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Case study in using a fairgrounds

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For at least two groups of people, the recent wildfires won’t be forgotten for many years.

Those who lost homes will continue to fight through the financial, emotional and practical aspects of rebuilding their lives. Those committed to rebuilding the impacted communities with greater sustainability and resiliency will remain engaged in their efforts. So as we string lights and wrap gifts this season, let’s think of those who continue to deal with the aftermath of the wildfires.

With that said, I have a new topic for today.

Shortly before the wildfires, I participated in a charrette in Woodland, near Davis. Charrettes are workshops conducted by design professionals to assess land-use challenges. Community input is gathered and a charrette team applies their skills and experiences to suggest solutions.

I participated as a member of the California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Each year, the chapter organizes a pro bono charette to address a land-use opportunity. This year, the subject site was an enclosed mall in south Woodland.

The County Fair Mall dates from the 1980s. Like many malls of that time, it was expected to be a bold step into the future of retail. Like many malls of that time, it was soon overtaken by power malls and revitalized downtowns and slid into torpor.

The failure of the County Fair Mall was particularly severe. Today, there are only two anchor tenants and a handful of other occupants. Two stories illustrate the depths into which it has declined.

One of the anchor tenants is a recent addition. Walmart acquired land adjoining the mall for a grocery store. However, they were unwilling to connect to the mall, seeing no apparent value. Instead, their store was built with a solid, blank wall facing the mall concourse. Mall shoppers can’t get to the Walmart Neighborhood Market without leaving the mall and walking outside for several hundred feet. Interesting concept of “neighborhood.”

Also, near a mall entrance was a disabled pickup with four missing wheels, a broken axle, and, according to other charrette participants, someone sleeping in the cab. Despite its prominent location, no effort was made to remove the truck during the five days of the charette.

So, County Fair Mall is on its last legs. The vision of Woodland community leaders was to reuse the site, to the extent reasonable, for multifamily housing, including public space and retail to serve the needs of the new residents.

It was a worthy goal that came into focus during the charrette. My contribution was to assess the adjoining streets, seeking multimodal transportation options and plotting the relocation of an existing transit center.

This was also a topic pertinent to Petaluma. Noting the existing fairgrounds across an adjoining street, one participant invoked the urbanist dicta of “like facing like,” the proposition that land uses on opposing sides of a street should be similar to create a balanced, comfortable setting.

She suggested that fairground owners might, given the relatively large 57-acre parcel size and reports of struggling finances, be willing to allow enough development to comply with “like facing like” while also providing a cash infusion to their books. She even prepared a few sketches.

Eventually, civic leaders advised the team that the fairground owners were not in a position to consider a partial land sale at this time.

Nonetheless, the parallel stuck with me. Reducing the size of a 57-acre fairgrounds in Woodland, a city of 59,000 people, as an option to improve a challenged balance sheet.

Does that sound like any place else? It should. Those are almost exactly the same facts in Petaluma. The only difference is that an agricultural district owns the site in Woodland, while the City owns it in Petaluma, but otherwise the similarities are striking.

Even though the concept hasn’t yet progressed in Woodland, it indicates that the opportunity in Petaluma isn’t unique and that, if we look at a partial reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, we wouldn’t be alone.

It’s reassuring to have company.

(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. He’s always eager to talk about Petaluma and about land use. His email address is davealden53@comcast.net.)