Predictably predictable

When a major new commercial building project is proposed in Sonoma, its appearance is scrutinized, poked, prodded, and otherwise worked-over by committees until it is declared suitably “Sonoma-Style”. Thus we see “Sonoma-Style Farmhouse” and “Sonoma-Style Barn” popping up in proposal project narratives reading more like real estate sales brochures than project applications.

This predictably raises the predictable question: What is Sonoma-Style? Luckily, it’s a question that can be answered easily: There is no such thing as Sonoma-Style.

I suppose, if one goes back far enough in time, we might get closer to a finding a “style.” Considering our oldest, major structures, I’d call Sonoma’s Style “Colonial-Adobe.” Think Barracks and Mission; exposed, rough-hewn beams, thick mud walls plastered white, gravel courtyards – that sort of thing. Buildings with low overhangs for shade and second story porches, small windows, tile roofs; our old adobe homes are still around providing examples.

Today however, Sonoma-Style has nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with being non-controversial. It’s commercial architecture intended to recede into the background and not attract undue attention; it’s new but it doesn’t really look new; it reminds us of something, but exactly what is hard to say. Mostly, it looks…ok.

Ironically, over time public spaces have a way of transcending what we might find, even today, oddly out-of-place. Take the Sonoma Cheese Factory building on Spain Street, for example (photo above). That building’s “Non-Sonoma-Style” design would never make it through our current approval process, and yet, having lived with it for nearly thirty years, I’ve become fond of it. Perhaps I’m even late to the game, and others find that retro-quirky, “modern” design endearing.

The Sonoma Cheese Factory works because the context in which it sits has not changed: the Barracks to its left and older buildings to its right. Time has softened its impression, and its earthy tile color, in retrospect, is conservative. Oddly enough, today the Cheese Factory looks refreshingly creative; it’s not derivative or ersatz-anything, and certainly not Sonoma-Style. Twenty years from now it will appear positively quaint and authentically Mid-20th-Century.

In its attempt to “fit in”, Sonoma-Style has imposed itself as the new standard, which in common parlance means a building design likely to be approved by committee. In the process, creativity and design innovation have been discouraged, to the point that innovation and bold design in public buildings are not really viable options. Sonoma may be famous for its wine and cheese but it won’t be famous in the future for its striking new architecture.

I”m not advocating for Gleaming Glass Cubes, but I’d love to see some examples of innovation. Our town need not be stuck in a time warp repeatedly replicating what we imagine we are supposed to be. Instead, we should be prepared to envision and participate fully in the future, one where materials, environmental impacts and cultural effects look sharply forward, not back. We can unleash the creativity of those who study how people interact with public spaces and built structures, if only to get a sense of what we might be missing. It seems strange to enter the 21st century with new commercial buildings with designs derived from the 19th. Surprise, surprise, if we take a chance we might like what we see.

Interestingly, there is far more architectural innovation and creativity displayed in the creation of some new private homes and their creative use of new materials, contemporary style and striking design than new commercial buildings. There’s a message there.

Sonoma-Style is safe, but it doesn’t send a strong signal other than “playin’ it safe.” The condition of society, the planet and the environment, however, are well past “playin’ it safe,” and responding to current and future conditions requires strong and creative solutions. I don’t know exactly how those sort of solutions might look, but I’m curious.

The soul of Sonoma

The hallmarks of civilization are order and bureaucracy, the institutionalization of humanity into concrete rule-bound systems, balanced budgets, statistics, financial analysis, and the businesslike conversion of human beings into calculable units. The governing rationale of civilization is an obsession with the future, looking ahead and wanting to be bigger, stronger, better and indestructible. This is why civilization so often turns to “law and order” imposed by authoritarian strongmen. Despite the endurance of its narrative, all civilizations eventually collapse.

On the other hand, culture – soul – is by nature disorderly and unruly, relying on networks of family and personal relationships tied together largely through interdependent rituals and traditions. Soul spends more time looking back than ahead, going deeper rather than growing bigger, more focused on making meaning than making progress. Culture feeds on the detritus of civilization, and finds the creative potential in what is rejected, discarded and ignored; it feasts on ambiguity, metaphor and imagination. This is the soulful stuff of art, music, poetry and dance. When the grandiose plans and schemes of civilization collapse, cultures can still survive because the soul of culture resides in the human heart, especially the broken ones.

“More” is a civilized idea that’s become a fetish, nearly sexualized in its aspect. Our media is excited by seductive tales and images about billionaires, “the lifestyles of the rich and famous.” National identity is focused on the continuous growth of our Gross National Product, in other words, the creation of infinite wealth, even as it comes at the cost of life on this planet; it’s not just the world economy that’s heating up. To mask its nature, it sometimes calls itself “corporate culture” but civilization’s not a culture any more than its instruments of money or lifeless concrete are culture.

“Enough” is an idea that seeks to preserve, not exhaust soul, and values gratitude more than money; in this sense, it is anti-civilization. The games, the arts, the living things that endure all become the vital, life-affirming soul-stuff of culture. This is why we can speak of Native American culture or Black culture, or Latino culture, which despite civilization, have endured.

Civilization is not nostalgic and the bureaucratic mind always believes that what we know today is better than what we knew yesterday. To civilization, culture is an inconvenience to be overcome. In overcoming culture, civilization is ruthless and without mercy; it consumes culture then digests and regurgitates it as an imitation or cliché; when it cannot consume, it condemns, coerces, demolishes and destroys. When culture cannot satisfy civilization’s insatiable demands, civilization enslaves and commits genocide against people and nature, a Faustian deal with the devil proclaimed as progress.

Unique elements of tradition, land, architecture, creeks, trees, sense of place – what we call “culture” or soul – can exist for a while within the confines of civilization, its technology, economy, governance, and what’s generally regarded as its path of  “progress.”  Ironically, culture gives birth to civilization, but tragically, civilization kills culture’s soul. When possible, culture survives by going underground and living in the shadows. It employs a gray economy of sharing, barter and exchange. It thrives on trust, creativity and love. Unless it has been destroyed, as civilization unravels soul can re-emerge as a cohesive social force.

The soul of Sonoma? Let’s examine What It Is Not: noisy, overcrowded and in-a-hurry. Nor is it glitzy, snobby or stuck-up, phony, modernized, urban, polluted, or (at present) overbuilt. And What It Is? Down-to-earth, slower-paced, friendly, casual, locally-owned, civic-minded, generous, artsy, old-fashioned, authentic, respectful of nature and small-scale. It is old trees, young people and respected elders; its history is alive and present. Sonoma’s soul is the sound of water in the creeks, a cooling summer breeze, the smell of cow manure, children laughing in the Plaza, and public gatherings like farmers markets.

Developers call bigger buildings, more tourists, road improvements and piles of money signs of progress, but these products of civilization are soul killers; soul cannot be manufactured or imposed. Every General Plan of the past four decades has recognized the irreplaceable value of Sonoma culture precisely because Sonoma’s soul is vulnerable. During the past 30 years, I that soul has slowly weakened under the relentless monetary pressure of civilization. That pressure is particularly strong right now, and it will require brave and tireless hearts to save Sonoma’s soul.

Sonoma’s choice: community or cash cow

Sonoma Valley’s close proximity to eight-million people is a physical reality. That our valley happens to be exceptionally beautiful, contains historic and charming villages, and offers some of the finest agricultural land and growing conditions in the world is also true. Yet, combine these factors with the spectacular wealth of the one-percent, and it makes our community highly vulnerable to exploitation. We face a choice: will we remain a community or be sacrificed as a cash cow?

It’s our choice because as a democratic community we’re able to choose our elected leaders and with them, craft our own rules. The Valley and small towns we enjoy today are not simply the happenstance of chance, but of rules and planning. From Mariano Vallejo on down, we enjoy the legacy of leaders in our community who looked ahead to the future, but also appreciated the lessons of the past. It’s true that bad decisions have sometimes been made, yet experiencing the bad effects of poor decisions is often how we’ve learned to do things right.

During one term as Mayor of Sonoma in 2005, I had the welcome opportunity to visit Sonoma’s sister city in Tuscany, Greve in Chianti. Greve, like Sonoma, is a charming old village, in fact far older than Sonoma; Medieval buildings border its town plaza, including a church originally built 1,000 years ago. The surrounding countryside is filled with vineyards and wineries, some of which have been in families for many hundreds of years. Scattered among hills planted with grapes and olive groves are homes and winery buildings built of local stone with terra cotta barrel-tile roofs; they blend into the Tuscan landscape seamlessly.

The Mayor of Greve at that time, Paolo Saturnini cordially invited me and my wife to dinner with a small group. I speak no Italian, and he no English, but his assistant was fluent in both and acted as translator. Between altogether too many courses of good food, I asked Paolo, “What has prevented the building of inappropriately large or different looking structures?” His assistant translated, but he looked at me quizzically, and then spoke. “He does not understand your question,” replied his assistant. I asked it again, more simply, “Why hasn’t someone built a winery that does not use stone and terra cotta barrel tiles?” He again looked puzzled and responded. “He asks, ‘Why’,” said his assistant, “‘would anyone do that?'” Violating his community’s “sense of place” was simply unthinkable to him, and his response highlighted the difference between ambition and greed.

America, however, is not Italy and Sonoma is not Greve; here wealth and individual initiative frequently overwhelm history and culture. For this reason local planning is vitally important and why we must depend upon policies and regulations that insure our “sense of place” is not violated, rules that seem unnecessary in Greve.

The choices our community makes are more important than ever. Once a physical transformation takes place, its imprint lasts for many generations. If such changes reflect the nature of who we are and what our local culture historically has been – local, small-scale, modest, respectful of past values, generous and not ego-driven – our community will thrive and living here will remain exceptional.

If, however, we succumb to the greed of profit-over-people and allow our valley to be treated as a mere cash-cow, community will be lost.

The Pseudo-Science of CEQA and an EIR

eirAn Environmental Impact Report (EIR) responds to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), legislation intended to asses and address the environmental impacts of large developments, such as air-quality, construction debris and dust, noise and other factors. It takes only a few minutes reviewing the EIR of a large commercial development to realize that its use of quasi-scientific methods produces a dehumanized document all but inaccessible to the general public.

Large development requires major financial commitment, and all real estate investment is predicated upon projected forecasts of profits and return-on-investment. Such forecasts attempt to use reasonable assumptions about income and expenses; the larger the project and length of forecast, the greater the risk such assumptions are inaccurate. An accurate assessment of risk is vital to successfully predicting outcomes, but forecasting the future is always speculative.

The purpose of CEQA and an EIR it requires is essentially the same: determining the likely outcomes and environmental effects of a large project while attempting to reduce the risk of harm to the environment – the health of people, contamination of land and water, and effects on transportation.

Forecasting the future requires establishing baseline measurements of current conditions and attempting to determine how proposed projects will affect those measurements. In other words, an attempt to employ a “scientific” method to assess probabilities is what the EIR process entails. Accordingly, an EIR is a data-driven document, since only by reducing environmental factors to quantifiable, calculable numbers is it possible to predict probabilities. The difficulty, however, is that human beings and non-quantifiable factors such as quality-of-life, sense-of-place and community character cannot be reduced to calculable units. This is why an EIR becomes a dehumanized process.

The preparation of an EIR is the work of specialists. These specialists have expertise in the environmental regulations that must be satisfied and ways to satisfy them. Their method, after identifying potential impacts, is to decide if the project impacts are significant or less-than-significant. If they are deemed significant (as determined by calculations and forecasts) then they must be mitigated, and the EIR includes such mitigations. The work of EIR specialists is essentially opaque to anyone not a specialist, and challenging an EIR requires comparable specialist expertise. The appendix alone of a current project before the Planning Commission is 413 pages long. When reduced to pages of “objective” data, the “subjective” human element is unfortunately left far behind.

Thus the evaluation of auto traffic, for example, becomes a matter of objective measurement – traffic counts and trip generation pertaining to “test periods” or comparisons with comparable projects. Yet, traffic studies are not the same as the experience of living in a community day-to-day and gaining a “feel” for how things are or how they change over time. “Feelings” are not scientifically quantifiable or calculable, even though they are at the heart of human experience. Thus they find no place in CEQA or an EIR.

CEQA and an EIR have value, but are simply one element in determining if a proposed large project is right for a community. Applying a “scientific” methodology to human culture is tempting and seductive, but far from definitive. Therefore, it’s worth remembering that both CEQA and an EIR are specifically intended to protect the environment for living things – like people – and their safety, health and welfare.

Sonoma’s true vocal minority

Those who dissent or speak out are often dismissed derisively as members of “a vocal minority.” This happened during the 2013 Measure B election to limit the size of new hotels in Sonoma, even though that measure lost by less than one-percent. Now I’m hearing the same complaint about people in the 1st St. East area north of the Mission who’ve been speaking out at Planning Commission meetings against a hotel proposal in their neighborhood.

Carefully examining the phrase “vocal minority” in the context of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley reveals an uncomfortable and disturbing truth: our true “vocal minority” is the wealthiest one-percent; they make the most “noise” not by speaking out but by using money to increase their own wealth, wield influence and promote change.

Now, this is nothing new; the very wealthy have always used their financial strength to accomplish things, and oftentimes those things are positive – but not always. As a microcosm of America, Sonoma reflects many of the current socio-economic trends we see nationally, including many of the same ills, unfortunately. As economic inequality increases, so does the imbalance of power.

Money is powerful, and when used solely for personal gain, often socially corrosive. Vacation rental conversions provide an excellent example of how powerful economic incentives ultimately can erode the integrity of residential neighborhoods and turn them into commercial “strangerhoods” instead. The tension between private and public “rights” is ongoing, fought out in courtrooms, boardrooms, city council chambers and state legislatures. “Freedom vs. regulation” conflicts fuel constant debate politically and socially in America, and have done so for hundreds of years. At the moment, the regulation side is mostly in retreat in the face of a relentless assault by monied interests. The effects of Citizen’s United on campaign finance is currently one of the most dramatic examples, nationally.

Locally, the wealthiest among us are using their money in various ways, some good, some not so much. Not surprisingly, some are investing money simply to make even more money; in this sense the Sonoma wine country functions as a virtual ATM for wealthy speculators. Luxury hotels, an endless number of new premium wines and wineries, wedding event centers, hillside mini-mansion construction and conversion of single-family housing to vacation rentals are all examples. Thus it is the financial speculators within the wealthiest of the one-percent attract aspiring one-percenters, at a handsome profit, of course.

Other members of Sonoma’s wealthiest use their money to exert influence. They make generous contributions to our area’s non-profits and take leadership seats on non-profit boards of directors. For these non-profits, such largesse and participation is often welcome; scarce government grants and the ninety-nine percent who can no longer afford to donate as much money, negatively impacts fund-raising. But donations made by the wealthy can also come at the cost of cultural bias; some non-profits are more attractive to the wealthy than others, particularly when there is a new building to fund or highly visible program upon which to bestow dollars.

The very wealthiest in our area are just a handful – in all respects a tiny minority – yet their impact is major. Most are content to let money do their talking for them. While their voices may be soft, Sonoma’s wealthiest are the true “vocal” minority; their wealth speaks louder than words.

Exceeding Sonoma Valley’s carrying capacity

Population pressure plus expanding tourism is quickly pushing Sonoma Valley beyond its carrying capacity. This happened in the Napa Valley years ago, as anyone who has navigated Hwy. 29 in June or July has discovered.

For those who commute to work in San Francisco or Oakland, exceeding carrying capacity creates a weekday nightmare; traffic on five-lane freeways literally moves at a snail’s pace. BART trains are jammed, for those lucky enough to find parking in a BART lot. A recent poll indicates one-in-three residents of the Bay Area is considering moving somewhere else due to stress and congestion.

The idea of carrying capacity is very simple; when any container, such as a sewer pipe or roadway, is forced to carry more volume than it can properly contain, turbulence and disruption arise. Turbulence can take the form of gridlock, the chaos of the inability to move. In the case of a sanitary sewer line, it takes the form of backed-up sewage flowing from manhole covers.

From a civic and social planning perspective, exceeding carrying capacity is akin to placing too many rats in a cage; when personal space shrinks too much people get angry, frustrated and edgy. Road rage is one extreme symptom; common rudeness and discourtesy are less dramatic but nonetheless affect mood and social stability.

Carrying capacity can be enlarged, of course, and in civic planning this revolves around insuring that land is made available for the increased need of housing due to population growth. If, however, the infrastructure that serves housing growth is not increased, the carrying capacity of community infrastructure is quickly exceeded. Tourism and hospitality both add temporary population surges which serve to push demands on infrastructure beyond the limits of its carrying capacity.

In 1964, regional planners developed designs for a four-lane Sonoma Valley freeway connected to an expanded network of North Bay freeways to increase carrying capacity. Rejected by the public, which preferred a small-scale, rural-style community, those plans were set aside. Today, this leaves our valley with two-lane Hwy. 12 running North/South through most valley towns, the only transportation corridor available to serve our area’s expanding use.

Our infrastructure is what it is; given increased demand and fixed capacity, is there a way to reduce the detrimental effects of exceeding our Valley’s carrying capacity? The answer is “Yes-But.” Solutions will include significant trade-offs; it’s impossible to please everyone, always.

One solution is to focus all new housing on creating rental housing for people who already work here – hospitality workers, teachers and fire department personnel, etc. – thereby reducing commuting. This means largely curtailing new single-family market-rate housing, now median-priced at over $600,000.

When it comes to tourism and the economy, it means reducing hotel growth and cracking down on vacation rentals which remove single family home rentals available to workers; offering free, high-speed internet availability which facilitates working from home and reduces commuting, and attracting tech-savvy employers who utilize such networked methods.

As for the environment, it means supporting and implementing non-polluting, electric, car-and-bicycle-share services to reduce private auto use and the acres of parking devoted to it.

Will these approaches curtail some types of opportunities? The answer is “yes.” But, either we live within the limits of our carrying capacity or suffer increasing painful consequences.

A NIMBY by any other name

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, a proponent of a development project under review dismissively referred to project opponents as a “vocal minority.” Another said that the proposed project’s neighbors were only selfishly interested in “their own backyards” rather than the good of the community as a whole. One speaker who lives out of town even asked, “What about my rights?”, implying the opinions of neighbors were less important than his own. It’s interesting how the loyalty and devotion of people expressing aspirations about the destiny of their neighborhood is so easily characterized as something negative.

It’s easier, and perhaps more satisfying, to generate a negative “spin” rather than positive. Acronyms like NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) have become part of the lexicon of insults used regularly to disparage those with whom we disagree. Accuracy of assignation is irrelevant in such use; the purpose of calling someone a NIMBY or member of a “vocal minority” is to shut off dialogue and serious debate, not stimulate it.

Blame and shame are the currency of aggression, often used as a substitute for education and understanding. Demonizing others is easier than study. The complexity of land-use law and regulations – the City of Sonoma’s General Plan, Development Code and related documents run many hundreds of pages – leaves many people floundering in a sea of misconceptions; it takes years to absorb and master. In an act of emotional displacement, the frequent alternative is to vent one’s ignorance and frustration by insulting others.

The opposite also happens; those who have studied the regulations and codes use their knowledge as a hammer to bludgeon neighborhood opponents into submission. This is the realm of professional experts and consultants, expensive, hired guns familiar with the ins-and-outs of land-use law and adept at wielding them in a seemingly dispassionate way. Faced with arcane and sometimes ambiguous regulatory language, the average citizen is at a distinct disadvantage, prompting simplistic outbursts of emotional frustration that others simply dismiss as “whining.”

It takes courage to speak up. For most people, the prospect of having to speak in front of a room of strangers and put themselves on “the record” is a primal fear. Accordingly, motivation and the nature of it is important. Those who are greedy, for example, only see greed at work in others; to them an individual speaking out on behalf of his or her neighborhood is viewed suspiciously as nothing more than self-serving.

Change is always challenging, and because that’s true, we’ve adopted a broad set of planning documents to provide some consistency and predictability to land use going forward. It’s impossible to perfectly predict the future, but it’s either that or abandon planning altogether and rush into the embrace of power, whim and chaos. The challenge for neighborhood residents is to stay engaged, become well informed, be alert and active. This is time-consuming and at times exhausting, but no viable alternative exists. One person often makes a difference, and in a small community like Sonoma, a committed, well-prepared group of people can sway history. The use of insult and dismissive terms will happen, but when it does it betrays weakness of argument and character.

Tellingly, as of yet we have no acronym that encapsulates the positive act of caring so deeply about one’s neighborhood that becoming an informed, activated citizen happens, but perhaps we should.