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One of Petaluma?s first mixed-use districts strives to stay true to its roots as changes occur


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(Editor?s note: This is one in a series of monthly stories taking a close-up look at neighborhoods in Petaluma.)

One hundred years ago, a walk through Petaluma?s riverfront warehouse area south of the downtown core would have looked very different.

There would be no office or apartment buildings on First Street, no townhouse projects under construction, no hot drinks being poured from Petaluma Coffee & Tea or Aqus Cafe.

Yet, in many ways, the elements that bring the neighborhood?s diverse uses together today have always been present.

Although the row of metal-sided warehouses that once lined the river along First Street may be the neighborhood?s most recognizable image, the 15-square-block area has always been more than just the part of town where goods are stored.

There was a mix of industry, agriculture, housing and services in the area ? bounded by D Street on the north, the Petaluma River on the west, Foundry Wharf on the south and Petaluma Boulevard to the east.

That mix is echoed in the appearance and makeup of the neighborhood and its people today.

The beginnings

Historian Diana Painter?s 2004 Historic Context Report on the riverfront warehouses says 19th-century fire insurance maps show a variety of uses cropping up there just a few years after Petaluma?s birth as a city in 1858.

A mule-driven railroad traveled down Second Street on its way to Haystack Landing south of town, passing a planing mill (where Rivertown Feed is now), the gas works, a steamship landing and fruit canning plant.

Within a few years, the fruit company had given way to an overalls manufacturer and Petaluma?s rise to chicken capital of the world was bringing other changes.

In 1910, livestock feed entrepreneur Magnus Vonsen built a large warehouse at the end of E Street with a riverfront wharf for access to shipping.

It was followed by more warehouses, some owned by Vonsen and others not, designed to connect rail and river shipping for the benefit of agriculture, Painter writes.

?The story of the entrepreneurs associated with these feed and grain businesses is the story of Petaluma in microcosm,? she said. The presence of the large warehouses along the river ?is the key to Petaluma?s history as an agricultural port.?

The agricultural boom that sparked the need for warehouses also meant a need for workers, so many of the small cottages and bungalows in the neighborhood were built as rentals for those employees, historian Katherine Rinehart said.

It was another sign that the mixed-use neighborhood would remain that way ? both at the present and into the future. Mixing homes, businesses and services is a model that urban planners now desire in downtowns.

In the riverfront warehouse area, ?You?ve got mixed-use already, and now we?re trying to replicate that in other parts of the city,? Rinehart said.

The neighborhood now

Recent census figures show 33 households in the neighborhood, a figure that is about to get a big boost when the recently completed apartments and soon-to-be-finished townhomes are counted.

?It?s certainly a new mix around here,? said Don Coover, vice president of Kresky Sign Co., which can trace its roots in the neighborhood back 100 years.

Coover has been working at the sign manufacturer?s First Street location ? once one of the large feed warehouses ? for a quarter century.

Across the street, builder Tim Tatum has completed three of four planned multi-story homes lining G Street, and on the next block up, St. James Properties? ?Celsius 44? townhomes are going up.

?It used to be kind of sleepy down here, years ago,? Coover said. ?But now, with all the housing, apartments and condos, the area is certainly changing.?

One of the first big changes happened at Kresky?s old location at Second and H streets, in 1987.

Developer Walt Haake bought the former Kresky stove manufacturing plant, rehabilitating the aging buildings and adding new ones to create the Foundry Wharf office complex ? home to Aqus Cafe, Sonoma Valley Portworks and technology-based businesses, among others.

Haake was also responsible for turning the former Coca-Cola bottling plant at Second and G streets into retail shops ? where Bodyworks Yoga and Quilted Angel are today ? and now has plans to renovate two First Street warehouses into 21 ?river lofts? and office/retail space.

Living and working there

Those whose lives involve the neighborhood seem to like most of the recent changes.

?I do think it?s fulfilling the vision the city had for the neighborhood,? said Tatum, the builder who lives in one of the homes he completed on G Street.

His was one of the first projects in the neighborhood built in accordance with the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, a 2003 guidebook for infill development in the city?s core.

?I like the direction the neighborhood is going in,? said John Clayton, a photographer who has lived in the area with his wife Hilary, a graphic designer, since 2000.

?I like how the old bungalows tie in with the older homes here,? he said. ?A warehouse here has ?Hay? printed on one side. There?s no hay anymore, but I like seeing that.?

Wilhelmina Curtis is one of the longest-tenured residents. The retired cook and caregiver has lived there for her whole life ? more than 60 years.

She and her husband blended two families together and raised 11 children in the house.

?There weren?t many other kids living in the area, but there were other kids nearby,? she remembered.

Even today, ?We don?t have many teenagers and younger kids here,? she said.

And though, like most parts of town, the traffic woes have increased, Curtis says she still likes the neighborhood.

?This is a nice area, one of Petaluma?s best neighborhoods,? she said. ?Most of the time, it?s quiet. Everyone seems to know everyone, and we get along with each other.?

Jane Hamilton, a former City Council member, has called her 1870s farmhouse home for 24 years. She moved there because the neighborhood seemed like a place ?where a lot would be happening.?

With most of the new businesses in the neighborhood not of the traditional industrial type, the variety has increased during her time, Hamilton said.

?This has made the area more vibrant, with a lot more going on,? she said. ?It?s the best place in town.?

One of the newest arrivals is Aqus Cafe, which John Crowley and his wife Anne-laure opened a year ago in the Foundry Wharf space formerly occupied by two coffeehouses and a cafe.

?I?ve been a customer of that coffee shop for about 14 years,? said Crowley, who worked in the office complex at a technology firm that developed airline-reservation systems.

?The opportunity (to open Aqus Cafe) came up last year ? and I still needed a good place to get coffee,? he said.

In a year?s time, the lineup of events at Aqus has taken off, with 40 artists performing live music on Saturday mornings, a Friday night film series and groups like writing and knitting circles meeting there.

?It?s quite a Saturday scene,? Crowley said of the popular music series. ?It?s like a party in the morning sometimes.?

And the addition of Aqus has been welcomed by his neighbors, he believes.

?Certainly, all the old customers and people who live in the neighborhood have welcomed us with open arms,? he said.

On the other end of the riverfront warehouse area, another coffee spot also found success in the neighborhood.

Sheila and Gardner Bride opened Petaluma Coffee & Tea almost 19 years ago in the space Aqus Cafe now occupies, then moved up Second Street five years ago to focus on the roasting and wholesale/retail side of the operation.

Like her neighbors, Bride said she values the mixture of old and new the riverfront area offers.

?I can look across the street and see the new Theatre District, and yet there are many quaint shops and buildings all around us that signify the old warehouse district,? she said.

The proximity to downtown is another plus many residents and business owners like about the location.

?I?m easily able to walk downtown,? resident Howard Terris said. ?I?m close to everything.?

?We get people walking down to visit us from the Theatre District,? Bride said.

Bodyworks Yoga owner Jean Grant-Sutton said she was surprised by the number of people who walk and ride bikes to her Second Street studio, which she opened in 2003.

?After the first year, I went and bought a bike rack because there were so many bikes,? she said.

And, like Aqus Cafe and others, Grant-Sutton found a welcoming atmosphere upon opening her business.

?The people are all very friendly, down to the postman,? she said. ?We feel like we all share something, being in this area.?

What the future holds

With projects like Celsius 44 and the river lofts leading the most recent transformation within the neighborhood, neighbors may be wondering what?s next.

Rinehart hopes that historic preservation will be a priority as the area develops.

She and others fought against the demolition of the Hamilton cabinet shop on the site of the new townhomes.

Although the building itself wasn?t deemed historic, they felt it contributed to the character and history of the entire neighborhood, and should have been incorporated into the new project ? such as was done with one of the First Street warehouses at the new apartment complex.

Before a similar situation comes up, the city should implement a stated goal of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan and conduct a comprehensive historic survey of the neighborhood, she said.

?We need a little more information to work from,? Rinehart said. ?What?s happening is, we?re reviewing projects on a case-by-case basis ? the idea of a survey is that we?re looking at the big picture.?

Patricia Tuttle Brown, a historic-preservation advocate who lives in the neighborhood and opposed the demolition of the cabinet shop and First Street warehouses, also said the area?s history needs greater consideration as projects come forward.

?It?s an historically important area, but redevelopment is steam-rolling over history,? she said. ?Infill needs to be added, but this should be done with respect to history.?

Tatum said he hopes the remaining warehouses in the area are retained.

?I would hope that no more buildings come down, in order to protect the eclectic flavor of the neighborhood,? he said.

?In order to have a warehouse district, you have to have some warehouses around.?

(Contact Corey Young at corey.young@arguscourier.com. Dan Johnson and John Jackson contributed to this article)