Durable Growth

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Trying to put lines on a map

Fairgrounds aerial photo

Fairgrounds aerial photo

Last week, Petaluma Urban Chat met to continue assessing the future reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  This effort has been described in several earlier posts, most recently in the report on the November meeting.  At that meeting, the group discussed the land-use elements that would best meet their vision for the future of the Fairgrounds.  Those uses included residential, a public market, a park, and an experimental kitchen among other thoughts.

This month, our goal was to take the next incremental step in developing the vision.  It seemed a relatively simple step, although we soon found a complication.

To set the background, before the November meeting I made the decision that the vision effort would be based on an assumption that 30 acres of the current 63-acre Fairgrounds site would be reused as something other than a fairgrounds.  There wasn’t any particular insight or data behind the assumption.  Nor do I have any authority in the matter except for helping to guide the hypothetical Urban Chat study.  About the only justification behind the 30-acre assumption is that the reuse would be approximately half of the current Fairgrounds and we’re hard-wired to intuitively grasp what half looks like.

I acknowledged that the 30-acre assumption would and should be subject to future review.  But to keep the group, which has a constantly changing membership of about twenty folks, moving ahead, I chose to make key assumptions upfront, such as the size of the reuse area, rather than getting bogged down in difficult questions  for which we lacked key information.

With that background, the task for the December meeting was to decide which 30 acres would be removed from the Fairgrounds lease and opened for reuse.  (Note: It’s also possible the land could remain within the Fairgrounds lease and be redeveloped under the auspices of the Fair Board.  That could be a key distinction to the Fair Board and to the City Council, but wasn’t relevant to our discussion.  Our interest was what the new land uses should be, not which entity would oversee the effort.)

We asked several speakers to participate in the meeting.  Unfortunately, conflicts kept some of the speakers from attending, but Matthew Morgan, the Director of the Live Oak Charter School, a current Fairgrounds tenant, gave an excellent presentation on the buildings now occupied by the school and the hopes of the school for future site expansion and improvements.  Subject to the requirement that the school end up better equipped to serve its students, Morgan felt that significant changes to the school site could be tolerated.

Building on Morgan’s presentation, I gave a brief summary of the existing site elements that might be considered historic.  My information was based on a briefing provided by a local historian several months earlier.  The key element was that some of the structures, although heavily remodeled, may date from the late 1930s and were likely constructed with Works Progress Administration funds.  Both the age of the structures and the funding source would trigger detailed historic analyses and the possible requirement for historic preservation.

I also described the boundary conditions for the current Fairgrounds, the major arterial plus civic structures on the north boundary, the conventional retail with fronting parking lots on the east, the industrial uses, some thriving and some marginal, on the south, and the quiet residential neighborhood on the west.  I explained that recognition of and adjustment to the boundary conditions was often essential to securing site entitlements and to ensuring a successful project.

With that information presented, we began our assessment of where the 30 acres of reuse should be located.  And we quickly came to a hurdle.

Before the complication, we reached consensus on two points.  First, the remaining Fair property should be at the south end of the current site.  If there are financially marginal uses on the adjoining lands to the south, uses that can be supplanted by an expansion of adjoining uses, we judged that it would be more reasonable for the new uses to be expansions of the Fairgrounds than of the reuse area.  (I’m not sure that I agree with that decision, but neither am I sure that I disagree.  It’s a complex question without an obvious answer.)

We also agreed that the Payran Street frontage was the most valuable element of the potential reuse site.  With the intersection of Payran and D Streets almost exactly the same distance from the coming SMART train station as the corner of Second and D Streets, the Fairgrounds reuse has the potential to become a second downtown for Petaluma.  And the Payran frontage is closest part of the Fairgrounds to the station.  (I hadn’t foreseen this perspective on Payran, but agreed with it enthusiastically.)

Those two decisions then led us to the conundrum.  Trying to draw a dividing line between a reduced Fairgrounds and a 30-acre reuse site, with the reduced Fairgrounds at the south and the Payran frontage maximized, the line kept bumping into the Petaluma Speedway, a long established Fairgrounds element.

Including the oval track and stands, pit area, and parking lot, the Speedway consumes about 15 acres of the Fairgrounds, a surprisingly large chunk.  And from the knowledge, perhaps dated, of an Urban Chat participant, it generates less than $50,000 in annual profit, a disappointingly low return on 15 acres of key real estate.

So the question became whether the Speedway should be preserved.  And the decision was that it shouldn’t, not only because higher and better economic uses were possible, but also because it would difficult to secure a good price on the reuse site if it adjoined a still-operating racetrack.

I know that many Petaluma old-timers will decry this decision, recalling fond memories of evenings spent at the Speedway.  I can empathize.  I would have liked a ballpark in the reuse area, but that idea never gained traction in the Urban Chat group.  And I understand why.  The ballpark didn’t make economic sense for the City.  Nor does the continuation of the Speedway make sense.  Times change and we must accept those changes.

With that decision made, it became reasonable to reconsider how much land was to be subject to reuse.  My original decision to use 30 acres for the reuse area included the implicit assumption that the Speedway would remain a Fairgrounds element.  With the Speedway eliminated, we decided to divide the land area of the Speedway between the reuse area and the reduced Fairgrounds, with 40 acres going to reuse.

With that assumption revised, the drawing of the line became surprisingly easy.  An extension of Jefferson Street from Payran to Kenilworth, shown in the photo above, comes very close to a 40-acre reuse site north (left) of the dark line and a reduced 23-acre Fairgrounds site south (right) of the line.

Furthermore, the line can be more than a boundary. Actually extending Jefferson to Kenilworth and similarly extending D Street to Kenilworth would provide the beginnings of a grid system for the reuse area.

In the north-south direction, building a city street along the current alignment of the primary Fairgrounds concourse and realigning Kenilworth to be parallel would complete the grid system, forming six new blocks similar in size to the adjoining residential neighborhood.  (Two of the next blocks would be partially occupied by the existing library and swim center.)

This grid system isn’t a final decision, but is a good start on the next discussion.

Lastly, the earlier land allocation decision between residential, retail, manufacturing, recreation, and public facilities should be reassessed relative to the increased reuse area.  Of the 40 acres now assumed for reuse, I’ll assume that 10 acres will be consumed by streets and utilities, with the remaining 30 acres available for new uses.  My tentative thoughts on the new allocations follow, all of which are subject to reconsideration and revision.

  • Residential: Was seven acres, now bumped to ten acres.
  • Retail: The public market needn’t be scaled up, so four acres is still assumed.
  • Manufacturing: Was six acres, now bumped to seven acres.
  • Recreation: Was three acres, now bumped to five acres
  • Public Facilities: Was three acres, now bumped to four acres.

At the next Urban Chat meeting, we’ll reaffirm some of these decisions and begin placing the actual land uses on a map.  It should be an engaging evening.  Please plan on joining us on Tuesday, January 13.  We’ll gather at 5:30pm at Taps.

In the next post, I’ll offer the first of two urbanism-related thought exercises for you to ponder as your plane sits on the tarmac, awaiting approval to fly you home for Christmas.

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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