Monday, June 15, 2015

Stuck in the Middle with Few

I recently had a week that highlighted a paradox I’ve created for myself.  My conundrum sheds light on an issue that affects urbanism, so I think it’s worthy of discussion.

First, I met with a developer who had a potential interest in folding me into his project team.  I knew something about his site and believed in the potential of the district, so was interested in the possibility, even though I hadn’t yet seen his particular plan.

But the developer was aware of my urbanist leanings and my community involvement.  Those activities made him uncomfortable.

Much of our conversation bounced between his expectation that I would unequivocally support his project and my rejoinder that I would unequivocally support any project that made Petaluma a better place.  We concluded our discussion somewhere short of a meeting of the minds.  He and I continue to chat.  He may yet decide to include me.  I hope he does because I think I can help him and the community, but I’m not losing any sleep over the outcome.

About the same time, I was chatting with a local citizens’ advocacy group.  They had their teeth into an issue that was of interest to me.  I didn’t expect that the group and I would have the same congruency of interests on every subject, but our overall goals were largely aligned and making common cause on this particular issue seemed reasonable.

But then I got wind that some in the group were hesitant to work with me because I was known to consort with developers.

So, within just a few days, I had a developer cast a dubious eye at me because I was too community-centric and a community group cast a similarly dubious eye at me because I was too developer-centric.

In a world that many believe is already too polarized, we seem to be adding new types of polarity.

Which is a shame because it doesn’t help us make the North Bay a better place.  I firmly believe that we need to be talking more, not less.

Those of you who have been reading here for awhile know the points that I might now make to elaborate my point.  The need to understand the real world constraints on developers.  The fact that zoning codes often don’t present the true desires of the community.  The need to incorporate concerns about climate change and municipal finances into our land use patterns.  The desires of the market place.

But those of you who have been reading here for awhile already know the litany.  And those of you haven’t can hang out for awhile and wait for the issues to come past again.  So I’ll adjourn at this point and encourage you to proceed with your day.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about being potentially ostracized by both ends of the land-use spectrum.  To use an inside joke from the world of land use, I know I’m in the midst of a self-created difficulty.  Yes, I’d like developers to believe that I can bring value to their projects.  And yes, I’d like community groups to believe that I have the best interests of the community at heart.

But what I really want is to awake in the morning with the belief that I’m doing the best I can for current and future residents of the North Bay.  And as long as I pass that test, which I do, I can’t be too concerned about the other stuff.

Instead, all I can do is to keep humming to myself.

Well I don't know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain't right.


While recently philosophizing on the issues raised by the alternative Petaluma SMART station, I suggested that the creation of new, separated communities would be a logical result of an urbanist world.  Effectively, I was proposing islands of urbanism surrounded by natural environment.

To my surprise, I learned that Amsterdam had already embarked on a literal interpretation of the concept that I was proposing.  I’ll explain in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Dave, I have certainly indicated this to others if not directly to you: If I want the best possible thinking about when to constrain my dreams for a livable, walkable, people-oriented, aesthetic, nourishing community to meet the reality test of "real world constraints on developers," I am going straight to Dave Alden to provide the thinking and the communication thereof!

    1. Barry, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but you give me too much credit. There are many folks who are better qualified and more knowledgeable about the appropriate trade-offs. I just try to provide the fodder to keep the necessary conversations underway.

      My point in the post above, which I probably didn't make well enough, isn't that I'm particularly skilled at finding good solutions, but that if we exclude people who can see both sides of the argument, we end up with compromises struck between those who believe that all development is good because we need the economic activity and those who believe that all developers are evil. And those compromises are never as well crafted for the benefit of the community.