Wednesday, August 27, 2014

River Front: Sorting Through the Arguments

In a pair of recent posts, I introduced River Front, a proposed mixed-use project within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, and wrote about the controversy that developed over whether the athletic field proposed by the applicant should be natural grass or artificial turf.

I closed the second post with the questions I was pondering as the climactic City Council session, reaffirming the decision in favor of grass, came to an end.  Did we identify all the reasons for turf versus grass?  Does the community have the right to require that a park be a community athletic field rather than a neighborhood park?  What should have been correct decision for the community?  And even if a turf athletic field is the right answer, is it fair to require the applicant to cover the cost?

In this post, I’ll provide my personal answers to those questions.

On the arguments for grass versus turf, I’ll add another pro-turf argument, traffic.  Turf fields are generally available for use twice as many hours per year as grass fields, so are the backbone of an athletic program.

And yet, when the under-construction East Washington Park is complete, all three turf athletic fields owned by the Petaluma Park and Recreation Department will be east of Highway 101, requiring ever more trips on E. Washington Street from west Petaluma.  (As a Parks Commissioner, I’m fully supportive of East Washington Park.  It was badly needed.  But I still regret the resulting geographic imbalance.)

Petaluma has an election approaching in which funds for street improvements and repair will be a major issue.  Against that backdrop, it seems odd to blithely accept the additional traffic generated by parks at the urban fringe without trying to reduce the impact.

It’s also indicative our approach to traffic and why we seem unable to manage traffic.  We put new uses where the land is available and/or the development costs are affordable, under the assumption that users can drive to the site.  But it’s expensive to build a road system to keep up with that increasing demand.  And the induced traffic phenomenon often makes it impossible to keep up.

Some may note that the improved high school fields, if they’re made accessible for community use, will help balance the traffic.  They’d be correct.  But none of the high schools are particularly close to the River Front area, so that part of town would remain under-served by athletic fields.  Assuming judicious league creation and scheduling, a turf athletic field at River Front could reduce traffic.

Adding the traffic argument to the other arguments that were made for turf, the increased hours of playability, safer surface, and reduced water requirements, I find that turf was the better option for the community.

I turn next to the question of whether the applicant, Basin Street, should have the right to choose their park surface.  Basin Street expressed a preference for a natural surface on which residents in the small-lot neighborhood could recreate.   (I suspect that the lower cost of grass also has a role in their decision.)

Unfortunately for the applicant, I may be the least favorable judge of that argument in Petaluma.  Having carefully monitored a handful of neighborhood that are in my purview as a Parks Commissioner, I despair of neighborhoods ever again making effective casual use of their parks and have suggested that we may wish to consider fundamental changes in how we configure neighborhood parks.

Barring those kinds of changes, I suggest that the image of fathers and sons throwing a frisbee in a neighborhood park on a sunny afternoon is another of those self-myths with which we delude ourselves and cause ourselves to make land use mistakes.  Instead, organized leagues with scheduled games is the predominant use of parks.

Besides, much as Basin Street was required to configure their proposed buildings to conform to the SmartCode that governs the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, I’d argue that they’re required to accept the park surface that is directed by the community, although with one large caveat that comes up next.

Even if turf is the correct choice, does that mean that Basin Street should pay the additional cost?  Looking at the other turf fields, existing, under construction, and proposed, all are either owned by the City (Lucchesi and East Washington), the school district (Petaluma and Casa Grande High Schools), or a church (St. Vincent High School).  Although developer impact fees played in a role in some of the turf field financing, River Front would be on the only field funded solely by a developer, which should be a red flag.

The argument was made that Basin Street should pay for the turf field because they would make millions of dollars with River Front.  But if making money in Petaluma is the criterion, why not bill Safeway, Clover-Stornetta, or a developer building homes at the urban fringe?

No, the implicit reason for asking Basin Street to foot the bill was that it was their project.  But there are already rules in place about how much developers should pay for the right to build new projects in Petaluma.  Those rules are called impact fees and require developers to pay fees for impacts such as traffic, schools, and parks.  And if developers build improvements that meet those needs, such as building a segment of a roadway that will serve the entire community, then they can deduct that cost from the impact fee that would otherwise be imposed.

Might it make sense to ask Basin Street to fund the turf field in exchange for a credit against impact fees?  Absolutely.  So, in the general mingling before the City Council meeting, I asked a Basin Street representative for his thoughts on this point.  He responded that the other park improvements required in the project has already exceeded the park impact fee.  Basin Street was already covering the cost of some park improvements in excess of the impact fees.  And any new exactions, such as the turf field, would be funded solely by Basin Street.

One of the themes voiced often during the City Council meeting was that Basin Street had “reneged” on an obligation.  Indeed, it was the only point to which Basin Street chose to respond, making the point that they had continually opposed the turf field and therefore hadn’t made a commitment from which they could renege.

But I would argue that there was reneging underway that evening.  And that was in the community’s demand that the agreement, implicit in the impact fee rules, about required park exactions be set aside with additional exactions required.  (Admitted, many of those making the reneging argument were insufficiently familiar with the impact fee mechanism to understand how their argument could boomerang back at them.)

As much as I would like the River Front field to be turf, I don’t agree with overturning the logic behind the impact fees.  If the benefit is to the public and the developer has already paid more than their fair share, then the additional cost should be borne by the public.

Indeed, there is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that is on point.  In Dolan vs. the City of Tigard, the Court ruled that cities can’t arbitrarily impose developer exactions.  Instead, there must be a reasonable “nexus” between the development impact and the exactions.  I’d argue that Dolan wouldn’t allow a condition that the River Front athletic field be changed to turf for the community good at Basin Street’s expense, especially when Basin Street had already exceeded the park costs required under the adopted impact fees.

If I’d been on the City Council, how would I have voted?  I would have voted to reopen the issue.  Clearly the public had strong emotions on the subject and deserved another chance to make their case.

I would then have used the weeks before the reconsideration to look for a way to fund the field without imposing the burden on Basin Street.  Failing that, I would have regretfully voted to leave the park as grass.

But I would have offered one final gambit.  I would have proposed a condition of approval that would have required Basin Street to convert the field to turf if, at any time prior to approval of construction documents, the community could assemble a plan to fund the incremental cost.

I consider it highly unlikely that the incremental funds could have been gathered.  At present, the community is working hard to raise funds for a restroom at East Washington Park, a goal that is only a fraction of the River Front turf expense.  But I would have left the door open.  And I would have happy to write a check toward the effort.

Completing the loop back to urbanism, I’ll ask one more question.  Should a land-use conundrum like this matter to urbanists?  I’ll respond with an emphatic “Yes!”

Although I believe that River Front will only slowly transform into a truly urban project, it is nonetheless configured like an urban project.  And urbanism means that the public space receives a higher priority than in drivable suburban projects, which is a fine thing.  But if we try to expand those public components, demanding improvements in excess of the impact fees, then we create a market disincentive to urbanism.

In a world where we should be encouraging urbanism to address our multitude of environmental and financial issues, demanding additional park improvements from urbanist developers would become one more impediment to urbanism.  And we can’t let that happen.

Before closing, I have one last point to make.  In the weeks since the final City Council decision on turf versus grass, I’ve heard many negative comments about Basin Street.  Those comments pain me.  I’ve previously written about how the public is often eager to condemn a developer for not being local, while also being unwilling to support local developers.

Basin Street is a local developer.  I don’t fully support every project they’ve done.  There are many elements that I wish they’d done differently, while also acknowledging that I don’t have full information about the regulatory, funding, and market demand issues that forced the design decisions.

(As much as many of us would like perceive developers as omnipotent monoliths that can do whatever they wish, they are more like small boats on a turbulent sea of capitalism, pushed about by forces beyond their control and trying to turn enough of a profit to remain afloat.  After all, we’ll only a handful of years removed from an economic crisis in which many developers perished.)

But, setting my quibbles about their design decisions aside, Basin Street has done good things for Petaluma.  It’d be hard to conceive of downtown Petaluma without Theatre Square.  Basin Street made downtown Petaluma relevant again.  They deserve our respect and appreciation.  And to withhold that appreciation because they refused to accede to an unfair demand for a turf athletic field makes me sad.

(Acknowledgment: I’ve never done any work for Basin Street.  However, as a member of the community, I know several of the principals.  Indeed, it would be odd if I didn’t.  Also, I’m currently engaged in a negotiation with Basin Street on behalf of a client.  Lastly, I’ve often eaten in Theatre Square restaurants.)

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

P.S. The article mentioned in the comments below can be found here.


  1. My initial read indicates that your rundown on this is remarkably comprehensive in germs of perspectives and good info, Dave. For those interested in the specific arguments about grass v. turf, C.W. Nevius addressed them in the SFChronicle in the past several days, "Time to bury the artificial debate over synthetic turf ." It's online at .

    1. Barry, good point. I also read the Nevius piece and thought it was well done. I thought about including it above, but thought I'd already written long enough.

  2. Shoot, it appears this site won't permit posting a link. At you can search the headline above to locate the story.

    1. I didn't realize that Blogspot doesn't allow commenters to post links. I've included the link in a P.S. update to the post above.