Monday, January 22, 2018

Can We at Least Try to Connect the Dots?

A bike share station in Detroit
I have a short tale today, to be followed by administrative notes.

This story has been rattling around inside my head since before my long break from this space.   I hope putting it into words will set it free.

More than a year ago, a proposed apartment project came before the city council of a North Bay community.  It was a tolerably acceptable project.  Slightly fewer than a hundred new apartments in a market that needed new housing even before the wildfires.   A site that, although beyond walkable range for most daily needs, was surrounded by developed parcels.

It didn’t check off many of the walkable urbanism boxes, but it was perhaps best that could be done with a non-urban site.

But there was still controversy, a dispute over a proposed condition of approval.  The site adjoined a major route of the city’s bicycle master plan.  City staff and several city committees had proposed that the applicant construct a 2,000-foot segment of bicycle path near the project.  Although of limited usefulness immediately, the segment would eventually connect residential, recreational, shopping, and transit opportunities, including a since-opened downtown train station

The applicant was asking for the condition to be removed, arguing that the cost of the path segment would undermine project finances, perhaps enough that the project couldn’t be built.  As the land had been vacant for fifteen years, possibly demonstrating the tenuous finances of the site, the argument might have been valid.  Nonetheless, I sided with those who argued that the bicycle path segment was a reasonable and appropriate condition.

(I’ve written before that land-use entitlement can be akin to a poker game.  Cities and the public can't know if a developer is serious about the potential of a project finances falling apart or if he’s bluffing.  Similarly, a developer is looking for tells in a city’s approach to conditions of approval.)

On the night of the council meeting, after a number of folks had spoken in favor of the bicycle path, a prominent member of the community took her place at the podium.

I hadn't heard her speak previously to the Council on any land-use issue, so was unaware what to expect.  I was immediately impressed. She talked about how cities of the future must thrive by providing settings in which millennials can live physically active lifestyles, with easy access to work and to gathering places without a need for cars.  As she described it, if young talented people are attracted to the lifestyle of a community, businesses will follow with the hope of hiring them.

It was an argument directly out of the creative class theories of Richard Florida.   I was pleased that the ideas were being put forth in a public setting.

And then the speaker got to her conclusion. As the goal of the city was to attract these vibrant people by providing places for active living, it was unreasonable to ask a developer to put in a bike path for fear that the project funding would collapse and the city wouldn't have housing for the new arrivals.


The conclusion was fully inconsistent with her earlier arguments.   The city must provide a setting for physically active lives therefore it should approve housing without bicycle paths?

Today, more than a year later, I remain flummoxed by how a successful individual can provide public testimony with such complete illogic.  It grieves me to think that logical thinking is no longer a condition of public debate.

The council had no such qualms, voting 4-3 to remove the condition.  Oh well.

Onto administrative details:

When I rebooted this blog, I didn't have a particular publication schedule in mind.  I decided not to tie myself to the Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine of my earlier efforts, but instead to write when the spirit moved me.  However, I now find that I’ve gone two weeks since my last post.   That’s not acceptable.  I’ll work to be more frequent than I've begun.

As I’ll be aperiodic in my publication schedule, I remain willing to send emails to anyone who would like to know when I post something new.  If you want to be added to my list, email me at the address below.

Talking of email lists, there are two other lists that may be of interest to those in or near my town of Petaluma.  First, I write weekly emails on the day-to-day activities of Petaluma Urban Chat, such as upcoming Council meetings of interest, Urban Chat gatherings, and other community events.  Also, Know Before You Grow has an email list to be kept abreast of their forums on local land-use planning.   To be added to either or both lists, you can again email me at the address below.

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

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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