I’ve been a member of Strong Towns the past several years and I’ve written about them before on this blog. I’m a little behind schedule on this as they have been having a membership drive this week. (I’m sure no one will mind if you joint next week!). I would encourage all of you reading this blog to check out what they do and consider becoming a member. It doesn’t take much financially, but the money can go a long way to building stronger resilient communities.

Slow Down Cat

The City of Sebastopol recently debuted it’s most recent attempt at slowing traffic in town. Created by local sculptor Patrick Amiot, Slow Down Cat is seen as a way to enhance local traffic safety and help the police department enforce safe speeds while building goodwill between the community and police department. While I love the idea of using art as traffic calming we’re going to need a lot more Slow Down Cats to create any real impact. We need a battalion of Slow Down Cats.Slow Down Cat (in the police department parking lot)

Slow Down Cat moves around town. He gets parked on the side of the road, usually staying in one spot for several days and then moving. To be honest, I often see Slow Down Cat parked in the police station parking lot. I’m not sure how often he is let out.

Unfortunately, parking Slow Down Cat on the side of the road makes it too easy to ignore for a driver. Just like those speed limit signs. However, putting an obstruction in the road is a much more effective way to reduce speeds. If Slow Down Cat were located at the center of the road it would likely have a bigger impact. The army of Slow Down Cats  could be located at intersections, particularly those along Main Street and Healdsburg Avenue. And they could each be a unique design. Slow Down Dog, Slow Down Bear, Slow Down Rocket Ship…I’d put them at every intersection that doesn’t already have a 4-way stop or traffic signal, and maybe even at some of those just for fun. The sculpture could be installed on a concrete platform, like a mini-roundabout. This would remind people to slow down where it’s most important, at intersections where pedestrians are crossing. It would be a relatively inexpensive traffic calming solution which we desperately need, as I discussed previously. And we certainly have space at these excessively wide streets to accomplish it.

Slow Down Petaluma-Sebastopol Slow Down Petaluma-Main Slow Down Gravenstein Slow Down Healdsburg Ave Slow Down Main-Bodega Slow Down Healdsburg-FlorenceThe artist of Slow Down Cat lives in Sebastopol and many of his neighbors have his sculptures in their yards. The most common question I receive by visitors to Sebastopol is how to get to the street where the sculptures are. Imagine the impact of having them located up and down our main streets. This is a great tourist attraction and placemaking opportunity as well.

The straight and wide design of the roads in town encourages people to drive fast than the posted speed limit. And we need a traffic calming plan beyond a radar gun, which is the primary means of traffic calming in Sebastopol today. Slow Down Cat is a nice idea, but he needs to be a more widespread presence in order to have a lasting impact. Drivers need constant reminding to keep their speeds down in town. Let’s employ local artists to make more Slow Down fill in the blank and start populating our streets with them. We could have a competition! Drivers will take notice and we’ll all benefit from the slower speeds, and interesting artwork.

Came  across this video today posted on Walkable West Palm Beach. It’s an inspiring video on bicycling in Copenhagen. Imagine if we had the same ability to bike here. It’s great to see other modes of transportation treated with the same level of importance. I’m sure we could achieve the same here if we put some effort into it and stopped prioritizing cars at the expense of any other mode of transportation.


Main Street Vacancies


Recently closed restaurant


Recently closed toy store


Great corner retail opportunity.


Soon to close wine shop


Corner storefront location occupied by the jiu jitsu studio

I’ve noticed something a bit troubling recently. There are a couple of vacant storefronts on Main Street. In addition, there is another that is about to close and a recently closed business was replaced with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio. I don’t know about you, but a martial arts studios opening on a main commercial street in a community is often not a good sign. Storefronts on Main Street should be just that, the fronts of stores. Stores, restaurants, bars, cafes generate pedestrian activity which is necessary for the vitality of a downtown commercial district. Martial arts studios and professional offices do not. Often you walk to a store on Main Street with a specific task at hand. But other times you walk along Main Street to window shop, and sometimes you see something in the window that draws you into the store. I doubt many people walking down Main Street suddenly decide they need to take a Jiu Jitsu class, and if they did if would be too bad because it seems to have rather limited hours, mostly in the evening as far as I can tell. I rarely see anything going on inside.The economy seems to have improved over the days of the recession, yet these businesses have closed.

Some people may be ready to blame The Barlow. It’s been a concern of Main Street merchants from the early planning stages of the project. The Barlow is a rehabilitated former warehouse/light industrial area adjacent to downtown. And while there are still vacancies in some of the spaces at The Barlow, it generally seems more lively than Main Street. There is a mix of light industry like wineries, breweries, a coffee roaster, a distillery, a bakery, a glass blower and a foundry. But there are also retail shops, restaurants, a local co-op market and cafes.

If The Barlow seems to be doing better than Main Street, and I have no data on whether or not this is true, I would offer a couple of reasons why. Firstly, The Barlow has done a very good job of marketing itself. It was recently written up in the New York Times travel section, Sunset Magazine and USA Today. They have billboards around the Bay Area, they sponsor a weekly street fair during summer months. It’s a definite draw.


McKinley Street in The Barlow


Narrow lanes and on-street parking keep speeds slow on McKinley Street.

IMG_20150911_140648676IMG_20150911_140714280_HDRBut more importantly, it’s just a nicer place for people. One of my early blog posts was about how Main Street is not a place for people. It feels like a highway, and it is, California Route 116. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Main Street needs a face lift. To start with, returning streets to two-way traffic, and reducing the lane width would help. The one-way traffic, wide lanes, straight street and limited traffic controls encourage speeding, particularly once traffic is ‘freed’ from the light at the main downtown intersection. Traffic literally takes off at that point and speeds over the posted 25 mph are a regular occurrence south of Bodega Ave.


Storefronts are nice enough, but this environment is dominated by cars.


Lots of space devoted to cars, not much to people.

IMG_20150911_142233154_HDR The pedestrian infrastructure takes second seat to the car. As a pedestrian, you feel this is a place for cars, and you are here provisionally. Most of the street furniture is decent enough, but sidewalks are narrow, trees are pathetic and lighting is dismal. The Barlow has much nicer landscaping, street furniture and narrow, slow streets. When walking in The Barlow, you feel welcomed, relaxed. This is a place for you. If something catches your eye in a store front across the street, you can cross mid-block without concern that you’ll be run down. Traffic moves slowly here; it’s not on it’s way somewhere else. You don’t feel welcomed as a pedestrian on Main Street, you feel like you always have to keep an eye  on the cars, particularly when crossing the street. Even at crosswalks, cars are not looking out for you.

The Barlow also has restaurants with outdoor seating.

Covered outdoor seating

Covered outdoor seating


Uncovered outdoor seating

With the narrow sidewalks of Main Street this is not really possible. One solution I’ve come across recently is to extend the sidewalk into the parallel parking zone to allow for outdoor dining.

Outdoor seating in San Rafael, CA. Notice how the sidewalk swings out to occupy the parallel parking zone.

Outdoor seating in San Rafael, CA. Notice how the sidewalk swings out to occupy the parallel parking zone in order to allow for the seating.

If we want Main Street businesses to succeed we need to improve the streetscape to benefit the pedestrian. The Core Project has partnered with the City of Sebastopol on the submittal of an encroachment permit to Caltrans for a parklet demonstration day on Main Street. We have 5 different  locations selected where we propose to construct a parklet for a day. The hope is that this will inspire businesses to apply for more permanent parklets. And we hope that the demonstration will make Caltrans comfortable with the idea of permanent parklets. To our knowledge, Caltrans has never approved the construction of a parklet on a state highway.

Parklets could be a first step to improve the pedestrian environment of Main Street. But not the only solution. We need to turn the tables and make people in cars feel that they are passing through a pedestrian priority zone.  There are enough visitors and people living in Sebastopol and it’s environs to support both Main Street businesses and The Barlow. We just need to be able to put the Main Street businesses on equal footing when it comes to a pleasant pedestrian experience.

Urban Community Partnership

As I mentioned in my last post I am part of a grassroots organization looking to bring Urban3 and Strong Towns to Sonoma County to evaluate the development potential around the SMART train station areas, and to help our local decision makers and community at large, understand the financial implications of various development scenarios. We are calling ourselves the Urban Community Partnership and are in the process of forming a non-profit organization that will advocate for mixed-use, walkable financially-resilient developments. We recently wrote an op-ed that was published in the local paper, the Press Democrat. You can read the op-ed here.

The City of Santa Rosa has undertaken a first step in this process and has hired Urban3 to analyze Railroad Square, which has a SMART train station, and downtown. We plan on launching a fundraising campaign to be able to start the larger county-wide project soon. Stay tuned.

Last week, the local newspaper ran an article about the city of Santa Rosa’s consideration of updating their development fees to spur housing construction.  The article explains how the city has hired an economist to review the city’s fee structure and advise how they can spur housing development to counteract soaring rents and home prices. Housing production has been minimal  and the economist reported that even though rents have been increasing, they are not yet high enough to encourage developers to start new projects. Average rent  in the city is $1.84 per square foot. The economist told the City Council that rents needed to be at least $2.50 per square foot for developers to be able to afford to build projects. The city is hoping to learn if adjusting their various impact fees will encourage new housing development.

The article notes that city impact fees are used to fund various infrastructure projects. Over the past 20 years, the city has collected $230 million in these fees. The projected cost of infrastructure needs over the next 20 years is about $1 billion.

The city is left facing a major dilemma. It needs development to pay for its infrastructure costs, but it also needs to invest in its infrastructure to make the city attractive for economic growth.

  • The Press Democrat

This perfectly plays into the message of Strong Towns. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn describes the development process in the post WWII period as a Ponzi scheme (This is a great summary of the central argument).  Because cities typically fund infrastructure projects with development fees, they need more and more development to pay for the maintenance of their existing infrastructure. Strong Towns argues that what they refer to as the ‘suburban experiment’ is now a primary reason so many cities are finding themselves in financially challenging places. Suburban development patterns generate a small fraction of the revenue, in the form of property, sales and income taxes, necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports the development (streets, water, sewer etc.). Strong Towns argues that a return to more traditional development patterns of mixed-use, walkable places will provide for more financially resilient communities. Traditional development provides much more revenue when compared on a per acre basis than sprawling suburban development.

Urban3 is an organization that specializes in evaluating development patterns in regards to tax production and infrastructure costs. Their work supports the Strong Towns thesis that traditional mixed-use urban development patterns provide much more revenue than sprawling suburban development when compared on a per acre basis. They have developed a fascinating way to graphically present data that really shows where communities generate most of their revenue. And on the flip side, shows how little the return on investment is for sprawling development patterns.

This article comes at a most opportune moment. I’m part of a committee that is bringing Urban3 and Strong Towns to Sonoma County to complete an analysis of land use and development patterns with a focus on the areas around the SMART train station areas. The SMART train will run from northern Sonoma County into Marin County to the south where it will connect to the ferry terminal at Larkspur for those wishing to continue on to San Francisco. The train is scheduled to start service late 2016. The areas around the train stations need to be developed as high-density mixed-use neighborhoods to provide the ridership needed for the train to be financially successful. So far little, if any development has occurred in the station areas. And some of the projects that have been proposed are facing backlash against the proposed densities. If we don’t develop the areas around the stations correctly, the train is not going to be able to survive on rider fares and will require more subsidies.

It is crucial that we get this right. The data to be provided by the Urban3/Strong Towns team will provide hard data for decision makers to understand the importance of developing the station areas in a manner that will support this expensive piece of infrastructure. But also, how to create more resilient communities overall. At the culmination of their analysis, Urban3 and Strong Towns will conduct a series of public workshops and a ‘Boot Camp’ to explain their results and teach local officials how to use the analysis tools to study the impact of future development proposals. We need to take a long hard look at how we are building and the associated long-term costs. To develop in a manner that will create truly resilient places, we need to fundamentally transform the way we develop and grow our communities.

Over-wide streets

I’ve discussed the issue of lane width several times on this blog (here and here). Main Street in Sebastopol has absurdly wide travel lanes. This is largely a legacy of the days when a train rumbled down the center of the street. But the train is long gone and yet we have lanes that are up to 17′ wide. I walk Main Street several times a day between my office and home and people drive really fast. And I’m the first to admit that it’s difficult to stick to the posted 25 mph speed limit when driving in an 17′ wide lane. It really takes attention and effort to drive 25 mph here. And I’m uber-aware of the situation. Most people don’t give a second thought to traveling at 35+ mph on Main Street.

This article discusses several recent studies that demonstrate the benefits of a 10′ wide travel lane in reducing accidents and being able to move just as many cars as a wider lane.

We need to right-size our streets in Sebastopol, and around the country, if we are serious about slowing cars and improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety.


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