Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Not What the Rolling Stones Meant by “Paint It Black”

Until the final battle was lost in the last few months, the City of Petaluma had engaged in a long war against asphalt, or at least the production of asphalt.

At issue was a proposed asphalt plant near the south edge of town, along Petaluma Boulevard South near the first freeway exit into Petaluma.  With ready access to the freeway, the Petaluma River, and the nearby rail tracks, the site offered a great range of transportation options, included the possible use of barges and trains for lower energy use delivery of raw materials.  It was obvious why the applicant wished to locate an asphalt plant at the site.

But the City was concerned about the vista for travelers arriving in Petaluma, about the potential for damage to river, and about fumes drifting toward a wildlife area and favorite walking paths on the opposing riverbank.  So, they fought the application through the County entitlement process and then joined other litigants in appealing the approval in the court system.

Despite the vigor and resources which the City brought to the fight, the war was eventually lost.  There are rumors that the plant will be constructed this coming summer.

As the battle was first getting underway back in 2009, I wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper.  Using a tale from my engineering past, I suggested that the battle was likely overblown.  I recounted the story of a neighbor who vehemently opposed an Oregon hydroelectric project back in the 1980s.  He was so convinced that the project would destroy the river that when he lost the fight, the power plant was built, and the river did just fine, he was sure that the plant hadn’t been built, even though his office window overlooked the roof of the powerhouse.

The piece is still on-line.  However, the first few paragraphs were inexplicably omitted, robbing the story of its coherence, so I won’t provide a link.

I suggested that the asphalt plant could follow a similar path.  If built, it might quickly recede into the visual background with the environmental controls working well enough that future generations would wonder what the furor had been about.

I still stand by my comments.  But I also stand by another opinion that I expressed back in 2009.  Then and now, I argue that Petaluma could and should reduce its use of asphalt to the extent that the applicant would choose to drop the project.  Like many of my fellow townspeople, I also didn’t want the asphalt plant, but I wanted the reason to be good business sense, not cherry-picked anti-entitlement arguments of uncertain veracity.

It was an argument that fell on deaf ears.  I still find it ironic that, at the same time the City Council was voting unanimously to appeal the asphalt plant approval, they were also putting a strong majority behind two shopping centers with expansive parking lots.

Nor did the inconsistency ever become evident to most.  Subsequent elections have been fought over which candidate was more steadfast in their opposition to the asphalt plant and in their support of the new shopping centers.  It’s too bad that we don’t instead elect public officials based on their ability to spot logical contradictions.

The call for less asphalt is common within the urbanist community.  A recent article in Better Cities and Towns lays out the arguments in favor of and the strategies to implement what the author calls “Little Asphalt” in contrast to the term Big Asphalt often applied to the consortium of general contractors, material suppliers, engineers, and lenders who have paved the way (pun intended) to a world of wide streets and enormous parking lots.

The article is worth a read, but the strategies for Little Asphalt will likely seem familiar.  That’s because they’re mostly the same strategies as for urbanism.  Whether one’s concern is climate change, water usage, municipal finance, or Big Asphalt, the toolkits are nearly identical, which I consider a strong indicator of a global truth.

Not surprisingly, the folks at StrongTowns are on the same side of the asphalt argument.  They point to one particular element of the battle, the zoning code specifications for minimum parking lot sizes, the rules that require parking lots be sized to accommodate the theoretical busiest days of the year, thereby undermining walkability, bicycle access, and transit use. 

Furthermore, StrongTowns finds that, even for the busiest day, the codes are conservative.  StrongTown volunteers spread out on the Friday after Thanksgiving to check on parking availability and have little difficulty in finding underfilled lots.

Personally, I didn’t do any shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, but found a half-empty lot when I did some Saturday shopping, which supports the StrongTowns argument.

Many years ago, I worked with a contractor who, upon confirmation that all of the underground utilities had been installed and tested, would describe his next task as “making it black”.  And “making it black” is essential.  No one wants to return to gravel and dirt streets.  But we can be more circumspect in our use of black.   And perhaps induce a few asphalt producers to drop plans for new plants.

Next time, I’ll write about a marvelous little private gate I recently came across.

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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