Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Forget Casinos and Shopping Malls, the Real Threat May Be Something Else

In 2004, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians acquired a large parcel of land south of Petaluma, tucked between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River.  Since 2004, Petaluma city government and residents have worried about the possibility of a casino on the site.

Recently, in the face of consistent casino denials by Dry Creek leadership, the concern has morphed into a worry about a regional shopping center on the land, a center that could well attract tenants and sales tax revenues away from newly opened retail complexes in Petaluma.

As an urbanist, I’m also concerned about a casino or a shopping center on the tribal parcel, destinations that could be reached only by car and would constitute sprawl.  But I have another possibility to suggest, a possibility that could do more harm to Petaluma than either a casino or a retail center.

The Dry Creek’s land adjoins the tracks over which the SMART commuter rail will begin service next year.  The Dry Creek tribe could ask SMART for service to the parcel, a request to which SMART would likely accede if the proposal was structured well.  The tribe could then build a train station and an urbanist village on the slopes leading upward from the tracks, something like the urbanist village of Seaside built 35 years ago along the Gulf Coast and pictured above.

With a setting looking across the marshes of the Petaluma River toward the vineyard-covered hillsides to the east and with a freeway immediately adjoining when car travel is required, the tribal parcel is a potentially perfect site for urbanism.  And with a North Bay labor pool filling with younger adults less connected to their cars that any generation in nearly a century, the North Bay market seems primed for a community where walking, biking, and transit could form the bulk of daily travel.

As an urbanist, I should welcome this possibility, right?  Well, maybe, but only if other options fail to mature.

I’m a big believer in the Jane Jacobs dictum that the best and most robust communities stitch together buildings of different eras and people of different social standings.  I salivate over the vision of a walkable urbanist core next to the downtown Petaluma SMART station connecting the historic elements of downtown Petaluma with the underutilized industrial buildings across E. Washington Street, the East D Street neighborhood, and maybe also the retasked Fairgrounds land.

I’m only slightly less enthusiastic about the prospects of walkable urban development near the second Petaluma SMART station (Corona Road, please), connecting with and providing a focal point for nearby single-family residences.

And I can paint similarly rosy visions of the downtowns near the stations along the entire length of the SMART system.

I love the concept and the reality of Seaside, which I visited for the first time this past summer and will soon write about, but I think that places that combine the best of the 19th, 20th, 21st, and someday 22nd centuries have the best chances of thriving.  I believe that a Petaluma strengthened with a walkable urban core has a better chance of being an economically healthy place in 2150 than would a Seaside clone transplanted to a hillside overlooking southern Sonoma County.

A follow-up question here would be why, if a walkable urban development might make financial sense for the Dry Creek tribe, hasn’t that kind of development moved more quickly in Petaluma?  The answer is a jumble of land ownership, jurisdictional, zoning regulations, and economic reasons.  But I’ll point to one specific reason, not necessarily as the biggest reason, but as one of the most profoundly philosophical ones.

Like many communities, Petaluma is in a financial hole from what some have described as the suburban experiment.  Between the daily administration of an expanded city, deferred infrastructure maintenance, and the costs of pensions that were incurred when the last generation borrowed from future generations to avoid dealing with the burden of suburbia, Petaluma is facing a financial future that could be harsh.

In an attempt to fill a part of the hole, Petaluma is burdening future development with the costs of past mistakes, including urbanist development that, far from being part of the past problems, is the path that would have avoided those problems.

The Dry Creek tribe, in absence of a suburban history, needn’t burden new urbanist development with those accumulated debts, which would be a big advantage.

Do I think it’s likely that the Dry Creek tribe will propose a Seaside equivalent for their land?  No, I don’t.  I’ve worked with tribes a couple of times during my career and enjoyed the experience.  But the tribes with which I worked had an inclusive, deliberate approach to tribal decisions which often serves them well but prevents them from being at the cutting edge of new land-use concepts.

But even if Seaside West is only a remote possibility, it should still be an impetus to clear the path toward walkable urban development.  The oblivious often get whacked upside the head by a future that doesn’t respect their preconceptions.

For next time, a positive story from the plains of Kansas, as reported by StrongTowns, led to ruminations about the roles and responsibilities of municipal leaders.

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

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