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Pondering City Repair Petaluma and the small successes it may have helped feed

Sharing library at 638 E Street

Sharing library at 638 E Street

In the fall of 2013, a small group came together to consider the possibilities of City Repair Petaluma.

The City Repair idea began in Portland, Oregon and has spread to communities across the west.  City Repair is based the possibility of community improvements, on public property, that would improve the civic life of the community, but that fall outside of the responsibilities of city hall and can therefore be best accomplished by groups of neighbors.

In many cases, the improvements are technically in violation of various municipal statutes, but the good will and good sense behind the efforts often drives necessary changes in the statutes.

Seeing possibilities in the City Repair concept, a local community advocate embraced the concept and helped organize an ad hoc committee to consider the role that City Repair could play in Petaluma.  I was asked to serve on the committee.  We came together with enthusiasm, met several times with various members of the community, and eventually hosted an evening meeting in conjunction with Petaluma Urban Chat.  The meeting was attended by about forty folk.  A video on City Repair Portland was played and possible projects were discussed.

At the time, I wrote a series of posts on the City Repair concept, including a summary of possible City Repair concepts.

It’s now about a year and a half since the meeting that was the high point of the City Repair Petaluma effort.  With one possible exception, little has happened.

The lack of success isn’t surprising.  The difficulty behind City Repair projects was illustrated to me in an early meeting.  A local resident, intrigued by the possibilities of City Repair, brought her two sons to the meeting.  The boys were clearly there under duress, but were soon seduced by the possibility of painting designs on a public street, a concept that is only one of many City Repair possibilities but is the one most often associated with City Repair.

The two young men immediately began to discuss what the design should be, where the paint could be purchased, and whether both were free on the coming Saturday morning.

I had to rein in their enthusiasm, explaining that a City Repair project must be the culmination of an organizing effort, educating the neighbors about the options, identifying a project, and building support.  I estimated that it might well be a year, if not two, before brush could be applied to asphalt or any other project undertaken.

The two were disappointed, but agreed to stay involved for the duration.  Then the meeting ended and I never saw either of them, or their mother, again.

Even the project with which I was most involved seems to have foundered on a similar shoal.  The concept was street painting in front of a school to slow cars and to discourage illegal and unsafe traffic maneuvers.

It seemed a reasonable plan, but the organizers correctly decided that all affected neighbors had to be in favor of the plan before proceeding.  One neighbor was dubious and required several conversations over a period of six months before giving his assent.  By that time, the momentum had leaked away, although I expect that some faint possibility of a project still remains.

Sharing library at 817 Bantam Drive

Sharing library at 817 Bantam Drive

So, City Repair Petaluma seems have come up mostly empty, but there is the one possible exception noted above.  In the 2013 post in which I listed possible City Repair projects, I noted “bookshare kiosks.”  To the best of my knowledge, that was the first time that anyone wrote about the possibility of neighborhood sharing libraries in Petaluma.  And today there are at least eight libraries in operation.

(To be clear, I’m not claiming that all the neighborhood sharing libraries in Petaluma sprung from City Repair Petaluma effort.  After all, the Little Free Library organization was already underway in 2009.  But it wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of the local libraries could trace their roots back to the City Repair Petaluma effort.  Besides, what matters is that they exist, not how they came to be.

Working from several sources, this is the current list of Petaluma sharing libraries of which I’m aware:

  • A Street between 5th and 6th Streets
  • 638 E Street
  • 422 Walnut Street near Kent Street
  • 823 Madison Street across from McKinley Elementary
  • Laurel Street at the intersection with Schumann Lane
  • 817 Bantam Way
  • Napa Drive in the Petaluma Estates Mobile Home Park
  • 71 Purrington Road near I Street

Yesterday, I toured many of these sharing libraries.  Each of them made me smile.   (Had I thought ahead, I would have taken along a few books to leave behind.)

Sharing library at 817 Bantam Drive

Sharing library at 817 Bantam Drive

I’ve always expected that the concept would work best in walkable neighborhoods, so I’m most intrigued by the locations on A Street, on E Street, and in the Petaluma Estates Mobile Home Park, but if the other locations can serve to increase neighborhood walking and connections, that would also be great.

And I’m greatly interested by the library across from McKinley Elementary.  At first, it would seem to duplicate the function of the school library, but I could see how a library away from the oversight of the school librarian might serve a function in supporting youthful curiosity.

If this blog and City Repair Petaluma had a small role in the proliferation of these libraries, then I’m happy about that.  And I encourage everyone to take a tour of the libraries.  They’ll make you feel good about your community.

Before closing, I should return to the issue of how City Repair projects sometimes push the boundaries of municipal codes.  Although neighborhood sharing libraries would seem to be nearly unassailable good things, a few curmudgeons found ways to complain.  In Leawood, Kansas, the City Council had to pass an emergency resolution allowing a nine-year-old to give a sharing library to his mother for Mothers Day.  In Shreveport, a debate erupted between proponents of the First Amendment and strict adherents to the local zoning code.  City Lab gives an overview of the issue.

Even Petaluma wasn’t immune.  An early adopter of the library idea approached City Planning about approval for a library in her neighborhood.  After a call to code enforcement, the counter planner advised her that sharing libraries weren’t permitted in Petaluma.

When I learned of the story, I double-checked with code enforcement and received a more nuanced response.  While the physical structure of the library might be considered a frontyard accessory structure, which is prohibited, code enforcement saw no need to enforce the rule unless someone objected.  The proponent proceeded with her library.

Now, if only we can find similar success with other City Repair ideas.

Next time, I’ll write about how downtowns are different from drivable shopping centers.  The difference may seem obvious, but at least one corporate marketing department seems unclear on the point.

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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