Durable Growth, Site News

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds re-use: Turning toward the finish line

Existing Fairgrounds entrance

Existing Fairgrounds entrance

Regular followers have read the following recitation so many times that they can likely anticipate every word.  But for the new readers, I should lay out the background before moving to the heart of this post.  I’ll try to do so expediently.

Petaluma Urban Chat, a citizens group that sprung from readers of this blog, has been studying the possible re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The Fairgrounds site is owned by the City of Petaluma, which leased it to the Sonoma Marin Fair Board under a contract that will expire in 2023.  And eight years can be the blink of an eye in the world of land use.  The end of the current lease will provide an opportunity to reduce the size of the Fairgrounds and to redevelop a portion of the site.

The site is well-located between downtown Petaluma and the freeway and can likely support moderately intense urban-style development.  Also, the site is only four blocks from the coming SMART train station.  Working outside the auspices of the City or the Fair Board, Urban Chat has begun considering a possible plan.  The twin goals are to educate ourselves about the opportunities and constraints at the site and to have a plan to show to interested members of the community.

After a couple of different approaches didn’t gain traction, we hit upon a mini-charette format and have been working steadily toward a plan that should represent a group consensus.  Although, in place of mini-charette, I probably should have described the process as a slow-moving and unfacilitated charette.

(A note on terminology: One reader took me to task for using the word “charette”, thinking that many wouldn’t know it.  I suspect that “charette” is more widely understood that he thinks, but I’m always willing to fill possible knowledge gaps.  “Charette” is derived from the French word for cart.  The original use referred to the cart in which a representative of the king would arrive in the town square and advise the citizens of the changes that were coming their way.  Over time, it came to refer to a process by which the citizens had a chance to comment upon and to shape the changes.

Today, charette refers still refers to a process by which the community participates in a land-use decision.  A contemporary charette is usually time intensive, perhaps extending over a three-day weekend, and is facilitated by an architect or other land-use professional.  As Petaluma Urban Chat meets once a month and, although several land-use professionals participate, none are paid to direct the effort, my description of our process as a slow-moving and unfacilitated charette is reasonable.)

We’ve met twice under the charette process.  In November, we settled on a package of land uses that we thought would best serve the community.  In December, we decided which portion of the site would be available for re-use and which would retain the reduced fair footprint.  (The December decision forced changes in the November allocations.)

This history sets the stage for the next and near-final task, developing a site plan.  Over the next month or so, we’ll assign locations on the re-use site for the selected land uses.

The November and December decisions, although different formats were used, were made using everyone in attendance.  However, the site planning process is more complex and not well-suited to twenty-five people trying to find consensus in a single meeting.  Instead, we’ll break into teams.

Over the next month, each team will develop a plan for presentation to the entire Urban Chat group.  We’ll try to assign a land-use professional to each group, not to direct the teams, but to have familiarity with raising the key issues and guiding groups toward consensus.  Also, the charette steering committee, architect Ross Jones, local urbanist David Powers, and me, will help facilitate where we can.  (When not facilitating, Jones, Powers, and I will develop our own site concept.)

The schedule for the three site planning meetings will be:

Tuesday, January 13: Set teams and begin planning. (Already done.)

Tuesday, January 27: Optional meeting for facilitation.  (The teams are, of course, also welcome to meet at other times if they wish.)

Tuesday, February 10: Presentation of team plans and selection of best plan.  There can also be discussion of combining the best elements of several plans.

All three meetings will be held at Taps in the River Plaza shopping center, across the Balshaw Bridge from downtown Petaluma.  The address is 54 East Washington Street.  All three meetings will begin at 5:30pm.  I’d like to say that all three meetings will conclude by 7:00, but the likely compelling nature of the discussions may result in the meetings carrying on somewhat longer.

Following the last meeting, we’ll put together the best possible graphics of the result to share with the community.  The graphics will be a challenge given our non-existent budget, but we’ll do the best we can and aren’t above relying on the kindness of strangers.  (Hint, hint.)

To assist the teams in their site planning, they’ll be given a list of questions to consider as they ponder the site.  The preliminary list of questions follows, although other questions may be added before Tuesday.

Where would the fair-attending public enter the reconfigured fairgrounds?

The current fairgrounds layout includes extensive parking.  How might parking work for the new fairgrounds?

The Director of the Live Oak Charter School advised Urban Chat in December that, as long as the education function was enhanced, the school might be amenable to relocation.  Where would the school fit in the new plan?

Extensive projects don’t get built in a single phase.  Where would the initial redevelopment occur and in what direction would future increments proceed?

The Old D Street neighborhood has reportedly been resistant to change.  How would you structure the project to minimize their concerns or to provide them sufficient amenities to support the redevelopment?

The principal entrance to the East Washington Place shopping center adjoins the north end of the redevelopment area.  If it remains in place, it would be a barrier between the redevelopment and the swim center/skateboard park.  Would you look at relocating the entrance?  And if you do, how would you mollify the shopping center owner and tenants?

To what extent do you anticipate the Petaluma citizens who don’t live nearby visiting the re-use site?  How would you handle their arrival and their parking?

In the blog post that reported the results of the most recent meeting, a street grid system was proposed for the re-use site.  The blocks that are shown are similar in size to the blocks in the Old D Street neighborhood, which are unusually large for a residential neighborhood or an urban setting.  Would you use that grid system, would you add some intermediate streets to reduce the block size, or would you propose a different street system?

Also, we have maps and plans of the existing site conditions which can be available on paper and electronically at the meeting.

I hope you find the potential of this process to be intriguing and will consider joining us on January 13.  You’re also encouraged to bring friends.  All are welcome at Urban Chat meetings.  If you haven’t attended the recent meetings, you’ll have a bit of catch-up to do, but the links above will help with that effort and the Urban Chat folks are always happy to assist newcomers.

And if you wish to do any preparation before the upcoming, you might look at the Petaluma Station Area master plan for the types of buildings that could fit on the Fairgrounds or perhaps read my post about UrbanPlan, a high school program challenging students to develop a plan for a site with some similarities to the Fairgrounds.

Next, I’ll return to my New Years Intro to Urbanism, with a review of the many reasons why urbanism is a good solution to land use in the 21st century.

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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