Durable Growth, Government

Sometimes developers aren’t the problem

Burdell Building and nearby SMART tracks

Burdell Building and nearby SMART tracks

Building upon my recent theme that land developers are sometimes pilloried unfairly, with even urbanist icon Jane Jacobs having been splattered by anti-developer sentiment, I’ll write about two proposed projects in my town of Petaluma.  From my urbanist perspective, neither project would meet the long-term needs of my community.  And the developers have little responsibility for either shortfall.

The first project was a proposed multifamily development near the soon-to-be-operating SMART rail station in downtown Petaluma.  It would be sited in a portion of the parking lot behind the Burdell Building, a historical brick structure that was carefully restored 15 years ago and remains a beloved community landmark.

Years ago, the owners began playing with the possibility of adding housing to the site.  The housing would replace a portion of the over-sized parking lot.  It was a great location for transit-oriented development, only 400 feet from the platform for the rail station.

Over time, the owners and their consulting team refined their plan to be consistent with City standards, eventually creating a plan they were ready to submit.

Although I hadn’t made time to look at the architectural renderings, I nonetheless attended the Planning Commission hearing on the project.  I was prepared to enthusiastically endorse the project as the kind of walkable urban development needed in Petaluma.

What I saw at the hearing nearly unsold me.

The first problem was orientation and massing.  The housing would be a long, skinny building, oriented at right angles to the street on which it fronted.  When a commissioner described it as looking like a Motel 6, I ruefully nodded in agreement.

The next bigger problem was the building height.  With a pitched roof on top of three stories, it was taller than the Burdell Building.  Whatever necessary role the housing might fill, the Burdell Building should have remained the dominant feature in the vicinity.

And the biggest problem was the unit count.  Despite dominating the site, peeking over the ridge line of the respected Burdell Building like a rogue Motel 6, the new building would have only fifteen new homes, all multi-bedroom over two-car garages.

With its proximity to the train station, with the bus transit mall only a block further away, and with downtown within a walkable distance, it was a site that called for a dense collection of one-bedroom, studio, and perhaps even micro apartments.   Maybe 30 to 40 units total and perhaps 0.75 unbundled parking spaces per unit with some tenants, due to lifestyle preference, finances, age, or disability, living carless.  (I understand that the low parking count and unbundled parking would trigger parking management issues, but that’s a challenge that the City must soon face regardless.)

None of this is to criticize the owners or the design team, who had come up with a finely-tuned and consistent response to the standards and incentives set forth by the City.  The problem was that the standards and incentives, from impact fees to parking standards, were twenty years or more out of date.

Providing the right answer to the wrong question was a pattern I’d soon see again.

Last week, I attended a neighborhood meeting on the proposed Riverbend project, hosted by the developer.  (I’m not a neighbor, but a reader alerted me to the meeting, so I slipped in quietly, sat near the back, and stayed mostly quiet.)

Much of the Riverbend project would be located on an unusual parcel, currently blocked on all sides by the Petaluma River, SMART tracks, and an unbroken back line of a subdivision and therefore lacking vehicular access.

The lack of access intrigued me.  While I didn’t have a particular development concept in mind, I was hoping for something like New York City’s Roosevelt Island, a long, skinny island in the East River for which the only vehicular access for many years was an elevator from the Queensboro Bridge passing overhead.  The result was a cohesive community that has remained partially carless.  It may seem foolish to hope for something similar in the North Bay, but the world is often changed by people willing to seem foolish.

Nonetheless, my hope was left unfulfilled.

What the developer offered was a conventional bridge connecting the inaccessible parcel to a second parcel, which he also owns, on the other side of the river.  On the two parcels, he proposed a tidy little subdivision of moderately sized homes and well-located parks.  Many of the garages would be accessed by alleys, leaving the street frontages driveway free.

Small lot, alley-served housing project in Oregon

Small lot, alley-served housing project in Oregon

It’s a fine concept.  In fact, it’s the spiritual descendent of an Oregon project for which I was the consulting engineer almost twenty years ago.  (See photo.)  Because it was cutting edge for its time and because the folks with whom I worked were all good folks, the project remains a personal favorite.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right model for this site, which is far closer to downtown and needs something less pastoral.

Let me list a few objections that came to mind during the meeting.

Unit Count: The developer described it a feature that the project had only 117 units compared to the 190 that the zoning would have allowed.  I call it a bug.  We only have so much land that is relatively close to downtown.  The fewer homes that are put on that land, the more growth is forced to the fringes where car use will be greater.

Transit-Oriented Development: The developer described the project as transit-oriented development.  With a walking distance of about 2,300 feet from the development to the platform for the SMART train, he may be technically right under some definitions.  But much of that walk would be on a narrow sidewalk alongside a busy collector.  Only a masochist would make that walk a part of their daily commute.

About the only way the project could be called transit-oriented is if it has a frequent bus or shuttle connection to the SMART station.  But making that connection work requires a lot of riders.  See above.

Consistency with Neighborhood: The developer proudly described the project as consistent with the neighborhood, a reasonable selling point when talking to the neighbors.  But if every project is consistent with its neighbors, the entire town would be alike.

Instead, there is value is increasing the intensity of uses nearer the urban core.  In place of zones, urbanists often use urban transects to increase uses as the urban core is neared.  If transects were the land use governance tool for this parcel, bumping the transect upward would have been appropriate to smooth the transition between the existing neighborhood and the industrial and heavy commercial uses that are next on the route downtown.

And the higher transect would have given the greater unit count and possible support for bus service.

Once again, what the developer called a feature, I’d describe as a bug.

Despite these criticisms of the plan, I again assign only limited responsibility to the developer.  He had developed an elegant and reasonable plan that conformed to the land-use rules.  He’s giving the city what the city says it wants through its written standards.  It’s not his fault that those standards, from the using of zoning to the application of density standards, represent the thinking of twenty or more years ago.

Instead, the problem lies with us.  Despite the evidence of climate change and municipal failure caused by the old model, we’ve failed to elect officials who would have pushed to update the rules and we’ve sat by as the planners who could have updated the rules were terminated because of budget constraints.

Developers aren’t always blameless, but more often we’re the ones with the culpability for outdated and inadequate land-use ideas.  We need to do better.

As final note, if some are beginning to wonder if I’m a curmudgeon who dislikes every land use project, I can rebut.  Last evening, I sat through a Planning Commission meeting in which a developer and architect found a path through the planning code to present a project that was forward thinking and a good step forward for Petaluma.  I needn’t describe it here, but I applauded silently when the Planning Commission approved it unanimously.

Earlier today, I had a chance to take a preview ride on the SMART train.  I was impressed by the engineering and the quality of the staff.  I’ll expound 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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