A New, Progressive Petaluma City Council Meets & the Argus-Courier Misinformation Begins

Updated 1/12/21: This piece has been updated to clarify that the $3.2 million referred to below was a reduction in the cost of land to be sold by landowner Lomas to Danco, the Meridian developer. – RR.

 

If you are unwilling or unable to read beyond the headlines there is a good chance you’re being misinformed, unintentionally or intentionally, the latter being also known as disinformation. Unfortunately for Petaluma residents and others interested in news about our little big town of 62,000, judging from the Petaluma Argus-Courier’s highly selective and deceptive coverage of the January 4, 2020 meeting of the Petaluma City Council, it appears as though deciphering the facts from the misinformation and disinformation will be a continuing necessity during the tenure of the paper’s new editor, Emily Charrier.

It’s perfectly understandable that a perpetually understaffed weekly paper – best understood as a Petaluma-centric edition of The Press Democrat – would have difficulty adequately covering meetings of the Petaluma City Council (PCC). These meetings often run for many hours, cover numerous, often complex issues of importance both locally and beyond, and frequently feature public commentary that is illuminating and sometimes entertaining. For several years, during the five-years former editor Matt Brown was at the helm and in particular while former Argus-Courier reporter Yousef Baig was covering the council, Petalumans could read the paper and frequently find more than adequate information about what happened in our Eisenhower-era council chambers. This was an impressive feat for a media outlet in which a news item exceeding 1,000 words is a rarity.

Unfortunately Matt Brown recently moved on to a position with the Sonoma County, Yousef Baig is now at the Sacramento Bee, and Argus-Courier readers are once again left to discern the facts for themselves.

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For those “attending” the Jan. 4 PCC meeting, it was, as usual, significant and full of newsworthy information of local and broad interest. At one point it was reported that over 75 people were on the Zoom call, with all meetings still occurring remotely due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There was an abundance of insightful public commentary, council, and city staff information shared around issues such as:

  • The Petaluma Police Department’s problems with people of color
  • Recurring fires, a highly controversial cell phone tower proposal, unpaid fines, and unresolved safety issues at the Petaluma Creamery
  • The city’s relationship with the Rooster Run golf facility and the removal of toxic glyphosate from use there – thanks to Brian Barnacle for that one
  • The Hines downtown project and whether a 600 parking lot residential project could ever be considered ‘transit-oriented development’
  • A $3.2 million price break granted the Meridian at Corona Station developer, to be deducted from a land sale whose financial data was unavailable to council members
  • The Corona SMART station
  • Whether or not we’ll ever create affordable housing near our downtown where it is so desperately needed
  • And the latest red flag warning about “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the achievable good” that our purported elder statesman, Councilmember Mike Healy, was about to – once again – ignore city goals and stated principles to vote for yet another public giveaway to a private developer

All of these issues and much more were discussed at this January 4 meeting of the PCC. Yet reporter Kathryn Palmer’s piece for the January 7 print edition of the Argus-Courier (A-C) touched upon only a couple, and buried them under the misleading and deceptive headline in the print edition, New Council Kills Corona Station. The headline’s premise was immediately qualified by her very first sentence when she wrote that the new Petaluma City Council had “all but killed” the Corona Station project. The online version of Palmer’s piece was given the equally deceptive and misleading headline, Second SMART station, affordable housing blocked by new Petaluma City Council, through the journalistic sin of the blatant omission of relevant facts.

This headline hucksterism is extremely important when we recognize that perhaps as many as 6 in 10 people do not read beyond headlines and go deeper to find and analyze the information beneath them. Only time will tell whether Palmer, Charrier and the A-C were engaging merely in misinformation in their 909 word piece, or if this is a larger pattern of purposeful disinformation. We are, after all, only two months removed from a bitter council election campaign which saw the A-C facilitate Team Healy’s Red-baiting of challengers Dennis Pocekay, Brian Barnacle, and Lizzie Wallack with a dog whistle that they suffered from an adherence to the “rigid ideology” of their “fringes,” their point being rendered ridiculous when they were unable to name, much less describe, that ideology. The whistle was sufficient.

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The Raucous Rooster will be publishing some of the commentary from the January 4 meeting of the PCC separately, and will for our purposes here focus upon the Hines Downtown Project, the Corona SMART station, and affordable housing to which the A-C referred.

The agenda item the A-C failed to adequately cover yet appeared to want to beat up council progressives over was #4A under Unfinished Business.

This item contained a resolution which, if approved, would have allowed Hines to build a 402 unit apartment complex adjacent to the downtown train station without any affordable housing. Instead, city affordable housing requirements would be met by the construction of the Meridian all-affordable, 131 unit housing complex adjacent to the as-yet-unbuilt Corona SMART train station, which is planned for the area at the intersection of Corona Rd. and N. McDowell Boulevard. This deal would be facilitated by the city’s agreeing to a $3.2 million reduction in the cost of land to be sold by Lomas, the landowner, to Danco Group, the Meridian developer. The $3.2 million is the “equivalent to the applicable [affordable housing] in lieu fees for the Hines Downtown Project in order to facilitate the development of the Meridian at Corona Station project,” according to the city’s staff report. Petaluma’s Inclusionary Housing Policy requires 15% affordable housing in all residential developments of 5 or more units.

Council Commentary

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) has thus far been unwilling to nail down when the second, east side Petaluma train station will be built, with estimates of ten or fifteen years given a half dozen years ago meaning the station could still be a decade away from construction. This timeline has certainly been affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent reduction in rail service and ridership. As Mayor Teresa Barrett stated on January 4, there “is no timeline that SMART has agreed to included in this entire discussion that brings that station any closer. That has to be very clear.”

Further, Danco’s Meridian project at the proposed Corona station site, “is not really a paid-for, we have the support, we have the money project. It is still an idea waiting to be realized.”

The proposed Meridian all-affordable housing project by Danco Group and the Corona SMART station, Barrett continued, “are the carrots that are being held out to us. What is in fact the real carrot, is having the inclusionary housing at the downtown station with the development that really is the only thing that we can say will go forward. I agree with the speakers that mentioned that this is not really transit-oriented, when what you’re basically doing is keeping the people who could possibly work downtown out of the region where they could walk to work and force them to get in their cars and include more cars in our downtown area for those workers. It is really not a good project in many, many ways.”

Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer attempted to be kind in her commentary but it was scathing nonetheless.

I think that this project actually turns its back on the train station. I think there’s a great deal of conflict, it was sort of ignored, the fact that we have a transit center right on Copeland. So there’s access to 600 parking spaces, two driveways, where we’re trying to get five buses parked, and it just feels like it’s way too tight, there’s way too much conflict. It feels like the park that’s going to be at the transit center is almost privatized. It feels like both of those buildings, residential on the edges – not commercial, not mixed use, actually privatizes that area, and when you look at the square footages we’ve got a little over 400k square feet of residential, you’ve got 215k square feet of parking. I don’t know what is transit-oriented about this development. 

It’s being called ‘mixed-use’ but it only has a little over 5,000 square feet of retail and most of that is going to be for leasing spaces, leasing for the building. So I think it’s way over parked and again, it doesn’t comply with our specific plan of what this community wanted. So if those things were fixed, if the development actually did meet our specific plan, then I would be willing to negotiate on fees and other things in order to make this happen.

Having heard considerable critical public commentary on the effort to approve this mammoth downtown project without any downtown affordable housing, Councilmember Kevin McDonnell grew visibly agitated while arguing that residents of the proposed Meridian project on the east side could ride their bicycles downtown.

McDonnell thought the current project was “so much better than where we started. We started with a single family development here and in February of last year I asked for an all-affordable project. I connected Danco and [Corona SMART site landowner] Lomas so they could get busy on this, not that they saw the benefit at that time, but since last year it’s been important we have affordable. Frankly, I ran on a platform that housing was the policy. I didn’t run on climate, I didn’t run on anything else. It was about our affordability and availability, and that’s still my chief concern that we have affordable and available housing.”

I mean, do we really think we’re going to do better? Is the value of downtown, as opposed to a quick bike ride down the new SMART path, 2 ½ miles into town, that’s a good connection. Is it really better to risk having nothing than having two times? For me, it’s all about having the affordable housing.

For longtime observers of the PCC, Councilmember Mike Healy’s comments in favor of granting the requested concessions to the developers involved and waiving the city’s affordable housing requirements were completely predictable.

“I’m prepared to be a bit more flexible and just realize that this 15% target that we have now hasn’t had much track record in our city. It’s still a bit of a work-in-progress, in terms of what we can require developers to do without blowing up projects completely. So, just to cut to the chase, there are a lot of things in this project that I would prefer were a bit different, but I’m not going to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the achievable good,” stated Healy. 

Public Commentary

As is often the case, though you’ll rarely read it in the Argus-Courier, public commentary was insightful, to the point, and effective.

Josh Simmons presaged Councilmember Healy’s comments with his own “I am one who does not like making the perfect the enemy of the good, and there are a lot of areas where I think compromise is acceptable. You know there’s a ‘but’ coming here. 

However, when it comes to inclusionary housing, you know this is a project that if we accept the alternative compliance proposal here we are – whether it’s the intent or not – we are further segregating Petaluma’s citizens, Petaluma residents. Maybe that’s the lesser of evils, that’s the best we can do here, but really want to express as a Petaluma resident that doesn’t sit well with me. As a resident here I can’t support anything that doesn’t have inclusionary housing. Maybe there needs to be a creative solution here. I’m obviously not coming to you with solutions and I apologize for that, but this just doesn’t sit right.

Taryn Obaid, a frequent commenter on development and other issues, was typically on the mark.

I’d really like us to be shrewd with our negotiation. The mention that they want $3 million of our taxpayer money, but they won’t tell us what for. How much are they paying for the land? How much of this money is going to go to a down payment perhaps or buy down the near zero interest rates that are available to them right now with corporate bonds? I’m not buying that at all. I think it’s unconscionable for somebody to get in front of taxpayers and say “Give me $3 million. I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to spend it on, but don’t mind that, just give me your $3 million.” No, no no no. That’s unconscionable. I’m shocked by that actually. Nobody runs a business like that and I don’t think our city should entertain that kind of business proposition. 

Hey, everybody loves our downtown, right? It’s our gem, right next to the river. The river’s our gem, downtown’s our gem. Why is it that we banish low income people from downtown? Don’t people realize that when we go out to eat, when we shop in stores downtown, who’s working there? I’ve worked downtown. I’ve had coworkers and myself, we walk downtown for our jobs. Jobs in the service sector – those are the people that if they don’t need to have a car, maybe they can’t afford to have a car. They walk to their jobs or maybe bike to their jobs or take transit. Those are the people working in the service sector that need to be living near where they work. 

I think that we should have inclusionary housing onsite there. Don’t ghettoize them. A ghetto, right? That’s the place where only the poor people live, but we keep banishing them to outside our central city. And we need parks. COVID has shown that we need to connect spiritually with more land. We can’t keep doing this concrete jungle.

My apologies for missing the comments of several others which were no less eloquent, but I was unable to capture them at the time.

With Dennis Pocekay and Dave King’s brief commentaries landing them on opposing sides of this item, and Brian Barnacle’s recusal from considering it, a subsequent vote of 3-3 meant this city favor to developers was defeated.

What it did not mean was that this new city council “killed the Corona Station.” The east side Corona Station is as alive as it’s ever been, but this three-party iteration of it will not move forward. Was “affordable housing blocked” by the new council? Well, an unfunded idea for east side affordable housing may not proceed, but the city has shown developers that its affordable housing principles stand. We need affordable housing everywhere in town, not just on the outskirts, but downtown as well.

In the meantime, we’ll all have to push the Argus-Courier staff to do its job and adequately, accurately cover and report upon the meetings of the Petaluma City Council and other public bodies. Its staff is capable of doing far better, the question is, will it?

Contact the A-C’s Kathryn Palmer at [email protected] and Emily Charrier at [email protected]

For considerable further information on what transit-oriented development is, visit the website of the Transit Oriented Development Institute.

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