Durable Growth

From today to TOD – parking (concluded)

120422005 Original Train Station

photo from the author

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of integrating new developments with existing land uses, especially when it involves a paradigm shift. Such as the shift between drivable suburban and walkable urban.

I used the unexpected need for interim parking at a proposed downtown Petaluma transit-oriented development (TOD) as an example. The TOD location adjoins the site at which the SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) station will soon open. It was expected that SMART parking would be located at another Petaluma SMART station, but that station has been deferred, forcing a parking need on the downtown site.

I also described the solution that had been developed by the planning consultant, Opticos Design of Berkeley. Opticos proposed staged development of the SMART-owned land immediately adjoining the station. The staging would allow much of the site to be used for interim parking during the early years of SMART operation.

Finally, I warned that the solution, no matter how appropriate, could still come undone.

Today I’ll note some of the potential pitfalls. Although these particular issues may be unique to the Petaluma site, they will have their close equivalents for many similar projects.

Ownership of land around the future Petaluma SMART station. Image from City of Petaluma.

Buildings around the future Petaluma SMART station. Image from City of Petaluma. Above: Ownership of land around the future Petaluma SMART station. Below: Draft building layout. Images from City of Petaluma.

If you’re not familiar with the site, you may want to open the final draft master plan (PDF). The existing land ownership is shown on page 2-6. The proposed overall site plan is shown on page 2-11. The SMART-owned building sites on which the interim parking would be located are the two sites adjoining the station at the northeast.A key point to remember when considering the potential pitfalls to the interim parking solution is that the proposed master plan is only that. A master plan. It doesn’t result in any construction. Instead, construction will require a commitment from a developer who may argue for an alternative land plan as a condition of taking on the project risk. Thus, no matter how well-conceived the master plan might be, it’s subject to reconsideration at a later date.

The first hurdle for the interim parking solution is the need for SMART to acquiesce to the solution. As SMART’s goal is to have train riders, the provision for interim parking to be supplanted by housing as parking is built elsewhere would seem a fine solution. But SMART also needs to maximize the return from their parcel to fund the rail construction. That goal may work at cross-purposes.

Next, the potential developer of the SMART parcel, who will be identified by a future selection process, will need to agree to the plan. This could be a sticking point.

A key element of the proposed master plan is a new street that is tentatively named Transverse Street and that will bisect the SMART and Haystack Landing parcels. This street will provide a linear park approach to the train station. The street is required to fulfill the traffic circulation plan for the site. It would also provide access to the interim parking.

However, under the interim parking concept, there would be no initial development along Transverse Street. Building a street without also building the fronting buildings is a financial burden that is difficult in good times and worse when the economy is slow and money is tight. Many developers would balk at this condition.

Lastly, and potentially most significantly, the Haystack Landing parcel has recently been acquired out of bankruptcy by a San Diego development firm. There is a possibility that the firm will decide that the proposed Transverse Street is incompatible with their development goals. If that street is eliminated, the master plan vision for the SMART parcel is undermined and the interim parking plan may unwind.

Many would argue that the developer should be morally bound to comply with the master plan. But it’s not that easy. I’m not familiar with the new owner of the Haystack Landing site. They may have a remarkably high level of community concern. But even the most community-dedicated developers have investors and lenders to satisfy. The proposed street would add cost and reduce building area. It would be a burden on a financial pro forma.

Many times, a developer will approach the city with a proposed development that excludes or modifies key elements, such as a Transverse Street. They will make the argument that they can’t afford to proceed with the project without the changes. Sometimes, their claims will be true. Other times, the claim will be nothing more than an attempt to increase the financial return from the project. And the city has no way to know which the claim might be. It’s effectively a multi-million dollar game of poker, with high value bluffing.

This is where community input can become important. Many citizens will argue that any development is good and that making the requested concessions is a municipal necessity. Others will argue that holding to a well-conceived master plan is the municipal imperative, even at the risk of a developer opting out of the project. A city council will listen to what the citizens say.

I may seem to have wandered a long ways from an interim parking solution to the need for citizens to encourage a city council to defend a master plan. But I’m only describing how land development decisions are truly made. The parts are all interconnected and public involvement does make a difference

Moving from today to TOD is a complex subject. Especially when it imposes a walkable vision on a community that is largely car-oriented. I’ll touch on other issues in the coming weeks.

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

Written by Dave Alden

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. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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