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How Petaluma became the ‘it’ town of Sonoma County

On a warm late summer Saturday night, downtown Petaluma is buzzing like a European paseo, where it seems like half the town is out and about. There are hipster brew pub crawlers, well-dressed couples out for a dinner and young parents pushing strollers in search of ice cream.

A long line of baby boomers is snaking down “The Boulevard” outside The Mystic, waiting to hear The Zombies play their 1964 hit, “She’s Not There,” while across the street and along the Petaluma River nearly all of the 350 seats in Brewster’s Beer Garden are taken up by revelers straining to talk over live music.

Many are making a stop after hitting the Lagunitas Beer Circus at the Fairgrounds, still wearing crazy wigs and costumes.

Busker “Petaluma Pete,” AKA John Maher, in his signature bowler hat, is tickling the ivories with honkeytonk on one of the outdoor pianos he set up around town in the run-up to the upcoming Petaluma Piano Festival. It’s one of what seems like a festival every week in a town that few would describe as sleepy anymore.

Petaluma, long considered a homespun farm town and pit stop for travelers bound for the coast or the wineries to the north, is waking up.

The onetime driveby Chicken

Capital is now emerging as a destination for nightlife, weekend festivals and tourists who come to dine, stroll shops of curated bespoke goods, taste wine or visit a thriving brew pub scene.

It’s also drawing new residents, becoming a locus for younger workers in search of housing that may be pricey but is still more affordable than San Francisco, the East Bay and Silicon Valley, particularly among couples looking for a family friendly town to raise kids.

Adding to the town’s appeal: it’s closer and more commutable to the aforementioned job meccas than the rest of Sonoma County. Meanwhile, intrepid weekend wine tasters are exploring the region’s newest viticultural area - the Petaluma Gap (see related story, left).

“I shudder to say it, but Petaluma is the new ‘it girl,’ The ‘beer food and wine ‘it girl,’” wine writer and personality Leslie Sbrocco, host of KQED’s “Check Please,” said with a grin. A longtime Petaluman who moved to the town years ago to raise her two kids, she has watched Petaluma transform in real time. And while, like many locals, she bemoans the traffic that comes with tourists - she lives on the eastside near the now legendary Lagunitas beer mecca, one of the top-selling craft brews in the country with a popular concert series of name bands - she’s also excited about many of the changes.

“I’ve been saying Petaluma is a great place for so many years and people would go, ‘Where?’”

Forbes Travel last year declared Petaluma as “the wine country’s hottest new destination,” giving a shout out to popular restaurants like The Shuckery in the newly glamorized Petaluma Hotel and the sophisticated yet vegan- and vegetarian-friendly Drawing Board, opened last year by twentysomething Rosie Wiggins. Other new restaurants like the inventive StockHome with a surprising Swedish and Turkish street food twist, has got foodies talking about the town along the river.

Marie McCusker, president of the Petaluma Downtown Association and Visitors Program, said she watches, just outside her Lakeville Office, a lot of groups and friends now connecting and heading downtown to lunch after stepping off the new SMART Train.

“As the gateway to Sonoma County, we like to say that all roads lead to Petaluma” said Colleen Rustad, communications manager for the Petaluma Visitors Program. “If you draw a bullseye on a Bay Area map, Petaluma is right in the center, easy to get to from San Francisco and Sacramento and an ideal home base for visitors heading west to the coast, north to the redwoods or east to Sonoma Valley.”

With the launching of train service, the number of people stopping by the Petaluma Visitors Center in the old train depot by the SMART stop soared from 7,1321 between 2016 and 2017 to 17,000 just a year later.

And judging by a rise in hotel tax dollars, more people are spending the night.

More gains expected

Petaluma still lags behind most other cities in the county in hotel tax money - $2.8 million in 2017 compared to more than $3 million for Sonoma and more than $4 million for the smaller Rohnert Park and chic Healdsburg to the north. But the numbers have climbed by more than $1 million in the last five years, with even more gains expected after the recent opening of a new Hampton Inn in the revitalized old Silk Mill that’s within walking distance of downtown and the SMART station. Visitors can choose among the corporate comfort of a upscale chain hotel housed in a 19th century building, to the elegantly restored Petaluma Hotel on East Washington to the Euro-hip Metro Hotel downtown. A 222-room Courtyard Marriott Hotel is proposed for southeast Petaluma.

“My windows provide a great view of the daily happenings in this town. I used to see a lot more hay squeezes driving down the boulevard, but now there are more Maseratis and Teslas,” said Sara Sass, who owns Boulevard Barbers and Shaving Parlour.

“Four years ago I would see plenty of people taking their mutts for walks. Not it’s more designer dog breeds. I’ve also gotten a huge increase of foreign and domestic tourists, all of whom adore our small charming town.”

Starting with “American Graffiti” in the early 1970s, Petaluma became the face of middle America on the west coast, a favorite spot for film crews who found its quaint ironfronts and westside Bungalows and Victorians, a versatile location for scripts that called for a photogenic small town that could be in California, Missouri, Indiana or upstate New York.

Some wonder if Petaluma will eventually go the way of Healdsburg and Sonoma to become a bonafide tourism town.

Robindira Unsworth, a jewelry designer who has two shops downtown - a boutique on Petaluma Boulevard and a home store on Kentucky Street - sees Petaluma as more of an extension of the Wine Country now, a phenomenon that has accelerated mainly in the last five years, with a marked increase in foreign visitors and many regulars from the East Bay and the South Bay.

“It has a long way to go (to rival Healdsburg), but it’s moving in the direction,” said the signer and retailer, who was drawn to Petaluma 16 years ago by the by the fact that it had a real downtown with charming 19th century buildings and some available spaces downtown.

“When I first opened the store I was price conscious and careful about what I brought in. But over the years I’ve been able to bring in special collections and pieces,” Unsworth said. “I was nervous about that in the beginning. But learned there is that market here. I feel like who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now.”

$600 bags

Jennifer Conner designs and sells handmade leather handbags in a shared spaced called “In the Making,” where bags can command $300 to $600 each, a sign of a changing market of shoppers browsing Petaluma with more money to drop on high quality and one of a kind items. She loves the “city feel” on American Alley, a graffiti-adorned walkway off Helen Putnam Plaza, where her neighbors include a tattoo parlor and The Big Easy, an underground nightclub and restaurant that is one of a growing number of cool joints that feature late night live music.

She left Francisco when she got pregnant with her second child and decided it just didn’t make sense to live in the pricey city. That was 15 years ago.

“In San Francisco you can’t choose your school. I’m not spending $40,00 a year on kindergarten,” she said.

What seems to set Petaluma apart from other Wine Country towns is its urban vibe, something high on the checklist of Millennials looking for a place to sink their roots. With it’s 19th-century brick buildings and industrial riverfront area under revival, it has just enough old-city grit to make it interesting without being menacing. The town has its growing pains: on a recent Saturday Petaluma Police broke up a 12-person fight in the Keller Street Garage at 1:30 a.m. But before sundown it can seem pretty family-friendly. Even at Brewster’s, the hot new beer garden between Petaluma Boulevard and the river, young parents can enjoy a brew and a few bites while their kids climb around in full view in a kiddie playground and bocce court right on site.

Within walking distance of Brewster’s is The Block, a gathering spot friendly to kids and dogs with food trucks, beer on tap and a big patio containing communal firepits designed to “bring patrons closer together.”

Natasha Juliana, who owns a shared work space downtown called WORK Petaluma, moved north from San Francisco about a decade ago after friends discovered Petaluma’s virtues and became cheerleaders, persuading her and her husband that it would be a good place to raise their then 4-year-old daughter.

“There’s a great sense of community, a real friendliness and warmth to the people. And the schools offer a lot of good choices. It feels safe to me here,” she said. “The teenagers can move about on their own and have that independent experience. I would have a hard time letting my daughter roam the streets of San Francisco.”

In the spaces of WORK, she sees mainly midlifers in their 40s who are freelancers, telecommuters who work for big companies and want to reduce the commute, as well as entrepreneurs. One regular works remotely for a company in Akron, Ohio. Another occasionally drives up from San Francisco, where he lives and works, just to have a more laid-back mini-retreat for the day while still working, she said.

Some worry that Petaluma’s increasing appeal as both destination and desirable address will make the town increasingly less affordable. Petaluma has suffered the same surge in housing costs that has been felt all over Sonoma County, particularly since the firestorms last year destroyed more than 5,000 homes. The median price of a home on the newer, more suburban east side is $383,000, up from $61,00 a year ago just before the fires. The median price for a home on the west side is $850,000, compared to $778,000 last year.

Natalie Pucinelli, who grew up in Petaluma and is now raising two boys, ages 4 and 2, in the town, said her partner, a meat cutter, routinely works 70 hours a week at two jobs - one in Marin - to help pay for their $2,600 rent on a two-bedroom townhouse near Frates. She also works full time at a beauty supply store while going to school.

“He’s upset at how hard he has to work just to live here. But right now he’s doing it so I can get through school and can start making a good living,” she said.

The young mom, 23, said nonetheless, she likes what’s happening to Petaluma. She likes the hipster vibe.

“I love the changes. I just wish I could afford the changes,” she said, sitting outside the Fruit in Motion Smoothie Shop on Fourth Street.

Cary and Matthew Bitler are both in their mid twenties and are raising two kids, ages two and four months. They pay $1900 for a two bedroom, one bath apartment on the west side a few blocks from the heart of downtown. He also juggles two jobs as a garage door technician and delivery driver for Mary’s Pizza Shack. He puts in 65 to 70 hours a week. But the couple loves Petaluma.

“There’s a lot of fun things to do for kids. There are plenty of music schools, gymnastics, toddler groups and outdoor groups,” said Cary, a stay-at-home mom.

Like Los Gatos

Tina Hittenberger, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker, described Petaluma as “Los Gatos of the North Bay,” with everything from Little Leaguers to a panoply of political action groups. There is some festival every weekend she said.

“There is some aspect of the history of California that happened in microcosm here in Petaluma. You have the Spaniards, and the civil rights activists, the rise of the high tech companies and you have agriculture. All of those things bump into each other, but it seems like the bumps don’t produce problems, but enhance the landscape,” she observed.

All the action is not confined to the downtown. A neighborhood in upper North McDowell Boulevard on the east side has organically grown into what locals are calling “Maker’s Alley,” drawing people to what was an otherwise industrial part of town for libations. Along with Lagunitas, there is 101 North Brewing Company, which opened a taproom, Sonoma Coast Spirits and the Griffo Distillery tasting room.

Back in the ‘90s some prophesied that the arrival of the Outlet Mall would be the death knell to downtown Petaluma. After some initial fallout, it has come back and reinvented itself.

Unsworth said Petaluma is too quirky to lose its soul anytime in the near future.

“I see it continuing to grow and to attract more and more people who leave the city but don’t necessarily want to live in the suburbs. You want a interesting place to call home and I really do see Petaluma being that place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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