A more-than-full house at the Senior Center meeting room last Thursday evening brought excitement, and opinions, to a City of Healdsburg workshop with SMART on where to locate a rail transit station in town.
“We’re happy to have standing room only in here—we regard it as a good thing,” said City Manager Jeff Kay before introducing Eddy Cumins, the general manager of Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit. Indeed, the larger turnout and engaged conversations during the 90-minute workshop showed that the pending arrival of SMART, and the location of SMART’s proposed Healdsburg station, continue to be of vital interest to Healdsburg residents.
Cumins came to SMART from Utah just two years ago, but during that time more energy, productivity and funding have characterized the rail’s development. A long-delayed extension from the Sonoma County Airport to Windsor is underway, and 65% of the $176 million needed to build out the extension all the way to Healdsburg is already funded, he said. “Obviously that’s not 100%, we still have a ways to go. But I can tell you there’s a lot of funding opportunities that are out there that we plan to take advantage of.”
The first activity that Healdsburg will see when the funding is available will be rebuilding the railroad bridge, located just upstream of the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge over the Russian River. The railroad bridge is key not only because SMART trains will use the rail to reach town, but part of the project will also be to build a bicycle-footpath from Front Street to Bailhache Avenue for SMART’s planned pedestrian pathway that will parallel its entire route.
While placing the SMART station at the historic Depot may seem like an obvious solution, Cumins pointed out that it was last studied in 1997, and “a lot has changed since then.”
Revisiting the Past
But some have expressed frustration that the 25-year-old study is evidently being discounted as momentum builds for a downtown location (currently projected to be on Vine Street between Matheson and North).
“I certainly understand that it’s a different community now and they want to allow the public to weigh in, but sometimes it just seems a little unnecessary to repeat what’s been done,” said former Councilman Eric Ziedrich. The owner of Healdsburg Lumber has kept away from public discussion on the project, due to his financial interests in the area along Hudson Street where the Depot is located, and was not at the Oct. 19 workshop, but feels compelled to point out the obvious.
“It’s almost comical, but the city went through an extensive analysis and formed a committee years ago to make an assessment of where the SMART train depot should be,” he said. “That committee met over an extended period of time, analyzed downtown sites and the current Depot site, and ultimately concluded that the current Depot site made the best sense.” He said that the committee took into consideration all the factors being re-analyzed now: congestion issues, walkability, the concentration of prospective passengers and the like, and concluded the Depot site made the best sense.
As a result, a parking lot was built by the city at the Depot location, and the extensive Mill District project developed with the expectation that a rail depot would be close by.
But Emily Betts, principal planner for SMART, made the point that things have changed over time. “I think it’s worth a second look,” she said. “It’s been a long time since 1997, when the plan was written. I would say the whole North Bay, not just Healdsburg, has changed in that time. And having a commuter rail system running in place for the last six years has provided a new opportunity for what it would look like to have cities centered around a rail station.”
Perhaps the most important factor under discussion was the distance from a proposed rail station to downtown, or a destination travelers would presumably like to visit. And the “walkshed”—the preferred distance from a station to a destination—is now believed to be only a quarter of a mile.
Betts pointed to the San Rafael station, the downtown Novato station and even the Petaluma station as within that quarter-mile walkshed. But it’s not just distance, but quality: the trek from the Petaluma station to Petaluma Boulevard seems longer than .2 miles because it’s through undeveloped property, while the short distance from Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square station to Courthouse Square seems longer because it’s inconvenient, ducking under a freeway overpass and through a shopping mall.
“It’s not a pleasant pedestrian environment between the downtown Santa Rosa station and the Square,” she said.
So the different distance between the former Depot on Hudson Street, .3 miles to the Plaza, compared to the .1 mile from the Vine Street station, drew considerable attention at the city’s SMART workshop. Other factors were in play, of course—the relative lack of station parking downtown, the absence of housing compared to the Depot neighborhood, and the cost of developing an EIR should the Vine Street location be chosen.
“I know a lot of people here tonight will have strong opinions,” said City Manager Kay at the outset of the meeting. “That’s okay, tell us what they are.” But he urged people to listen, exchange views and be open to changing their minds. “I’ve changed my mind several times,” he said.
Public Works Director Larry Zimmer said that the meeting’s comments and concerns would be recorded, and posted to the City website in the next couple weeks. “Then, the city and SMART will meet to go over the comments and determine what further analysis is needed and what the next steps will be,” he said.
The final recommendation will be made by the city council in a public meeting, but there’s no good guess as to when that will be.
Follow Healdsburg’s public discussion of the new station location at healdsburg.gov/SMART.