.Town of Petaluma Becomes a City

“Petaluma” is a Miwok word that means “flat back,” referring to the shape of the hills surrounding the valley that 60,000-plus people call home.

But for those who live and work in the bustling city, it might as well mean “change.”

The go-to metric to assess that change are area home prices. Nearly a decade ago, the Bohemian reported that “Homes on Petaluma’s tonier, older west side start at the mid-$300,000s but can reach a cool million in the prestige neighborhoods in the ‘number and letter’ streets.”

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

According to the Zillow Home Value Index, the average home price in Petaluma is currently a smidge over $885,000, and homes regularly sell for well over a million dollars. Case in point: a five-bedroom home on rural Thompson Lane is currently listed at $2,875,000.

What accounts for the rapid ascent in home prices is manifold. Petaluma has always been known for its charming downtown area and its historic architecture, not to mention its Any Town, USA movie-friendly aesthetic which frequently draws local productions—most recently for the Petaluma-set limited series Casa Grande, now streaming on Amazon’s Freevee. But in recent years, the city has evolved into a destination for foodies, wine lovers and tourists, which local businesses have generally greeted with open arms.

Tasting rooms, bottle shops and one entire winery have sprouted on a boulevard that was once the main drag for Friday night cruising a la American Graffiti—another cinematic touchstone and half-century legacy the town has long celebrated with auto-themed events (see the “Car’pe Diem” item in Culture Crush, page 18).

The rapid changes have not been without their growing pains. Besides spikes in housing costs, some local businesses are still reeling from the effects of past fire seasons, the pandemic and changing consumer-purchasing habits while maintaining pricey leases for desirable downtown square footage.

“We’re very foot traffic-dependent in this town,” says Greta Youngblood, a scientist and writer

who ventured into retailing shoes and high-end leather goods at Passeggiata Shoes on Western Avenue. “But what I found started happening for me—instead of being able to plan two years ahead for my business, I was starting to look at ‘Can I get through the next quarter?’ And that’s not a place a business person wants to be.”

Youngblood has elected to liquidate her inventory with a discounted sale and close Passeggiata Shoes for other pursuits. The transition is bittersweet but not entirely uncommon as the face of local commerce evolves.

The turnover in Petaluma’s commercial real estate is unusual for Sonoma County in that vacancies don’t last long. Where empty storefronts may line Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street corridor for years, Petaluma fills its storefronts within months. For example, when local eatery Cafe Zazzle shuttered on Kentucky Street last December the space became the home of Quiote, a gourmet taqueria, by April.

And when there isn’t space to fill, Petaluma builds it. Celebrity chef and hotelier Charlie Palmer, known for his ventures in Healdsburg and his James Beard Awards, has proposed a 93-room hotel replete with rooftop dining in a grassy lot that was formerly a gas station on Petaluma Boulevard and B Street. This luxe addition to downtown is dubbed “Appellation Petaluma,” reinforcing the city’s burgeoning Identity as the “Gateway to Wine Country.”

The play is a smart one for Palmer, who perhaps perceived that an ascending Petaluma might siphon San Francisco and Marin tourist dollars before they made it to his Hotel Healdsburg or his steakhouse in Napa.

Indeed, Petaluma’s relative ease of access from Highway 101 has long been a selling point; first with San Francisco-bound commuters in the ’80s and ’90s seeking suburban housing that was less expensive than Marin County’s—at least at the time—and now, in the co- and remote-working 2020s, with travel in the opposite direction to local attractions.

The city has become a popular destination for travelers seeking a quaint, small-town experience with access to the many amenities of the North Bay, but all within a 10-block radius. This time last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published its guide, “How to eat your way through Petaluma, Wine Country’s best-kept secret.”

The word is out, as anyone who ever tried to visit the popular Stellina Pronto! bakery on a Saturday morning could tell you.

Sure, visitors come for the charming downtown area, but they also come because the town is “hot” right now. Instagram influencers swoon over the picturesque riverfront, the epicurean offerings and the free parking, but will the interest last beyond the moment?

Some local merchants think that Petaluma’s diverse ordering beyond Wine Country culture are what will help sustain it.

“I hope that Petaluma becomes known for the river and the rich farming history. I don’t think we need to compete with Sonoma, Napa or Healdsburg as a wine destination,” says April Frederick, founder of Estuary, an artisanal homewares and clothing store named for the tidal Estuary that weaves through the heart of town. “We are Petaluma and we have other things going for us.”

Looking ahead, it is clear that Petaluma will continue to evolve and change over the next few years. The city’s growing popularity and reputation as a destination for food, wine and culture will likely continue to drive development and investment. Petaluma, a city with a rich history and a bright future, is poised to become an even more dynamic and exciting place to live, work and visit in the years to come.

“I would like to see a downtown that serves both tourism and locals alike,” Frederick says.

When asked what she hopes for Petaluma, she adds, “I hope that Petaluma can show other towns it can do better by having commerce and people that support one another and the planet. I hope Petaluma can be a place where people continue to be kind and accepting of everyone. I hope everyone who moves here loves and cherishes it as much as everyone who has lived here for years.”

4 COMMENTS

    • Amen

      From what I understand, back in the ’70s Petaluma won a supreme Court case against the state of California. Sacramento was forcing Petaluma, as well as every other town in California, to grow but the citizens said no.
      Now we now have a contingent of voters who have been sucked into the front page hysteria that there’s not enough housing. They continue to vote for more housing, hence more congestion.
      Petaluma is much better as a small town. We have amazing attributes that can be enjoyed by visitors.
      There’s no reason to increase population density, especially when we don’t have the money for the infrastructure.
      Backwards thinking is ruining the town.

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