City of Petaluma

Community Revitalization

The City of Petaluma has a long history and tradition as a working river town.  From its earliest days, the City has supported a broad mix of uses, including industry, navigation, shipping trade and supplying the Bay Region as well as local commercial stores with harvests from its fertile river valley.  In the last 150 years, its Victorian iron-front buildings have seen the transition from an agricultural and shipping center to thriving Downtown and boutique destination. 

In 1996, the City of Petaluma initiated a planning process for the central portion of the city extending along the river.  This Central Petaluma Specific Plan envisions a reinvigorated central district that accommodates a greater diversity of uses and includes the traditional, older residential areas that give the area identity and interest as well as new environments for living and working in the Downtown area.  Major planning goals and objectives of the Specific Plan include:

  • Redirect Growth into Central Petaluma by encouraging mixed-use and riverside development including public facilities, theatres, recreational uses and parks;
  • Reconnect the City to and along the River by creating a network of pedestrian and bicycle-accessible open space linkages;
  • Encourage Diversity in Transportation Modes by minimizing streets;
  • Reinforce Working Character of Petaluma’s Waterfront by respecting existing industrial uses;
  • Enhance Physical Structure and Identity by rehabilitating older shopping centers;
  • Promote Sustainable Development.

Central Petaluma’s identity is closely tied with the origins of the city.  The Specific Plan encourages the protection, enhancement, rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of architecturally significant and interesting structures.  For example, the Petaluma Train Depot has been renovated for use by the Petaluma Visitor’s Center and in the near future Sonoma Marin Area Rail Train (SMART) hopes to use it for the Downtown Petaluma station.   

From the goals outlined in the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, a Central Business District Master Plan (CBD) was conceived.  The Master Plan set out to enhance the distinct historic character of the Downtown by highlighting and promoting historic design elements.  The Master Plan design spanned a period of eight years before being approved as a $22M Central Business District Redevelopment Project “Five-Year Implementation Plan” funded by the Petaluma Community Development Commission (PCDC).  This series of projects was adopted June 4, 2001 and is the result of many years of research, design, public review and redesign in cooperation with the Site Plan Architectural Review Committee (SPARC), Historic and Cultural Preservation Committee (HCPC) and the community of Petaluma. 

Following are discussions of the projects that were designed to improve, beautify and restore Downtown economic vitality.  The area of work is bordered in the North by Washington Street, in the South by B Street, in the West by Howard Street and in the East by Water Street.  The most recent of these projects was completed in August 2006.

The Downtown Improvements Phase I project focused on the areas known as the Historic Downtown and Historic Downtown Riverfront.  The historic buildings of Petaluma are on the National Register of Historic Places and are very important to the community of Petaluma.  The City Government policy-makers realize that a certain focus must stay on this specific area of the city to continue to bring revenue to the building owners, business managers and tax district to continue the economic vitality of the Historic Downtown.

Specific appendices have been written to supplement the Central Petaluma Specific Plan as “Smart Code” and Architectural Guidelines to reinforce the existing architectural character of the Historic Downtown.  Furthermore, City Code has been adopted to manage the renovation of or addition to any building within the Historic Downtown.

The Downtown Improvements project consisted of the replacement of the ubiquitous galvanized streetlights with historically-styled ones, sidewalk cut outs for trees with cast iron grates, street resurfacing on Petaluma Boulevard, reconfiguration of the corners, sidewalk bulb outs, the installation of two flashing crosswalks and sewer upgrades.  These improvements unified the ancillary characteristics of the Historic Downtown while adding streetlights, wider sidewalks and safer street crossings for pedestrians.

The water infrastructure in the Downtown area was enhanced by the addition of a water main and laterals for future fire sprinkler connections as there are many older buildings that were not required to have sprinkler systems installed during original construction.  The new water lines will also provide a better distribution main grid to serve further Downtown redevelopment in the Central Petaluma Specific Plan area.

Two blocks of Water Street were identified in the Master Plan for revitalization and blight removal.  Two successive projects were scoped and approved: Phase I Underground Utilities and Phase II At-Grade Improvements.  By revitalizing these two blocks, an open plaza area and pedestrian promenade were established and simultaneously, a portion of the “Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan” (aka Rivertrail) was completed.  This waterfront area was eventually extended by an adjacent development, now referred to as the “Theatre District”

The existing waterfront in this area was a back-lot alley-way defined by the delivery entrances of the 100 year-old brick buildings on one side and the galvanized chain-link fence protecting the drop-off to the Petaluma River on the other side.  The street was uneven asphalt and businesses stored their motley assembly of garbage and recycling bins wherever suited them best.  The alley-way provided reserved parking and a quiet place for vandals to set garbage cans on fire, “tag” private property and throw a variety of objects into the river, limited only by what wasn’t chained down or too heavy to lift.

The business services in this area were utilized mostly by the business people to do work day errands or lunches or by the nearby residents for a weekend brunch.  This special area of Petaluma was not sought as a destination within the larger city. 

The Water Street project removed property owner specific parking and traffic thoroughfare to provide an open gathering space along the shores of the Petaluma River. Drab asphalt was removed and replaced with an interesting brick and cobble stone pattern hearkening to the early days of Petaluma’s establishment.  Garbage can enclosures were built of materials congruous with the historic setting to provide aesthetically pleasing garbage enclosures for the Downtown businesses.  Property owners participated in discussions with the Public Works project manager to coordinate the size and placement of the new enclosures.  Plans are in design to build kiosks to bring vendors to the area to cater to the visitor population which has the additional benefit of increasing plaza activity and further reducing blight.

The train tracks that follow the western bank of the Petaluma River into the Historic Downtown area created an obstacle to Phase I of this project.  The City of Petaluma negotiated with Northwestern Pacific Railway Company to carefully underground the utilities crossing the existing railroad tracks.  The tracks were preserved to retain the historic value of this special area as well as to maintain the right-of-way for possible future use of passenger trains. 

A goal of the PCDC is to design and construct projects that will facilitate and enhance the vitality of the Central Business District environment at the pedestrian level.  In addition to adhering to the planning concepts in the Central Petaluma Master Plan, the Streetscape project is consistent with many goals within the Petaluma General Plan: strengthening Petaluma’s unique identity; maintaining and enhancing Petaluma’s physical diversity, unique image, and small town atmosphere; enhancing the Downtown as a community focal point and the City’s major commercial center in order to encourage economic growth while retaining Downtown’s historic heritage. Monthly meetings convened with a twenty-five member advisory committee appointed by City Council to discuss the specific objectives of the Streetscape project and to listen to community views and perspectives regarding the project intent.

The CBD Master Plan enhances the pedestrian environment in the Historic Downtown by programming historic-style metal street furnishings to complement the iron-front buildings.  Selective street resurfacing was performed to extend functional life and enhance aesthetics.  In the interest of minimizing impact to the businesses and to promote sustainability, the Master Plan does not use a “total tear out and replace” approach, but rather removes only what is necessary.  All of these elements contribute to creating an environment to stimulate commerce.

After approval by SPARC and City Council, the Public Works project manager canvassed the business district to confirm the planned streetscape locations and discuss the upcoming project installation with the property owners.  The City’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee were consulted in the field to locate bike bollards in popular bicyclist locations.  During the construction phase, the project manager negotiated the final details of the streetscape item placement with property owners and merchants. 

All of the metal streetscape furniture pieces are fabricated locally.  Petaluma High School was consulted for the manufacture and supply of three of the Downtown Streetscape furnishings: the metal strap (“plaza”) bench, the cast iron and wood slat (“chicken”) bench and the custom bicycle bollards.  The success of this contract has now evolved into a model program for other technical high schools to follow.  Teachers and students alike were excited to participate in a project that had so much impact in revitalizing their local community. 

The black painted, traditionally-styled light posts and sign posts as well as the “plaza” and “chicken” benches were selected to evoke the historic cast iron fixtures used at the time of the original Downtown of 1858.  The “chicken” bench is based on an antique, cast iron and wood plank bench found in Petaluma.  In keeping with Petaluma’s agricultural history and as a nod to the twenty-seven year tradition of the “Butter and Eggs Day Parade”, the finials for the bike bollards and medallions on the street lights feature a chicken and egg motif as designed by local artists and selected by the Petaluma Art's Council.

The early-20th century styled, under sidewalk basements precluded the installation of an automatic watering system for the new planters.  Shortly after the project completion, the project manager negotiated with individual merchants and The Rose Club of Petaluma to assume responsibility of care for the new planters in the Downtown area.

The Petaluma Downtown Association meets regularly to discuss merchant and property owner’s issues in the area.  A frequent topic of discussion is the overall cleanliness of the Historic Downtown realizing that the daily appearance has an impact on a visitor’s experience.  The merchants and property owners invest their personal and professional time to keep storefronts and sidewalks tidy.  This redeveloped area does require additional maintenance and operations effort, but it is the City’s commitment to spend time and effort in the newly revitalized area.

A comprehensive wayfinding project was designed and executed as part of the overall CBD Master Plan.  This signage project installed a combination of driving and pedestrian signs in fifty-eight locations along the four main approaches into the Petaluma Central Business District.

Other related projects add to the revitalization effort as they dovetail into the CBD Master Plan projects.  The “Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan” (aka Rivertrail) will provide a continuous pedestrian and bicycle pathway along the banks of the Petaluma River.  The various destinations along the Rivertrail will include the revitalized Historic Downtown, Water Street, and “Theatre District”, in addition to other commercial, transportation, residential and riparian destinations.  The completed portion of the Rivertrail in the Historic Downtown area now connects the Water Street Plaza to the recently completed “Theatre District”.

Furthermore, Sonoma County has begun construction of a “Transit Mall” on a large, formerly undeveloped parcel immediately across the river from the Historic Downtown.  This area is intended to operate as a transit hub connecting the cities of Sonoma County and possibly further connecting the North Bay counties to San Francisco and the East Bay.  Currently, the Balshaw Bridge provides pedestrians and bicyclists a convenient crossing of the Petaluma River from the “Transit Mall” site to the Downtown area.

This project was executed under an Owner Participation Agreement (OPA) between the City of Petaluma and the private developer.  PCDC provided funding for the improvements of supporting infrastructure and the undergrounding of overhead services.  The City supported the development of this adjacent area because this project in turn supported the City’s vision to revitalize the Historic Downtown area.  The Theatre District project expanded the area and number of Downtown commercial and office spaces, thereby increasing the number of people and variety of services in the area. 

The private developer worked with the City and SPARC to design a new series of buildings adjacent to the Historic Downtown area.  The architect took into consideration the charm and characteristics of the Historic Downtown buildings and extended the installation of the Downtown furnishings to make the area bike and pedestrian friendly.  The total Theatre District project includes:

  • a twelve-screen cinema complex (complete);
  • a mixed use project consisting of ground floor commercial space and residential units grouped around an interior courtyard (in construction);
  • a four level of parking garage containing ground floor commercial space (complete);
  • related landscaping and site improvements (complete);

Specific resident and property owner needs, such as reserving public street parking for residents and adjusting the schedule around private community events, were addressed on a continual basis throughout the construction of these projects.

In addition to the aforementioned projects, the Downtown Streetscape Phase II project, which is in design, will extend the area of street furnishings to two additional blocks of the Downtown area.  Private adaptive re-use projects have been completed within historical buildings adjacent to the Downtown area and other developments are underway to extend the mixed-use planning concept to the south of Downtown along the river.

The six projects discussed herein represent great steps forward in an overall effort to revitalize the Central Business District.  These projects would not have been successfully completed without the consensus of the myriad advisory committees and continued community support. 

The individual project descriptions demonstrate the support of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan goals and objectives by encouraging mixed-use development, redirecting growth into Central Petaluma, encouraging diverse transportation modes and reconnecting the city to the river. Repeat visitors and long-term residents often remark at the increased pedestrian activities and overall improvements of the Downtown area. 

Petaluma Community Development Commission
11 English Street
Petaluma, CA  94952-2933
 (707) 778-4345