Durable Growth

Urbanism stirs in the North Bay

Unused Copia building and grounds

Unused Copia building and grounds

Although drivable suburban remains the default land-use choice in much of the North Bay, there bits of good news as 2014 gets underway.

State Farm site in Rohnert Park: Like many, I was concerned about the loss of jobs when State Farm closed their regional office in Rohnert Park.  But out of that bad news may have a glimmer of hope for urbanism in the community.

Southern California developer Suncal, which specializes in mixed-use projects, has acquired the property and initiated planning, with the cautiously enthusiastic endorsement of the Press Democrat.  Combined with the decision to site the Rohnert Park SMART station adjoining the State Farm site, it’s a promising situation.

Before folks make plans for selling their cars and moving into downtown Rohnert Park, several cautions should be noted.  First, financing is often difficult for mixed-use projects, especially in communities where they have little history.

Second, surprise hurdles can arise, regardless of the past successes of the developer.  One need look no further that the difficulties that bedeviled Suncal over their proposed development in Alameda, a project that is now apparently dead.

Third, urbanism works best when it connects to other urbanist projects, building toward a critical mass.  But the State Farm site is largely surrounded by collectors, arterials, and low-density, single-use sites.  There is enough area within the State Farm site that a credible site plan can be developed, but single-developer, isolated projects are far from the urbanist ideal.  The proximity of the train station mitigates the isolation of the site, but doesn’t fully remedy it.

That’s not to argue that a single-developer project can’t be a good place to live.  But it likely won’t have the same urbanist flavor that the Petaluma Station Area may be able to create with its short walk to the historic downtown.

Of course, in the absence of an urban heritage, a bootstrap project is the only hope and the State Farm site is probably the best bootstrap site in Rohnert Park.

Copia in Napa: Almost two years ago, I wrote about the Copia site in Napa.  At the time, the building was vacant and the grounds were falling into disrepair, the cutting-edge concept having failed to find a foothold.  I was concerned that the vacant site, if not truly a drag on the adjoining Oxbow Public Market and nearby downtown Napa, was inhibiting the urbanist growth that seemed possible.

Two years later, there haven’t been many physical changes, but there is a serious urbanist proposal under consideration.  And there are elements of the community pushing back with thinking that seems more in line with drivable suburbia.

Although I’m concerned about the pushback, I’m pleased that the discussion is underway.  The site has sat vacant for too long.

River Front in Petaluma: Several months ago, a representative of Basin Street Development spoke with Petaluma Urban Chat about the proposed River Front project along the Petaluma River and near the interchange of Highway 101 and Lakeville Boulevard.

At the time, review of the project environmental documents by the Petaluma Planning Commission was scheduled for the following week.  But the Basin Street representative advised us that issues had arisen about the environmental documents, resulting in a hearing delay.  The project has now returned to the Planning Commission agenda and will be heard at 7pm on Tuesday, January 14 at the Petaluma City Hall.

Although much further along in the development process, River Front shares characteristics with the State Farm site in Rohnert Park.  As proposed, River Front is a competent and reasonable urbanist project with a retail and multi-family core surrounded by small lot single-family homes.

Some at Urban Chat were concerned that the project failed to give adequate attention to the Petaluma River, but I can see the logic of putting the higher density core closer to the access point from Lakeville Boulevard.

But River Front, like the State Farm site, lacks the surrounding urbanist context that would allow it to organically flow into other urbanist neighborhoods.  Instead, any need that can’t be met within River Front will require a car trip.

Nor does River Front have the rail access of the State Farm site.   At one time, the second Petaluma SMART station was planned to adjoin the River Front site, but the station was long ago moved to the Corona Road site, where it still remains unfunded.

None of this is meant as a criticism of the Basin Street proposal.  Internally, it’s a good plan.  But the context issues highlight the problem of returning urbanism to communities that have too long been built to the drivable suburban paradigm.

Notes and Updates

Petaluma Urban Chat: Another month has flown past, with the holidays having further shortened the weeks.  Another meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat is upon us.

We’ll meet on Tuesday, January 14.  We’ll convene at 5:30 at the Aqus Cafe at 2nd and H Streets.  The discussion will begin at 5:45.  (At least a few of us, including this writer, will move directly from the Urban Chat meeting to the Planning Commission hearing on the River Front project.)

We’ll return to our study of “The Smart Growth Manual” by Duany, Speck, and Lydon.  All are welcome.  Even if you haven’t read the book, you should enjoy the discussion.

East Washington Place: Three months ago, I wrote about how a new Petaluma retail development had been completed without the bus stop that would have provided good access for transit riders.  I can now report that service changes were put into place several days ago to serve East Washington Place.

The solution is still interim, with further changes likely later in the year, but it’s a move in the right direction.  (Disclaimer: I serve on the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, so participated in the service change decisions.)

On a less positive note, changes to the Transit Advisory Committee authorizing resolution that would reduce the possibility of future transit omissions haven’t proceeded as quickly as hoped.  But the year is still young.

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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