Coloring Outside the Box – Why Basin Street Properties Loves the Petaluma City Council

At the April 4, 2016 meeting of the Petaluma City Council, Mayor David Glass expressed astonishment that a city requirement to construct a small segment of bicycle path along an abandoned railway corridor would cause developer Basin Street Properties to consider abandoning its proposed Marina Apartments project altogether.

Glass suggested at the outset of the council’s discussion that if Basin Street’s profit margin was that tight, perhaps it should go ahead and consider doing something else.

As the public would soon find out, that’s exactly what Basin Street was threatening to do in an April 4 letter to the council, albeit with the subtle and veiled legalese of a friendly counselor with whom the city had successfully conducted much business in the past. It wasn’t so much a threat really, just a friendly suggestion – dump the bicycle path or we might do something else. Who needs to issue threats amongst friends?

The letter, received by the city earlier the day of the council meeting, was penned by Paul Andronico, Basin Street’s general counsel. It stated that if the developer was forced to build the stretch of bike path, it “will likely render the proposed project infeasible.”

In a remarkable bit of good fortune for Basin Street, which is also beginning construction just across Highway 101 from the Petaluma Marina of its massive Riverfront mixed-use project, “a large medical provider” had recently approached the firm, “hoping to construct a build-to-suit medical office building for the subject site on a long-term lease,” wrote Andronico in the letter. Perhaps, he was suggesting, we’ll end up doing something else altogether. If you force us to build the bike path.

Some councilmembers expressed surprise at the development, given a lingering supply of unoccupied medical office space in town. Councilmember Barrett noted that proponents of a Walgreens pharmacy at Deer Creek Village commercial project had recently been arguing before the city that there is a glut of office medical in Petaluma.

City staff had proposed the Class 1 bike path requirement to the Petaluma Planning Commission at its December 22, 2015 meeting, with a majority of the commissioners agreeing that the former railroad right of way would be a small but valuable contribution to the city’s perpetually under-funded infrastructure.

proposed bike path

A completely unofficial estimation of the path’s length by this writer using Google Maps suggests it’s around 718 feet (approximately between points number 9 and 10 in the adjacent image).

Marina Apartments Bike Path

Staff helpfully suggested that if costs were a concern to Basin Street, recent reductions in city impact fees had dramatically reduced the developer’s costs on this project.

“On December 7, 2015, the City Council lowered the traffic impact fee for multiple family dwellings,” said the staff report.

“At ninety (90) units, this amounts to a $287,640 reduction in fees for the project; a change made while the development application was in process. In staff’s estimation, this fee reduction exceeds the cost of the recommended Class 1 bike path.”

Counselor Andronico dismissed the staff’s suggestion, noting additionally that construction costs have risen over the past year as much as 30%, a startling figure which was understandably met with considerable skepticism by some on the council and members of the public.

Mayor Glass noted his concern about the cost of building the city’s infrastructure.

“We’re talking about the history in this town? The history is that the impact fees [have] never added up to create the infrastructure, and that’s what has never penciled out – the models that have come with development projects through decades in this community.”

“So this is one little piece of infrastructure that could be achieved, and there is tremendous up-zoning here. It is actually flabbergasting that for $175,000 [city staff estimate of the bike path cost], you say that’s your margin. To me, you should walk away from the project right now if that’s your margin. You shouldn’t even be here tonight.”

The entire council appeared in agreement that Basin Street had done itself no favors with its last-minute letter, but Barrett and Glass expressed deeper reservations about the Marina Apartments project.

“Our right as a council is to decide what would be best for Petaluma, and the Mayor is right in saying that this is up-zoning. This is [a] much more dense use of this property in an area that already has tremendous traffic problems,” said Teresa Barrett.

“Anyone familiar with the area knows” that around the time Casa Grande High School lets out, on Lakeville, Baywood and other streets, “it is truly gridlocked.”

“Not to put in a Class 1 bike lane, which offers a safe and sane alternative to people getting around that area without having to worry about the traffic on Lakeville or Baywood, just doesn’t make sense for us as a city. We really need to look at improving the circulation alternatives for people in this city as we try to increase and approve infill. We want infill, but we want infill that serves our society, our community and the circulation of people within that community.” – Petaluma City Councilmember Teresa Barrett, speaking at the council’s April 4, 2016 meeting.

There were other objections to the project. Barrett thought it inconceivable that the project hadn’t proposed to utilize solar, despite an abundance of rooftop space associated with its five-story apartment building and carport structures.

Unmentioned was the city’s climate action plan. Petaluma is a member of the Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) and is participating in its Climate Action Plan 2020, which calls for a 25% reduction below 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050.

Unless additional actions to reduce emissions are taken at the local level, Petaluma was recently informed by the RCPA’s Lauren Casey, emissions will likely begin to rise by 2020. Such local initiatives could include:

  • Expansion of solar to new and existing residential and commercial buildings and developments
  • Supporting new bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure
  • Creating new affordable housing linked to transit

With this in mind, many Petaluma residents have come to expect leadership on climate issues from its City Council, but that leadership has been sorely lacking amongst the council’s business-friendly majority.

“I can’t believe that this is another missed opportunity of not adding solar and that’s a real problem,” stated Barrett on April 4.

Glass, Barrett and members of the public did eventually succeed in getting Basin Street to place solar panels on the carports of its Marina Apartments project, with the number and details to be worked out later.

“Where’s the solar?” was asked with sufficient frequency over the course of the meeting that project proponent Mike Healy – literally looking to the applicant for help – did finally get the nod from counselor Paul Andronico that yes, solar could happen. But not the bike path.

Melissa Hatheway, Chair of Petaluma’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, did her part, pleading with the council to help build out the city’s bicycle infrastructure while it had the opportunity.

“The answer we get whenever we talk about bike paths is there is no funding. The only time we’re ever able to do anything is when there is a new development.”

“So I would encourage you to please push forward on this bike path.”

Councilmember Healy helpfully paraphrased the very language of the Basin Street letter, commenting that “when I hear people talk about trying to burden this project with these additional ‘coloring outside the box-type’ of requirements or exactions, I think that’s letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I think that 90 units of housing for this community in the midst of a regional housing crisis is a good of incredible benefit to the community.”

It should be noted that there is no designated affordable or low-income housing associated with the Marina Apartments project.

Proponents of Marina Apartments on the council sought to dismiss the usefulness of the bicycle path – it’s small, it doesn’t actually go anywhere or connect anything, so what’s the point, they appeared to suggest.

Newest member of the council, Dave King, pointed out that piece-by-piece is exactly how our bike and pedestrian infrastructure will be built, but ultimately he voted with Healy, Albertson, Miller and Kearney to approve the project without the path.

Councilmembers Miller and Albertson had little of substance to add to the commentary and appeared fine with moving the project forward as is.

Councilmember Gabe Kearney continued to occupy what seemed to be an uncomfortable seat at the dais. Once again he appeared to support the progressive, public interest wing of the council and worked hard to appear knowledgeable and engaged. He talked the talk about the importance of pedestrian and bike infrastructure, before returning to a position in which he seems much more comfortable – flowing with the prevailing (very business-friendly) winds.

Longtime local business writer Don Bennett laid out the perspective of the privileged and comfortable protectors of the local status quo on Basin Street two years ago, in the pages of our newspaper monopoly, the Argus-Courier:

“The fact is, Basin Street’s impact on this community, in positive ways, has been greater than any other single factor since the perfection of the chicken and egg incubator here in the 19th century.”

A remarkable statement, given the importance of poultry in Petaluma history and to our collective psyche. A majority of the Petaluma City Council seems to agree.

By all accounts Basin Street Properties has profited handsomely from the numerous large-scale projects that have transformed Petaluma, including the Theater District, which cost the city over $10 million more than it should have. Yet many Petalumans – including a few key councilmembers – seem to feel we remain indebted to the company, and need to defer to its wishes wherever possible. It’s a wonderful position to be in for a for-profit endeavor – having your own interests equated with the public collective good.

Which leads this writer to wonder: who does the council represent, and how do we the people obtain a council willing to lead, and invest in Petaluma’s public commons for a change? Where do we the people find equally good representation?

We’ve seen the great lengths councilmembers will go to for the wealthiest, most successful business interests in Petaluma. What about the rest of us?

For an elaboration on the meaning of “Coloring Outside the Box,” take a look at this post.

The Basin Street Letter:

Basin Street Letter p1

Basin Street Letter p2

Basin Street Letter p3

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