Durable Growth

Identifying and building urbanist visions

Public plaza in Vicenza, Italy

Public plaza in Vicenza, Italy

In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I wrote about the dichotomy between vision and incrementalism.  The difference between focusing on the small steps toward a big goal and focusing on the goal itself.  The difference between awaking in the morning thinking about winning the World Series or awaking thinking about spending a hour in the batting cage learning to hit a curve ball.

In some ways, it’s a silly distinction to try to draw.  No one can reasonably reach any desirable goal without being able to embrace both the goal and the incremental steps.  One doesn’t win the World Series without spending time in the batting cage.  But one doesn’t spend the time in the cage without having the World Series, or at least the high school varsity, as a goal.

This topic is pertinent to urbanism because the vision of urbanism is grand indeed, with cities that are financially stable and secure from the threat of environmental degradation.  Even the more immediate visions, the downtown residences where seniors can live their later years without the need of a car or the public plazas where all a city’s inhabitants can mingle comfortably, are enticing.  But the steps, the grinding, trudging steps that are essential to get from the world of today to the vision of the future, can’t be overlooked.

I remain an incrementalist.  To me, land use is like crossing a rock-strewn field to a desirable destination in the middle distance, perhaps a spreading shade tree along a babbling brook.  Yes, looking up occasionally to check that I’m remaining on line to my goal is essential, but I still must spend much of my time watching my feet, not the destination, if I’m not to end up on my face.

But others may have different strategies for crossing that field.  Perhaps they can spend more time with their eyes on the destination without sprawling over a rock.  As long as we keep making progress, all is good.

In response to my earlier posts, a North Bay architect and planning commissioner emailed me in general concurrence with my thinking, but with the thought that compelling urbanist visions were sometimes lacking in the public forum.  To my eye, the vision is always there, but I’ll concede that he may be right, that many people may not see the urbanist vision with the same clarity as I do.

So I want to write today about a couple of different Petaluma situations, one in which a vision is being developed and another in which a vision is seemingly being overlooked.

Redevelopment of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: I’ve previously written on several occasions about the possible redevelopment of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, most recently here.  With the expiration of the lease agreement between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board looming, the two parties have been engaged in discussions about the future of the site for over a year.  The possible new uses of the site is a remarkable opportunity for the community.

But because of the nature of the process, little information has reached the public about the possible new uses, which is unfortunate.  As a result, Petaluma Urban Chat has been trying to build a public vision in the expectation that the vision will provide the public with a basis from which to review whatever proposal results from the City/Fair Board negotiations and also with the emotional commitment to keep pushing for the best possible redevelopment over the years to come.

The most recent Urban Chat meeting on the subject was held a few days ago and was the best meeting yet on the subject.   Nearly thirty folks participated, most of whom grasped the nature of the process and participated in the meeting with vigor.

Considering that implementation of a new vision for the Fairgrounds may still be a decade away, thirty folks in a ninety-minute meeting likely didn’t create the momentum necessary to roll to the finish line, but it was a start and the process will continue.

Hopper Street: As an apparent counterexample, the City Petaluma has recently been processing the land-use applications for the River Front project within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.  To set the background for a land-use conundrum in the permitting process, I recently gave an overview of the project, including the quote below.  The quote was inspired by the intended improvements to Hopper Street that would provide a direct route between River Front and the coming SMART station while also providing improved access to several parcels in between that are now in industrial use.

“I can foresee a better future, perhaps thirty years from now, when the parcels between River Front and the train station have all been redeveloped, when transit is stronger, when the current generation of young adults that is less attached to their cars has reached full maturity, and when River Front will be among the most desirable addresses in town.”

I believed those words when I wrote them and I believe them now.  However, I may have been largely alone in that belief.  I didn’t read every word written about River Front or attend every public meeting, but I didn’t come across a single other person who was fired by that vision.

Instead, the public became mired in questions about developer exactions and architectural standards.  Those questions are valid and I certainly have my own opinions on them, but I was disappointed that no one, with the exception of me, even noted the long-term vision.

So the planning commissioner may have been right when he doubted the existence of good visions.  I still believe the incrementalism is the better path for me.  One footstep at a time.  But we also need a vision to guide those footsteps.  This blog has always had and will continue to have the goal of establishing those visions.  The absence of a vision around Hopper Street reinforced that need for that goal.

In my next post, I’ll provide a more complete description of the recent Urban Chat meeting on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  It was a successful meeting, with folks embracing the need to make tough choices and passionately defending their preferences.

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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