Durable Growth, Government

Managing the clash of order and anarchy

Downtown Johnson City, Tennessee

Downtown Johnson City, Tennessee

The acknowledgement page of the Petaluma Station Area Master Plan lists my name near the top of the Citizens Advisory Committee, behind only the City Councilmember who chaired the committee.  (The placement of names reflects the alphabet, not value of contributions.)

What the committee member list doesn’t show is that, from my recollection, of the seventeen folks who were appointed to the committee, only four were present for the last meeting at which we accepted the report and recommended approval by the City Council.  It was the final stage in the gradual diminishing of the committee from the first meeting to the last.

I don’t know all the reasons why thirteen members drifted away, but I got feedback from one.  He felt that too many of the master plan decisions had been pre-determined and that the committee had little or no opportunity to change the conclusions.  I suspect that at least some of the other missing members would have expressed a similar disappointment.

Even if my particular experience on that committee was slightly different, I could empathize with the concern.  I’ve sat through many public meetings where it felt as if the only role of the public body was to rubberstamp a decision that had already been decided elsewhere, often in a room where none of the committee members were present.  (Although I should note that many of the apparently pre-ordained decisions were still appropriate.)

It’s an element of what Professor Emily Talen described at CNU 23 as the tension between order and anarchy.  In her words, the relationship between the two is “A grand manner of order provides the urban framework on which diversity and chaos can hang.” Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Getting seconded with authority

Financial District in Manhattan

Financial District in Manhattan

A few posts back, while poking fun at my habit of tallying the states I’ve visited, I suggested that counting cities was a more appropriate measure of travel because cities have been more important to civilization.

The heart of my argument was “The history of civilization begins with Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Carthage before continuing onward to Venice, Vienna, London, Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Cities are where learning, government, and culture all took root.”

Thus, it was with delight that I came across an article by another writer starting with this phrase, “Although history is not usually taught this way, one could argue that cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice to Baghdad and Beijing, urban ideas and innovators have left indelible marks on human life.”

We must have been working from the same syllabus.

The other writer was Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine.  Wow, my motion was seconded with authority.  (Yeah, that may have a bit too much hubris.)

The Foreign Affairs article can perhaps be found here.  However, the link, no matter how many times I copy it, doesn’t seem to work for me, for reasons I can’t discern.  Foreign Affairs must use some kind of cloaking device.   But a Google search on “foreign affairs city century” seems to work just fine.  Free registration is required to access the article.  Going through the multi-step registration is worthwhile.  The article is that good. Continue reading


Four rail concepts to stitch the Bay Area together

The Bay Area is a sprawling region, no doubt about it. It stretches from Napa Valley to Silicon Valley, Pacific Ocean to Sacramento River Delta, is nearly as large as New Jersey or Cyprus. Yet this size means its various economies are disconnected to such a degree that the Census Bureau has split it into two different metropolitan areas.

Dr. Alasdair Rae recently mapped the commuter flows throughout the Bay Area and found it was a hotbed of long-distance commuters, no surprise given this size. While driving is all well and good for some commuting, the resulting traffic means freeways are ineffective at moving large numbers of people long distances at rush hour. Moderate to high-speed rail is the only solution that can provide a reliable and fast commute to stitch the region into a unified whole. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Talking about the need for heroes in the North Bay

080917006 Central Pk from Empire St BldgMy wife and I don’t have HBO in our home.  We appreciate the many creative and groundbreaking series that HBO has done, but neither of us watches much television and we don’t need another set of shows, no matter how good, tempting us.  Besides, except for urban settings, or sometimes failed urban settings, HBO doesn’t touch upon urbanism.

Until now.

HBO is currently showing “Show Me a Hero” about a 1980s battle over low-income housing in Yonkers, New York, a short distance up the Hudson River from Manhattan and in the mists of the photo above, taken from the Empire State Building.

A five-minute video introduction to the first two episodes lays out the story. Having allowed their community to develop with a deeply engrained pattern of segregation, the City Council was ordered by a Federal court to allow the development of low-income housing in white neighborhoods.  The Council appealed and lost, but not until a leader of the appeal effort was elected mayor, creating the narrative tension of a reluctant hero torn between his campaign promises and the inevitable future.

I suggest that the storyline has lessons for the North Bay. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Site News

Why Haystack Landing can’t be everything to everybody

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

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. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Haystack Landing by any other name would fill the need as well

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

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.) Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Acting independently from Sacramento and Washington

Downtown Healdsburg

Downtown Healdsburg

A consistent theme of this blog is that drivable suburbia is largely the result of top-down directives.  I argue that cities, more so than states or nations, have an intuitive understanding  of how civilization should be organized, an understanding that was ignored during the post World War II building boom.

(I’m currently reading “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford, who puts the blame squarely on the Federal Housing Act of 1954.  Section 701 of the act required federally approved plans before releasing federal funds for local housing projects.  Planners quickly learned that plans with a separation of uses, the defining characteristic of drivable suburbia, would be readily approved by the federal authorities.)

Given my bias toward greater local control of government, I’m pleased whenever I note a municipality exerting some independence.

A North Bay case in point is a recent action by the City of Healdsburg to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from the state standard of 18 to a Healdsburg standard of 21, becoming the first California city to do so.

Admittedly, changing a few numbers on the signage in convenience stores is orders of magnitude different from encouraging land uses that overcome the multitude of sprawl-incentivizing policies from Sacramento and Washington, D.C, but independence doesn’t come quickly or easily.  Restricting the access of young adults to tobacco is a worthy goal in itself, so is a reasonable first step toward land use independence.

Today tobacco, tomorrow North Bay zoning codes and impact fees that no longer discourage compact development.

In my next post, I’ll offer my thoughts on the transit-oriented development plans being offered for public comment in Petaluma.

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

Stories from CNU 23: Anarchy and more

Downtown building near the site of CNU 23

Downtown building near the site of CNU 23

The past April, I traveled to the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which this year was CNU 23.  Soon after my return from the Dallas meeting, I wrote several posts recounting moments of insight from the four-day meeting.  At the time, I didn’t try to dig deep.  My only goal was to give a hint of the thoughtful ideas and interchanges that flavor each CNU conference.  (The earlier posts were here, here, here, and here.)

Starting soon, I’ll begin exploring some of the topics raised at CNU 23 in greater depth.  But today, I’ll make one more pass through my notes, looking for final short thoughts that can help color in the picture of what a CNU conference is like.

Balancing Order and Anarchy: In a session that was described as an introduction for newcomers, but was insightful for all, Professor Emily Talen noted that “a lot of urban planning is rooted in anarchy”.  Then, a few minutes later, she also noted that the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on knowledge and order, was a defining moment for urbanism, an observation that can seem to be in conflict with her earlier statement on anarchy.

After exploring this tension between a desire for order and an absence of order, she concluded with the thought that “A grand manner of order provides the urban framework on which diversity and chaos can hang.”

I found that this sentence captured the creative tension which, to my mind, often characterizes the struggle to build good urbanism.  It expresses the dichotomy between master planning by experienced professionals and the creative input of unpracticed but passionate locals.  (This is the same dichotomy that StrongTowns describes as top-down versus bottom-up.)  I don’t want to sidetrack today’s short thoughts, but will return to this topic in an upcoming post for a more detailed mulling. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Working toward more walkable communities, one walkable amenity at a time

Site of proposed plaza, looking toward Highway 12

Site of proposed plaza, looking toward Highway 12

A couple of folks have recently contacted me about the challenges of living a more car-free life in places still oriented around cars.  They noted that it is often easier to hop into an automobile rather than to walk home in the rain from a library with an armload of books or to wrestle a pair of grocery bags onto a bus.

I agree with them.  We’ve done a fine job of building a drivable world, so good that driving a car is the most efficient and convenient way to do most tasks, as is evident from the frequent traffic congestion and absence of parking.  Indeed, if one ignores the congestion and parking problems, while also disregarding the looming threat of climate change and the deep hole of municipal debt from sprawling further than we were willing to financially support, we’ve built a darned good world.

But we can’t ignore those inconvenient facts.  Unwinding from a drivable suburban world will be a reality of the next decades.  And we should be praising those who, like those who have contacted me, are the early adopters.

(The perspective here is that the shift toward more walkability is inevitable.  The goal of my writing isn’t to convince people of that inevitability.  Time will take care of that regardless of any words I can offer.  Instead, it’s to convince folks to get onboard more quickly because the longer we wait to see the obvious, the more distress, environmental, physical, and financial, we leave for the following generations.  I have affection for many of the younger folks around me.  I want to leave them as little of our mess as possible.) Continue reading

Durable Growth

North Bay non sequiturs

150812B001 Historic Downtown SignPerhaps it was having been away from the North Bay for nearly two weeks following minor league baseball in the South, but when I returned home, I seemed to look at North Bay land-use issues with fresh eyes, eyes that were more open to situations that felt off-kilter.  I’m not saying land-use gaffes, but land-use solutions that grated at the edge of my consciousness.

Hence, my first ever review of North Bay Non Sequiturs:

“Historic Downtown”: While I was away, the near-final touches were completed on the new interchange at the north end of Petaluma, where Old Redwood Highway meets Highway 101.

While I still think that the community would have been better served if the construction costs could have been diverted to street repairs and the infrastructure to support walkable urban projects, I’ll agree that the new interchange works well.  So well that drivers can now pay more attention to the directional signs, including the one pointing toward “Historic Downtown” at the end of exit ramp from southbound 101.

As I considered the sign last week, it dawned on me that I don’t want to live in a town with a historic downtown.  I want to live in a town with an active, vital downtown, which I’d be happy to just call “Downtown”. Continue reading