Durable Growth, Site News

Why Haystack Landing can’t be everything to everybody

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

Aerial view of Haystack Landing site

Last time, I wrote about the tentatively-named Haystack Landing, a proposed mixed-use project, with residential over retail, midway between downtown Petaluma and the coming SMART train station.  Although I demurred slightly on the architecture, I was mostly thrilled with the project, with my principal wish being that ground-breaking could occur soon.

But, as with most land development projects, it’s inevitable that other folks won’t be as content.  Some will be querulous and others merely curious, but there will always be some who wish that their particular issue could have addressed differently.

Before, during, and after the public meeting last week, some of those concerns reached my ears.  In my role as an advocate for urbanism, I’ll try to address those concerns.

To be clear, I have no role in the Haystack Landing project.  The responses below are based solely on conversations with the project team and on knowledge gained from past projects.  Perhaps I didn’t sit at the table for Haystack Landing, but I’ve sat at enough tables to understand how the realities of zoning codes, construction financing, and marketplace preferences play out.

Why do the buildings top out at four stories?  More stories would put more people downtown: There are a several approaches that can be taken to answering this question, but I’ll tackle it through parking balance.

Each use, whether market-rate residential, affordable residential, or retail, has a parking requirement. With each home or retail space added, more parking is required, reducing the land available for the building footprint.  It becomes a dance to find the balance point between parking and building uses such that the site is fully used, and fully parked, in a form will satisfy the marketplace.

For Haystack Landing, the project team found their balance point at 140 homes plus about 20,000 square-feet of retail in four-story buildings with 180 surface parking stalls.  From my review, I have no reason to disagree with their conclusion.  If they had pushed the buildings higher, they would have needed more parking, for which there wasn’t room without eliminating building footprints.

Some may point out that structured parking could have increased the parking count without increasing the land area dedicated to parking, thereby allowing more building stories.  They’d be right, but the problem is that structured parking is expensive, perhaps $20,000 per parking space compared to $2,000 for a ground space.

Adding structured parking would significantly bump the sales prices, or rental rates, on the units, perhaps pushing those prices beyond what the market will bear.  From the early days of the recession until now, developers have reported that they can’t find a way to make structured parking pay except in the densest urban settings.  If the Haystack Landing team says that they found the same, I have no reason to dispute them.

But what if additional stories were committed to affordable units without associated parking?: This is an interesting question that forces me to dig deeper into the project.  There are four arguments against the suggestion.

First, although I’d like to believe otherwise, there may not be a market for affordable units with no parking.

Second, the assigned transects for the site (transects being the form-based code equivalents of zones which are used within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan) allow only four stories on much of the site, with six stories allowed only along the E. Washington Street frontage.  So a variance or zone change would be required to go above four stories.

Third, there is also no provision in the SmartCode for residential units without parking, so another variance would be required.

Fourth, the building code changes above four stories, requiring a more expensive form of construction.

So the taller buildings would become more expensive in order to add affordable units with an uncertain market.  That’s not a workable proposition.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of a fifth or even sixth story along E. Washington Street, liking the image it would create for Petaluma.  I’d suggest that fourth floor homes become multi-story units internally, which would get around the parking issue.  But it still wouldn’t overcome the building code constraint.

McNear Building in downtown Petaluma

McNear Building in downtown Petaluma

Why can’t the project look more like downtown?:  The easy answer is that construction codes and economics have changed over the last century, with the money that used to go into elaborate facades instead going into seismic code compliance, fire suppression systems, handicapped access, and union wages.

But there is also the problem that downtown Petaluma doesn’t have a single style to which Haystack Landing could conform.  I love downtown, but it has a broad diverse range of architectural styles, leaving current-day architects at a loss when it comes to matching downtown.  Anyone who argues that downtown Petaluma has a style is confusing familiarity and fondness for coherence.

Office building between downtown Petaluma and Haystack Landing

Office building between downtown Petaluma and Haystack Landing

What should be done to mitigate for the increased traffic?: This is a multi-faceted question.  To begin, it’s likely that congestion won’t change.  In the obverse side of the theory of induced traffic, if more traffic is added to an already congested street, more drivers would defer or delay trips, so congestion would remain the same, although there is still the impact of more deferred or delayed trips.

Also, there aren’t many traffic improvements that can be made in

the vicinity of Haystack Landing.  There is no room for a third lane on E. Washington Street.  The D Street Bridge constricts D Street to its current one lane.  And Lakeville doesn’t offer any opportunities either.

Buildings at corner of Western and Kentucky in Petaluma

Buildings at corner of Western and Kentucky in Petaluma

However, Haystack Landing, with its location and its restricted parking, will generate fewer trips than other residential projects.  Because of the way that trip data is collected from other projects, we don’t know what the likely Haystack Landing trip generation would be, but with ten daily trips per home being typical for single-family homes, seven or so trips from Haystack Landing would seem likely.  And that number would decrease as the urbanism increases around the project, allowing more daily chores to be completed on foot or by transit.

Despite this lower trip generation, Haystack Landing will pay the same traffic impact fee per unit as for an apartment with unlimited parking on the urban fringe.  State law allows cities to impose lower traffic impact fees for projects in urban settings, but Petaluma has chosen not to do so.

But as there are few opportunities for traffic improvements near Haystack Landing, it is likely that the traffic impact fees would be spent on improvements in the more suburban parts of the community.

So, the complete traffic answer is that Haystack Landing will generate fewer trips that other residential projects, but will pay for more than its fair share for city traffic improvements.  However, the improvements will likely occur elsewhere other than around Haystack Landing because there are few improvement opportunities near the project.  It’s an answer that makes my head spin.

Is it best for one developer to design all 140 units?: Admittedly, this is my question, although I never asked it of anyone because I already knew the answer.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of fine-grained urbanism, believing that many small projects serve cities better than a few large projects.  (Jane Jacobs made this argument in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and for me it remains true a half-century later.)

In a perfect world, I would prefer that different teams develop the two blocks that will result when the current block is divided by the new street.  Even though the massing of the two blocks would likely remain the similar given the constraints of the Station Area Master Plan and SmartCode, I think the different teams might generate solutions sufficiently different to meet Jacobs’ goal of a fine grain.

But I also understand the financial downside of having multiple development entities.  The costs of entitlement, including CEQA compliance, aren’t halved when the project area is halved.  Indeed, those costs may not change much at all.  So the total costs of entitlement, which can be a significant percentage of the overall development costs, could be doubled if the blocks were developed separately.

As much as I think that fine-grained urbanism would be better for our cities, our current methods of entitlement and environmental protection work against it.

Why is there is an old warehouse on the Copeland Street frontage?: the aerial photo at the beginning of this post shows two warehouses along Copeland Street.  Pacifica Companies has acquired one of those warehouses, will demolish it, and will replace it with new construction.

But no purchase agreement was reached on the other warehouse, so it will remain in place, with the Haystack Landing buildings constructed on both sides of it.

In January, I noted to the Petaluma City Council that this situation is why eminent domain exists and that the City should find a way to acquire the property and to resell it to Pacifica Companies so it could become part of Haystack Landing.

I still feel that way, but I also see the possibility that, when the warehouse finally goes away years from now, a creative development team will find a quirky way to use the odd parcel, resulting in a solution that future generations of Petalumans will find endearing.  Good urbanism sometimes works out that way.

So, I’m less bothered by the warehouse than I was six months ago.

Any other thoughts on Haystack Landing?  I suggest contacting the developer, but I also remain always willing to chat about urbanist projects.

HBO is currently airing an original program that will seemingly impart lessons relevant to urbanism.  I’m intrigued by the plot and by the learning opportunities.  I’ll share what I know 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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