Durable Growth, Government

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds re-use: Sorting through the options

Current Fairgrounds Building

Current Fairgrounds Building

I’ve written several times about the looming opportunities at Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.

Regular readers can probably repeat the key facts by heart, so I’ll offer only a brief recap.  The current lease between the City and Fair Board for the Fairgrounds will expire in nine years.  The two parties are engaged in closed door negotiations over the future of the site.  The Fairgrounds are located in the heart of Petaluma so the result of the negotiations could change the course of the town’s future.

To be prepared to comment effectively on the result of the negotiations, Petaluma Urban Chat has been engaging in an independent consideration of site options.  Initially, the approach was fairly unstructured.  As a result, the process didn’t move ahead as well as we might have hoped.

To remedy the slow process, we rebooted the effort into a more rigorous and directed format.  The first meeting under the new format was held on November 11 and seemed successful.  (For those who want further background, earlier posts about the Fairgrounds can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)

I’ve termed the new process a “mini-charette”, with all the goals of a full charrette but with a quarter of the hours that a full charrette might take.

To make the mini-charette as broad-based as possible, we assembled a steering committee for the effort.  Joining me on the committee were Ross Jones, an architect and downtown developer, and David Powers, a long-time Urban Chat participant.

The goal for the first mini-charette meeting structure was to take an initial cut at the preferred land uses that might occupy a portion of the current Fairgrounds.

To conform to a likely result of the City/Fair Board negotiations, we made the decision that the re-use would occupy 30 acres of the current 63-acre Fairgrounds.  I developed a form listing the possible site uses, including a range of residential densities, possible retail uses, public facilities, and recreational amenities.  The form also included rough estimates of how each option might affect the finances of the City.

To help people visualize the possibilities, Jones gave an introduction to the flexibility and opportunities within each of the land-use possibilities.

Under the structure of the meeting, I asked the participants to individually prioritize their desires and to target a package of land uses that would total 30 acres.  After they had made their first choices, groups of three or four people met to discuss their individual wishes and visions, with the steering committee helping to facilitate.  Representatives of each group then conferred with representatives of the other groups to argue for their visions.  The result was an initial set of land-use preferences.  About 27 people attended the meeting, which was a sufficient group to reach reasonable decisions.

At least a few of the folks felt initially overwhelmed by the choices presented to them.  And that was okay.  The process was the urban planning equivalent of immersion training for learning foreign languages.  In effect, in order to teach people to swim, we pushed them into the deep end of the pool.  But once folks realized that we weren’t going to let them sink, they bought into the process, bringing insight and passion to their choices.

Powers acted as scribe for the final discussion group.  The results as presented below are based on his report.  Time ran short for the combined group to put acreages to their choices, but their priorities were well-established.  The acreages noted below are my estimates of where they would have put the acreages if time had permitted.

Residential: The strong consensus was for a mix of high density housing (14 to 25 units per acre in buildings of up to three stories) and very high density housing (more than 25 units per acre in buildings of up to six stories).  I’ll assume a total of seven acres of residential, which would imply perhaps 175 to 200 new residences.

Retail: The strong consensus here was for a public market, especially one that included a farmers’ market.  The Ferry Building in San Francisco and the Barlow in Sebastopol were noted as possible models.  (I’ll suggest the Oxbow Public Market in Napa as another possible model.)  It was felt that the regional farm to table model had to be represented.  A hotel and more general retail were also noted as possibilities, but with little enthusiasm.   I’ll assume four acres for a public/farmer’s market.

(Note: It is also expected that some of the sidewalk frontage in the residential buildings would be also occupied by storefront retail or offices.)

Office: There was only limited support for office buildings, so that use was excluded for now.

Manufacturing: The strong consensus was for small-scale agricultural processing/manufacturing, something more on the scale of the Cowgirl Creamery rather that the Clover-Stornetta plant.

Also, people were excited by the idea of a licensed and certified commercial kitchen that could be used by upstart food producers to bring small batches of locally sourced food products to market.  The concept of an incubator which would combine manufacturing opportunities and business skills training for entrepreneurs in food production resonated strongly with the group because of its fit with the needs of the community and its fit with the historic role of the Sonoma Marin Fair.  Powers reported that this possible use elicited the strongest emotional response of all the site uses.

I’ll assume six acres for processing and manufacturing, including an incubator space.

Recreation: There a good consensus for a public park or plaza, particularly because of the higher density housing, and more moderate enthusiasm for a ballfield.  It was noted that a ballfield could also serve as an outdoor concert venue, but enthusiasm was still limited, so I’ll exclude that option.  Instead, I’ll assume three acres of park or plaza.

Public Facilities: There was strong support for a public arts center that would house a theater space (perhaps something like the Cinnabar Theater), a venue for music, public art studios, and accompanying exhibit space.  There was lesser support for connecting the public arts center to a convention center or for moving City Hall.  I’ll assume three acres for a public arts center and exclude the latter two options.

The total is twenty-three acres.  Assuming that public streets consume another seven acres, which is a typical ratio, that gives us the target thirty acres.

Is this the best possible combination of land uses?  Probably not.  I can already see decision points that I’d like to further explore.  But it’s a fine starting point for our mini-charette and sets the stage for our next meeting.  Before we conclude the mini-charette several months hence, we’ll circle back to decide if we wish to revisit any of the decisions above.

Even more importantly, the Urban Chat gathering was a good evening of public involvement.  To quote Powers, “The evening revealed how much people are willing to buckle down and address a very difficult issue, and how much the Fairgrounds issue captures the imaginations of people from a wide range of community interests.” (This is an appropriate moment to express my appreciation to both David Powers and Ross Jones for their assistance with first meeting of the mini-charette.  Their continued participation will be essential as we move ahead.)

In the next Urban Chat meeting, we’ll determine which 30 acres of the Fairgrounds would be best suited for redevelopment.  To make that assessment, we’ll consider community issues, including existing uses and facilities within the Fairgrounds and the adjacent land uses.  Make plans to join us on Tuesday, December 9 for the discussion.

In my next post, I’ll offer some updated thinking about the preservation of historic buildings.

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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