In my last post, I reviewed six possible sites for the second SMART station in Petaluma, four on the north side of N. McDowell Boulevard near Corona Road, a fifth on Old Redwood Highway, and a sixth that is between those two locations, on a parcel where a parking lot for the Lagunitas Brewery is currently being constructed. (More details on the six sites, including a quick summary of the pros and cons of each, were provided in the earlier post.)
Today, I want to look more deeply at the sixth. I’ll conclude with a check for allies willing to join me in advocating for the site to become the second station.
To begin, if I rank the sites solely in terms of suitability as a commuter train station, the sixth site, which I’ll describe at the Lagunitas parcel, comes in third. Based on ease of access, I’d give the edge to the two sites that front on N. McDowell Boulevard on either side of Corona Road, followed by the Lagunitas parcel.
It’s true the two parcels at McDowell and Corona have acquisition issues, price on one and current use as a Post Office on the other, but the Lagunitas parcel is currently under construction for another use, so also has its challenges. If we’re looking at the sites solely on the basis of suitability as a commuter train station, the Lagunitas parcel isn’t necessarily worth much further attention.
But we shouldn’t be looking solely at the commuter train station question. There is second land-use issue in the vicinity of the Lagunitas parcel. As I written several times, most recently here, there is a growing Petaluma brewpub district on N. McDowell. On the north side of McDowell is Lagunitas, the phenomenally successful local brewery with its ever-crowded brewpub. One south side is a pair of smaller, but still popular, breweries with operational pubs or future pub plans.
The immediate problem with the brewpub district is that there is little parking on the Lagunitas side of the street, so most Lagunitas patrons park in the industrial district across McDowell and then risk a crossing of the 40 mph arterial. It’s a worrisome situation. The community is probably lucky that no one has yet been hurt.
To their credit, Lagunitas is addressing the concern by building a new parking lot on the parcel I’ve now identified as a possible train station.
But the parking lot, however laudable it might be, is only a partial solution. There is still the problem of patrons who park in the Lagunitas lot and then do a pub crawl, crossing McDowell between Lagunitas and the other brewpubs while dodging 40 mph vehicles.
Also, the Petaluma brewpub district may well become a regional destination, with beer fans coming from San Rafael or Santa Rosa by train to enjoy Petaluma and its hoppy beverages. But if the train station is located at Corona, potential patrons are left with a quarter-mile along a pedestrian unfriendly sidewalk to reach Lagunitas and then must also navigate a crossing of McDowell to reach the other brewpubs. It’s not the best way to treat folks who want to enjoy a day in Petaluma.
But if the train station, including parking, is built on the Lagunitas parcel and if crossing McDowell is made safer and easier, all of the concerns would be addressed. Beer patrons could park on either side of McDowell and cross the street safely. None of the brewpubs would be excluded from the boom. Petaluma gets a tourist destination. And train commuters, who still have readily available parking because the morning commute would be long before the brewpubs opened for business, could end their workday in a bustling pedestrian environment.
The conventional approach to crossing McDowell would be with a traffic signal. But there is a problem with signal location. Pub crawl patrons would want the signal near Lagunitas. Train passengers who use Petaluma Transit to reach the train station and don’t want a post-work beer would want the signal in front of the station. From experience, we know that some folks won’t walk several hundred feet to use a signal, but will cross on their most direct route. Those folks would remain at risk from high-speed arterial traffic.
So, rather than a signal or signals, the better solution would be traffic calming McDowell to 25 mph so that painted crosswalks become effective and any pedestrians who might still be struck by cars have a much better chance of survival. (Dave Edmondson, writing in Vibrant Bay Area, recently produced a bar chart showing how dramatically pedestrian deaths decline as traffic slows.)
An extensive traffic calming effort on McDowell might have a similar cost to the signals or signals, but would offer more benefits. Indeed, with the train station on the Lagunitas parcel and McDowell simultaneously calmed to 25 mph, the benefits begin to flow as if from an open beer tap. Let’s start counting the pros.
Pro #1: Petaluma would have a train station in a very acceptable location. It might not be quite as convenient as a Corona location for many commuters, but would better serve beer tourists or commuters eager to stop for post-work camaraderie.
Pro #2: Petaluma would have a cohesive brewpub district. The brewpub district grew up in an unexpected place. Placing the train station in the midst of it would be way of endorsing the district and giving it further momentum.
Pro #3: Petaluma would have a new tourist destination. If developed properly, the downtown train station already has the potential to welcome tourists into the historic downtown. With a train station in the brewpub district, the second train station would also have a personality. I’m tickled by the thought of someone staying in a downtown hotel, walking to the downtown station, riding to the brewpub district, and spending the afternoon enjoying music at Lagunitas. Petaluma would cement its place on tourism lists.
Pro #4: Pedestrian safety would be prioritized. A giant step would have been taken toward the community goal of making pedestrian safety rank above driving speed.
Pro #5: Other cross-McDowell connections would be enhanced. This discussion has been about beer drinkers crossing McDowell. But traffic calming McDowell between Old Redwood Highway and Corona Road would also facilitate other street crossings. Train riders could more easily access the Petaluma Health Center. Shoppers at OSH could more easily enjoy lunch at Beyond the Glory. At present, McDowell is a barrier to all but car drivers. Many new connections could blossom if pedestrians could more easily the street.
Pro #6: Transit-oriented development remains a strong possibility. Transit-oriented development, usually residential with light retail, should be an element of most new train stations. The Scott parcel is directly across the tracks from the Lagunitas site, so provides that possibility. The Scott parcel has challenges, including being outside the urban growth boundary, not fitting well with a reasonable transect application, and having apparent wetlands, but those are challenges that can be overcome.
But, of course, there are also cons, limited in number but significant in presence.
Con #1: Lagunitas is already building a parking lot on the site. I believe in the sanctity of entitlements. Lagunitas did well by the community in proposing and entitling the parking lot. If we’re going to unwind that approval, Lagunitas would need to be kept whole, although I’m not sure what that might mean.
Con #2: Reconfiguring an arterial to drive at 25 mph is a big paradigm shift for Petaluma. There are precedents for this kind of change. Many European cities have gone that direction and New York City is making similar strides. But it would be a new and non-intuitive idea for much of Petaluma.
Con #3: There would be costs to reconfigure McDowell. It would be an interesting challenge to find the right combination of reduced lane widths, bulb outs, and other traffic calming devices to cause drivers to stay at 25 mph while also allowing the semi-truck traffic that serves the businesses and warehouses along McDowell. A cost tag of $1 million seems a reasonable starting point. Grants might be available for some of the cost, but funding would still be a challenge.
And there you have it, my best summary of the alternative location for the second Petaluma SMART station. I’m excited about the possibilities, while also realistic that the cons may well be insurmountable. But with allies, I’m willing to tilt at the windmill. And by allies, I don’t mean folks who are willing to offer good wishes before heading off to a social engagement, but folks who are willing to write letters, to stand up before the City Council and/or SMART Board, and to generally agitate for a farsighted land-use concept.
If you’re willing to be one of those allies, let me know. Either a comment below or an email would be fine. I’ll wait to see how many folks raise their hands and then we can formulate a plan.
A change of gears is coming in my next post. For the past year, I’ve argued that Petaluma needs to become more officially supportive of block parties. I haven’t gained much ground, but I’ve been invited to some great parties, including one coming up in the next couple of days. I’ll report 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)