Monday, February 9, 2015

Change Happens, but Takes Continual Effort

I’ve occasionally written of a large land-use project in Oregon with which I was involved many years ago.  (The photo was taken on the site, many years later.)  The original concept had a strong urbanist component.  Indeed, it was where I was introduced to the idea that urbanism was possible in the modern world.

But the initial plan was waylaid by a reluctant planning commission, or perhaps by my inability to educate a reluctant planning commission, and then truly ended by a forest fire that roared through much of the site.  (The land adjoined the city limits but was beyond the limits of the municipal fire fighting system.)

From the ashes, a smaller, more focused project arose.  There were still urbanist elements to the new plan, but they were less dramatic than in the earlier plan and needed more nurturing to reach full flower.

It was during the entitlement process on this second, smaller project that I truly became engrossed in the details of land-use permitting.  As the only member of the team who worked locally, with all of the partners and other consultants about three hours away in Portland, I had the day-to-day task of assembling the applications, of writing the utility master plans, and of coordinating with the local agencies.  I was smitten.

But my role was still limited to the engineering and entitlement tasks.  As the project moved through the hearings and approval seemed imminent, the partners began to look for someone to act as president of the local construction and sales efforts.  They soon found a candidate they liked.  After several days of interviews in Portland, they offered him the job and sent him over the mountains to tour the site.

I’ve long forgotten his name.  All I remember is that he was then working in Richmond, Virginia.  And that I immediately enjoyed his company.

We spent much of the afternoon touring the 500-acre site and the town.  We then settled into a dinner that, with post-dinner libations, extended far into the evening.  The prospective president and I shared many of the same perspectives on land use.  This evening was over twenty years ago, so neither of us yet had the working language of urbanism that would come later, but we had the same thoughts of on-site retail, of a clubhouse that would serve as the living room for the community, of a strong network of bicycle/pedestrian paths, and of allowing electric golf carts for on-site travel in place of cars.

 By the time the evening was over, I was excited by the prospect of working with him for the next several years.  I believed we’d be a fine team, good for the project and good for the community.

Thus, it was with surprise and chagrin when I learned a week later that he had declined the job.  The reason, as reported to me, was that he believed the plan was too far advanced for him to have much effect on how the project developed.  He preferred to find a position where he could be involved at an earlier stage.

In his place, the partners settled on a married couple to serve as the local president and vice president.  I enjoyed both of them and learned much from them.  But the urbanist opportunities withered away during their tenure, many despite my efforts.

The hotel that would have complemented the private homes was lost because the opposition from early homeowners was under-estimated.  On-site housing for lower income staff fell to the same fate.  On-site retail was lost due to a marketing gaffe.  And golf carts were relegated to the bicycle/pedestrian paths, undermining all modal options except cars.  Even the water conservation goals were undermined.  It was still a fine project, but the prospects of it being transformational had been wasted.

As my project involvement wound to a close a decade later, I could look at where the project stood compared to the vision at the time of entitlement and could tick off the vast range of changes that had been wrought, most of them away from urbanist ideals.  And I could realize how wrong the prospective president had been when he declined the job offer because there were too few remaining options to shape the project.

I mention this story because it pertains to thinking I’ve been hearing about the efforts of Petaluma Urban Chat on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

Some think that a deal has already been reached between the City and a master developer, making our efforts moot.  Other fear that no one will care about the Urban Chat effort.  Still more believe that offering a good plan will be adequate and that no further effort will be required except showing up for the grand opening.

All are wrong.  I doubt any deals have yet been struck.   And even if they have, there will be many, many changes that occur between today and the groundbreaking.  Also, the public can always move the wheel.  But the wheel doesn’t move unless shoulders are kept consistently to the wheel, with feet churning.

Petaluma Urban Chat can make a difference on the Fairgrounds, but only if we work like Marshawn Lynch and keep pounding at the pile.  (And if the coach in a moment of weakness doesn’t call for a pass from the one-yard line.)

There are always a surprisingly number of opportunities to make land uses better serve our needs.  But those beneficial changes only happen if folks work diligently for the changes. 

Having forgotten his name, I have no way to check on the man who declined the chance to work with me those many years ago.  But, based on my initial impressions, I like to think that he had a long and successful career.

I also like to think that he learned a lot about how land uses can change slowly but surely if people of good will and continual effort want it to change.  Which means that he probably looked back at some point and regretted passing on the Oregon job offer.

Petaluma Urban Chat

The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, February 10.  However, the agenda for the meeting has been changed from what I previously reported.  Given the difficulty of sorting through the options for re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, the conceptual design teams will need another couple of weeks before presenting their proposed plans at an Urban Chat meeting on Tuesday, February 24.

Instead, the meeting on the 10th will be devoted to the teams honing their ideas.  Everyone is welcome, but those not on a team will likely find themselves looking over shoulders or chatting on the sidelines.

However, the doors will be wide open and all vigorously invited on Tuesday, February 24 when the three visions are presented and opened to comment.

Both meetings will be at Taps, 54 E. Washington Street and will begin at 5:30pm.

Next time, I’ll bring my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism” to a close, with a summing up and suggestions for further study.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment