The city’s plan to allow traffic on Water Street was supposed to appease downtown merchants who have long pushed for more parking.
But the idea has set off a firestorm of criticism from business owners and residents who are worried that the city’s plan will ruin the feel of the waterfront and be a step backward in the city’s effort to make itself more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.
On Wednesday, both sides sounded off at a lively Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting at the Lucchesi Community Center, where the overwhelming majority of business owners spoke out against the plan to allow cars to travel on Water Street and exit at Western Avenue.
Among those in attendance were Holly Wick, who owns , at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard North and Western Avenue and Stephanie Rastetter, the proprietor of . Both oppose the plan, which grew out of the city’s road diet project that will reduce Petaluma Boulevard from four to two lanes between E and East Washington streets.
“Eight parking places isn’t going to do anything except ruin the place (Water Street),” said an exasperated Rastetter, adding that many of her customers now enjoy patio dining that would be marred by cars passing by.
“If you really want to change things downtown, get rid of the two hour parking restriction.”
Basha Quilici, the owner of the recently approved on Western Avenue Extension (and next door to Water Street Bistro) said she was dismayed to find out that her soon to open business, which will also feature patio dining, would now look out onto a street with cars.
“I would not have chosen that location if I knew this was going to be put in,” Quilici said.
Several seats over, Petaluma Downtown Association director Marie McCusker was equally exasperated.
“When we proposed this plan we were trying to appease the merchants who in earlier surveys and meetings said they wanted more parking,” McCusker said. “And now all these other businesses are coming out against it. I feel like we are caught in the middle and are damned if we support the project and damned if we don’t.”
McCusker described Water Street as unsuitable for a true pedestrian thoroughfare, largely because of the uneven cobblestones that make it difficult to cycle, walk or even push a stroller across. She said the cobblestone was put in about a decade ago using redevelopment monies, but is so rough and bumpy that it’s become a liability for the city.
“Water Street is just not suitable for any events; it’s a dead area,” she said. “Now it’s mostly used by kids sitting there in the dark or by homeless people.”
The only business present at the meeting and in favor of opening Water Street to cars was Will Mendoza, owner of . Mendoza said that in his eight years as owner of two buildings in the area, there has never been a special event on Water Street.
“It’s an underused space and as a merchant, all I’m saying is ‘We need more parking,’” he said.
Others criticized the plan, saying opening up Water Street (south of Washington Street) to cars was ridiculous, considering the proposed trestle and walkway that will eventually be put in next to the Balshaw Bridge. They said that downtown already has two parking structures—the Keller Street garage and the parking lot at Theater Square—which seldom filled up.
“I’d like for us to imagine a Water Street without any cars on it,” said Eric Backman, a member of Friends of the Petaluma River, a local organization focused on reconnecting residents with the waterway.
“It wouldn’t hurt for Petalumans to walk a little further…Ultimately downtown businesses flourish when more people are in the area,” he said.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee plans on making numerous recommendations to City Council, including offering four-hour parking in Theater Square, adding more handicapped parking spots, issuing permits to cars that have to access Water Street for delivery purposes and ticketing everybody else and smoothing the Water Street cobblestones as much as possible to make walking on Water Street easier.
What’s your vision for Water Street?