Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: A Chess Primer

I’ve written often about Petaluma Urban Chat’s development of a plan for reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  This effort, in which I‘ve played a role, anticipates the possibility that lease negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board will result in some or all of the Fairgrounds being freed for redevelopment.  In early January, I summarized the path Urban Chat had followed and where we would be heading.

Since that summary, the Urban Chat process has made good progress.  A five-person design committee is now meeting weekly to explore alternatives to the conceptual site plan that was adopted by the larger group, to hammer out compromises, and to judge whether the evolving plan seems to adequately meet the needs of all parties.

I’m pleased with the progress and look forward to sharing the plan with readers and with the Petaluma community over the next few weeks and months.  (Also, I’ll be seeking assistance in presenting the plan in the best possible light, assistance that I’ll discuss in an upcoming post.)

But today I want to write about will happen after the plan has been fully introduced.

I’m often asked about to best ensure that the City adopts the Urban Chat plan.  The query is based on an underlying assumption that I don’t accept.  You see, I don’t think the City should adopt the plan.

Before you splutter too much onto your screen, let me explain.

In order to proceed with their site planning effort, the Urban Chat participants had to make a great many assumptions about the redevelopment parameters.  Among the questions to which we assumed answers were the following:

Will the City Council decide that it’s politically acceptable to reclaim a portion of the Fairgrounds for redevelopment?

How much of the Fairgrounds site should be reclaimed?  Twenty acres, forty acres, or all of it?

Will the state, which has the oversight responsibility of local fair boards, intervene to limit the City options?

If reduced to a lesser area, can the Fair Board muster the funds for new construction to function on the smaller site?

Is there the political will to do away with speedway?

Will more than 75 years of environmental contamination limit the redevelopment options?

Will some of the existing structures be judged worthy of historic preservation, thereby restricting redevelopment options?

This list barely begins to scratch the surface of the uncertainties around the Fairgrounds.  In order to move ahead, Urban Chat assumed answers to these questions, good, reasonable assumptions, but still assumptions.

And like most assumptions, they’re likely to be undermined by future events. The chance of all the Urban Chat assumptions being correct is miniscule. 

But that doesn’t mean the Urban Chat participants have been wasting their time.  On the contrary, we’ve been becoming intimately familiar with the variables that will affect the eventual Fairgrounds decisions, the adjacency issues, the transportation opportunities, the zoning code alternatives, and many more constraints.  And in doing so, we’ve created local citizens well-primed to participate in the coming decisions and to effectively respond with valid alternatives as the assumptions change.

Let me offer an analogy.  Let’s say that you’re a complete chess novice, but will be forced to play a game, with a wager attached, against an experienced chess player.  However, you’ll be allowed to select one person to assist you.  Furthermore, you know that your opponent will be playing the Sicilian Defense opening, one of a number of well-established chess strategies.

You have two choices for your assistant, someone who understands the basic moves of chess but hasn’t studied any particular chess strategy.  Or someone who has deeply studied the Ruy Lopez opening, another of the well-known strategies, and has a solid grasp of how to assess the strategic values of the variations from the Ruy Lopez opening.  Who do you choose?

Obviously, you choose the Ruy Lopez expert.  It’s better to have someone who has studied the game deeply, even if that study is in a different variant of the game, than someone who hasn’t done any deep study at all.

And I’ll argue that what the Urban Chat process has created for Petaluma is a group of people who are intimately familiar with the Ruy Lopez variation of the Fairgrounds question.   Even if the Fairgrounds reuse is eventually played along the lines of the Sicilian Defense or some other chess strategy, having Ruy Lopez experts is still a good thing.

So what Urban Chat has been creating isn’t so much a land-use plan, although that plan is very much worth sharing for the enthusiasm and creative juices that it should trigger, but a group of folks who have a good grasp of the Fairgrounds opportunities and constraints and also an eagerness to be a part of finding the best future.

And, as any civic organizer will confirm, having an enthusiastic and educated group of citizens is better than having a good plan any day.

In my next post, I’ll peer deeply into my hazy crystal ball and take some guesses about how the Fairgrounds process will go forward, not the decisions that will be made, but the organizational processes that will be followed and the key decisions points that will occur.

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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