Durable Growth

Pedestrian improvements have to start somewhere

Sidewalk along East Washington

Sidewalk along East Washington

East Washington Street in Petaluma, particularly between the freeway and Petaluma Boulevard, is a miserable place to walk.  Four lanes of car traffic, skinny sidewalks directly behind the curbs, and no parking to act as a buffer.  I don’t like walking there and cringe when I see others ambulating.

The situation isn’t anyone’s fault.  It’s how we built places starting after World War II.  And in many places, it’s how we continue to build places.

But sometimes there are opportunities to make walking a little less uncomfortable.  And there are people smart enough to grab those opportunities.

An opportunity recently arose in Petaluma.  A gas station at the intersection of East Washington and Wilson was demolished and a new building constructed.  (For many in Petaluma, you may know the location because Starbucks was the first tenant of the new building.)

The conventional solution, which is probably what would have been implemented on East Washington in the past, was a sidewalk adjacent to the curb with short sets of steps and/or ramps to access the building.  But the City and the developer were interested in a more pedestrian-friendly solution.

So, a concept was developed in which the sidewalk was detached from the curb and allowed to rise up to match the building floor elevation, with a landscape buffer between the curb and the sidewalk.

Sidewalk Detail

Sidewalk Detail

It’s a simple, but elegant solution.  And it created perhaps the most enjoyable pedestrian experience for several blocks in either direction along East Washington.

Like much of urbanism, the sidewalk is a small, incremental improvement.  Most of East Washington remains hostile to pedestrians.  But the configuration showed that improvements are possible.  And it will hopefully provide a model for more pedestrian improvements over the next decades as other parcels are redeveloped along East Washington.

Now, if only we can begin to make similar changes to the bicycle unfriendliness of East Washington.

Surveyors, engineers, and attorneys may ask about the legalities of a sidewalk that doesn’t conform to the street right-of-way.  I had the same question.  The city engineer advised me that the developer granted a public access easement between the right-of-way and the building footprint.

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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