Wednesday, August 20, 2014

River Front: Background to a Logical Dilemma

Within my lifetime, land-use planning processes have been defined and refined to the point that the results are expected to become nearly automatic.  Insert the proposed project, turn the crank through the various steps of expert studies, environmental analysis, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings, and expect a result to pop out the far end that best meets the public good, or at least is a moderately reasonable balance between the competing objectives.

Of course, the process sometimes chokes on the inputs and spits out a result that is a frustratingly anomaly.  And then no one seems to know how to make the world right again.

A perfect example recently arose in Petaluma.  It was a land-use process in which I should have played a role, but fate took me out of the picture.  Perhaps I should be thankful.

Because of an extended backstory, I’ll take several posts to get around to the point of the story.  But it’s a situation that I find fascinating.  I hope you to stay around when I peel away the multiple shells surrounding the kernel.  I’ll try to make it worth your time.

Looking back through my archives, I find that I’ve written very little about River Front, a mixed-use project proposed by Petaluma developer Basin Street.  That’s probably because it’s a project that I find hard to categorize.  But it’s an oversight I must correct to tell this story properly.

River Front will occupy an oddly situated parcel bounded by the Petaluma River, Highway 101, Hopper Street, and a former concrete prefabrication yard.  It’s a long block from Lakeville Highway, tucked behind a string of auto-oriented retail.  It’s within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP), so must conform to the SmartCode.  But it’s at the far boundary of the CPSP, which is much of the reason for my ambivalence toward it.

The site plan is a classic urbanist approach, with a core near the north end of the site.  The core contains a central green, hotel, office building, retail, and multi-family housing.  To the south of the core, extending toward the river, are small-lot single-family homes, all within walking distance of the core.

It’s an urbanist plan that looks great on paper, but will likely fall short on the ground, at least at first.  The problem is that it’s within the Petaluma community that offers multiple attractions, a historic downtown about a mile in one direction, a new train station that will be nearly as far away, pair of new shopping centers in another direction, and schools that are too far way to reach on foot.  Also, the location will be difficult to serve by transit.

As a result, despite an urbanist core that should be an attractive and pleasant place to visit, it seems likely that most of the trips from River Front will continue to be by car.  I can foresee a better future, perhaps thirty years from now, when the parcels between River Front and the train station have all been redeveloped, when transit is stronger, when the current generation of young adults that is less attached to their cars has reached full maturity, and when River Front will be among the most desirable addresses in town.

But for today, I suspect that River Front will be a pleasant place to live, but not truly a walkable urban place.

With my take on the project now explained, I can continue onto the issue about which I want to write, a thorny question of developer exactions.  It’s where I will continue with my next post.

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


  1. You have baited well your hook, Dave!

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment. However, I wasn't trying to bait a hook. Instead, I just couldn't find a more word-efficient way to tell the story. You're complimenting me on a point where I think I failed.