Durable Growth

In springtime, a middle-aged man’s fancies turn to sidewalk cafes, brew pubs, and block parties

Ray's Deli and Tavern

Ray’s Deli and Tavern

With spring having sprung (not that we had a real winter in the North Bay), it’s time to check in on a few old favorites, both places and subjects.

Ray’s Deli: I’ve previously written about the role that Ray’s Deli and Tavern plays in the life of my Petaluma neighborhood.  Recently, a local architect suggested meeting at Ray’s to discuss the relationship between urbanism and climate change, a suggestion to which I quickly acceded because of both the subject and the meeting place.

However, the architect was late for our Friday afternoon meeting, so I ended up sitting at a community table, sipping on a bottle of water and observing the springtime angst of junior high school students newly freed for the weekend.

It was a mind-numbing swirl of apprehension over who had said what to whom, who was fighting with whom, and who might have a secret crush on whom.  The drama, amped up by a Friday afternoon in springtime, was enough to make my head spin.  And to make me decide that being a junior high teacher must be in one of Dante’s circles of hell.

But the key urbanist point is that we were all occupying the same space.  Me awaiting a climate change conversation and the hormone-charged mass of teenage tragicomedy were both considering the same assortment of deli sandwiches, chips, and beverages.

And we’d all walked there.

It was an uncommon combination for a largely auto-oriented small city.  It was also pretty darned cool.

McDowell Brew Pub District: A few months back, I noted a brewing (pun intended) pedestrian problem along North McDowell Boulevard.  With the Lagunitas Brewery putting down ever deeper roots on the east side of McDowell and upstart breweries such as Petaluma Hills getting underway on the west side, there was an increasing problem with pedestrians crossing the 40 mph McDowell without the benefit of traffic aids.

Right now, the problem is exacerbated because most of the available parking is on the west side of McDowell and most of the patronage is heading to Lagunitas on the east side.  A parking lot proposed by Lagunitas on the east side will alleviate some of the concern, but there would still be a problem with pedestrians engaging in an evening of brew pub hopping.

In my earlier post, I debunked the idea that a painted crosswalk would be a solution, noting that drivers tend to overlook crosswalks when driving at higher speeds.  Also, the stripes give pedestrians a false sense of security.  The paradoxical result is that car/pedestrian accidents tend to increase after crosswalks are painted on high-speed streets.

The only solution I could conceive at the time was a full signal, but cost was neither affordable for a financially-strapped City nor justified by the few financial benefits that would flow to the City.

I still stand by my previous conclusions, as unhelpful as they may have been, but was recently forced to take another look at the situation.

I’d been unexpectedly lucky in my previous visits to Lagunitas, often snagging one of the few current parking places on the east side of McDowell.  So when an urbanist friend recently suggested meeting at Lagunitas for urban conversation at 2:30pm on a Thursday, I readily agreed.  How much beer drinkers could possible start imbibing that early in the week or the day?

As it turns out, there were a lot of early beer drinkers.  I eventually parked two blocks away on the east side of McDowell.  And as I walked back toward McDowell, my friend called.  She was at McDowell and ready to cross, but was dismayed by the number of cars and their unwillingness to stop.  So she would await my arrival.

We eventually worked our way across the street and had a pleasant and enlightening discussion, but the experience of crossing McDowell stayed with me.  So I now have another solution to offer.

And it’s the obvious solution, building off the work of Twenty is Plenty, Vision Zero, New York City, and even my own thoughts on traffic calming in my neighborhood.

Here’s the comprehensive plan.  We reduce the lane widths on McDowell from 12 feet to 11 feet or even 10 feet, add bulb outs at intersections, and perhaps adjust the lane alignments with slight angle points, all of which would encourage lower speeds.  As drivers respond to the more constrained conditions and new reduced car speeds are observed, the speed limit could be set at the lower speed, perhaps 25 mph.  Now we paint the crosswalk across McDowell and the drivers would respect it.

I’m sure that many are shocked with the idea of reducing the speed limit on a major arterial, but it’s the likely way of the future, with many communities going this direction to encourage alternative modes of transportation and to save the lives of pedestrians.

Besides, the length of McDowell between the major cross streets either direction from the breweries, Penngrove Highway and Corona Road, is a little less than a mile.  The additional time to drive that distance at 25 mph instead of 40 mph is only 50 seconds.

I know that the total extra time is that 50 seconds multiplied by the many people who drive McDowell over course of a day.  But that still leaves the question of whether many people multiplied by 50 seconds each is worth more or less than the reduced stress levels of the brewery district pedestrians and the reduced risk of pedestrian injuries or fatalities.  It’s not an easy balance to judge, but I come down in favor of the pedestrians.

Also, if pedestrians can cross McDowell safely and the businesses east of McDowell aren’t adversely impacted by the street parking for the breweries, then Lagunitas needn’t build the new parking lot and the lot can instead be used for new industrial uses.  Wow, economic development through lower speed streets!  What a concept!

I have no expectation that a lower speed McDowell will be implemented anytime soon.  But I think it’s the way of the future.  I hope to live long enough to write “I told you so.”

Block Parties: To conclude, I’ll touch on block parties.  When I last mentioned the subject, the Petaluma City Council has apparently given their approval to City staff to update and to clarify the block party rules, including a green light for block parties in more locations.  Since that update, I’ve sent my thoughts to City staff on how the rules might be updated, including ideas I’d gleaned from other North Bay cities and from observing block parties during the summer of 2014.

However, there has been no resulting action.  I know that City staff has a number of high priorities.  I also know that I could have been more diligent with my follow-up.  Nonetheless, it seems a shame that we’re facing another summer of legal limbo for what should be a rite of summer, simple neighborly block parties.

If you’ve been thinking of hosting a block party, but have been awaiting clarification on the rules, here are my thoughts:

  • Proceed with your party planning. Block parties are great ways to build communities and the City seems supportive even if the Municipal Code is lagging behind.
  • Go ahead and check with the Police Department. (Email me if you need help with contact information.)  But don’t be deterred if the response seems ambivalent or vague.  Their hands are also tied.
  • When configuring your use of the street, remember that passage of emergency vehicles can quickly become an urgent need. Leave a travel lane of at least 16 feet in which the only impediments are items such as chairs which can be whisked away quickly as needed.  (Last year, I attended a party where a bounce house blocked the emergency vehicle lane.   The organizer told me that eight men could move the bounce house quickly if needed.  Relying on eight men to be immediately available during an emergency seemed a bad plan.)
  • Although the City doesn’t yet have an insurance requirement, they may soon. And an insurance rider may be good protection for a party organizer in the event of a bounce house accident.  I’d recommend at least checking with one’s agent.

But above all, have fun.  And if you want to invite me to the party, I’m always willing to enjoy some neighborhood camaraderie.

Next time, I’ll mount my soapbox to complain about flawed thinking behind sidewalk and bike path alignments.

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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