Transportation

Delivering folks at an awkward distance from an incipient wasteland

151101005 Business Park BuildingI’d like to write that it was the result of putting a high weight on geography when making employment decisions, but the reality is that I was lucky with office locations for much of my career.

For my first five years out of school, I worked near BART in downtown San Francisco.  My office was an older office building that had barely survived the 1906 earthquake.  My coworkers and I looked with consternation at the unrestrained joints during occasional temblors, but enjoyed riding BART to the Mission District for lunchtime burritos.

My next stop was near the top of a 1928 office tower overlooking the Puget Sound and the Pioneer Square historic district of Seattle.   The front door was about a block from a bus stop.

Next, it was onto a small Oregon town where my office was in a building that had begun life as a 1930s auto dealership, had been refurbished into character-filled offices, and was only a block from downtown and directly across from city hall.

Upon my return to California, I found myself in a ramshackle building of little character, since demolished, but close to city hall and downtown.

It was only for the last stop in my career that I failed to have a strong walkable urban flavor in my professional setting.  Instead, I was in the most unfortunate of all U.S. office settings, the business park.  I made the move voluntarily because it allowed me to put down deeper North Bay roots.  Plus, the building adjoined the urban growth boundary, so my office overlooked a pasture on the other side of the boundary.  And it was pleasant to have a lawn on which to have lunchtime barbecues.

But there is still something unnatural about working in a business park, with the disregard shown to pedestrians by inadequate sidewalks and the need to drive for nearly every task.  I wasn’t unhappy to put the business park in my rearview mirror.  And, with the increasing market preference for walkable settings and the environmental need for reduced reliance on cars, it’s likely that the future will similarly put business parks in the rearview mirror.

(To be clear, this comment applies only to business parks, characterized by lots of employees and fields of cubicles.  Industrial parks won’t face the same pressure from walkable alternatives because manufacturing is often unsuited to walkable settings.)

The dubious future of business parks was what Washington Post writer Dan Zak found when he sniffed around the Washington D.C. area.  (The link has been erratic for me.  If it doesn’t work, try this for a Google search with the article at the top of the results.)

Admittedly, Zak probably could have probably found a few vacant buildings at any time during the history of business parks as local economies ebbed and flowed, but the end of the business park now truly seems closer than ever before.  With major players in the economy staking out positions in walkable settings, Twitter in San Francisco, Uber in Oakland, and Amazon in Seattle among others, their presence and the resulting accumulation of talent will attract ever more other businesses downtown.

The transition won’t occur overnight.  Business park owners will adjust prices to ensure that they continue to get income from their investments.  But as the current buildings wear out, it seems likely that the replacement space will come largely in walkable urban settings.

Thus, it seems puzzling that SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) seems to be seriously considering the relocation of a station to serve a collection of business parks.

The station location is a topic I’ve often mentioned before, most recently here, so I’ll give only a brief recap today.  Petaluma was targeted to get two stations on the new SMART line, one near the heart of downtown, where new office space in a walkable setting is a likely result, and the other where suburban residents could arrive by car or transit to ride to office locations.

151101003 Business Park BuildingWhen SMART’s funds became constrained, the second station was deferred.  But recently, SMART has reportedly begun considering an alternative location that could be implemented sooner and with less expense to SMART.  However, the alternative location would be more difficult to access by either transit or car, reducing its value to local residents.  Instead, the only apparent benefit of the alternative location, other than the reduced cost to SMART, is its proximity to a collection of business parks.

Hence, the concern about whether business parks have enough of a future to justify serving Petaluma’s business parks with a train station that would be in use for a long time.

But the question then becomes even more convoluted.  When I wrote that the station would be in proximity to the business parks, I used the word “proximity” loosely.  It appears that over half of the business park workers would have walks of 1,800 feet or more from the station to their offices.  That distance compares poorly to the quarter mile, or 1,300 feet, that is considered the limit of walkability for many.  For comparison, the walk from BART to my long-ago office in San Francisco was 900 feet.

Then the situation gets worse.  In “Walkable City”, author Jeff Speck lists the four elements that must be available for walkability to exist; usefulness, safety, comfort, and interest.  As he describes them, the absence of even one will doom walkability.

For the walks from the possible station location to the business park offices, I’ll agree that safety and usefulness mostly exist and that comfort is somewhat acceptable, although the crossing of a high-speed rural highway, even with the benefit of a traffic signal, isn’t high on the comfort scale.

151101006 Business Park SidewalkBut the interest standard isn’t met at all.  Long stretches on dismissively curved walks aligned between parking lots and moving traffic with a view of sterile buildings behind the lots are not interesting.  Again for comparison, my walk in San Francisco viewed the front windows of the Palace Hotel, a stationer who took pride in his displays and an often-packed burrito place.

I agree that some folks would ride SMART regardless of the poor walkability, such as new graduates who can’t yet afford a car, young adults who believe in living without a car but who haven’t yet found a job in a walkable setting, and those with a car in the shop.  But all would be looking for a way to drop the train rides and long walks as soon as possible.

I often chat with folks about the SMART station location.  Some believe that SMART has devious reasons for the new station location, whether it’s putting the station closer to their office or unspecified favors in other areas of the SMART system.

It’s likely I’m naïve, but I don’t agree with them.  My philosophy in these situations is “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”  So, until shown differently, I won’t believe that the SMART folks are undermining Petaluma’s future with malicious intent.  Instead, I’ll believe that they’ve found a simple solution to their revenue crunch and haven’t yet considered the external costs of the long-term impacts to Petaluma from the poor land-use pattern that would result.

So my job is to highlight those external costs as I’ve tried to do here.  But at the same time, I must note that moving a train station to a location where the primary benefit to the local community is being at the far edge of walkability from a land use with a limited future is well into the category of stupid.

At least, that’s how I see it.

Next time, I touch upon the tribal lands south of Petaluma.  Much of the community has been concerned about a casino or regional shopping center on the site, but I’ll point to another land use that would be far more ominous.

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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