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New life for old parcel?

It has taken about 40 years, but it seems that a planning concept first raised that long ago may well become a reality in the near future. Back in 1971, a citizens committee was appointed to make recommendations on handling the explosion of growth that threatened to gridlock our city.

The city had issued building permits for more than 1,000 homes in 1970, (an enormous impact for a city of about 20,000 population) and overnight it seemed the schools were on double sessions, traffic was backed up a half mile trying to exit the freeway at East Washington, and City Hall had its back to the wall dealing with a community revolt.

After the community refused to support a bond measure to expand the sewer system, the City Council decided to put the future in the hands of citizens, and appointed a large task force to make recommendations that would ultimately become the city's nationally famous growth control plan.

However, not all of the committee's recommendations would be adopted. The task force was broken up into a number of committees, each charged with studying one aspect of the problem, and each chaired by a member of the Petaluma Planning Commission.

One of the committees was the Environmental Land Use committee, chaired by long-time commissioner Bud Popp. This group, that included ordinary citizens, developers, land-owners, a general cross-section, focused on the undeveloped section of downtown Petaluma just east of the river. After weeks of discussion, the group made its central recommendation – the city should concentrate its density at the center, specifically east of the river, and gradually decrease that density with larger lot sizes as development occurred farther out from the center.

There were some sound reasons for this recommendation. One was prophetic. If the downtown business district was to be preserved, it had to be accessible to shoppers, and even in 1971, traffic snarls were making it easier for east side residents to just drive to Santa Rosa. By putting apartment housing in the area just east of the river, a high concentration of residents could walk to shopping. Then, by feathering out the density as we grew away from the center, it would relieve pressures on corridors such as East Washington.

It was not to be. Bob Meyer was the city manager then, and if Bob Meyer didn't like an idea, it was not going to happen, and Bob Meyer did not care for this idea. Although the city did place a cap on 500 homes being built a year, there was no more talk of density at the core or feathering out development. In fact, lot sizes on the east side got smaller, not larger, as the years went on.

Now, finally, we have a serious proposal for a substantive, high-density project on the old railway yard property, near the planned downtown SMART train station, that may actually achieve part of the vision set forth 40 years ago. This project should be a boost for downtown retail, would be an important complement to the high density developments around Theater Square, and could be a catalyst for even further enhancement of that general area.

The current proposal replaces one that had sat on the table for the past decade or so called Haystack Marketplace. The previous plan had been an ambitious effort to emulate Seattle's Pike Place Market with an extensive open air market. It was an excellent concept, but proved for various reasons to be impractical, and went through a series of modifications before it finally succumbed.

The proposal on the table now, if done with the style and flourish represented by the Marina Business Center/Sheraton project, could be a major step in preserving our city center and making Petaluma complete.

In recent years, it has almost become knee jerk stuff to fight over anything that is bigger than a mom and pop grocery store. Let's hope our community can look at this proposal with a focus on the big picture, and realize that a huge, empty sprawl of land in the center of our city is doing nobody any good, but that a concentration of residents on that land could assure the future preservation of downtown.

(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is dcbenn@aol.com.)


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