Monday, December 8, 2014

North Bay Great Streets: Petaluma and Cotati

I recently assigned myself a holiday task, searching the North Bay for great streets using the great streets criteria set forth by the Project for Public Places.  (If you haven’t read the original PPS article, I recommend it.)

The ten PPS criteria are:

·         Attractions and destinations
·         Identity and image
·         Active edge uses
·         Amenities
·         Management
·         Seasonal strategies
·         Diverse user groups
·         Traffic, transit and the pedestrian
·         Blending of uses and modes
·         Neighborhood preservation

With those criteria in mind, and with my additional standard that any street segment must be at least four blocks in length to be considered a great street, I began to plan outings through the North Bay.

I started simply, looking at my own community of Petaluma with the new perspective provided by PPS and also wandering downtown Cotati.

Petaluma: Two concepts, bypasses and jaywalking, became central to my observations in Petaluma and Cotati and will likely also apply to many other North Bay cities.

I‘ve long been puzzled by the conundrum of how to manage the evolution of communities that grew up nurtured by regional roadways.  At some point, the traffic volume grows too great to be accommodated in the downtown.  A bypass is the most common solution, but a bypass can undermine a commercial district that has been sustained by large volumes of traffic passing by its front doors.

And if stores close, the local residents who shopped at those stores are forced to find other shops, many of which wouldn’t be in the downtown.  The long-established main street can quickly wither, depriving the community of a needed element.

I’m convinced that an effective urbanism policy can help sustain a downtown after a bypass, but land-use policy is rarely a component of a bypass decision, which instead usually focuses on traffic counts and funding availability.

In Petaluma, the bypass decision was made years ago, with 101 removing regional traffic from Petaluma Boulevard.  Although it’s intriguing to ponder how Petaluma and the North Bay would be different if the main north-south traffic continued to flow through downtown Petaluma, I believe the decision was wise.

But the long-ago role of Petaluma Boulevard as a regional traffic route continues to affect the community.  The street pattern forces many local trips to make use of Petaluma Boulevard.  For many trips, there is no reasonable alternative.

Which brings me to my second concept, jaywalking.  I’m not going to encourage jaywalking.  In my personal rambles, I’m content to walk a couple of hundred feet out of my direct path to avoid jaywalking.  But I suspect that any street, to be great, must be a street where jaywalking, with a bit of caution, can be safely accomplished.   And I think that this idea is consistent with what PPS intends when they write of a balance of transportation options.

But jaywalking on Petaluma Boulevard isn’t a reasonable option, even with caution.  The traffic volumes are too great and the average speed too high.  For that reason, I tried to convince myself that Kentucky Street, parallel to Petaluma Boulevard and one block further from the Petaluma River, was the nearest thing Petaluma had to a great street.

There was much to recommend Kentucky.  It’s the street most frequently used for street fairs.  It has a number of gracefully aging buildings.  It’s the street where my wife and I are most likely to amble in an evening, compared to Petaluma Boulevard where we’re more likely to be destination-driven.  It’s the street where I’m more likely to bump into folks I know.  The jaywalking is easy.  And even the one unfortunate gap in the heart of Kentucky Street, the A Street parking lot, gives a glimpse of the historic A Street neighborhood a block away.

I was prepared to anoint Kentucky as Petaluma’s great street until I took another walk along it.  The segment of Kentucky that I enjoy is only two blocks long, from B Street to E. Washington Street.  Further north, the street features a Bank of America parking lot and an oddly awkward transition between a hotel and a stretch of historical homes.  To the south, where Kentucky has become Fourth Street but is the same street, is a hardware store that is beloved locally but doesn’t offer much of an amenity to Fourth Street and a strip mall, auto parts store, and bank, all of which are behind parking lots.

As much as I like the central two blocks of Kentucky, the remainder of the four-block segment undermines its candidacy as a great street.  I was forced to return my vote to the segment of Petaluma Boulevard from E. Washington Street to D Street. 

Not that Petaluma Boulevard is a bad candidate.  Once one acknowledges the heavy traffic and the dampening effect on streetlife, there is much to like about Petaluma Boulevard.  The activity in Putnam Plaza engages a more diverse crowd than Kentucky.  The architecture is better than Kentucky.  The recently-built Theatre Square, with its interior plaza, provides a community meeting point.  The Great American Mill and other historic structures have been lovingly maintained.  The Petaluman, the proposed boutique hotel at the corner of B Street, will hopefully provide another element to energize the street life.  (Disclaimer: I’m a member of the development team for The Petaluman.)

Petaluma Boulevard won’t get top marks on all of the PPS criteria, but it does okay.  I’d prefer to see less and better mannered traffic.  And I like to see more residences in the downtown core.  (The vacant lot between the McNear and Lanmart Buildings is an interesting site for five stories of downtown apartments.)  But overall Petaluma Boulevard works well enough.  And it’s only a block away from Kentucky Street.

Cotati: Within Cotati, the only reasonable candidate for a great street is Old Redwood Highway.  And the best four blocks of Old Redwood Highway is the segment between Page Street and the second crossing of La Plaza. 

But this segment of Old Redwood Highway, despite being the best that Cotati has to offer, illustrates another aspect of the bypass issue.  When the regional traffic was moved to 101 a few blocks away, the downtown stagnated.  It’s a pleasant place, but lacks the vitality of downtown Petaluma and other North Bay cities.

Cotati tries, they really do.  The Accordion Festival is a marvelously quirky event of which they should be proud.  But on a December Sunday morning, the street is nearly somnolent.  Jaywalking is easy, not because the traffic is well-regulated but because there is little traffic.

There is a relatively new building at the corner of Old Redwood Highway and Park that might have acted to bring energy to the street.  But there’s a gap between the remainder of downtown and the new building, a gap that includes a bridge over Cotati Creek which effectively acts as a ceremonial entrance into downtown, effectively putting the new building outside of downtown.

Overall, it’s a shame.  I want to like downtown Cotati.  Indeed, I do like downtown Cotati.  But in the way of great streets, Cotati doesn’t offer much.

When the weather and my schedule allows, I’ll wander further afield looking for great streets in the North Bay.

Calendar Notes

As a final reminder, the next meeting of Petaluma Chat will be Tuesday, December 9.  The topic will be a continuation of the well-attended November meeting on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds. 

As always, all are welcome, even if you haven’t participated before.  We’ll meet in the backroom of Taps, 54 E. Washington Street, Petaluma.  We’ll convene at 5:30 and conclude around 7:00.

Next time, I’ll write about a couple of items in the most recent Petaluma paper that touched upon urbanist issues.

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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