Friday, August 21, 2015

Haystack Landing by Any Other Name Would Fill the Need as Well

Long-time Petaluma residents may remember the proposed Haystack Landing project, sited midway between downtown and the future SMART station, bounded by E. Washington, Weller, D, and Copeland Streets.

Over a great many years, the former owner of the property put forth a great many alternative plans for the site, some of which would have supported Petaluma’s urbanist future and some of which are better forgotten.

Eventually, time and a weakening economy robbed the earlier efforts of their last shred of momentum and the property moved into different hands, eventually ending up owned by Pacifica Companies of San Diego.

Pacifica has now brought forth their plan, a plan that looks much like the final iteration under the previous owner, not surprising given that some team members remain the same, but with a sense of commitment and a level of credibility that gives hope that this time the project will finally move ahead.

Although Pacifica hasn’t yet submitted land-use applications to the Planning Department, they rolled out the preliminary plans for community review earlier this week.  There was much to like in the plans.  There was also room to chat about possible tweaks.

(One thing that Pacifica hasn’t brought forth is a new name for the project.  They seem committed to moving on from the previous Haystack Landing name, but are as yet undecided on a new name.  After offering the obligatory jest about PTBNL for project-to-be-named-later, a reference to a player-to-be-named-later in a baseball trade, I’ll continue calling the project Haystack Landing for now.)

To begin my comments, please understand that I would be happy if the project as now presented could go into construction tomorrow.  Indeed, happy would understate my emotions.  If I could get my wife to agree, I’d probably put our names on the reservation list for one of the units.  I hope to one day live in an urban setting near the heart of Petaluma, a hope that has twice been stalled when earlier projects failed.  Haystack Landing is now my newest great urban hope.

But construction isn’t going to start tomorrow.   So there’s a window to talk about the good, the possible areas of improvement, and the impractical suggestions put forth by others.

The Good: As a member of the citizens committee for the Station Area Master Plan, I may be overly committed to the vision that resulted from that process, but I’m pleased that the Haystack Landing conforms well to the master plan, with a new street dividing the parcel, multiple four-story buildings mostly ringing the resulting two blocks, and parking, at the minimum allowed under the SmartCode, in the center of the blocks, largely removed from the view of pedestrians.

In a detail that wasn’t foretold by the master plan, but is a welcome addition, much of the parking is covered by a roof that will support social activities and areas of greenery.

(The project architect pointed out that the strictures in the master plan and the related SmartCode gave relatively few options for the site plan, largely dictating the proposed plan.  Short of asking for a bundle of variances, the site plan had to look much as it has been designed.  One could argue from this that the master plan and SmartCode, even if they’re stifling innovation, are still leading to good results.)

Looking at one small site plan detail, I’m thrilled by the solution along D Street.  A long-ago realignment of D Street left an awkward triangle of pavement, comfortable for neither pedestrians walking between downtown and the future train station nor drivers unsure how to steer a right turn onto Weller Street.  The triangle can’t contain buildings because of overhead power lines, but the site plan converts that space into a landscape and sculpture garden, with outdoor dining for a proposed cafĂ©.  It’s a fine solution to a vexing problem.

The Room for Improvements: I’m not an architect, don’t have the eye of an architect, and am impossibly far behind in my attempt at remedial architectural training, but I find that the Haystack Landing architecture, while well articulated and richly detailed, still screams early 21st century American development style.  I don’t intend at all to suggest that the architecture looks like a Walmart.  With its detailing and varied use of materials, it’s far from that architectural nadir.

But, to my untrained eye, it still looks too much like the same architectural solution that would be proposed for infill sites in Seattle, Denver, or Charlotte.  It’d be a good solution in any of those places, but nothing in the design says unique, Petaluma, or even California.

For corroboration of my impressions, I checked with an architect friend.  He used different words, but largely agreed with me.

I suspect that various constraints, from the site to the Station Area Master Plan to the construction economics in the second decade of the 21st century, restricted the architect such that this may been his legitimately best solution, but I can still chafe at the result.

In a situation for which an easier fix would seem to be available, Transverse Street, the interim and unpoetic name for the street that will subdivide the Haystack Landing site, will be the preferred route for most pedestrians walking from downtown to the coming SMART station.  But that route may not be obvious to first-time visitors.  Indeed, the route may seem unintuitive from downtown.  So wayfinding guidance at the Weller Street entrance into Transverse Street would be appropriate, perhaps a sculpture or signage that sends the unmistakable message that this be the way to the train.

Rounding out my thoughts on the preliminary plans are responses to some of the issues raised by the public for which there are no solutions and for which the developer should be given absolution.  But I’ve already claimed enough of your time for today, so I’ll defer those to 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. I am so happy to read such a positive assessment. What I would like to know more about is the constraints on a larger proportion of low-income or "affordable" housing, perhaps made possible by 5 or 6 stories being permitted.

  2. Barry, you ask a good question. I was going to answer a related question in my next post. I'll revise my response to incorporate your query. Spoiler alert: The answer probably won't make you happy.

  3. No worries, Dave. I had no hope that it would!
    :) Barry