last week, I spoke with a local historian who provided a number of fascinating insights about the history of the fairgrounds, including some of the features that she thought might justify historical preservation.  That’s a topic that we’ll be folding into the conversation as we move ahead.

+ Tuesday, August 12, 7:00pm: The Petaluma Planning Commission, convened as the Heritage Cultural and Preservation Committee, will consider the Keller Court Commons project described above.  I expect that several of us will hustle from the fairgrounds discussion to the Planning Commission hearing in the Petaluma City Hall.

+ Monday, August 18, 6:00pm: Next week will be the celebration of evening bus service.  Boulevard Cinemas will offer discounted admission to any student who can present either a valid Petaluma Transit pass or a Petaluma Transit transfer dated on the 18th.  (Even if you don’t need a transfer for your trip downtown, ask the driver for one.  The driver will happily comply.)  I’m hopeful of enough students participating and having a fine time that they’ll be motivated to return downtown often on Petaluma Transit.  Your help in creating that critical mass will be appreciated.

+ Saturday, August 30, 10:00am: The Sonoma County Bicycling Coalition is hosting a Family Bicycling Workshop at Lucchesi Park.  Advance registration is required, but spaces are still available.  Details and registration information can be found on-line.

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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