A Petaluma sustainable development advocate

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Before Jenny Griffo began distilling premium spirits in Petaluma, her life was devoted to spreading childhood literacy in Southeast Asia.

For most of her 20s, the co-founder of Griffo Distillery worked in developing countries like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, conducting community needs assessments for the nonprofit Room to Read. The objective was to find ways to organically increase access to books and promote education, especially for young girls.

Some of the projects were as straightforward as constructing a library or adding bookshelves to a school campus, Griffo, 39, said. Others were more demanding, like creating new materials from scratch so the communities had literature in their own language that corresponded with their values.

The most important fundamental was being able to listen and collaborate with residents, and it’s that approach she continues to employ as a member of Daly Partners, a small West Coast developer with a community-first approach to housing projects.

When she’s not helping her husband, Michael Griffo, promote their award-winning gin and whiskey, or taking care of their three young children, Henry, 5, Wyatt, 3, and Scarlett, 6 months, Jenny Griffo is working on future-minded housing developments around the Bay Area.

“I feel we’re at a really beautiful and exciting moment with a lot of people that feel passionately about how Petaluma grows,” she said. “We need to harness that and use that and make sure what’s being built represents who we are and what we want to be. I don’t think that’s happening right now.”

Griffo earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, and received a master’s in international comparative education from Stanford. Her family moved to Petaluma almost six years ago.

She likes to say she “grew up in an architect’s office” in Seattle, watching her father, Jim Daly, run a company that would listen, learn and compile information before bringing it to the community – a crucial first step years before an application was submitted.

The idea, Griffo said, was to ensure communities were “being authentic to themselves and driving their own future,” and to try and create an environment devoid of development battles.

“Otherwise people aren’t bought into them,” she said. “They don’t take identity with them. They don’t care about them.”

Griffo laid out some of her development ethics at a Know Before You Grow forum in February, pressing the Lomas Partners team behind the forthcoming Corona Station project on the decision to build single-family homes at a potential SMART hub.

She believes in greater transparency when it comes to building vital housing projects that will remain for decades. She also refutes blanket statements some developers use like “economically unfeasible” that disarm community members who criticize projects on their affordability or density.

“It almost implies it’s too complicated for you to understand,” Griffo said. “(Lomas principal Todd Kurtin) doesn’t want to reexamine his numbers because his numbers would change. It felt like he tried to label our pushback as NIMBY, and I think we were doing the exact opposite. We said ‘Yes,’ but more suited to our community.”

It’s not just on the developer, though. The reality is that costs are high, and arduous regulations have made it difficult to pencil-out projects that can pass savings onto renters and prospective homeowners.

That’s incentivized larger floor plans and market-rate homes rather than studios and one-bedroom apartments, Griffo said.

Changing some of the fee structures and tinkering with development practices could help Petaluma officials that are failing their low and very-low income residents, according to the city’s most recent housing reports.

“I hear constantly (from other local business owners) the difficulty of housing staff, and I feel like it’s a real issue,” Griffo said. “We have a responsibility to all socioeconomic levels.”

Even though the housing crisis might have the most expansive consequences in the region, it’s still not an issue the majority of the public has taken up. Increasing engagement is a priority these days, and Griffo credits local groups like Know Before You Grow that are trying to get more participation from residents citywide.

Speaking out at public hearings and applying pressure on elected officials is paramount to giving community members the upper hand in the quest for praiseworthy projects, she said.

“I think we are at a really exciting point for Petaluma, where we can take reins from large developers when they come in and make these decisions like they know what’s good for us,” Griffo said. “I think we have a great opportunity to work with our city and make sure the future we all want is the future that’s being built.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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