Guest Commentary: The SMART test is good housing plan

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SMART will soon be asking voters to extend its tax measure. I campaigned for the initial SMART tax measure and continue to be an avid supporter of light rail transit. When implemented properly, Transit Oriented Development (TOD) can reduce vehicle miles traveled, increase tax revenues, and provide a diverse mix of housing options. It makes it possible to live with significantly less — or no — dependence on a car. But it needs to be done well.

Petaluma and SMART should be working with TOD experts on foundational projects, but unfortunately, we are not. If we do not implement TOD best practices, 20 years from now we will still be (rightfully) complaining that ridership is low, SMART is not alleviating traffic, and taxpayers are heavily subsidizing the train.

Soon, the Petaluma City Council will be put to the “SMART test” and we will see how committed they are to TOD best practices and the train’s success.

At the end of January, the council will consider an appeal from Lomas Properties to build 110 single family homes at what will become our second SMART station. Lomas claims the project, which is sandwiched between Corona, McDowell and the train tracks, is for “new families.” These homes are forecast to start at $600,000 and Lomas is dedicating the bare minimum to affordable housing. Each home comes with a two-car garage and there is no retail on site.

The project has received negative feedback from the start. Early in 2019, Lomas shared the project at a community meeting and the overwhelming response from the community was that this site should not have single-family homes or favor the automobile — after all, it is a train station.

But Lomas pressed forward with the project as planned, working with Petaluma’s planning consultant, the M Group, to draft a staff report recommending that the city change the zoning from mixed-use to single-family residential. Indeed, a terrible idea.

In November of 2019, the Petaluma Planning Commission twice denied Lomas’ proposal, demonstrating that they are responsible stewards for the community. However, while the Planning Commission condemned the project, the City Council’s history of supporting suburban development and lack of vision for the site means there is a good chance that Lomas’ appeal will be successful.

Without any retail on site, every time a resident wants a cup of coffee or needs a loaf of bread, they’ll be adding to the traffic on McDowell. The city will be foregoing any opportunity to generate sales tax from SMART riders at the site. And because each home has a two-car garage, the residents will be more likely to drive to work rather that use the train.

Dear council members, the SMART train is supposed to help alleviate traffic and increase our tax base, not the other way around. Please reject this terrible project.

The Lomas developer claims that a mixed-use design is too costly. However, neither Lomas nor the M Group have mentioned that the state of California is issuing a billion dollars of funding in 2020 for TOD projects. Those state funds — up to $30 million per project — come from our taxes and we should be trying to put them to use here.

Dear council members, Lomas’ proposal embodies the worst traits of a failed land use paradigm. We need to change the paradigm, now. The city’s Station Area Master Plan embraced TOD and you should remain committed to it. Let’s implement proven methods like TOD, not make our situation worse with more of the same failed approach.

Dear SMART, aren’t you concerned about this project and how it will impact ridership and public opinion? Can you work with cities to help update land use policies, design great stations, and bring in state funding to build out high quality TOD projects in 2020? We need your leadership and support in these endeavors.

Dear Petaluma, SMART has the potential to help solve our problems, but it is not a magic bullet. If we continue implementing the same failed land use paradigm that created our problems — at our new east side train station no less — SMART will never reach its potential.

And it has nothing to the train itself, but rather the failure of our cities, SMART, and the private sector to work together toward a common vision. If you are concerned about regressive local land use practices and inter-agency dysfunction undermining SMART, write the City Council and SMART and attend meetings.

(Brian Barnacle was raised on a farm in Petaluma and is a current resident. He is a small business owner and a land use enthusiast.)

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