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.
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.
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 Plan. Unlike 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.
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.