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Petaluma nonprofit hopes to create a riverfront park

A Petaluma nonprofit is taking a crucial step this week that will start the transformation of the historic McNear Peninsula into an arts and river recreation hub the group hopes will become Petaluma’s version of Central Park in New York City.

Petaluma River Park Foundation will complete a $1.05 million acquisition of the 20-acre peninsula on Friday, buying the land next to the city’s Steamer Landing Park and the river. The sale guarantees a coveted downtown property, linked to one of the city’s founding families, is preserved as parkland.

Over the next few years, the vision for a wetlands preserve, enveloped by riverfront walking trails, small craft docks and a natural amphitheater, will begin to take shape as a public park under private ownership.

The foundation, launched in May 2019 by a group of local artists, is anticipating in the next few months that there will be public access to the landmark property for the first time.

The foundation will start a yearlong community engagement campaign next year to source ideas for the park development, and identify what features Petaluma residents would like to see.

Amenities such as restrooms, drinking fountains, educational signage and places to sit are firm, said David Duskin, one of the nonprofit group’s four co-founders. Providing space for a mix of permanent and temporary art installations, as well as educational programming also will be key fixtures, he said.

The choice of other features such as a natural amphitheater, which could use repurposed soil from the ecological restoration work, and docks for fishing and boat access, is for the community to decide, Duskin said.

To complete the park, the foundation will have to raise as much as $5 million. But there’s no rush, and the group wants the public to be able to “witness this slow transformation,” Duskin said.

Sonoma Land Trust Executive Director Eamon O'Byrne commended the park’s soon-to-be new owners for assembling a coalition of experts, from conservation and planning to education and public art, and the model it could provide for designing urban parks.

“This project is thrilling for us,” O’Byrne said, “that we’re able to put that newfound, science-driven perspective and create the enabling conditions for a community to take ownership of a new space like this and mold it to their own.”

Duskin credited the staff, supporting organizations and hundreds of donors who mobilized after the sale agreement was announced last year. He thinks the appeal of the initial goal of a communal space where every Petaluma resident feels welcome led to the strong response.

“This was able to happen because there was so much enthusiasm for it,” Duskin said. “(Supporters said,) ’This was the great thing in my life’ that kept them going. The park has already had the benefit of lifting people up, having something positive to reach for.”

For the McNear family, the sale of the land comes with mixed emotions, said Timo Rivetti, the real estate agent who brokered the deal.

The family remained unhappy with the city’s decision to rezone the property as parkland in 1961, a move that curtailed the value of it as prices in the area soared, Rivetti said.

But once the deal took shape, the family has been supportive of the river park group, and made numerous concessions, including multiple extensions on the closing date and a $25,000 price reduction earlier this fall, Rivetti said.

The peninsula property was initially priced at $3 million when it hit the market in 2016.

“I think it’s fantastic news for Petaluma, especially with all the development downtown,” Rivetti said. “This will be a Central Park. There’s views people have never seen before of this city.”

The pending sale of the peninsula comes after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished dredging the Petaluma River last month for the first time since 2003, rejuvenating the tidal slough after years of accumulating silt made the waters impassable.

Additionally, several new developments at the downtown SMART station site nearby, and across the McNear Channel — where Amy’s Kitchen is slated to build its new headquarters — will transform the area.

With public access coming for Petaluma River Park, Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said she is excited about the renewed focus throughout the city’s riverfront corridor, and how it’s once again shifting “what people think of as the center of Petaluma.”

“You’re seeing the area become denser, which is a good thing,” Barrett said. “But that density is offset by people having this beautiful place, and more (a place where) they can walk over to and enjoy the river. It opens up so much.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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