Monday, June 1, 2015

On the Coherency of Transects and Urban Growth Boundaries - Part One

Something I find irresistible about urbanism is how well the pieces fit together.  It’s a logical, coherent theory of how the world of land use that works, or at least should work.

This isn’t to imply that the laws of urbanism are as immutable as the laws of physics or mathematics.  E=mc2, F=ma, and (x+y)(x-y)= x2-y2 have a crystalline perfection that nothing in the living, oxygen uptake world can match.  But with that exception, urbanism can be startlingly beautiful in its consistency.

Urbanists can and will argue about the small details of urban theory.  Indeed, they often seem to revel in those arguments.  But they’re mostly fussing over the little stuff while remaining in full agreement on the big stuff, which is why they can go out for beers after the most heated arguments.

I was reminded of this coherence when a couple of thought exercises I’d recently been mulling suddenly and unexpectedly came together to display a logical truth.  Although the insight is universal, the cogitation catalyst was a proposed change in the SMART train facilities here in Petaluma.

It’s a story that’ll take me several posts to present.  Today, for those not in the North Bay, I’ll summarize the back story.

As originally approved by the voters, the SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) train was to extend from Larkspur in Marin County to Cloverdale at the far northern end of Sonoma County.  Petaluma was to have two stations, one near downtown that was to be the focus of walkable urban development and another in the northeast quadrant of town that was to serve the drivable suburban neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, that voter approval came in 2008 and was in the form of a quarter cent sales tax.  With the great recession, sales tax revenues shrank abruptly and SMART was left with an unfunded mandate.

To adjust, SMART made significant adjustments to the system configuration, trimming the north and south ends of the line and dropping several stations, while promising to restore the deferred elements as soon as tax revenues allowed.

One of the deferred stations was the drivable suburban station in Petaluma, then slated for the intersection of McDowell Boulevard North and Corona Road.  If not in the heart of suburban Petaluma, the proposed station location was reasonably convenient to much of Petaluma and was on a well-used Petaluma Transit route for those who would access the train by bus.

The community was disappointed by the temporary loss of the Corona Road station and has continually agitated for its restoration.  But at the same time, the City prepared to make good use of the downtown station.

Using funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the City completed a master plan for development of the area immediately adjoining the downtown station.  (Dual acknowledgments: I served on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  Also, the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds is within walkable distance of the downtown station and I’ve helped organize the Fairgrounds re-envisioning currently being done by Petaluma Urban Chat.  So I have a dual interest in the success of the downtown station.)

The key parcel for development at the downtown station was owned by SMART.  During rail construction, the parcel was put to temporary use for staging, but the community expected SMART to establish a parallel track of identifying a developer who could move ahead with transit oriented development the site as soon as the construction use was complete.  Except SMART never implemented the parallel track.

So now the community had two beefs with SMART, the absence of the Corona station, which would serve those who would drive to a station, and the flagging efforts at the downtown station, which would serve those who prefer a walkable experience.  Meanwhile, the date of SMART’s revenue service was coming ever closer.

A month ago, SMART announced a possible deal that would address both concerns with a single action.  They would secure an alternative parcel for the drivable station.  In exchange, they would grant development rights for the downtown parcel to the current owner of the alternative station location.

At first blush, it seemed a reasonable, even inspired, solution.  In the first days after the announcement, the community seemed pleased with the trade-off.  The downtown transit oriented development was again underway and the second station would be available sooner than anticipated.

But the honeymoon ended quickly.  The new site was at the urban fringe.  It couldn’t be served as easily by Petaluma Transit.  It would encourage more car trips down streets that were poorly configured, near capacity, or both.  The only sites for transit oriented development around the new station were outside of the Urban Growth Boundary.

The community began scratching its collective head, wondering if the deal struck by SMART had been Faustian.

That will be the jumping off point for my next couple of posts.  What are the implications of putting a transit station at the urban fringe?  Does the location create difficult future decisions?  Is the urban fringe location a reasonable trade-off for moving the downtown development ahead?  What does urbanism have to offer on the point?  Do the transects that form the heart of urbanism impart insights?  The answers should have application not only to Petaluma, but to all communities.

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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