Monday, February 2, 2015

Highlighting the Guideposts on the Path toward a Better Future

The Petaluma City Council holds an annual goal-setting session, a seven-hour Saturday marathon that was conducted a few days ago.

Several Councilmembers occasionally follow this blog, but I still thought it appropriate to remind the Council about some of the goals I’ve suggested for Petaluma over past few years, while also noting a couple of more recent opportunities.

Following is the text of the comments that I had intended to make at the goal-setting session a few days ago.  I write “intended” because the Mayor, in a justified effort to keep the day on schedule, reduced the time allotted to each speaker from the three minutes that I had expected to only two minutes.  It was a change that so flustered me that I dropped my notes on the head of the Economic Development Director.  Upon recovery, I was able to adjust my presentation on the fly, hitting all seven points below, but reducing my intention from advocacy of a solution to identification of the issue.

Nonetheless, I’ll share my entire intended presentation below.

“I appreciate the opportunity to offer some thoughts this morning.  I’ll try to make good use of my three minutes.

“#1 - The SMART train is now less than two years from arriving.  And yet the key parcel of land that should serve the station, providing homes for those who choose to use the train for a daily commute, sits filled with railroad construction materials.  Nor, based on the most recent information I’ve received, has SMART even begun seeking a developer for the site.  The only small concession that SMART has reportedly made is to plan a gravel parking lot for some of the hoped-for riders.

“Petaluma is a cool place.  SMART can make it cooler.   But for that to happen, the town must have the elements in place to facilitate the change, including transit-oriented development on the SMART parcel.

“I understand that the burden lies with SMART.  But I ask the City to push SMART in every way possible to let the train make Petaluma a cooler place.

“#2 – Moving a block further from the train station, I understand that the new project on the Haystack Landing site is moving nicely through the conceptual design process.  I ask the City to facilitate the project in every way possible.  A constructed project on the Haystack Landing site isn’t a substitute for development on the SMART parcel, but it’s a start.

“Also, I understand that the Haystack Landing project currently excludes one of the warehouses at the D Street corner because the two parties have been unable to reach agreement on price.  But if the warehouse site is excluded from the project, the SMART Code may result in the site being forever under-utilized.

“I understand that City resources are limited, but this situation is why eminent domain exists.  Securing the warehouse site for the Haystack Landing project is a win-win-win opportunity.  The Haystack developer would have a better project.  The warehouse owners, even if they don’t see it today, would benefit.   And the community would have a more complete development to pass onto posterity.

“#3 – Moving just slightly further from the SMART station, only four short blocks away is the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  I know the lease with the Fair Board doesn’t expire for another eight years, but eight years can pass awfully quickly in land use.

“I’m working with a citizens group that has been developing design concepts for the Fairgrounds.  We expect to have a plan to share publicly within six weeks.

“It’s time to open the Fairgrounds process to the public, both for those who have been studying the possibilities and for those eager to become educated about the opportunities.

“The Fairgrounds has the potential to transform Petaluma.  Let’s begin the public discussion.

“#4 – One of the best land-use efforts in the past year has been the progress of the Keller Court Commons community.  It’s not a footprint that I’d support throughout the community, but it’s a great adaption to a challenging site and will provide a fine living experience for the its residents.

“However, I’ve chatted with the developer and learned that the Petaluma entitlement process was more difficult and convoluted than in any other city where he’s done similar projects.

“We should remedy that.  A complete upgrade to the zoning code to facilitate new and creative land-use ideas should be undertaken.  Once again, I know dollars are tight, but this is a matter of preparing the community for the 21st century.

“#5 – It’s been over two years since the Transit Advisory Committee realized to its surprise that the East Washington Place shopping center was nearing completion without a new bus stop.  The TAC suggestion of a bus stop condition of approval had been waylaid because the committee lacked the official power to propose conditions of approval.

“The TAC, Transit Manager, City Engineer, and developer rolled up sleeves and found a solution.  It was an imperfect solution, one that required purchasing more buses and that continues to inconvenience riders to this day, but it was better than having no bus stop.

“The TAC then moved onto the next task, securing for themselves the authority to propose conditions of approval to avoid future missteps.  But after two years and numerous discussions, the topic still hasn’t reached the City Council.  This task must be completed in 2015.  Transit will be too much a part of Petaluma’s future not to give it a voice in land-use planning.

“#6 – To conclude with an easier challenge, block parties still occupy a fuzzy role within the Municipal Code, officially prohibited in most locations, but often proceeding anyway.  The responses that potential organizers receive when asking for party approval from City officials range from “No way” to “Well, okay, as long as you don’t tell anyone I said so”, depending on the official to whom the organizer speaks.

“The range of responses is unfortunate, but what’s even worse is that none of the responses serve the city.  The best response should be “As long as public safety in ensured, we strongly encourage block parties.”   Let’s make the changes to the Municipal Code to get to that best response.

“Thanks for your time and attention.

“P.S. (if time permits) #7 – Parking may be the biggest challenge in trying to reclaim our cities from the automobile.  The final report on the Station Area Plan notes the need for a parking management plan, an action that other cities have taken to great benefit.  It’s time for the City, whether through staff or with a committee of citizens, to begin thinking about long-term parking strategies.”

The remainder of the day was long and stultifying.  I was the only member of the public to remain the entire time.  As I explained to a Councilmember after the session, every time I grew tired of the warm room and the roar of the air conditioning system, I looked down the agenda, spotted something of interest perhaps 20 minutes away, and decided I could stay a bit longer.

Of the issues I raised, all were touched upon by the City Council during their discussions, although some references were more oblique than others.  There were a number of Fairgrounds comments, which I’ll share another time.  Although I suspect my positions of advocacy, both at the session and before, had helped shape the discussion, I felt that only one issue was discussed solely because I’d pushed it there.

And that issue was block parties.  I’m convinced that my repeated comments on the value of clarifying the block party rules, and the dogged efforts of one reader to keep the issue in front of the City Council, were the only reasons that block parties were discussed near the end of the day.

And the outcome was favorable, with the Police Chief and much of the City Council declaring their support for block parties.  However, the Council was uncertain about the best role for the City to take, so tossed the issue back to the City Manager for further staff consideration.  I’ll continue my involvement on the topic.

Similarly, I’ll continue my advocacy on the other issues I raised.  Saturday provided a few glimmers of hope for urbanism but, as always, further work remains to be done.

Next time, I’ll return to the “Intro to Urbanism”, exploring the role of buildings in urbanism.

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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