Friday, August 15, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: The Unofficial Assessment Continues

I’ve written twice about the unofficial look being taken at the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds by Petaluma Urban Chat.  Previous posts have covered the original decision to look at the fairgrounds and about the results of the first meeting.

The second meeting has now been held and I have multiple updates to offer.

To begin, the makeup of this group for the second meeting time was somewhat different, with slightly different perspectives on where peak value could be found.  Gaining different perspectives is always good.  I missed some of the voices that participated in the July meeting, but understand that August vacation plans intervened.

To begin, the group took two site possibilities off the table.  The convention center concept was dropped because of a concern about financial viability of convention centers in general.  One participant noted a recently published book on the subject. 

The ballpark idea was also discarded.  Although there was broad approbation of the concept of a ballpark in Petaluma, it was felt that the fairgrounds didn’t provide a good ballpark site.  Or at least that there were better uses for the fairgrounds.

Balancing the deletions, it was noted that a cannery should be considered among the agri-industrial uses possible on the site.  Also, there was a strong sense that any residential development should be very environmentally sensitive, with the phrase “eco-village” used. 

As a personal aside, this last makes me slightly uncomfortable.  It’s certainly not that I disapprove of environmentally friendly development.  However, as I’ve often noted before, much of the environmental benefit of urbanism comes from living in sufficient density to allow walkability.  I wouldn’t want the eco-village concept to interfere with that.

To put my concern another way, I suspect that eschewing individual at-grade garden plots and instead increasing density and buying produce from the local Green Strings Farms might be the better environmental solution.  I wouldn’t want a commitment to the eco-village concept to interfere with an objective determination of the best environmental solution.  (Of course, rooftop gardening is a whole different matter.)

Next, the group decided to focus on redevelopment of the entire site, with the assumption that the fairgrounds would be relocated to a new site.  One participant suggested that new fairgrounds in a rural setting could incorporate groundwater recharge as response to the drought.

Personally, I suspect that the final solution between the City  and the Fair Board will involve the fair remaining in place, albeit in a smaller footprint, but also believe that any visions put forth by Urban Chat can be scaled to the smaller redevelopment area.

Lastly, Urban Chat, in looking for a way for the local community to have a role in the fairgrounds redevelopment, proposed a “citizens corporation”, perhaps a hundred or more members of the local community buying shares in a corporation which would loan the funds to the city, allowing the city to act as the master developer for the site.

Personally, I see much value in giving the community a strong voice and role in the redevelopment.  But I’m unsure if a citizens corporation quite hits the mark.  Development is a high-risk, high-reward, quickly pivoting activity.  I’m pretty sure that a hundred individual local citizens, filtered through City Hall, doesn’t meet that characterization.  Instead, it might be like trying to win the America’s Cup racing a Petaluma River scow schooner.

I believe in strong local involvement, but suspect that we haven’t yet found the best mechanism.

With those discussions behind us, the consensus was to begin putting pencil to paper.  But instead of doing it as a group activity, the decision was to prepare individual site sketches for consideration at the next Urban Chat meeting.  Furthermore, to keep the ball rolling, the group decided to hold an extra meeting, on Tuesday, August 26, to monitor progress.  (I haven’t yet confirmed with Aqus Café about availability on the 26th, so we may need to use a different meeting place.  I’ll soon make an announcement.)

Even if you haven’t yet attended one of the Urban Chat meetings on the fairgrounds, there is still plenty of opportunity to jump in.  Please take a look at the early posts and email me if you have any questions.

Can Urban Chat truly influence the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds?  Probably not.  It’s a complex, multi-faceted, high-risk, high-reward problem and our resources are virtually non-existent.

But someone offered a famous Margaret Mead quote at the July meeting that applied perfectly.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

And more recently, I came across another quote that also spoke to the challenge, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world."  The speaker of that sentiment?  Robin Williams.

I look forward to seeing the creative results on August 26th.

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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