Durable Growth

One way to put a neighborhood on the skids

130313001 B Street VistaI’ve previously told two stories about an evening tour through Pittsburgh this past spring.  The driver was an old friend who had grown up there.  The evening began with a pub chat that led to insights about the costs to run a city.  Later in the evening, my friend and I strolled through a plaza I likened to Middle Earth.

My friend had put together a good route.  But our time was limited.  The sun sets early during April evenings in eastern Pennsylvania.  My friend showed me places that made me wish I had a week to kick around the city, riding the new subway, checking out the museums, wandering the college campuses, and enjoying the neighborhoods undergoing an urban rebirth.

141008005 West Haven - PatchBut that extended visit must await another trip.  For now, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the Pittsburgh visit with my best answer to a question that my friend posed, a question that has been haunting my urbanist thoughts since then.

As my friend told the story (and he is encouraged to correct me in the comments below if I’ve made too many misstatements), in his youth he and his brother would often spend summer Saturdays with their grandparents in an urban neighborhood a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh.  One of their parents would drop the boys at the nearby high school where the pool was open to the public.  (I saw the high school.  It remains a dignified presence that adds value to its surroundings.)

After a swim, the boys would walk a couple of blocks to their grandparents’ house.  From there, the grandparents would take them shopping, on foot, in the retail area that served the neighborhood.  With a bit of cash slipped to them by the grandparents, the boys could even make a purchase or two.  It was a comfortable urban experience that left my friend with memories he still treasures. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

The cost of doing municipal business

150427C002 Sewickley StreetIt began, as many good stories do, with a conversation over a beer.

During a recent trip to Pittsburgh, a friend, who a short time before had returned to the Steel City after a number of years in the North Bay, offered to give me a tour of his hometown.  (This was the same evening that included a visit to a downtown plaza that I likened to a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.”)

The friend began the evening with a walk about Sewickley, a village near his current home.  He thought that I would find the village charming, an expectation in which he was largely correct.  Tidy streets, interesting storefronts, even a few well-swept alleys for less mainstream businesses.  It was a quite comfortable place.  (All of the photos are of Sewickley.)

150427C007 Small Sewickley StreetOf course, I could still make the criticisms that I would make of most suburban villages in the U.S.  The rail line that had allowed Sewickley to begin life as a summer retreat from the coal and steel fumes of Pittsburgh was long gone, replaced by a reliance on private autos.  Most of the downtown stores were single story, so there were few opportunities for walkable downtown living.  And, with a couple of apartment house exceptions, large lot single-family homes seemed to jarringly abut the downtown.  Middle housing was a largely missing element.

But Sewickley was still a charming, if imperfect place.  (To tie it back to the North Bay, I’d say it’s like Healdsburg without the recent growth spurt or Sonoma without the weekend throngs of tourists.   Looking at the entire Bay Area, Orinda seems a reasonable comparison.) Continue reading


Will anything ever change in Marin?

Not again. Image from KRON4 News

Not again. Image from KRON4 News

With the death of Aura Celeste Machado on Point San Pedro Road in San Rafael still fresh in our minds, neighbors and safe streets activists are again calling for traffic calming on the high-speed thoroughfare. But they did the same two years ago when a driver killed Hailey Ratliff on her way home from school in Novato, and there were no substantial changes. Others rallied when a driver killed Olga Rodriguez on Heatherton in San Rafael last year, but nothing changed there, either. Will Celeste’s tragic death be the last straw?

Celeste was jogging around a fallen tree that hadn’t been reported to city maintenance workers when a driver hit her. Though she wasn’t killed instantly, doctors said she wouldn’t recover consciousness and her parents made the heart-wrenching decision to remove her from life support.

The section of road where she was killed is thickly peopled, with residential neighborhoods rising into the hills on one side of the road and commercial and other services descending on the other side into San Rafael Bay.

It is also a high-speed divided thoroughfare, with freeway-width lanes and a median barrier. The posted speed limit of 35mph means a typical speed of 40mph, and the forgiving roadway design means speeds of 50 and up are easy to imagine.

The speed and the design that facilitates it are important factors. At these speeds, any mistake by someone driving or someone walking is likely to mean death or life-changing injury for the person on foot.

Relative odds of death at various speeds.

Relative odds of death at various speeds.

Activists working with the elementary school have been trying to get a stop sign installed for years to no avail. A stop sign is the easiest form of traffic calming on a road like this, as it slows traffic down for a considerable distance around the sign as drivers decelerate and accelerate. It works well on D Street, as it slows drivers who have come down off Wolfe Grade on their way to downtown San Rafael.

We don’t know if a stop sign would have saved Celeste, but it would certainly have improved her odds. Though a collision at 40mph means almost certain death, a collision at 25mph rarely results in death.

The pessimist in me says nothing will change. We will pour out sympathies, again, and cry over the life cut short, again, but then still prioritize high-speed traffic over lives and safety.

I hope Marin can do more than shed crocodile tears.

Durable Growth

Building islands of urbanism

150617 Amsterdam Island HousingWhile concluding my recent cogitations on the alternative SMART station site for Petaluma, I offered some thoughts about the future of urban growth.

I suggested that (1) if a city has grown outward to a firm urban growth boundary, (2) if the city has also grown upwards to conform to a reasonable development transect, and (3) if the demand for housing nonetheless remains high, then the next solution could be to create well-bounded pockets of urbanism at a distance from the city, far enough away for the new communities to have separate identities, but close enough for transit connections to the original city to be effective.

In the earlier post, I recounted an anecdote about proposing that type of development for Tolay Lake Park southeast of Petaluma.  In a subsequent email exchange with a North Bay architect, I acknowledged that a more likely location for development springing outwards from Petaluma would be around the existing west county communities of Valley Ford or Bloomfield, or perhaps around the Coast Guard training center in Two Rock.

In essence, I was proposing islands of urbanism surrounded by land that would remain in its native or agricultural state.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Amsterdam was following exactly that path, down to a literal interpretation of “islands”. Continue reading

Durable Growth

It ain’t my dream

DSC_0120Small change in plans today.  In place of the subject I’d intended, I’ll build off my last post and mock another commercial.  (It’s like fishing in a barrel.)  The taunting will be mercifully short, which will give me the opportunity to announce some administrative good news about this blog without imposing unreasonably on your attention span.

Not My Dream: Even to myself, I seem unnaturally irritable on this point, but a recent Chevrolet commercial really gets under my skin.  The nails on chalkboard moment (if you’re under 35, you may not get that idiom, but my generation certainly does) comes shortly before the end.  After various ways of touting the onboard wifi feature, one of the “real people, not actors” says “That’s the dream, to have wifi in the car.”

I know that it’s easy to ridicule folks who engage in casual hyperbole.  I once took a two week vacation with a guy who described every meal we consumed and every golf course we played as the best ever.  By the end of day ten, we were all sniggering at him behind our fingers. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Stuck in the middle with few

Downtown building in Petaluma

Downtown building in Petaluma

I recently had a week that highlighted a paradox I’ve created for myself.  My conundrum sheds light on an issue that affects urbanism, so I think it’s worthy of discussion.

First, I met with a developer who had a potential interest in folding me into his project team.  I knew something about his site and believed in the potential of the district, so was interested in the possibility, even though I hadn’t yet seen his particular plan.

But the developer was aware of my urbanist leanings and my community involvement.  Those activities made him uncomfortable.

Much of our conversation bounced between his expectation that I would unequivocally support his project and my rejoinder that I would unequivocally support any project that made Petaluma a better place.  We concluded our discussion somewhere short of a meeting of the minds.  He and I continue to chat.  He may yet decide to include me.  I hope he does because I think I can help him and the community, but I’m not losing any sleep over the outcome.

About the same time, I was chatting with a local citizens’ advocacy group.  They had their teeth into an issue that was of interest to me.  I didn’t expect that the group and I would have the same congruency of interests on every subject, but our overall goals were largely aligned and making common cause on this particular issue seemed reasonable.

But then I got wind that some in the group were hesitant to work with me because I was known to consort with developers. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

There are better ways to be kind

Typical four-lane street in Petaluma

Typical four-lane street in Petaluma

A television commercial recently caught my eye.  And not in a good way.

An elderly woman is trapped in the middle of a four-lane street.  An SUV stops to let her finish crossing.  But when the driver realizes that other drivers are still passing through the intersection, he pulls forward, hops out, and escorts the woman to the curb.

The Dignity Health commercial ends with the tag line “Hello humankindness “, supposedly leaving us feeling warm and fuzzy about what fine people we can be.

Well, not so fast.

By my tally, twelve cars and two city buses pass through the intersection while the woman is stranded.  With the law and common decency requiring vehicles to stop for safe pedestrian crossings, it seems a remarkably poor example of “humankindness”.

And to go even further, isn’t there something unkind about forcing the woman to cross the busy street in the first place? Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

On the coherency of transects and urban growth boundaries – Part four

San Francisco

San Francisco

With this post, I’ll close my far-flung cogitations on the alternative location for the second SMART station in Petaluma and the conclusions to which my thinking led me.

I fear I may have confused a few readers by the way I connected the dots in my head.  It seemed logical to me, but know that I don’t always think like other people.  Today, I’ll try to smooth over any rough patches in my logical progressions.

(When I was a student at Cal, I took a class on the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I was enroute to becoming the first civil engineering graduate in Cal history to complete the liberal arts requirement, normally met with lower division classes in American history or political science, with upper division classes on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

For my class term paper, I tried to compare and contrast Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Superman.  It was a worthy topic, but I didn’t have the chops for it.  In one particular tortured section, the professor, a Nobel Laureate in poetry, wrote in the margin “I have no idea what you’re saying.”  So if I lost you somewhere during my preceding posts, you have my apologies and the knowledge that you’re in good company.)

To recap where I’ve been, I introduced the alternative location for the second station and why it would solve dual problems for SMART, delved into the regulatory constraints on the alternative location, and described the insights about urban growth boundaries and transects to which the contemplations  took me. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

On the coherency of transects and urban growth boundaries – Part three

Community Separator near possible train station

Community Separator near possible train station

In my last two posts, I’ve written about a property swap being considered by SMART, the regional rail authority for the North Bay.  Initial planning for the coming SMART train had assumed a second Petaluma train station at corner of McDowell Boulevard and Corona Road.  But SMART didn’t own the site and hasn’t secured it, leaving a question about where the station would go.

As a result, SMART is now considering a trade with a North Bay development company.  SMART would acquire an alternative site for the second station along Old Redwood Highway northeast of McDowell.  In exchange, SMART would grant development rights for the SMART land adjoining the downtown Petaluma station.

In the first post, I provided a more detailed introduction to the possible swap.  In the second, I wrote about the land-use restrictions that would limit the possibilities, including transit oriented development, around the alternative station site.  Today, I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the possible trade and then philosophize globally about the issues highlighted by the situation.

From an urbanist perspective, the primary arguments for the swap are the earlier development of a second Petaluma station and the momentum that the swap would give to possible transit oriented development at the downtown Petaluma station.

Also looking from the urbanist perspective, the primary argument against the swap is the restrictions that would limit or prohibit transit oriented development around the second station without changes to the urban growth boundary, the community separator (depicted in the photo), or both.

(Although not an urbanist perspective, many Petalumans also have a concern about the traffic issues of putting the second station at the far north end of town.) Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

On the coherency of transects and urban growth boundaries – Part two

Community Separator

Community Separator

In my last post, I gave the background for a land-use conundrum that has arisen in Petaluma.  The regional rail authority, SMART, is reportedly pursuing a land swap that would accelerate development of a second train station in Petaluma and of transit oriented development adjoining the first Petaluma train station.  Both are fine goals.  But the swap would put the second station at the urban fringe, a location bothersome to local urbanists.

Today, I’ll fill in more of the site and regulatory background, along with reintroducing an urbanist concept that speaks directly to the concern.  In my next post, I’ll conclude with my personal conclusions and philosophical insights.

The new site for the second station is within, but immediately adjoining the Urban Growth Boundary, the current legal barrier to further urban development.  A UGB can be realigned, but the process is slow and onerous.

Even importantly, the site adjoins a Community Separator, a set-aside area that is intended to be permanently excluded from UGBs in order to maintain rural lands between cities.  Over time, it’s expected that the UGB will move as the City of Petaluma needs more land.  But however much expansion might be desired, the Community Separator is intended to remain forever off-limits.

(The photo is of the Community Separator from an office window a short walk from the proposed train station.  Note the train tracks in the foreground.) Continue reading