Petaluma’s Central Park envisioned
As Sean Paul Lorentz and David Duskin stared back from the edge of McNear Peninsula, they romanticized about how Petaluma River Park might be used someday, with each excitable thought uttered a little faster than the one before it.
While the Petaluma Shakespeare Company rehearses at the amphitheater, a field trip from an organization that helps at-risk youth might be walking by on an educational tour.
On a dock facing the McNear Channel, a father could be teaching his son how to fish.
Elsewhere, the Petaluma High School cross country team perhaps is jogging along the path, enjoying an off-campus practice at what has ostensibly become Petaluma’s own Central Park.
Lorentz, Duskin and his wife, Darling Gonzalez, a local trio comprised of two sculptors and a design professional, are preparing to purchase a coveted 20.8-acre parcel flanked by the Petaluma River and Steamer Landing Park.
If the current fundraising campaign proves successful, their nonprofit, the Petaluma River Park Foundation, hopes to transform the unkempt peninsula into the terrestrial heartbeat of the city, offering public art, education and recreation at one of the most unique sites in Petaluma.
“We’d like to see people from both sides of town mixing,” Duskin said. “We have a lot of different types of people here that don’t always have a place to come together. We don’t see the kind of diversity at Helen Putnam or Walnut Park that we’d like to see here. The main idea is to have a park for everyone.”
Over the past year, they’ve assembled a small team of investors and put about 20 percent of the purchase funds in escrow, Duskin said. The nonprofit founders declined to share the sale price, but the property is listed for $1.6 million.
Their goal is to raise a total of $5 million to acquire and then develop the land.
The nonprofit’s five-year vision for Petaluma River Park is ambitious, and begins with extensive habitat restoration and bioengineering for a piece of land that they say has been overgrazed and neglected.
The trio also pointed to a survey from local officials that determined the peninsula was one of the top silt contributors along the river, and made it clear they want to reverse that trend with no dredging project in sight for the disregarded waterway.
“This is a way we can contribute to making this river healthy, and our community healthy,” Lorentz said. “When this land is purchased, it’s not a mandatory thing that this work has to happen. This is just all stuff that will make our community and our river – everyone – healthier.”
For more than a century, the property has been owned by the McNears, one of the founding families that helped establish Petaluma in the 1800s.
The nonprofit has emerged as the first legitimate buyer after years of unsuccessful attempts by other suitors. The inspiration for purchasing the park was done more out of fear that someone else would, and then develop the land in a way that the community wouldn’t have embraced, Duskin said.
Decades ago, the city zoned the space as parkland, a move that diminished its value and has irked the family’s descendants, according to Timo Rivetti, real estate agent for the property.
He said the family remains frustrated that the land will sell for less than what it would be worth with different zoning, but they have also come to terms with it and are happy something is finally coming forward.
“This is perfect scenario for that situation, and we definitely fully support them,” Rivetti said. “Petaluma should embrace these guys.”
Since the proposal is just starting to become public knowledge, every local official interviewed for this story said they were short on details, but pleased that a buyer interested in public space has emerged.
“I think everyone’s concern was that we acquired the peninsula and it was publicly accessible and it was going to be an amenity for the city,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. “They have an ambitious program, which means they’re going to have an ambitious budget and will have to find some dollars from folks far and wide. I wish them nothing but success going forward.”
Assistant city manager Scott Brodhun echoed that sentiment.
“We’re really excited that there will be more public access to the McNear Peninsula – that is absolutely first and foremost,” he said. “We’re equally excited that it seems as though the nonprofit has a high level of interest in partnering, and that’s really great news as well.”
Friends of the Petaluma River, a nonprofit dedicated to the Petaluma watershed, has been pursuing the property for years as an extension to Steamer Landing Park, the site of the River Heritage Center.
Last fall, FOPR, in partnership with the city, was awarded a $750,000 matching grant from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to acquire the property.
Jen Kuszmar, matching grant coordinator for the district, said there’s a possibility the funds could still be used to help the Petaluma River Park Foundation in their mission to create a public space, but would require additional vetting to determine if the proposal syncs with the agency’s conservation policies.
FOPR board member Elizabeth Howland, a founder of Rivertown Revival, which uses the adjacent Steamer Landing Park for its annual festival, described this new undertaking as “a wonderful opportunity for this beautiful property” to help achieve their goal of granting community access.
“This may be the way to get the job done,” she said.
(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)