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Man with a Plan

Architect Peter Calthorpe puts a new spin on North Bay growth

By Bruce Robinson

"We've got to rethink the American Dream," suggests Peter Calthorpe. "That large lot, single-family home is less and less appropriate to who we are--economically, demographically, socially--and yet we haven't completely changed that mode. When you begin to rethink that, and you realize we're going to have more diverse neighborhoods, opportunities open up that perhaps weren't present in previous dialogues."

And that diversity is a key to creating neighborhoods and communities that bring people together, Calthorpe elaborates, as opposed to the conventional subdivision model of the past half-century. "I think the one-size-fits-all phenomenon has worked, not because we're all the same, but because we all looked at our houses as investments, with an eye toward what's going to resell," .he says.

"Well, those days are over. Accelerated deprecation on housing is going to be a thing of the past, primarily because the baby boom is through the demand cycle. The second income, which made it possible for people to come in and spend so much for houses, has been absorbed into the price structure. Those two things--more money and more demand--have crested, and you're not gong to see incredible returns on your investment in the house. So that means people are gong to pick housing that's much closer to their needs, less as an investment and more as a home, which then means it's going to be more diverse, which I think is a very healthy thing.

"The tragedy of the last 30 years is that subdivisions create micro-neighborhoods, but they don't create full neighborhoods--places where there is a diversity of housing, there are walkable destinations, recreation, and shops as well as housing, schools. Very simple things, but things we tend to be missing when we go at it one subdivision at a time."

An architect and urban planner who has won international recognition for his people- and pedestrian-oriented concepts, such as "pocket parks," Calthorpe is outlining his ideas at an elongated hexagonal table inside the airy new office he designed inside a whitewashed cinderblock warehouse near the freeway in Berkeley. Even as he has relocated from Sausalito to within bicycling distance of his university area home, he is preparing to apply his ideas to Sonoma and Marin counties.

Calthorpe has been hired to conduct a $400,000 "Intermodal Transportation and Land Use Study" for the two neighboring counties that is being paid for with "Caltrans money that can only be used for studies," notes Petaluma Supervisor Jim Harberson. The end result is intended to "marry together transportation and land use in a comprehensive plan," Harberson says. "I'm hoping that minimally we get some agreement and support from various factions in Sonoma and Marin about improving the freeway and get some consensus about what to do with the railroad."

Unlike the previous 101 Corridor Action Study, Calthorpe's work is expected to yield some recommended changes in the two counties' General Plans, which Harberson predicts will be controversial. "I think some people who envision this as a way of helping slow down growth in Sonoma County may be disappointed when the results come out," Harberson says. "It could wind up being a blueprint for growth in Sonoma County."

Calthorpe, however, is not forecasting such sweeping consequences from his work. "The question of fair-share affordable housing, the question of jobs-housing balance, those are bi-county questions, very political questions," he notes. "At best, we'll be able to give people a different kind of language to talk about those questions. At worst, we'll just have to throw up our hands and say people have been bloodied enough between the two counties and are probably not going to move very far."

Recognizing the high value both counties place on open space and agriculture, the professorial planner expects that "infill" development strategies--construction of so-called mother-in-law apartments and other second-units--may be a major part of the plan when it is completed early next year. "Everybody thinks there is a direct linkage between density, affordability, and transit. Those three things go together," he explains. "We just built a neighborhood down in Mountain View that is single-family detached [homes] and they're 12 units per acre. They're three times the traditional density, but they have all the attributes except for the large yard, and there are a lot of families who don't want the large yard any more.

"All of a sudden, you've got a form of affordable housing that isn't an apartment complex, you've got a form a density that isn't a three-story sore thumb, and all of a sudden, maybe neighborhoods can accept more diversity in their housing stock. And that changes the issues around affordability and around transit."

It also changes the implications of growth, which Calthorpe suggests should be weighed on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. "Lets take this specific neighborhood and say, 'What happens when you add this number of units, or this much commercial or retail?' People can see that growth can repair their neighborhood, that that growth can actually make their neighborhood better. They're so use to growth equaling degradation that they've forgotten that if we got back to some real human-scaled urban design, this growth can actually make our community better.

Instead of a big strip commercial center out there on the main street, we can have a mixed-use neighborhood village center that's walkable, that's comfortable, that's interesting, that's not dominated by parking lots and traffic.

"The moment they see that, they get a different attitude about the numbers and towards the idea of infill."

These ideas have already gotten some play in Windsor, where Calthorpe helped draft the Community Design section of the new town's first General Plan. "The most important thing we tried to do is help the city see itself as a series of neighborhoods, not as a series of zoning classifications," he explains. "We tried to work with them to see how those neighborhoods could be fashioned, not only out of the new growth, but perhaps even out of some of the existing growth."

And does Calthorpe agree with critics of the proposed Windsor Wal-Mart that the superstore would ravage some of those carefully designated neighborhoods? Not really. "It's no secret I think it's destructive," he responds. "But short of real regional cooperation, there's really nothing to be done. I can't fault them, because the alternative is to still have the negative impacts of Wal-Mart, just in the next town. We had a concept where Wal-Mart could have gone into the old town center, believe it or not, if they'd have been willing to put their parking on the roof.

"Of course, Wal-Mart wasn't interested because they don't want to deviate from the norm. But there are ways, you see."

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From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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