Durable Growth, Site News

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Looking forward through the fog

Building at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

Building at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

With my last couple of posts, I’ve been sucked back into the subject of possible reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  First, I recounted my inadvertent quashing of youthful creativity.  And then I explained why, as worthwhile and insightful as the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort has been, there’s a good chance that the eventual redevelopment will differ significantly from the Urban Chat plan.

Today, I’ll finish the hat trick by trying to peer through the fog of land use to anticipate the path that the Fairgrounds will likely take from today until the last resident moves in, perhaps two decades hence.

I should emphasize that I’m not relying on any inside information to write this post.  No one inside of City Hall or anywhere else is feeding me confidential insights.  I’m writing based solely on nearly four decades of observing public process and land use, in Petaluma and elsewhere.

As of today, this is what my crystal ball is telling me to expect.

Legalities and Politics: The next year, or perhaps two years, will be consumed with legal and political questions mostly outside of the land use issues.  There’s little doubt that Petaluma would be better served if a portion of the Fairgrounds were converted to a more vibrant daily use.  But the Fair Board, City Council, and others will need to wrestle with the legalities of ending the current lease, adopting a new lease, and judging the effects of state statutes and precedents on the process.  These are subjects on which I have little or no knowledge and can’t predict how they will play out.

However, let me insert a thought at this point.  When I talk about Petaluma having a better future with a smaller Fairgrounds, I’m not dismissing the value of the Sonoma Marin Fair.  The Fair has been a valuable element of Petaluma’s past and can hopefully serve a similar role in the future.

And I think the Fair can play a key role in the life experiences of young Petalumans.  I can track my own childhood by the fairs in the California towns where I lived.

The Orange Show in San Bernardino was where I first saw the spectacle of a fair.  I found it especially thrilling to youthful eyes.

The old State Fair in Sacramento was where I first saw a fair as a community meeting place, stopping by the booth where my father was representing the California Highway Department in conversations with the general public.

The Walnut Festival in Walnut Creek was one of the first places where I experienced the world outside of parental oversight, haunting the midway with school friends and hoping, or fearing, to bump into girls from our school.

Back in Sacramento, the new Cal Expo in Sacramento was where I quit scheming to bump into girls, but instead brought my own dates.

Each of those experiences was valuable and I wish to preserve similar experiences for future youths, while also making Petaluma an economically vibrant place that meet the needs of youth during the other 51 weeks of the year.   This is the difficult balancing act.

Technical and Public Input: With the politics resolved, hopefully in favor of some extent of redevelopment, the City will likely spend at least a couple of years considering redevelopment options.   This effort will probably involve at least three elements, hiring a consultant team to assess opportunities and constraints, such as hazardous material cleanup, and to prepare redevelopment options, using City staff to assess the technical constraints on the site, such as water and sewer capacity, and assembling a citizens’ advisory committee to channel public input.

It’s this last element toward which the Urban Chat effort has been targeted, creating a group of citizens who are educated about and motivated by the Fairgrounds opportunity and who are eager to bring the Urban Chat concepts forward while also allowing those concepts to evolve as new information is uncovered and new ideas offered.  I hope and expect that several Urban Chat alumni would be appointed by the City Council to a citizens’ advisory committee.

However, I should note that citizens’ committees can easily become ineffective.  Both consultants and City staff will have their own agendas and a stronger place at the decision table.  For citizens to be effective, consistent and forceful advocacy is essential.  Stating a perspective and wandering away is a recipe for irrelevance.

I’ve served on citizens’ committees that quickly became self-marginalizing.  One recent committee began its work with nineteen members and finished with four.  But I’ve also watched as citizens’ committees fought against dismissive attitudes and accomplished great things.

I suspect that having a citizens’ committee willing to roll up sleeves, to get dirty, and not to depart until success is achieved is one of two key steps in getting to a good plan.

The eventual result of this stage will be the preparation of a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) through which the City will seek a developer to undertake the redevelopment.

(For land use geeks, there is a key decision point here about whether the City would act as the master developer or would give that role to a private developer.  Because of the greater control and financial upside, I’d support the City assuming the master developer role, but understand that the world has mostly moved on from that model because most cities don’t have the capacity to cover the financial obligations and risks, so expect the master developer role to go to a private developer.)

Developer Input: This is the second critical point in the process.  Whether from developers vying to be chosen to redevelop the site or from the selected developer upon further review of the site, the day will come when the City is asked to erode the vision.

The argument might that the developer can’t secure financing or that the marketing folks don’t think they can sell the units.  The argument might be self-serving or it might be legitimate.  But a developer will ask to reduce the public amenities, to revert to more conventional architecture forms, or to reuse building plans they’ve constructed elsewhere.  It’ll be essential that the City Council, Planning Commission, and City staff push back consistently to preserve as much of the vision as possible.

If there is one task in which all citizens can assist in the Fairgrounds process, it is assuring that we have elected leaders in place at this critical stage who will support urbanism and who will appoint and hire folks who will support urbanism.  The ballot box will matter.

Design and Construction: Lastly, there is the execution of the concept.  Ongoing efforts to prevent the erosion of the adopted plan may be required, but hopefully the plan is well accepted by this point.

However, it should be noted that big projects don’t rise out of the ground overnight.  Instead, developers and financiers can only build projects as quickly as the product can be absorbed by the marketplace.  It’s likely that a decade or more will be required to bring the Fairground redevelopment to completion.

With the current Fairgrounds lease expiring in 2023, a couple of years necessary for hazardous material cleanup, and another decade for construction, the final residents may not move into their new homes until 2035 or later.

During my recent work with a group of teenagers on the Fairgrounds, one student advocated for a teen center and said she knew of a band which could be booked.  I held my tongue, but was tempted to note that the band had better be in good health or might otherwise be using walkers by the time the teen center was complete.  And that it was more likely that the student’s daughter would be the one dancing to the music.

Even if my crystal ball is imperfect, it’ll be a long time from today to completion.  But I hope many of you are motivated to buckle up for the ride and to do your part to ensure that the Fairgrounds redevelopment will serve Petaluma well.

For my next post, I’ll leave the Fairgrounds behind, but not very far behind.  Above, I wrote about how changing the direction of public policy requires continual effort by involved citizens.  As if on cue, a fine example of my point appeared in a local newspaper.  I’ll explain when I next write.

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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