Monday, August 24, 2015

Why Haystack Landing Can’t Be Everything to Everybody

Last time, I wrote about the tentatively-named Haystack Landing, a proposed mixed-use project, with residential over retail, midway between downtown Petaluma and the coming SMART train station.  Although I demurred slightly on the architecture, I was mostly thrilled with the project, with my principal wish being that ground-breaking could occur soon.

But, as with most land development projects, it’s inevitable that other folks won’t be as content.  Some will be querulous and others merely curious, but there will always be some who wish that their particular issue could have addressed differently.

Before, during, and after the public meeting last week, some of those concerns reached my ears.  In my role as an advocate for urbanism, I’ll try to address those concerns.

To be clear, I have no role in the Haystack Landing project.  The responses below are based solely on conversations with the project team and on knowledge gained from past projects.  Perhaps I didn’t sit at the table for Haystack Landing, but I’ve sat at enough tables to understand how the realities of zoning codes, construction financing, and marketplace preferences play out.

Why do the buildings top out at four stories?  More stories would put more people downtown: There are a several approaches that can be taken to answering this question, but I’ll tackle it through parking balance.

Each use, whether market-rate residential, affordable residential, or retail, has a parking requirement. With each home or retail space added, more parking is required, reducing the land available for the building footprint.  It becomes a dance to find the balance point between parking and building uses such that the site is fully used, and fully parked, in a form will satisfy the marketplace.

For Haystack Landing, the project team found their balance point at 140 homes plus about 20,000 square-feet of retail in four-story buildings with 180 surface parking stalls.  From my review, I have no reason to disagree with their conclusion.  If they had pushed the buildings higher, they would have needed more parking, for which there wasn’t room without eliminating building footprints.

Some may point out that structured parking could have increased the parking count without increasing the land area dedicated to parking, thereby allowing more building stories.  They’d be right, but the problem is that structured parking is expensive, perhaps $20,000 per parking space compared to $2,000 for a ground space.

Adding structured parking would significantly bump the sales prices, or rental rates, on the units, perhaps pushing those prices beyond what the market will bear.  From the early days of the recession until now, developers have reported that they can’t find a way to make structured parking pay except in the densest urban settings.  If the Haystack Landing team says that they found the same, I have no reason to dispute them.

But what if additional stories were committed to affordable units without associated parking?: This is an interesting question that forces me to dig deeper into the project.  There are four arguments against the suggestion.

First, although I’d like to believe otherwise, there may not be a market for affordable units with no parking.

Second, the assigned transects for the site (transects being the form-based code equivalents of zones which are used within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan) allow only four stories on much of the site, with six stories allowed only along the E. Washington Street frontage.  So a variance or zone change would be required to go above four stories.

Third, there is also no provision in the SmartCode for residential units without parking, so another variance would be required.

Fourth, the building code changes above four stories, requiring a more expensive form of construction.

So the taller buildings would become more expensive in order to add affordable units with an uncertain market.  That’s not a workable proposition.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of a fifth or even sixth story along E. Washington Street, liking the image it would create for Petaluma.  I’d suggest that fourth floor homes become multi-story units internally, which would get around the parking issue.  But it still wouldn’t overcome the building code constraint.

Why can’t the project look more like downtown?:  The easy answer is that construction codes and economics have changed over the last century, with the money that used to go into elaborate facades instead going into seismic code compliance, fire suppression systems, handicapped access, and union wages.

But there is also the problem that downtown Petaluma doesn’t have a single style to which Haystack Landing could conform.  I love downtown, but it has a broad diverse range of
architectural styles, leaving current-day architects at a loss when it comes to matching downtown.  Anyone who argues that downtown Petaluma has a style is confusing familiarity and fondness for coherence.

What should be done to mitigate for the increased traffic?: This is a multi-faceted question.  To begin, it’s likely that congestion won’t change.  In the obverse side of the theory of induced traffic, if more traffic is added to an already congested street, more drivers would defer or delay trips, so
congestion would remain the same, although there is still the impact of more deferred or delayed trips.

Also, there aren’t many traffic improvements that can be made in the vicinity of Haystack Landing.  There is no room for a third lane on E. Washington Street.  The D Street Bridge constricts D Street to its current one lane.  And Lakeville doesn’t offer any opportunities either.

However, Haystack Landing, with its location and its restricted parking, will generate fewer trips than other residential projects.  Because of the way that trip data is collected from other projects, we don’t know what the likely Haystack Landing trip generation would be, but with ten daily trips per home being typical for single-family homes, seven or so trips from Haystack Landing would seem likely.  And that number would decrease as the urbanism increases around the project, allowing more daily chores to be completed on foot or by transit.

Despite this lower trip generation, Haystack Landing will pay the same traffic impact fee per unit as for an apartment with unlimited parking on the urban fringe.  State law allows cities to impose lower traffic impact fees for projects in urban settings, but Petaluma has chosen not to do so.

But as there are few opportunities for traffic improvements near Haystack Landing, it is likely that the traffic impact fees would be spent on improvements in the more suburban parts of the community.

So, the complete traffic answer is that Haystack Landing will generate fewer trips that other residential projects, but will pay for more than its fair share for city traffic improvements.  However, the improvements will likely occur elsewhere other than around Haystack Landing because there are few improvement opportunities near the project.  It’s an answer that makes my head spin.

Is it best for one developer to design all 140 units?: Admittedly, this is my question, although I never asked it of anyone because I already knew the answer.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of fine-grained urbanism, believing that many small projects serve cities better than a few large projects.  (Jane Jacobs made this argument in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and for me it remains true a half-century later.)

In a perfect world, I would prefer that different teams develop the two blocks that will result when the current block is divided by the new street.  Even though the massing of the two blocks would likely remain the similar given the constraints of the Station Area Master Plan and SmartCode, I think the different teams might generate solutions sufficiently different to meet Jacobs’ goal of a fine grain.

But I also understand the financial downside of having multiple development entities.  The costs of entitlement, including CEQA compliance, aren’t halved when the project area is halved.  Indeed, those costs may not change much at all.  So the total costs of entitlement, which can be a significant percentage of the overall development costs, could be doubled if the blocks were developed separately.

As much as I think that fine-grained urbanism would be better for our cities, our current methods of entitlement and environmental protection work against it.

Why is there is an old warehouse on the Copeland Street frontage?: the aerial photo at the beginning of this post shows two warehouses along Copeland Street.  Pacifica Companies has acquired one of those warehouses, will demolish it, and will replace it with new construction.

But no purchase agreement was reached on the other warehouse, so it will remain in place, with the Haystack Landing buildings constructed on both sides of it.

In January, I noted to the Petaluma City Council that this situation is why eminent domain exists and that the City should find a way to acquire the property and to resell it to Pacifica Companies so it could become part of Haystack Landing.

I still feel that way, but I also see the possibility that, when the warehouse finally goes away years from now, a creative development team will find a quirky way to use the odd parcel, resulting in a solution that future generations of Petalumans will find endearing.  Good urbanism sometimes works out that way.

So, I’m less bothered by the warehouse than I was six months ago.

Any other thoughts on Haystack Landing?  I suggest contacting the developer, but I also remain always willing to chat about urbanist projects.

HBO is currently airing an original program that will seemingly impart lessons relevant to urbanism.  I’m intrigued by the plot and by the learning opportunities.  I’ll share what I know 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. Regarding the mitigation of traffic question- With all due respect, the traffic at the D St/Lakeville intersection is already horrible. Add the future impact of the train station to the mix and it becomes a scary scenario. And add to this 140 housing units a block away….it boggles the imagination.
    How can you possibly suggest that “it’s likely that congestion won’t change”? I’m sorry but your induced traffic theory sound like a fantasy that developers would be quick to tout but has little bearing in the real world.

    1. Jimmy, induced traffic is hardly my theory. It is the governing approach to traffic studies in much of the world. The U.S. has been slower than some places in adopting the approach, but the change has begun. California has already adopted induced traffic as the standard under CEQA, although Sacramento has yet to adopt and to promulgate the new rules. It's unfortunate that the U.S. has been slow in the adoption because New York City under Robert Moses was a great case study for induced traffic. Whenever Moses proposed a new freeway, he promised that traffic would be free-slowing forever, but within a couple of years of the ribbon cutting, congestion was back to previous levels. But whenever Moses lost the battle for a new road and promised that gridlock would result, congestion remained the same. Both results were consistent with induced traffic.

      With that said, I agree that the train will likely change the traffic patterns of E. Washington. Although congestion will likely remain the same, capacity may well drop, for which we should be making adjustments. But Haystack Landing will be only a small part of the problem.

    2. You are spot on re traffic. Even considering this project is insanity- but I believe that the folks "in control" are so close to the problem that they fail to see how it will most certainly affect Petaluma's future quality of life. So sad!

    3. So you are mostly "thrilled by" this project. I find it very disturbing that you did not mention that our statewide drought is in effect now and could very well continue for years, while Petalumans are cutting back on their use of water so drastically that not only lawns, flowers, bushes and shrubs are dying, but trees as well. Why are we being forced to be careful with water when we are allowing more development into the area? This is insanity! I would expect a more intelligent and sensible approach from an "urban development promoter."

    4. I have lots of things to say, but I'll spare you. I was very interested in your take on the Haystack Landing Project because having followed your blog, I find that we agree on a lot of things. And that hasn't changed after reading this blog entry. And it's helpful to have your answers to many of the questions I've had about the particular constraints brought on by codes, plans and variance requirements. There is one thing I'd like to say, though, about building affordable housing in that parcel. First of all there is still a serious need for affordable senior housing in this city. The waiting list at PEP Housing is 300 hopefuls and it's growing everyday. Baby Boomers seem to like PEP housing apartments. I can't blame them. I live in one of the PEP buildings and I love it. However, I think you might want to re-think your statement, "First, although I’d like to believe otherwise, there may not be a market for affordable units with no parking." If you would have heard the excitement among the residents in my building and other PEP buildings, when it looked like PEP was going to partner with Pacifica and build 35 affordable units as part of Pacifica's requirement to develop that property rather than pay in-lieu fees, you might rethink that statement. PEP residents want to live downtown, so they can walk to the shops and other businesses and take the train and busses easily and give their cars to their kids who worry about them driving. We have parking in our building for each apartment and those of us who have cars use them. However, there are many people in my 22 unit building who don't drive and have given up their cars. Then there are the rest of us who make maybe 3 to 4 trips a WEEK in our cars and it's mostly trips to the stores downtown or on the way. The Grocery Outlet parking lot bears the brunt of many of those weekly car trips. AND we carpool when we do go anywhere, so that the non-drivers can get where they need to go, also! If 35 of those apartments were affordable senior housing apartments, the city could afford to change any rules and stipulate that senior housing is the exception to the one-car-per unit when the building is in close proximity to the downtown or transit stations. It was a huge disappointment for many of us when we heard the 35 senior apartments weren't being built. Cars are a huge expense for those of us who live on small social security pensions. We'd gladly give them up if our housing was downtown and the bus system actually served our needs.

    5. Nanette, your comments regarding traffic and water have much in common, so I'll respond to both jointly. Your argument is that we have a scarce resource, whether traffic capacity or water, and therefore we shouldn't be expending any further of the two resources.

      But that effectively becomes an argument for zero growth. However. zero growth isn't really an option for two reasons. First, California is continuing to grow because it's a desirable place to live. And in a free country, we allow people to move if their checkbooks will permit it. The regional strategy is to distribute new housing throughout the region in order to keep jobs and homes as close together as possible, with the goal of minimizing traffic growth. Perhaps Petaluma can duck that participation in that strategy, but it would be both poor citizen behavior and would deny Petaluma access to funds that are needed to keep the city moving ahead.

      Second, putting up a wall around Petaluma and barring growth would have land value implications. Petaluma is a desirable place to live. Without a new source of homes, prices for existing homes would zoom upward. That reality is basic economics. Lower wage earners would soon cash in on their homes and move elsewhere, leaving Petaluma as an enclave of the rich. I'm not suggesting that Petaluma would become the Belvedere of Sonoma County, but it could bear some resemblance.

      So. if continued growth is necessary to keep Petaluma a balanced and healthy community, what is the right kind of growth to encourage? How about growth that uses as little as possible of the scarce traffic capacity and water resources? And that would be Haystack Landing and its coming urban cohorts. Hence my advocacy.

    6. Anna, thanks for your comment. You make a good point and I stand corrected. When I wrote my words, I was thinking of working class families trying to survive without cars, but I agree that units for seniors without cars make much sense. Indeed, they could be units where I find myself living twenty years hence. I'm dubious if the project finances would support pushing the buildings above four stories and dealing with the different building codes in order to accommodate affordable senior units, but it's a least a question worth asking. (And I'll wager that the developer has done so.)

      I'll admit that I'd forgotten about the PEP connection to the Haystack Landing. I don't know that why that connection didn't work out, but will ask the developer at my next opportunity.