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Why a Central Petaluma plan?

Jack Balshaw 3/19/2003


The Central Petaluma Specific Plan was started sometime prior to the fall of 1996 (7 years ago) with the goal of formulating a development plan for the area between Lakeville and the river, from the 101 freeway to Petaluma Blvd North. The principal focus however was on the area between D St. and Washington St., call this the Depot Area.

Development of this area was viewed as a means of reinforcing the importance and viability of our existing historic downtown. The hope was to enliven downtown by bringing more people into the downtown area through daytime commercial employment on the first floor areas and the development of a residential population on floors above the commercial establishments. The focus was on helping downtown.

A large part of the committee discussions were related to how a modern downtown might be configured without creating a visually and functionally separate and competing area.

The original committee consisted of 27 individuals representing a wide spectrum of interests and professions. By the time the proposal was ready to go to the Planning Commission, the working committee was down to about 13 members, heavily represented by design professionals (architect and landscaper types).

My concern is that what started as a pragmatic exercise to strengthen downtown will be turned into a competition between professionals and ideologs to show how an "ideal" modern downtown could develop. I'm afraid that the necessity for a plan that is economically viable from a profit orientated point of view will be subordinated to the presentation of a theoretical and academic "case study" of what designers would like to see.

It must be kept in mind that the actual development of this area is totally dependent on pragmatic investors and businessmen being convinced they can make a profit on any investment. Portions of the plan, such as the one to make Petaluma Blvd only one lane in each direction, don't inspire me with much faith that the rest of the plan is pragmatic.

The Planning Commission's tendency to look at the theoretical rather than the practical isn't a good sign either. I hope they will keep in mind that their function isn't to simply recommend the best concept plan but to recommend the best implementable plan.

It will be difficult for some to accept that downtown isn't really the commercial core of an isolated small town somewhere in the Midwest. There are some who can use downtown as such a place, but most people do their major shopping east of the freeway or to the north or south along 101. Downtown is mostly a recreational facility for both local citizens and visitors.

Downtown is important to give Petaluma a core area local citizens can identify with and enjoy. We want people who live in Petaluma to prefer to stay in town for relaxation and pleasure. But we have to recognize that those looking for relaxation and pleasure prefer more than utilitarian facilities.

The challenge in developing the Depot Area will be to create an environment that supplements the existing historic downtown without establishing a competing center. This will be somewhat complicated by the necessity to provide for a major transit transfer station in the vicinity of the old railroad depot. This will have to include a "Plan B" to be smoothly implemented in the probable event the proposed rail transit system never materializes.

If the downtown merchants and property owners don't get involved now, they will have little cause to complain after the Central Petaluma Specific Plan has been approved. Their personal involvement, not just one person speaking for the Petaluma Downtown Association, is needed.

Note: Re- comments in a recent column on the Patriot Act. A representative of the County Library board has advised me that the library computer system does NOT retain a record of who has checked out a book once it has been returned.


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