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Photograph by Michael Amsler

The tide is turning: After years of neglect, the Petaluma River turning basin and various waterfront properties are drawing the attention of developers and city officials, who are considering a nearly $50 million plan to revitalize the area.

Banking on the River

Everyone from boaters to developers has high hopes for the Petaluma waterfront

By Paula Harris

IT'S A MELLOW afternoon as John FitzGerald--a tanned, outdoorsy guy in a paisley shirt and khaki pants, with well-cut graying hair and a crinkly smile--plans to meet his fiancée for an after-work glass of cold lager at Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery on the Petaluma River. A slight breeze ruffles the patio umbrellas and ripples the surface of the nearby river.

FitzGerald has a passion for this tidal estuary that flows past sloping farmlands and waterfront neighborhoods, past earthen levees and salt marshes, from San Pablo Bay to the center of the city.

He strolls toward the Great Petaluma Mill and continues behind it to the watery "plaza" that's the Petaluma River turning basin--the hidden heart of downtown. A couple of dog owners meander with their pets around the historic waterfront, meeting along the gently curving basin and breaking their stride to pause and exchange dog pats and pleasantries.

"If we can just keep people's attention focused on [the river] and what a wonderful resource we have, in the next 10 years we're going to see a tremendous amount of growth along here."

--John FitzGerald

But the once-bustling turning basin of a century ago has taken on a listless, neglected feel in the past few years. Where once the city turned toward the river for its very life, the opposite has become true. The Golden Eagle Shopping Center, constructed in the 1970s on the site of an old flour mill, literally turned its back on the river--aligning its businesses away from the waterfront. The water itself, often shallow and silted up, languished for years beneath the rotting pilings, broken wharves, and weather-faded signs that lined its banks.

The ebb and flow continue. Steamer Gold Landing, a lively watering hole and riverfront restaurant that closed several years ago, transformed into a health club. And the wildly popular annual Petaluma River Festival, a daylong pack-'em-in celebration that honored the city's waterfront heritage, folded in 1997, after 12 years, because its organizers, including FitzGerald, got tired of shouldering the huge event with little assistance from the business community or city officials.

The problem-plagued but photogenic Petaluma Queen paddle wheeler--a longtime feature of the turning basin--steamed out for good soon after that, leaving in its wake an echoing trail of calliope music and an uncertain future for the area. A planned replacement steamer scheduled for repairs remains in ruins farther downriver.

Most important, the projected riverfront development and recreational boom that so many have anticipated in recent years hasn't happened--yet.

While he waits, FitzGerald strolls over to the small structure known as the Balshaw Pedestrian Bridge, constructed in 1989 and named for contentious former City Councilman Jack Balshaw. Standing here on the wooden planks that arch across the murky expanse, joining the Golden Eagle Shopping Center and Steamer Gold Landing, FitzGerald leans forward to rest his tanned forearms on the metal railing that's still warm from the afternoon sun.

Today, the river is the shade of green olives left out too long at a picnic.


Riverfront development: Haystack Marketplace would replace the ramshackle warehouses and piles of old wooden ties that litter the rail station area.

"WHEN I LOOK out at the river, it's like looking at a history book," FitzGerald murmurs, breathing slowly, his eyes intent on the backdrop of gently flowing, muddied water. "I have a vision in my head of what was going on here 50, 70, 100 years ago: the boats, the trains, all the activity, all the changes, except the shoreline--that hasn't really changed.

"I think about all the thousands of people who got off their boats right here because it was the focus of the city, and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling."

FitzGerald has long been a Petaluma River advocate. As a civil engineer and land surveyor in Petaluma, he's been involved with the river in a variety of ways for more than 20 years. He is one of the founding members of the Petaluma River Association, a longtime nonprofit that created the now-defunct river festival. And he's chairman of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce River Committee and serves on the citizens' advisory committee for the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan, a $40 million to $50 million project adopted by the council four years ago that still awaits much of its funding.

Besides all that, the river serves as FitzGerald's liquid playground. He's kayaked on it, water-skied on it. Even swum in it--a brave feat considering the residential and commercial pollutants that sometimes contaminate the water.

"When I look at the river, I'm encouraged," FitzGerald continues. "If we can just keep people's attention focused on [the river] and what a wonderful resource we have, in the next 10 years we're going to see a tremendous amount of growth along here."

Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, agrees, saying Petaluma is following a nationwide trend of the last decade in revamping riverfronts as centerpieces to regenerate downtown areas. "The river certainly has great potential, and the prospects can be very bright for Petaluma," he says of the once-languishing farming community that's now experiencing a boom through its recent metamorphosis into Telecom Valley.

"There's a confluence of events: the big concentration of telecom manufacturers in Petaluma, the prosperity of that industry, people like Bill White coming forward from that industry with dramatic plans to revive Petaluma, new eating establishments by the river, and a new creation of awareness and the idea of investment prospects in the area.

"It's all going hand in hand."

IT SEEMS he's right. Petaluma is poised to make some mighty changes in river enhancement and development--changes that could finally open the floodgates to transform a once-sleepy farming community into a major player in the North Bay's economic picture.


Market rate: Gerald and Gina Pittler envision Haystack Marketplace as a key player in Petaluma's riverfront renaissance.

*A group of developers--including Kirk Lok, who owns two other hotels in Sonoma County--want to build a $26 million Sheraton Hotel at the city-owned and financially troubled Petaluma Marina, a four-story building in the style of an East Cast resort, complete with 183 rooms, conference and banquet facilities, a restaurant, gym, pool, spa, and telecommuting facilities for business guests. "We're ready to order the concrete piles now; we're ready to go," says Lok. The facility is expected to be completed in 2002. Lok hopes that the hotel, which is expected to create 100 new jobs, will be a Petaluma landmark. "It's not going to be just for business functions; it's where your daughter might want to have her wedding," he says. "The hotel will be an asset by which we can define our community."

* Bill White, an influential developer who built Petaluma's Telecom Valley manufacturing hub, the Redwood Business Park, could dramatically change the face of downtown, the turning basin, and the neighboring riverfront warehouse district. White, who has owned the Petaluma Mill building since 1998, has entered escrow to purchase several properties in these downtown areas and plans to construct a three-story office complex; a 120-room 1920s-luxury style Hilton Gardens Hotel; and, eventually, 75 upscale riverfront apartments. The office complex would have a view of the turning basin, with decks overlooking the river. The apartments would be built on the west bank and replace a row of ramshackle corrugated-metal warehouses. "We hope to start work on the hotel and the office this fall," says White. "Everything we're doing is consistent with both of the [river] plans for the city. The river is critical to the whole thing. It's the reason for the changes; it's the attraction. How many other towns have a river running right through the downtown? It's the reason Petaluma is such a neat place."

* Petaluma optometrist Gerald Pittler and his wife, Gina, have big plans to renovate the area surrounding the historic train barns on Weller Street, parallel to the river and near the Lakeville Highway train depot. To create their Haystack Marketplace, the couple purchased the three-acre property three and a half years ago for $680,000 and plan to begin construction later this summer if they obtain the necessary financing and permits.

"Haystack Marketplace will feature a European-style shopping experience with local culinary artisans and their products, courtyard cafes, and specialty retail shops, as well as office spaces," notes their web site. The three-phase project would transform the barns into an open-air market housing eight to 10 individually owned and operated food-oriented businesses, possibly including wine sales and winetasting.

"We'd like to create a meandering effect," explains Gina Pittler. "Our goal is to create the type of atmosphere that will support local entrepreneurs, and we'd prefer not to bring in big-box names."

Phase 2 would involve an additional 60,000 to 70,000 square feet of retail, offices, and residential space, plus cafes and restaurants. Phase 3 would include a hotel and spa.

"It's really exciting," says Pittler. "We have a chance to make an extended downtown, something most cities don't get to do."

* The Washington-based cruise company American Safari Cruises is ready to set sail on the Petaluma and Napa waterways, which they have trendily dubbed the Wine Rivers, making Petaluma a cruise destination and port of entry for Wine Country tourists. Starting in October, the company's 21-passenger Safari Quest deluxe "mega-yacht" will sail passengers to the turning basin (the company has a new dock near the River House Restaurant) and then on to Napa.

The upscale Wine Country cruises--which cost from $1,395 to $2,495 per person for three or four nights, respectively--will focus on fine dining and wine tasting, plus such river activities as kayaking and fishing. Also on the itinerary is an afternoon of antiquing in downtown Petaluma. "You're enjoying the good life today," notes the company's slick brochure. A second vessel, Safari Spirit, will join the fleet later in the year.

"We're 70 percent booked right now for our first trip," says American Safari Cruises president and CEO Dan Blanchard. "When we first were exploring this project, we knew from the very beginning that Petaluma was going to be a hit. It's a quaint slice of Americana, and people really enjoy it. Plus, it's a great way to explore the river."

But won't tourist kayakers be a bit disappointed by the Petaluma River's often brackish, silty water, which looks invitingly clear blue in the brochure photo? Not really, says Blanchard. "Our clients accept this is like a river barge trip in Europe," he says, "They want to explore all the nooks and crannies."

Room at the inn: Real estate tycoon Kirk Lok wants to construct a $26 million Sheraton Hotel at the embattled Petaluma Marina.

TOURISM is definitely on the minds of many, since bed-tax revenues are an important contributor to the city coffers. Sondra Costello, promotion coordinator for the Petaluma visitors' program, asserts the river is not currently a forgotten resource. She says the visitors' program still stresses the Petaluma River in its public relations efforts.

"The riverfront has always been the focal point of the community, and it definitely still is--it's where the community started," she says. "The river is very much a part of us."

However, FitzGerald says the loss of the Petaluma River Festival has taken the turning basin out of the public eye. The event was partly organized by the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce to get downtown merchants to see what a good resource the river could be, hoping they would realize that if the river could be successful, so could downtown. After the first year, the eight-member Petaluma River Association broke away from the chamber to organize the event by itself.

"We pulled in many people, more and more each year," says FitzGerald. "The City Council saw the movement and claimed it all as their idea, but that's OK--that's how you influence policy. So things started to get done. They constructed the Balshaw Bridge in 1989 and there was attention to maintenance [and] policing, and things seemed to be done. But the past two or three years, it's lost momentum--they're not as enthusiastic about the river and the turning basin."

According to FitzGerald, the festival's fundraising activities attracted about 250,000 people to the Petaluma riverfront during its 12 years, and the organization used the proceeds to promote downtown Petaluma and enhance the waterfront. Past proceeds have helped purchase and install new docks in the turning basin, add lights to the Balshaw Bridge, renovate the historic schooner Alma, and support related educational and informational programs.

A boater survey completed by the Petaluma River Association, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, indicated that boaters coming up for the weekend spent an average of $300 per weekend in Petaluma restaurants.

FitzGerald says that boating has declined, but Costello insists the river is still experiencing a lot of boating activity. "The Petaluma River [was] voted one of the top 10 leisure boating destinations in the Bay Area in the May 1999 [issue of the boating magazine] Latitude 38," she says. "About 1,200 leisure boats travel on the Petaluma River each year."

Although the Petaluma Queen has relocated to Vallejo and the Petaluma River Festival has ended, Costello says that annual events like Santa's arrival by tugboat, the Christmas holiday lighted boat parade, the self-guided River Walk, and riverfront dining are still big draws.

"We're still trying to change our image from 'Egg Basket of the World' to 'Victorian Riverfront Town of Petaluma,' " she says.

FitzGerald thinks that city officials can do a lot more to move things along. He would like to see the City Council adopt a 2-year-old central specific plan for Petaluma and help developers carry it out. "If someone has the vision and can capture the right idea for the city, they should encourage them, help them, and speed the process. If you want mixed use [retail, residential, and office spaces], then you've got to get out of the way and get on with the process," he says. "But I know of several projects in which developers walked away from the area because the process was too costly."

He adds that, under current policy, the financial burden would be on developers--to replace old gas lines and pipelines and basically upgrade an infrastructure more than a century old.

ACTUALLY, an official master plan for the riverfront is in place--sort of. "Petaluma is a river town. The Petaluma River is its lifeblood"--with these words begins the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan, a document adopted four years ago by the City Council. It describes the community's vision for the river, including its waterfront uses, activities, and development.

The hefty 266-page document goes on to note: "Implementation of this plan will result in a waterfront environment that is the jewel in Petaluma's crown."

But such ambitious plans take time to process. Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton, who notes that the river was the reason she got into politics almost a decade ago, says one of the council's top priorities is to implement the River Plan. The obstacle: funding.

Hamilton is optimistic that plans for the river will fall into place in rapid succession once things get started. "Redevelopment needs to happen," she says. "But state and federal funds need to be sought," she says.

There's already a low- to moderate-income housing development under construction on East Washington Avenue on the east bank of the river and also limited development in the Foundry Wharf area, Hamilton says. She also mentions that the city's River Walk--designed to encourage pedestrian traffic through town and onto the waterfront--is continuing to take shape.

"It's happening piece by piece," she says.

In gear: The 63-year-old D Street drawbridge this week closed for 10 weeks of repairs. The $2.4 million renovation project is needed to keep river traffic flowing.

And then there's the central Petaluma specific plan, completed in September 1998. The document calls for most of the pedestrian-friendly enhancements detailed in the more comprehensive River Plan. It also projects a striking overhaul of the turning basin area, including the addition of an 80-room hotel, an amphitheater suitable for large musical events, and a 2,000-seat multiplex cinema. "A cinema complex that is integrated with restaurants, shops, and public parking, developed around park space surrounding a newly improved turning basin, could prove to be highly successful," notes the document.

Mike Moore, the city's newly hired community development director, says his office is trying to get the draft plan back to the City Council to determine the process for final approval, perhaps this summer.

The plan has a lot of river-related redevelopment opportunities, he says, mainly in the downtown area and south of downtown. He adds that there's also an interest in development of the river warehouses on the west side of the river for office, retail, and residential uses.

Prospective developers have been eyeing residential and commercial opportunities in the largely neglected Foundry Wharf area. Moore says that from a recreational standpoint, there's still a lot of river use. "People are becoming a lot more aware of the river and wanting to pay attention to it," he adds.

As a point of comparison, Napa County voters recently approved a $170 million plan to enhance and manage the Napa River. A new waterfront restoration plan is in the works, calling for a flood-protection project, a six-mile Napa River trail, and a waterfront restoration plan.

That plan will create "an extensive system of bridges and walkways to connect the galleries, restaurants, theaters, attractions, historic sites, one-of-a-kind retail shops, open spaces, public places, and other amenities which will fill the area," boasts the "Downtown Napa Renaissance" blurb from the city's redevelopment/economic development department.

Petaluma River advocates suggest that the Napa projects could serve as a working model.

MEANWHILE the Petaluma River has had its share of problems. "It hasn't been a good year for travel on the river," says FitzGerald. "Word is out that the river is silted up, and the powers that be are not paying attention to the turning basin. They've been preoccupied with other matters."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges that stretch of the river every four years [the last time was in 1996], but the project was omitted from the new federal budget, and now officials are scrambling to achieve a "congressional add-on" to secure funding for the task.

"[The siltation] makes it difficult for pleasure craft to come in to dock," says FitzGerald. "If the tide is out, the boats rest on the bottom."

The sediment also compounds another of the river's problems--flooding. The city recently reluctantly agreed to pay $1.5 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part of an over-budget bill, to keep the Petaluma River Flood Control Project going, to ease flooding in Payran Avenue neighborhoods on the north end of the river.

Ironically, the funding for the flood control project may have to come from revenue earmarked for river enhancement.

Still, as the sun sets over the muddy gray-green water and FitzGerald heads over to the brewpub for a cold one, he's optimistic about the future of the beleaguered waterway.

"Inattention has brought us to a point of new awareness. The next big move in Petaluma isn't going to be the big spread of the east side like we've seen in the past years; it's going to be a huge move in the center of town. In the next 10 years we're going to see a tremendous amount of growth along the river," FitzGerald emphasizes, adding a few predictions for good measure.

"I think the River Plan will be implemented quicker than we thought, and buildings and walkways will be opened up for people to enjoy the river. There will be a new trolley running along the riverfront and a small electric ferry from the marina to the turning basin," he says. "There're a lot of things in place--it will all eventually happen if everyone keeps the river in mind."

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From the June 22-28, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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