Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Checking for Support on the Flanks – Part One

Writing about urbanism, and presumably about most subjects with practical community application, can require a careful husbanding of time and resources.  There are so many worthy ideas to be pursued that a writer can spread himself too thin trying to champion all of them.  It’s a battle I fight with myself every week.

Some idea people respond by choosing to serve only as a source of ideas.  If no one picks up on a proffered idea, the possibility dies, but the writer can rationalize that it wasn’t his fault.  Personally, I find that approach bloodless.  Offering ideas is an essential step, but never committing more of one’s self seems to show a lack of community commitment.

Others respond by jumping into every possible campaign.  Never saying no is a fine way to make friends, but it also dilutes effectiveness such that no good cause gets sufficient attention.

I try to find a happy medium.  Sometimes I’ll write about an idea and then let it go, hoping it does well in the future, but with no further commitment from me.

Other times I’ll jump in and devote my time and effort to further promote a concept which I’ve offered.  But I only take this course if it’s an idea that really moves me and if others will work with me in the effort.  It’s more fun to tilt at windmills if they’re worthy targets and if one has compatriots in the tilting.

However, I haven’t always been good about checking for support before charging off toward the windmills.  I’ve been too willing to hear what I want to hear in fuzzy comments of support, only to find myself alone in the lane approaching the windmill.

This isn’t going to be one of those times.  In this post and the next, I’ll lay out an opportunity and ask for support.  If it isn’t forthcoming, that’s fine.  I can save myself for another battle.  But if support is offered, then we can begin having fun.

The subject is a possibility has recently arisen in Petaluma.  I initially mentioned it casually, almost dismissively, because the barriers before it seemed too large to overcome.  But then several folks through different channels told me that they found the idea intriguing.  And the more I pondered the idea, the more it seemed to provide a great solution to multiple challenges.  Today, the barriers seemed as high or even higher than when I’d first assessed them, but the advantages and support seemed greater.  So, today I’ll begin a check to see if the support is real.

The issue is the second SMART station in Petaluma.   I’ve recently written at length on the situation.  I’ll give a summary and update below, but if you want my full bore approach, which wandered into a rumination about the best function of urban growth boundaries, you can read the four blog posts here, here, here, and here.

Summarizing and slightly updating the situation, SMART formulated their rail plan based on a second Petaluma station at the intersection of N. McDowell Boulevard and Corona Road.  (For those not in the North Bay, SMART is the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District.  They’re implementing a voter-approved plan to return commuter rail service to the Sonoma Marin corridor, with revenue service expected to begin in late 2016.)

The first SMART station in Petaluma is downtown, near the historic train station, and has never been in question.  But the location of the second station has become a problem.

Presumably because of budget concerns from the recession, SMART held back from acquiring the initially intended site at the northeast corner of McDowell and Corona.  (The triangular parcel in the photo.)  The site subsequently went through a foreclosure and a sale, and is now back at the market, but at a price in which SMART seems uninterested.

Behind the first site is the Brody parcel, which would work for a train station but, being set back from McDowell, wouldn’t be as convenient for bus or private car access as the first parcel.  Plus, the Brody parcel would seem better reserved for later transit-oriented development (TOD).

Across Corona is the current U.S. Post Office site.  Many of the mail processing tasks have recently been moved away from the site, but the process to release a portion of the site for a train station is unknown and likely complex.

Behind the Post Office is the largest Corona alternative, the Scott parcel (bisected by Peterson Lane in the photo).  But the parcel is outside of the urban growth boundary, requiring a significant land-use action to make it available for the parking and/or TOD that should complement a train station.  Also, the Scott parcel may have wetland issues that would require mitigation.  Lastly, the Scott parcel would the same access concerns as the Brody parcel.

Perhaps influenced by the challenges at the four parcels surrounding the originally intended station location, SMART identified a possible trade of other land rights for a fifth station location, about a mile to the northwest on Old Redwood Highway, about a quarter-mile north of McDowell.  The station would be closer to office parks, but further from the housing that it was intended to serve.  Also it is tightly bounded by the urban growth boundary and a Community Separator, limiting the TOD potential around the site.   And the bus and car access concerns would be worse than for any of the sites near Corona.

And there we are, with five possible sites, all imperfect in one way or another.

Except that there’s a sixth site that, while it also has significant imperfections, offers rather remarkable benefits.

A short distance north of Corona on McDowell is a vacant industrial parcel.  It lies between a FedEx distribution center and a warehouse with multiple tenants.  As can be seen in the photo, it also backs on the rail tracks.  Lagunitas Brewery, which is on the far side of the warehouse, owns development rights to the parcel, recently secured approvals to build a parking lot to serve their on-site brewpub, and has begun clearing and grubbing the site.

But the site could also serve as a train station.  Indeed, it could solve a number of issues in the vicinity of Lagunitas and the other brewpubs that are popping up near McDowell.

A full explanation of the benefits and challenges of converting the site into a train station can be best addressed through a pro and con assessment.   That assessment, plus a check to see if any folks are interesting in making the argument, is what I’ll write about in my next post.  Please join me for the discussion.

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


  1. Looking at that urban fabric, it's hard to believe that a train station would be a good investment...

    1. Seth, thanks for the comment. However, there is a system-wide commitment to have suburban-type stations where people can park to catch the train. As long as we're going to build those kinds of stations, and I agree that we should as a transitional strategy, we should locate them where the seeds of urbanism might take root.