August 22 2013

Unique Form-Based Code Sets Petaluma Above the Rest

Outside of McNear's Mystic Theater in Downtown Petaluma

Take a stroll through downtown Petaluma, and you will see why it is different from every other city in Sonoma County. It does not sprawl out like a spider web of big-box retailers and suburban developments like Rohnert Park, nor does its downtown emanate from a central plaza like Healdsburg and Sonoma. Instead, Petaluma’s urban core remains flush with the Petaluma River, contains a mixed-use development pattern, and gives streets the power to act as common spaces.

 Mixed-use project on East Washington Street North of the Petaluma River.

Whilst a plaza denotes a social and commercial destination that people have to travel to, Petaluma’s streets are that destination – providing many attractions that a public square would offer, including:

  • Historical buildings;
  • Street furniture;
  • Cafes, bars, and restaurants;
  • Beautiful landscape architecture;
  • Trees and planter boxes; and
  • A unique sense of place.

Street-side cafe near Petaluma's waterfron

Much of the success of Petaluma’s downtown can be attributed to the city’s form-based code, also known as the Central Petaluma Specific PlanUnlike a typical Euclidian zoning ordinance such as Rohnert Park’s, Petaluma’s Specific Plan focuses on the form of buildings and their relationship to the city’s downtown. This can be seen in the preservation of Victorian-style storefronts between B Street and Lakeville Street on Petaluma Boulevard, and the conversion of industrial shipping facilities along the riverfront to cafes and restaurants. The result is a built environment that offers eye-catching façades and overhangs, facilitating pedestrian activity and maintaining Petaluma’s unique architectural history.

The 1882 Masonic Lodge on Petaluma Boulevard South

Although many people view the Central Petaluma Specific Plan as cutting-edge, the city is simply following the time-honored town planning techniques that built it. Ironically, it was the modernist design movement and its “form follows function” credo that led to the destruction of America’s traditional downtowns and public realms. All one needs to do to understand this concept is to compare the Google search results of Downtown Petaluma and Downtown Rohnert Park. The results are comical and shocking.

Should cities regulate the architectural form of new buildings and their relation to the street? Or is compliance with traditional zoning ordinances enough to ensure responsible development?

Credits: Images by Nick Danty. Data linked to sources.

Nick Danty

Nick Danty is a graduate of the Geography and Planning Department at California State University, Chico and currently works at the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) in Santa Rosa. Nick has been involved in several programs at RCPA, but is most proud of the 2013 Bicycle and Pedestrian Count Project, for which he served as the project manager and outreach coordinator. A Northern California native who calls his single-family detached dwelling home, Nick is not a stranger to the ills of suburban sprawl and the toll it takes on human and physical environments. Nick’s travels to Europe and throughout North America have shown him preventing and retrofitting sprawl is possible through intelligent neighborhood design, beautiful architecture, mitigation banking, innovative transit systems and visionary urban and rural plans. He is very excited about writing for The Grid, and plans on discussing projects and programs happening at his agency related to transportation planning, climate adaptation, livability, urban land development, and environmental conservation.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 at 9:09 am and is filed under Architecture, Environmental Design, History/Preservation, Infrastructure, Land Use, Landscape Architecture, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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