Durable Growth

Looking around town: Checking on continuing stories

Petaluma block party

Petaluma block party

I describe this blog as a perspective, with an urbanist eye, on land use in the entire North Bay.  However, I live, work, and participate in the Petaluma community.  Unless I watch myself carefully, I can easily find myself writing only about Petaluma.  Lately, I haven’t been watching myself carefully.

That became evident when I began to write updates on several stories I’ve been following.  All of the stories were based in Petaluma.  Oops.

I promise in the near future to again begin traveling beyond the Petaluma city limits.  At least I’ll do so as soon as the broken glass is swept up.  (For those not in the Bay Area, the North Bay sustained a 6.0 earthquake early Sunday morning.  The entire household was awakened, except for the 14-year-old Golden Retriever who continued to snore blissfully.  We sustained no damage, not even a picture askew, but the towns of Napa and Sonoma weren’t as lucky.)

I have a working list of projects which I intend to visit around the North Bay.  But if readers have particular projects they’d like me to visit, or public hearings they think I should attend, let me know.  I’m always interested in inside information.

So, today will be a summing up of older Petaluma stories.  My next post will be final thoughts on the athletic field at the River Front project in Petaluma (where else?) about which I’ve recently written twice.  And then I’ll take a quick look at planning in England.  But after that, I promise, I’ll widen my perspective to include more of the North Bay. Continue reading

Durable Growth

River Front: Neighborhood park or community sports field?

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

In my last post, I introduced the proposed River Front mixed-use project in Petaluma.  My initial intention was to describe the project, to introduce the element of the project that became controversial, and to provide my perspective on the controversy.

It was a subject that I found fascinating.  So I kept writing and writing and writing.  And then writing a little more.  By the time I had finished my first draft, I’d written about three times the words of an average post.

My readers seem a tolerant lot.  From readership numbers, it appears that many are willing to follow me when I wander afield.  I greatly appreciate that tolerance.  But a 3,000 word post seemed an excessive demand to put on even the most tolerant readers.  So I edited the monster post into three posts.

In my last post, I limited myself to an overall perspective on River Front, including how it fits into the urbanist universe.  Today, I’ll cover the issue that improbably became the core controversy during the entitlement process.  And when I next return to the topic, which will be the post after next, I’ll offer my thoughts on the controversy.  Sitting in the City Council meeting that became the climax of the story, I found myself wandering through some intriguing byways of land-use philosophy. Continue reading

Durable Growth

A pocket neighborhood is proposed for Petaluma

Historic home at West Street entrance to Keller Court Commons

Historic home at West Street entrance to Keller Court Commons

Long-time readers should be familiar with the name Ross Chapin.  Chapin is a Seattle-area architect who was a pioneer in the development of pocket neighborhoods, clusters of small-lot homes arranged in non-conventional configurations.  The arrangement allows accommodation of site constraints such as topography or trees and also creates a sense of community.

More than two years ago, I reviewed Chapin’s book, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”.   Shortly afterward, I visited several of Chapin’s projects and other projects that he recommended in Seattle, on the east side of Lake Washington, and in Davis.

Since then, I’ve suggested the pocket neighborhood approach as a better option for the Red Barn site than the conventional large home/large lot configuration now proposed.  (Although I failed to make the comment at the time, I also like pocket neighborhood concept for the site of the Beck house.)

Beyond those specific mentions, Ross Chapin and the pocket neighborhood concept has often been cited in this blog.  Thus, it was with both surprise and delight that I learned almost two years ago of a proposed pocket neighborhood in Petaluma.  Jim Soules, a developer who had often worked with Chapin and can even be said to have introduced pocket neighborhoods to Chapin, had acquired a site near the historic Oakhill-Brewster neighborhood and was beginning site planning for a pocket neighborhood.

Topography of Keller Court Commons site

Topography of Keller Court Commons site

The site was well-suited to a pocket neighborhood, with sufficient topography that clustering would be beneficial and sufficient trees that the flexibility of the pocket neighborhood approach would be needed to maintain density.  There were fine views of Petaluma that could be maximized by a careful layout.  And there was a home of historic interest at the site entrance on West Street that would set a tone for the development.

I had hoped to introduce the project to my readers some time ago, but was unable to secure permission from the developer and was hesitant to write too much lest I disrupt his planning process.  But the project is now fully public and will be on the Petaluma Planning Commission agenda for this week.  Keller Court Commons is the first item of new business on the Planning Commission agenda for Tuesday, August 12.

View from Keller Court Commons

View from Keller Court Commons

The proposed is as fully laudable as I had anticipated.  The site plan is reminiscent of the successful pocket neighborhoods that I visited in the Northwest.  And the project description shows sensitivity to the character of the westside of Petaluma.  It’s a project in which I’d be happy to reside and for which I encourage strong support.

If I had to pick out a flaw, I can find two, although I suspect that neither is the responsibility of the developer.

First, the number of units is less than had been originally reported to me.  From reading the project documents, it appears that tree preservation was the reason for the unit count reduction.

I’m strongly supportive of tree preservation.  But I’m also supportive of financial sustainability.  I know that creating more units while using the same infrastructure is likely to be more sustainable. Therefore, imposing an absolute tree preservation standard can undermine municipal finances.  I agree that trees deserve a place at the negotiating table, but so do the pocketbooks of our children.

Second, the approval process apparently required that the project be structured as a PUD (Planned Unit Development).  I don’t have a particular objection to Keller Court Commons being a PUD, but would argue that pocket neighborhoods are such a desirable land use that they shouldn’t be forced to resort to less conventional land use designations, such as PUDs.

I’ve previously noted the thought of urbanism pioneer Andres Duany about his love of Charleston and his dubious view of zoning codes, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”  I’d make a similar comment about pocket neighborhoods.  If you can’t build a pocket neighborhood under a zoning code without making it a PUD, then the zoning code is no good.

Those quibbles aside, I strongly support the project, will be at the Planning Commission hearing, and hope to see some of you there.

Schedule Notes and Updates

There are several approaching events that may be of interest to readers.  Reminders and updates are provided below:

+ Tuesday, August 12, 5:30pm: Petaluma Urban Chat will convene to continue our unofficial discussionon the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The meeting place will be the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets.

Late last week, I spoke with a local historian who provided a number of fascinating insights about the history of the fairgrounds, including some of the features that she thought might justify historical preservation.  That’s a topic that we’ll be folding into the conversation as we move ahead.

+ Tuesday, August 12, 7:00pm: The Petaluma Planning Commission, convened as the Heritage Cultural and Preservation Committee, will consider the Keller Court Commons project described above.  I expect that several of us will hustle from the fairgrounds discussion to the Planning Commission hearing in the Petaluma City Hall.

+ Monday, August 18, 6:00pm: Next week will be the celebration of evening bus service.  Boulevard Cinemas will offer discounted admission to any student who can present either a valid Petaluma Transit pass or a Petaluma Transit transfer dated on the 18th.  (Even if you don’t need a transfer for your trip downtown, ask the driver for one.  The driver will happily comply.)  I’m hopeful of enough students participating and having a fine time that they’ll be motivated to return downtown often on Petaluma Transit.  Your help in creating that critical mass will be appreciated.

+ Saturday, August 30, 10:00am: The Sonoma County Bicycling Coalition is hosting a Family Bicycling Workshop at Lucchesi Park.  Advance registration is required, but spaces are still available.  Details and registration information can be found on-line.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Durable Growth

River Front: Background to a logical dilemma

Historic downtown Petaluma

Historic downtown Petaluma

Within my lifetime, land-use planning processes have been defined and refined to the point that the results are expected to become nearly automatic.  Insert the proposed project, turn the crank through the various steps of expert studies, environmental analysis, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings, and expect a result to pop out the far end that best meets the public good, or at least is a moderately reasonable balance between the competing objectives.

Of course, the process sometimes chokes on the inputs and spits out a result that is a frustratingly anomaly.  And then no one seems to know how to make the world right again.

A perfect example recently arose in Petaluma.  It was a land-use process in which I should have played a role, but fate took me out of the picture.  Perhaps I should be thankful.

Because of an extended backstory, I’ll take several posts to get around to the point of the story.  But it’s a situation that I find fascinating.  I hope you to stay around when I peel away the multiple shells surrounding the kernel.  I’ll try to make it worth your time. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Clarifying about schools and eco-villages

Building on fairgrounds site

Building on fairgrounds site

I’m pleased to write a blog on urbanism and feel amply rewarded by the many readers.  But editing posts for length is an on-going challenge.  There are so many interrelated aspects of urbanism that it’s often a difficult to prune a blog post into a good length for readers.  In nearly every post, I note narrative branches that logic dictates I follow, but length constraints argue that I avoid.

Sometimes, I skip the branch completely, hoping that readers will remember my comments from earlier blog posts or from other reading.  Other times, I explore the first few steps of the branch, but quickly lop it off, hoping that my truncated version will be comprehensive enough to be understood.

And sometimes, neither of those approaches works.  My last post is an example. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: The unofficial assessment continues

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

I’ve written twice about the unofficial look being taken at the future of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds by Petaluma Urban Chat.  Previous posts have covered the original decision to look at the fairgroundsand about the results of the first meeting.

The second meeting has now been held and I have multiple updates to offer.

To begin, the makeup of this group for the second meeting time was somewhat different, with slightly different perspectives on where peak value could be found.  Gaining different perspectives is always good.  I missed some of the voices that participated in the July meeting, but understand that August vacation plans intervened.

To begin, the group took two site possibilities off the table.  The convention center concept was dropped because of a concern about financial viability of convention centers in general.  One participant noted a recently published book on the subject.

The ballpark idea was also discarded.  Although there was broad approbation of the concept of a ballpark in Petaluma, it was felt that the fairgrounds didn’t provide a good ballpark site.  Or at least that there were better uses for the fairgrounds. Continue reading

Durable Growth

There will always be Luddites among us

UCSF Medical School

UCSF Medical School

Together with seven cousins, I spent last Saturday morning using a $1.2 million surgical robot to unwrap Hershey’s Kisses for my 92-year-old aunt.

Lest you think that the adventure involved breaking and entering, I can reassure you.  The eldest cousin works for the company that makes the surgical robot.  He arranged for us to use the robot in the lobby of his office building in the hours before a family gathering.

The technology was remarkable.  Seated at a console facing away from the operating table and equipped with a high-definition screen, two handholds with Velcro loops for thumb and forefinger, and several foot petals, it quickly became intuitive to manipulate minute objects 15 feet away, including unwrapping the thin foil from a piece of candy and delivering it, intact, to my aunt.

But the topic that will remain with me was something my cousin said about the approval process for the robot. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Continuing the discussion

140704A001 Sonoma-Marin Fair EntranceA month ago, Petaluma Urban Chat began considering the future of the Sonoma Marin fairgrounds, 63 acres of real estate well situated a few blocks from downtown Petaluma, the coming SMART station, and the 101 freeway.

Of course, Urban Chat has no role in the on-going negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board over the extension of the current lease which will expire in 2023.  However, we anticipate taking part in the community discussions that will take place when the results of the negotiations are announced.  Educating ourselves about the site and considering the uses to which it might be put is good training for that participation.

Also, perhaps if we can reach particularly clever or insightful decisions about the site, we might even influence the course of the negotiations.
Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Block parties: One more time around the block

140719001 Swift Block Party by David PowersWhen I last wrote about block parties and the unwillingness of the City of Petaluma to permit them in locations where other cities have few concerns, I promised that I was finished with the subject for awhile.  I was wrong.  Righteous indignation led me back for one more post.

For those who are new to the topic, the Petaluma Municipal Code bars block partiesexcept on cul-de-sacs.  As far as my research went, Petaluma is the only North Bay city with this unusual and puzzling restriction.  I decided to become an advocate to change the rule.

The code section hasn’t stopped all Petaluma block parties, although I know of at least one that was canceled when the cul-de-sac rule was cited.  The more common result is the block parties proceed, as I found on a successful tour of Fourth of July block parties, but only after most party organizers spend time working with the Petaluma Police Department to secure a permit, only to often proceed without a permit.

The genesis of this blog post came when I was invited to yet another Petaluma block party.  Unfortunately, it fell during a recent vacation, but I prevailed on a local friend and possible future block party host to attend in my place.  In his report, which included the photos illustrating this post, my replacement included a phrase the caused me to again tackle the block party issue. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Mixed-use Is a fine idea, but quality still matters

DSC_0090 Santa Fe Suites SettingMixed-use development to promote opportunities for walkable lives is a fine idea and worthy of praise.  (Mixed use development as a small dental office above a sprawling strip mall in the name of complying with the letter, but not the spirit, of a zoning code is an abomination that needn’t be mentioned further.)

But merely configuring a project as mixed use isn’t enough.  Design and construction also matter.  They’re particularly important as long as we subsidize the cost of gasoline and roads, allowing folks to easily look elsewhere if a mixed-use project doesn’t meet their lifestyle needs.  And a failed mixed-use project can be worse that no mixed-use project at all.

I found an example of this during my recent travels in New Mexico. Continue reading