Friday, October 24, 2014

Petaluma Urban Chat: Rebooting the Fairgrounds Vision Effort

After a one-month hiatus to chat with City Council candidate Dave King about Measure Q, Petaluma Urban Chat will return to the subject of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds for the November meeting and hopefully onward into 2015.

For newer readers, the City of Petaluma owns the 63-acre site currently occupied by the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The Fair Board makes a minimal annual payment to the City under a lease that will expire in 2023.  The City and the Fair Board have been holding closed meetings for over a year to discuss the use of the Fairgrounds after 2023.

The primary alternatives seem to be that the Fairgrounds remains in its current location, presumably with a greater lease amount, that the Fair is displaced to a new site with the City redeveloping the current site, and that some combination of the two is defined by which the Fair would remain in its current location but within a smaller footprint, freeing up some land for redevelopment.

Of course, each of the choices are tangled in various real world complications, including the financial performance of the current Fair operation, the financial capability of the Fair Board to develop a new site, the ongoing non-fair uses of the Fairgrounds, such as the Live Oak charter school, the hazardous materials cleanup that may be required within the Fairgrounds, the presence of historical elements within the Fairgrounds that must be preserved under the law, the range of boundary conditions around the site, and the need of the City to generate income to bolster sagging municipal finances.

It’s a complex problem.  Of course, it’s also an incredible opportunity.  To my knowledge, there won’t be another other opportunity within our lifetimes to reinvent the core of a North Bay city with a blank slate of this size.  Petalumans should be greatly invested in the process, but so should all residents of the North Bay, because what Petaluma does with the Fairgrounds can be a template for land-use decisions throughout the North Bay.

For that reason, Petaluma Urban Chat has been trying for months to come to grips with the site opportunities, constraints, and best alternatives.  I’m sure the Fairgrounds has been the subject of numerous informal but concerned conversations throughout the community but, to my knowledge, no other group except the City and Fair Board negotiating teams has been trying as hard to put pencil to paper to devise a new vision for the site.

However, I describe the Urban Chat efforts as “trying” because the process thus far has been challenging and not particularly successful.  We did well in identifying the range of site options, but then struggled to find consensus.

Part of the problem was that the changing cast of attendees at each meeting.  Not only did every meeting require a recap of earlier discussions, but new folks were constantly putting new ideas on the table.

Part of the problem was the lack of a good facilitator, which was my deficiency.

But the biggest part of the problem was trying to conduct the process with short monthly meetings and zero budget.  By comparison, the planning for the Petaluma Station Area, adjoining the future Petaluma SMART station, began with a three-day public charrette, continued for another year of public meetings, involved an award-winning planning firm from Berkeley, and had a budget of nearly a half-million dollars.  And the planning area was about one-fifth the size of the Fairgrounds site.

However, perhaps we can make a virtue out of our lack of funds, absence of expertise, and occasional meetings.

I’ve conceived an approach by which to reboot the Urban Chat study of the Fairgrounds.  By the very nature of our deficiency of resources, skills, and time, it won’t look like the Station Area process.  But it can hopefully be effective in its own way.

However, I need your assistance.  First, I need to know how many folks expect to attend the next three Urban Chat meetings, which will be on November 11, December 9, and January 13.  No one will come to your home and abuse you if you answer in the affirmative and then miss a meeting, but I do want a good faith commitment for the three meetings.

I doubt we’ll complete the effort in the three meetings, but I hope those meetings will generate enough momentum and enthusiasm that attendance at further meetings won’t require urging.

In terms of how many people might participate, there’s no limit, but I’d like to have thirty folks.  I know that would be more people than all but one previous Urban Chat meeting and bigger than can be readily accommodated at the Aqus CafĂ©, but I’ll happily solve the space problem.

Also, attendance needn’t be limited to Petalumans nor to people who have previously attended an Urban Chat meeting.  The future use of the Fairgrounds can be a template for all of the North Bay, so everyone is welcome to participate.

If being a part of this effort is intriguing, let me know, either in the comments below or by email.

Second, I’d like a couple of people to work with me on a steering committee for the reboot.  My preference would be folks with charrette experience, but anyone willing to put in a little extra effort would be welcome.  I’m thinking of a coordination meeting on Monday, November 3.  Once again, let me know via comments or email.

The effective reuse of the Fairgrounds can change the North Bay.  Let’s make sure that our voices are heard.

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


  1. Dave, I'm good for the two meetings remaining in this calendar year. In January, alas, I am back on Tuesday night class through May. I’m happy to assist in a way you’d like me to at the two meetings, but cannot attend a Monday session.

    Question: my current pipe dream is a new City Hall at the fairgrounds, since I fear we will need a new one and I do not want it to move all the way across town. In choosing our home, part of our commitment to walkable urbanism was being able to participate in civic governance walkably — “Vote with your feet!” Still, I prefer that City Hall be no farther from downtown than it is now. Does that have merit beyond self-interest?


  2. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I should be able to make each of the three upcoming monthly meetings. Really looking forward to the discussions and recommendations that might follow. I agree, the new lease will present a real opportunity to potentially transform the true center of town.