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Building Petaluma's Central Park

In the early '90s, environmentalists began pushing the city to acquire land in the north end of town and turn it into a large park. Two decades later, the parcel is only used by the homeless, while residents grumble about shortage of trails.

Imagine walking along a river trail, where majestic oaks provide shade from the heat, then ducking into a meadow covered with willow trees, Oregon ash and shrubbery.

Although Petaluma Boulevard North is just several hundred feet away and the freeway not much further in the opposite direction, the park is sheltered from noise, a secluded green paradise where wild turkeys and deer are not uncommon.

Where is this place?

Actually, right in town.

Twenty years ago, the Sierra Club and local environmental groups including the Petaluma River Council and Friends of Petaluma pushed the city to preserve this parcel and turn it into a river-centric park complete with a pedestrian and bicycle trail, picnic areas and educational displays about wildlife.

Despite the efforts, the 350-acrea area—known as Corona Reach because its northern boundary runs up to Corona Road— remains abandoned, used only by the homeless who camp in the shade of the oak trees and whose trash often ends up in the river or on the railroad tracks.

“We call ourselves a river city, but we don’t have a river park,” said David Keller, a former councilman who pushed for the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan, the city’s “vision document” for the future of the river, to include turning the area into a large city park. “Petaluma’s economic vision is not going to be accomplished by building more malls; we have a beautiful river, so let’s take advantage of it.”

The city says the trails, along with needed flood controls, will come as developers build on the outer perimeter of the park. According to Pamela Tuft, a special projects manager at the Department of Public Works, improvements are already happening at Denman Reach at the north end of the Petaluma River, where a trail head and educational panels will be put in.

The same will be true at Sid Commons, a 300-plus unit apartment complex planned at the southern edge of the parcel, where the owner will be required to put in a 850 foot walking path.

“We are way ahead of most cities who have rivers,” Tuft said. “If a developer owns 20 acres on the river, we can say ‘Here is the plan. As you design your project, you can count that this will be part of your development cost.’”

But Sid Commons has yet to be approved (the environmental impact report is in the works) and future development in the area is uncertain given the recession and that much of the terrain lies in the floodplain.

Then, there is the issue of ownership. The parcel is owned by three separate entities: the Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard, Simon Malls, the company that owns the outlets and Johnson Investment Corporation, which is building the apartment complex off Payran Drive.

Simon has said that they are selling their property, although no one at the city has been contacted about it, but it’s not clear whether the other two owners would be willing to sell.

And to whom? While in the past redevelopment monies could have been directed to acquire the property, that funding is no longer available.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District says it could consider setting up a conservation easement in the area, saving it from future development, but Petaluma would have to take the lead in any sort of acquisition, since most of the land falls under city limits.

There are also river and parkways grants available that would likely have to be matched by city dollars, but there hasn’t been a concerted push on the part of City Hall to obtain them.

“The idea was as the adjacent properties develop, they install the improvements. That’s how a lot of public improvements are financed these days,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of planning for the Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Department and the principal city planner for Petaluma in the ‘90s when the River Access and Enhancement Plan was being written.

“So why would you spend public funds when you can wait for development to occur?”

But in a 1992 letter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned the city against developing Corona Reach, describing the area as “biologically diverse and ecologically significant” with 32 fish species, including Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, 200 types of birds, vernal pools and seasonal wetlands that would all be impacted by building in the area.

The full letter is attached on the right

Another complication is that the property has no “good vehicular access,” in Barrett’s words, making it difficult for cars to access any future business park or shopping center built in the area.

“Providing access to an area that has no good vehicular access to it is really inviting homeless people and crime,” Barrett said. “It’s not a safe environment without eyes on the path or adjacent land uses that can deter that kind of activity.”

This is where Rainier comes in.

When the River Access and Enhancement Plan was written, it assumed a crosstown connector that would connect the west and east sides of town. But no money has ever been allocated to the project, besides the $10 million set aside from redevelopment, now in jeopardy. In addition, Rainier’s price tag—the crosstown and interchange that is—has now ballooned to at least $110 million, according to city engineers.

“Rainier is just a mantra for development proposals to get passed,” Keller said. “The idea that we’re going to build it and offer traffic relief is utter nonsense because there isn’t any money for it.”

Others, including council members Mike Healy, Mike Harris and Chris Albertson believe that Rainier may still be built and are hoping to access the leftover redevelopment funds to finance the project. They say it's a needed infrastructure project that will alleviate traffic as future shopping centers are put in.

So while the political squabbles continue, Corona Reach lies dormant like it has for decades--forever, actually--while Petalumans grumble about the shortage of recreational open space in town.

Although Keller describes the failure to incorporate plans for a city park into the river plan as a missed opportunity, others see it differently.

“It’s a delayed opportunity and has as much to do with the economic climate as with the political one,” said Bill Roop, a local archeologist who was part of the 25-citizen committee that put together the River Access and Enhancement Plan. “But as the city’s population climbs, we will need new parks and open spaces. And for safety reasons, we will need bike paths that aren’t along roads.”

Tuft agrees and says that trails can coexist with development (along the outer perimeter of Corona Reach and along Highway 101) and eventually link up with other paths in the area.

“As long as the public and city officials continue to embrace the river plan, it will happen,” she said. “And making our town connected to the river is a pretty important legacy we can leave for our children and grandchildren.”

Would you like to see a large city park in this area? And what do you think the city should do to pursue it?

David Devoto July 11, 2012 at 05:44 PM
I would love to see it as a park. As it is, quite a surprise to see such a beautiful open area, so close to the 'outlets'. It would be a joy to spend time there. Given the economic times, I wonder if volunteers could help make it happen, as I do not believe funding will be located.
Bookworm July 12, 2012 at 02:47 PM
I wonder if LandPaths could get involved. They have done a lot of good work with undeveloped parklands. LandPaths.org
Karina Ioffee July 12, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Could be worth a try. I reached out to Nature Conservancy and Sonoma Land Trust in the course of writing the article. NC said they were focused on lands where industrial/consolidates ownership (like big timber) overlap with important salmon runs. SLT said it was all theoretical until there were willing sellers and Open Space District said the city needed to take lead on project. So it may be interesting to hear what LandPaths says.
Active Thinker July 12, 2012 at 05:03 PM
This would be wonderful to have a river park here in petaluma...coming from Marin where we can bike everywhere...having a river park for families brings all people together...enough of the malls and big shops...
A.A.Nagy November 09, 2012 at 07:31 PM
The article states: "...remains abandoned, used only by the homeless who camp in the shade of the oak trees and whose trash often ends up in the river or on the railroad tracks." If it is a place where people without homes live, it is not abandoned. Let's prioritize a solution to homelessness before developing a park for the privileged to romp in. "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” – Hubert Humphrey

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