Monday, August 18, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Clarifying about Schools and Eco-Villages

I’m pleased to write a blog on urbanism and feel amply rewarded by the many readers.  But editing posts for length is an on-going challenge.  There are so many interrelated aspects of urbanism that it’s often a difficult to prune a blog post into a good length for readers.  In nearly every post, I note narrative branches that logic dictates I follow, but length constraints argue that I avoid.

Sometimes, I skip the branch completely, hoping that readers will remember my comments from earlier blog posts or from other reading.  Other times, I explore the first few steps of the branch, but quickly lop it off, hoping that my truncated version will be comprehensive enough to be understood.

And sometimes, neither of those approaches works.  My last post is an example.

Within a few hours of publishing, I heard from a frequent reader taking me to task on a couple of points.  On one, I’d omitted the subject to maintain brevity.  On the other, I gave brief, and apparently unsatisfactory, coverage.

I responded to the reader privately.  Perhaps I could have considered that response sufficient.  But I spent many years working for a firm with a mantra that a client who complained was one of your best friends because he represented another nine clients who didn’t bother to complain but just stopped using your service.  The complaining client also gave you a chance to respond to the complaint.

So, on the grounds that the reader may represent another nine readers who shared her concerns, I’ll copy her complaints below, in edited form, and also provide my responses.

It makes me uncomfortable that people are sitting down to discuss the fate of the fairgrounds without, it seems, even acknowledging that there is a very successful and growing K-8 charter school on site which serves nearly 300 local families and has a high probability of staying there.  I’d really like it if that would continually be brought into the dialogue, as it is part of what’s happening on that site.

Actually, the presence of the charter school on the fairgrounds was noted in my initial post on the subject.  I’ve since been advised that there are also a nursery school and a pre-school on the fairgrounds.  And the schools have been mentioned in both meetings to-date.  I can't know the extent to which the participants will take note of it in their conceptual thinking, but the existence of the schools is certainly on the table.

Also, when the reader notes the “high probability of [the charter school] staying there”, I assume that she’s referring to the near-term, prior to 2023, when the lease is strictly a matter between the Fair Board and the charter school.

Urban Chat isn’t looking at the near-term.  Our perspective begins in 2023.

However, as long as we’re discussing the schools, I should offer my expectation that they may be in for a difficult road after 2023. The continual regeneration of healthy cities requires that economically lower-end uses, such as start-up businesses, non-profit offices, and charter schools, usually occupy buildings near the end of their economic life.  As their current buildings are demolished and new site uses constructed, the uses move to other end-of-life buildings.  Urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs have noted this process for years.

While it’s certainly possible that redevelopment can make accommodation for current site users, such as the charter school, that accommodation is effectively a subsidy for which someone will be paying.  And in the current economy, subsidies are increasingly unlikely.  Because the City is dealing with the unsustainable costs of suburbia, they'll try to squeeze every nickel out of the fairgrounds.  And that makes relocation likely, unless the school becomes capable of paying market rate for new construction.

For the record, if you’re a charter school supporter, I’m not the person with whom you should be arguing.  I’m only the messenger, describing how the process will likely work.  If you’re don’t like my projected outcome, then work to change the system.  And depending on the changes you advocate, I may be your ally.

(As one final thought on the subject of schools, if a large residential component is constructed on the current fairgrounds, it’s likely that a new public elementary school will be required.  Obviously, it wouldn’t replace the function of the charter school, but it might provide a good community focus point.)

Onward to the next query.

What is your idea of the “eco-village concept” that puts you off so much?  Would "high density, low-carbon footprint neighborhood" work better for you?  An eco-village is a place where the balance between human and nature is better designed than anything we’ve currently got going.  What could be the problem with that?

And why limit any site from food growing and agricultural uses, especially as Petaluma continues to be destroyed by poorly planned, unnecessary in-fill developments (like Freedman’s Plaza and the hideous Target Plaza), both of which threaten the water supply of our city, not to mention its scale and size, and to stretch the bounds of the necessary far beyond where they already are in our consumptive culture?

On eco-villages, yes "high density, low carbon footprint neighborhood" works far better for me.  The problem that concerns me is that "eco-village” alone often becomes a justification for reducing density, allowing room for other low-carbon uses, such as reducing building mass to allow more sunlight to reach gardens.

Many folks don't understand this, but density, if accompanied by walkability, is the single greatest carbon-reduction tool.  (Fun fact: Per capita gasoline usage in New York City is roughly the same as it was for the entire country in 1925.)  Whittling away at walkable density, even for other laudable goals, is often counterproductive.  There are ways for density and other low-carbon approaches to co-exist, but if there are conflicts, density needs to be given the higher priority.

To give one example, I suspect that a 100 unit per acre walkable urban development where people take streetcars twice a week to work family gardens at the urban fringe would have a lower carbon footprint than a 50 unit per acre development with on-site gardens.

However, I'll acknowledge that rooftop gardens can have a more meaningful role, as long as other locations can be found for photovoltaic arrays.

(For the record, I’m also not a fan of either East Washington Place or Deer Creek Village.  I think Freedman’s filled a niche, but that’s about it.)

Any other questions or quibbles?   Toss them my way.  They may end up being shared with all.

Schedule Notes

Monday, August 18, 6:00pm: This is the final reminder of the celebration of Petaluma Transit evening service.  This evening, any student with a valid Petaluma Transit student pass or a transfer dated today, can attend a movie at Boulevard Cinemas for the reduced price of $7.  And if any parents tag along to check out Petaluma Transit, please say hello.  Please we can have a beverage while the students are enjoying the movie.  I’ll be near the cinema wearing a blue ballcap.

Tuesday, August 26, 5:30pm: The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat, talking about the future of the fairgrounds, will convene at a location still to be announced.

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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