Monday, March 23, 2015

King of the Killjoys

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today (TLT) is a national program that teaches high school students about becoming community leaders.  In the scope of the year-long classes, TLT has much in common with the Leadership classes offered for adults by many Chambers of Commerce.  (I was a member of 2002-03 class of Leadership Petaluma and learned many things that I still apply.)

I was recently invited to participate in the land-use education day for Petaluma’s 2014-15 TLT class.  The focus of the day was to be the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  With my frequent writings on the opportunities at the Fairgrounds, most recently here, and my efforts with Petaluma Urban Chat to develop a plan for possible Fairgrounds reuse, it was a welcome invitation which I promptly accepted.

But I wasn’t going into the day as a TLT novice.  I had an earlier experience that had given me a perspective on the TLT process that I hoped to apply.

Several years ago, I took part in a similar TLT exercise for the land adjoining the future SMART station near downtown Petaluma.  At the time, the City planning effort that was to lead to the Station Area Master Plan was in its initial stages, so it seemed a good time for the members of that TLT class to provide their thoughts on where the land-use planning should go.

But that wasn’t exactly how it played out, at least to my way of thinking.  Little was said during the morning session about the city goals for the site: residential units for train commuters, train parking for those who lived elsewhere in the community, transit stops for train riders who arrive by bus, offices for those who would arrive by train to work in Petaluma, and a strong pedestrian connection to downtown Petaluma.

Absent an understanding of those civic goals and needs, the students put forth plans of flower gardens, scenic ponds, and teen centers, all of which may have a place in Petaluma, but not on a site that offered such great potential for improving the function and financial health of the community.  As a result, the thoughts of the students were forgotten as soon as the day concluded.

This time around, I was determined to ensure that the students would understand that stakes of the game, that the Fairgrounds site is probably the most valuable single asset owned by the City and the best opportunity of our lifetime to redirect the future of the City.

And so, in my comments to the group after lunch and in the facilitation of the conceptual design team assigned to me, I hammered on the need for financial return and municipal function.

But, except for those in my group who couldn’t ignore me, my exhortations fell on mostly deaf ears.  When the other groups presented their thoughts for the site, features such as a water park, miniature golf course, and drive-in theatre were prominent.  It was only my group that had a plan including elements such as a hotel, performing arts center, and low-income housing. 

As I listened to the other groups make their presentations, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been overzealous in my arguments about the need for financial return, that perhaps youth was the time to dream, even if the dreams ran beyond the current expectations of feasibility, and that perhaps I nipped off some great ideas that might change the world.

As we began to break down the room after the last presentation, I offered a quiet apology to my group for having perhaps tamped down their creativity.  They replied that they were quite happy with my facilitation and were proud to have the only plan that was somewhat based in reality.  I’m still not sure if I believe them.

In the unlikely event that I’m ever again invited to take part in a TLT land-use day, I’ll try to find a middle road, encouraging dreams and trying to point out possible ways to make the dreams financially feasible.

That’s the message that probably would have best resonated with me when I was seventeen.

Having returned to the subject of the Fairgrounds, my next post will give an update on the Urban Chat conceptual design effort.  A site plan is taking shape and fundraising to do an architectural rendering or two will soon kick off.  Consistent with my thoughts above about balancing fun and business, the current plan has a hotel, retail space, and residential, but also a recreational velodrome.  So adults can also be imaginative and think outside of the box.

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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