Durable Growth, Transportation

Rainier Connector: What can urbanism offer in the short-term?

Alignment of Rainier Connector

Alignment of Rainier Connector

Like a persistent dog, today I’ll give one more good chew to the bone that is Petaluma’s Rainier Connector and then bury it for awhile.  I’ll surely return to the bone again in the future.  After all, the public notices on the Rainier Connector, a proposed arterial in the northwest quadrant of town, have been a fifty-year skein of birth announcements and obituary notices; I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon.  But after today, I’ll let the bone age for awhile.

This will be the fourth in the current series of posts on the Rainier Connector.   I began by bemoaning the yes/no question recently posed to the City Council on the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Connector.  I argued that the binary decision failed to capture the nuances of either the process or the project alternatives.  Next, I presented the urbanist argument why Rainier might be a good project for the future of Petaluma, but not yet.  Then, I suggested an idea for what urbanism could instead offer  for the $90 million cost of the roadway project.

Today, I’ll button up with a look at what urbanism can offer in the shorter-term.  Too much of Petaluma is configured in the drivable suburban mold for extensive urbanism to have a place anytime soon.  But perhaps there are urbanist strategies that can be implemented to alleviate some the pains of drivable suburbia.

As an example, I’ll resurrect a topic on which I’ve written before, a new sports complex on the east side of Petaluma.  (The complex, unnamed when I last wrote about it, is now the Petaluma Community Sports Fields.)

Petaluma sports field near the Community Sports Fields

Petaluma sports field near the Community Sports Fields

When I last wrote about the sports fields, I was castigating myself, as a member of the Petaluma Park and Rec Commission, for failing to more quickly call out the drivable suburban mindset behind siting a six-field athletic complex where many users would reach the site by passing through the busiest intersection in Petaluma.

I acknowledged that I had as much chance of changing the siting decision as of stopping a locomotive with a flyswatter, but still thought I should have been quicker to note the looming traffic issues.  I even predicted that some would soon call for a traffic fix to alleviate the difficulties in reaching the sports fields.

Sure enough, one of the pro-Rainier arguments tossed about during the run-up to the City Council hearing on the FEIR was the need to provide better access to the sports fields.  Never mind that building a $90 million roadway to improve access to a $6 million sports complex is roughly akin to buying a $500 carpet shampooer to remove a stain from a $30 rug or to buying a $10 grabber to retrieve a quarter from under a car seat, induced traffic would have undermined the traffic relief anyway.

Grandparents who had previously skipped sporting events because of the expected congestion enroute to the sports fields would begin making the trip, soon returning congestion to its former level.  Perhaps the new constraint on driving could have been parking at the sports complex.  During a recent visit, I noted that there are already signs posted directing drivers to overflow parking on the far side of the fronting arterial, an arterial without crosswalks.  But I expect that ideas for more parking would soon have begun floating, perhaps suggesting elimination of one of the future fields in favor of a parking lot.

That path is obviously going in an unacceptable direction, so let’s look to urbanism for different ideas.  The possible urbanist strategies fall into two categories, facilities located closer to users and encouragement of non-automobile access options.

In a chat with a fellow Park and Rec Commissioner, I noted that the community might have been served, from a traffic congestion perspective, by building fields at multiple locations rather than clustering them.  He responded, reasonably enough, that the multi-field complex allows weekend tournaments for out-of-towners, which benefits the local economy.

I’m happy to have others enjoy Petaluma, although I wonder how many years of sales and transient occupancy taxes will be required to pay for the sports fields.  Or for the Rainier Connector.  Unless that number is reasonable, the argument is only another example of using public dollars to create private revenue.

But I’m willing to stipulate that having a multi-field sports complex is a good thing for a community as long as that stipulation doesn’t preclude parallel provision for fields that require less driving.  And there is some hope on that front.

All three Petaluma high schools have or will soon have turf fields and have expressed a tentative willingness to allow community use of those fields when not in conflict with school activities.  Having no current involvement in youth sports, I don’t know to what extent youth leagues can be jiggered to have more play at fields to which non-automotive access, or at least shorter drives, is possible, but these are topics which I’ll push in my role on the Park and Rec Commission.

But there is another sports field where an opportunity was missed.  The River Front project will be in a central location, readily accessible to much of the community by transit.  The proposed development will have a sports field, but the developer’s plan calls for grass, not the turf that would better support intensive use for community sports.

The community interest in a turf field became evident during the entitlement process when there was an effort to make the turf a further, and in my opinion unreasonable, exaction from the developer.  The debate became mired in the question of how much a developer should fund in order to receive entitlements and a pro-developer perspective on the City Council quickly quashed the idea of turf.  My belief that the community should have funded the incremental cost between the grass and turf field wasn’t raised.  It was a missed opportunity.

And that brings us to the question of non-automobile access to the Petaluma Community Sports Fields.  There’s also some good news on that front, with a bicycle/pedestrian path currently under construction.  However, the path won’t be ready for use until about six months after play began on the sports fields, six months during which access habits, such as relying on parental transport, were formed.

I know there were easement issues to be resolved before the path construction could be commenced and that staff made a good faith effort to resolve those issues quickly.  But let me ask a pair of questions.  Does anyone know of a park that opened with the route of car access still pending?  Or is a bicycle/pedestrian path somehow considered less worthy of a timely solution?

The question of transit to the site is also interesting.  There is currently little use of transit to access any sports fields in Petaluma.  However, Petaluma Transit and the Transit Advisory Committee, on which I sit, are trying to increase that use.

Accordingly, the Committee reviewed the construction plans for the Petaluma Community Sports Fields, identified a possible transit turnaround and suggested a change that would allow the turnaround at a later date.  To be clear, we weren’t asking for the turnaround, which would have been premature, but only for a change to accommodate the turnaround at a future date.  And the change would have actually reduced the sports fields construction cost.

The suggested change was conveyed to the team managing the construction, which readily agreed to the revision.  And then forgot to implement it.

I don’t think there was any ill will in the forgetfulness.  I expect the change was simply overlooked in the fog of construction.  Plus, as someone recently noted to me, we’re still dealing with a generation of engineers who have been forced to think about bicycle and pedestrian issues, but for whom transit is still not automatic to them.

Plus, the oversight may have been partially the result of the Transit Committee still not having, despite well over two years of requesting, the official power to comment on land use matters.  (I’ve recently been advised that this issue may again be moving ahead.)

The turnaround remains a future possibility, but demolition of recently installed improvements may be necessary to accommodate it, which would be unfortunate for all.

The overall report card on the efforts to incorporate urbanist strategies to improve access to the Petaluma Community Sports Fields, without spending $90 million on the Rainier Connector, is a mixed but mostly disappointing bag.  If I squint really hard, I can see giving a C to the bicycle/pedestrian path.  But otherwise I see only Ds and Incompletes.  As always, urbanism is whispering good solutions in our ears and we’re not listening.

And now, it’s truly time to move along and to bury the Rainier Connector bone for awhile.  There’s nothing further to be seen here.

A recent vacation took me to a part of the country that was largely new to me.  As I crossed into each new state, I crossed out another line on my mental tally of states still unvisited.  In this record keeping, I suspect I was like many travelers.  But then it dawned on me that maintaining a log of states visited was a silly task for an urbanist.  I’ll explain why in my next post.

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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