I will be attending the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Baltimore later this week. If any of you out there reading this blog are planning on attending and interested in meeting, send me an email (go to my about page and fill out the email form) and maybe we can meet up in Baltimore.
Today’s post is inspired by an item on last night’s Sebastopol City Council agenda. The item was on the ‘Consent Calendar’ which is reserved for items that are expected to be non-controversial and approved as a matter of course. The name of the item is ‘Approval of Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Improvements.’ Who can argue with pedestrian, bicycle and traffic improvements? Sounds good. Of the 5 requests in the item there are 2 that I have concerns with.
The first concern I have is a request by a business located on Main Street, outside of the ‘core’ downtown zone, to establish a 24 minute parallel parking space directly in front of their shop. The request state that ‘The owner of the business reports that vehicles often park in that space for long periods of time, thereby limiting easy parking for potential customers.’ The business is a mailing/packing center and while I can appreciate that they may have customers carrying packages to be mailed there is generally always parking in the vicinity of the business even if the space directly in front of the business is occupied. I live and work within 2 blocks of the business in question and walk the block frequently. There are 13 parking spaces in this block (both sides of the street) and the density of businesses is low, certainly not as dense as the central blocks of Main street. This photos shows a typical condition. If your business needs ‘easy parking’ you should probably locate your business in a strip shopping center which tend to have way more parking then they ever use (see black friday parking),
Parallel parking on a public street is public. Approving the request sets up a precedent for all businesses to attempt to ‘reserve’ the space in front of their business for ‘their’ customers. There seems to be a strange assumption by businesses fronting streets that the parking in front of their business is for their customers only. This also extends to residential neighborhoods as well. People often expect to always have the parking in front of their home available for their car, or for someone visiting their house. There is no legal precedent for this. The streets are public, and anyone may park there as long as they are complying with any posted restrictions. It would be silly for the City Council to approve this request, but in fact, they did. Apparently it was pulled from the consent calendar and there was some discussion. But in the end it was approved unanimously.
The second issue is that the City Council was asked to set aside a parking space in the public parking lot closest to city hall for city hall employees. This is arguably the most popular parking lot in town. It is directly behind the primary commercial block of Main Street and adjacent to the library. The lot is small, 43 spaces. While only 1 parking space was requested to be reserved, I don’t think this is wise. Again, it’s a public parking lot and should be reserved for the public.
Several years ago the city removed time restrictions at two underutilized public lots to encourage downtown employees to park at the edge of downtown rather than occupy street parking spaces or spaces in one of the more popular, centrally located downtown lots. The idea being that the popular lots should be available to patrons of downtown businesses. Employees can be asked to walk a little farther. City Hall employees should be setting an example by using the South High Street lot to park in. It’s about 1 1/2 blocks from City Hall (650′ as measured on Google Earth).
Public parking should remain available to the public. We should not be reserving downtown public parking for specific businesses. If private businesses are going to ‘claim’ public parking spaces for their customers or employees, they should be financially responsible for the maintenance of and enforcement of the time limits for those parking spaces.
One of the suggestions of the SDAT Team’s visit to Sebastopol was to actively market development opportunity sites in town in order to attract the kind of development we want, rather than being left fighting development we don’t want. An example of the latter can be seen in the multi-year fight over the development of a 2+ acre parcel in the center of downtown Sebastopol for a CVS and Chase bank. This proposed project resulted in a couple lawsuits which were recently settled (or read about it in a local newspaper article). The city council recently approved the legal settlement and final design review for the project so it will unfortunately be moving forward, although with some concessions, the most significant being the elimination of the drive-through pharmacy and ATM (Chase has since pulled out of the project. No new tenant for the bank building has been announced.)
The city council convened a sub-committee to determine the community’s vision for a highly visible underutilized property downtown and put up a small amount of money ($5,000) to make it happen. The property is known as the ‘Diamond Lumber’ property, although it is currently used as a tractor store. The 2.5 acre parcel is directly across the street from the downtown plaza and completely destroys any pedestrian-friendly experience. It is also an important link between the historic Main Street district of downtown and the new Barlow development to the east of the property. (While I think there is a place for tractor stores, I don’t think that place is the center of town. It doesn’t do anything to support the pedestrian experience downtown.)
The sub-committee conducted a public workshop last June to solicit input for the future of the property. The well attended event started with an introductory talk about what creates a successful building on a public square. Attendants were then encouraged to provide ideas to several tables setup around the room focusing on different topics; urban design, use and connectivity. The public feedback was then distilled into a wish list by the committee and translated into a brochure to provide to prospective developers. The idea being that if they can respond to the desires of the community as articulated, their project would likely have an easier time being approved. Unlike the process the developer of the CVS site had to go through, which was rather painful for all involved.
The property owner has had the property on the market and has been a willing participant in the project. Some have questioned the appropriateness of the city spending money on the marketing of a privately held property. I believe it is absolutely appropriate and necessary if we want to be proactive about development in our cities. Too often, in fact almost always, our city leadership and staff have been completely reactive to development proposals which tend to serve no one’s best interest.
This proactive marketing approach also reduces the risk to developers inherent in the entitlement process. If the community has publicly stated what is desired and if the developer can match their project to those desires it should be a much easier entitlement process which benefits everyone. Sebastopol has a reputation for being a difficult place to develop and developers tend not to want to take the risk. But there is much opportunity to create a really strong mixed-use core, but the remaining properties need to be developed appropriately to make that happen. The CVS project is not going to contribute in any positive way and we do not have much land available to allow those types of projects to come to fruition.
The brochure was recently completed and both the city and owner can now share with prospective developers. The site is absolutely critical to the future success of downtown Sebastopol, but this approach could be applied to a several other important properties in our community. I hope it becomes a successful example of a jurisdiction taking a proactive approach to future development.
Posted in CVS development, land use, Placemaking, Sebastopol, SebastopolConnect SDAT, The Barlow, The Core Project, urban design, vision | Tagged CVS/Chase, infill development, land use, Sebastopol, The Barlow, Vision | Leave a Comment »
Today’s post will be an update on the Sebastopol Charter School’s pursuit of a new 20 acre campus located on the periphery of Sebastopol. If you’re interested in reading previous posts on this topic please see the following links; Smart School Siting -1, Smart School Siting – 2 and Smart School Siting – 3.
The school has filed a Use Permit application with Sonoma County. The current zoning of the 2 parcels that make up the 20 acre site is Rural Residential with a density that would allow up to 10 single-family homes to be built. A public school is an allowed use with the approval of a use permit. As part of the use permit process the county planning department sends out a letter of referral to other interested agencies or departments in the county for comments on the application. As the proposed site is adjacent to the Sebastopol city limits and in the city’s sphere of influence the city received a referral letter.
At their meeting this week, the city council discussed their response to the referral request. I was pleased that the council members were unanimous in their opposition to the project. While all council members stated their support and appreciation for the school and what it brings to our community, they all felt that the proposed site was not an appropriate one for a school and the relocation of the school to this property would generally have a negative impact on the larger community. I was impressed with the level of the discussion and how the council members really seem to understand the planning issues involved with the proposed relocation.The discussion focused on planning issues related to sprawl and the fact that the proposed site is, without a doubt, a drive to location.The site limits the ability of children to walk and bike to school and will increase traffic impacts throughout town.
As I have pointed out previously, even though the site is on a multi-use trail, it is simply too far from the residential neighborhoods for most students to walk or bike. Plus the fact that the trail runs through a predominately rural landscape with no eyes to supervise activity. I am a huge proponent of kids learning to get themselves around on their own (ask my daughter) and even I would not let my daughter walk alone on the trail. Even for the neighborhoods that are closest to the site, the only real route to the school would be along a state highway with strip development on both sides. It’s a completely car-oriented, pedestrian hostile environmentThe council discussed possible mitigation measure which included sidewalks, crosswalks and other traffic control measures, all of which are likely cost-prohibitive for the school to take on, and in the end I don’t know if they would really improve the walkability/bikability of the location.
The current city council clearly understands that we need to be creating more opportunities for our community to get around town without the need of a car. This serves not only those in the community that cannot drive, like our children, but all of us that want to live in a more human-scaled environment. At the same meeting, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting any future drive-through uses. (The city has had an ordinance against fast food drive-throughs for some time. They instituted a temporary moratorium on drive-throughs a couple of years ago, I think in response to the effort of CVS to build a new store with a drive-through downtown. The CVS project abandoned both the pharmacy drive-through and a drive-through ATM.)
The council expressed concern that the proposed school would be outside the city’s urban growth boundary which was approved by voters nearly 20 years ago. The urban growth boundary was implemented to preserve surrounding rural open space, focus future development in already developed areas of town and prevent auto-oriented sprawl. The proposed school site is clearly auto-oriented sprawl and not in the best interest of the larger community.
The school, I’m sure, intendeds to be on this site for decades. Decades of parents forced to drive their children to school. And why? Because it was the original vision for the Charter School. Well, that vision is simply out of date. We know more now than we did when that vision was created. The vision needs to evolve to the reality of a world facing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The school does not need this property to succeed. The school is a model of success in the charter school Waldorf movement. Classes are full and most have waiting lists. Parents are not choosing this school because it might someday be located on a 20 acre campus, with gardens and orchards. Parents are choosing this school because of the excellent education children receive. They are choosing it for the community of teachers and parents, and the values the school teaches. My daughter has been at this school for 9 years. She’ll graduate in the spring. She has received a top notch education that I will always be thankful for. And she has done it while attending the school in its current configuration.
This is an important land use decision that should not be rubber stamped. The city council will be sending a letter to the counting stating that they do not feel the proposed site is an appropriate location for a school. The ultimate decision will lie with the county planning commission. I hope they take the opinions of the Sebastopol City Council to heart and see that this is not an appropriate location for a new school in the 21st century. The proposed school location is what sprawl looks like. It’s an example of the way we’ve been building schools in the era of the automobile. It’s not a model of how we should be building schools.
For more information on the proposed school site see this link.
Posted in land use, pedestrian connections, schools, Sebastopol, Traffic, urban design, zoning | Tagged bikeability, climate change, connectivity, Drive-through windows, Sebastopol Charter School | Leave a Comment »
I am a member of the Sebastopol General Plan Advisory Committee. Circulation was the topic of our meeting last month. It was a robust conversation for 3.5 hours, and we still managed to omit large topics, like transit. But it gave me another opportunity to look at circulation issues in Sebastopol. And while there is plenty to talk about, I’d like to discuss traffic calming today.
Two state highways intersect in the middle of Sebastopol. Highway 12 actually starts in the center of downtown and travels east. Highway 116 travels north/south and is Main Street in the center of downtown. North of downtown 116 is known as Healdsburg Avenue and is the primary route to the north. South of downtown it is South Main Street and is one-way in the southbound direction. Posted speed limits are 25 mph on Main Street downtown and 30 mph on both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street about 4 blocks south of downtown. In my observation, and based on comments from many other committee members, traffic speeds are often exceeded along most of the length 116 and the result is that these streets do not feel like safe places to walk or bike. There are several reasons for this.
Both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street are very straight (actually Healdsburg Ave. has a couple slight bends as you can see in the photos, but given it’s width and the slope you can see along it’s entire length). People have a tendency to drive faster on straight streets because you can see far ahead. Streets with bends tend to slow drivers down as you can’t see what’s around the next corner and you need to be prepared for the unexpected. This is evident on the segment of 116 that serves as the one-way northbound approach to downtown. The street is Petaluma Avenue and it has several bends and changes in elevation. Traffic definitely drives slower on this street than on Main Street which is just a block away and is one-way in the southbound direction.
In addition to being very straight, Healdsburg Avenue also slopes down most of it’s length heading towards downtown which encourages cars to speed up as they are heading into downtown.
Healdsburg Ave. is configured with a center turn lane, single travel lane in each direction and parallel parking on each side (parallel parking is omitted at some locations). The curb to curb width varies from 52′ to 54.5. Travel lane widths vary from 12′ (which I believe is the Caltrans minimum) to 20′ (yes, 20’!) at the east end where there is no parallel parking. Most of the driving lane width is in the 12′-14′ range.
The configuration of S. Main starts as 3 lanes all in the southbound direction at Bodega Ave., but one lane is dropped after a block so the bulk is 2 lanes. Where 3 lanes, the lane configuration is 13′, 12.5′, 13′ with 8′ parking lanes for a total width of 54.5′. Where it goes to 2 lanes each lane is 17′ wide with 8′ parking lanes (curb to curb 50′).
The lane widths of both Healdsbug Ave. and S. Main allow for much faster driving than the posted speed limit. While I don’t have a radar gun it is obvious as a pedestrian walking these stretches that vehicles are traveling over the speed limit. It’s also obvious when driving. I’m very aware of the speed limit and the environment and have to be extremely alert when driving these streets so as not to speed. And it is also obvious to the police department who have several spots they like to park to catch speeders. The police department also uses those portable speed detectors that display your speed. (You know a street is designed for a speed far greater than it’s posted speed limit when they have to pull these out.)
Both street segments have been the recipient of ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks which typically include bulb-outs, pedestrian crossing signs, flashing lights and sometimes include in-roadway lights and colored crosswalks (although the green color of the crosswalks does not differ much in value from the regular asphalt). While I believe these have helped in making drivers more aware that they are in an environment shared with pedestrians, it’s really not enough to keep speeds low.
One idea for slowing traffic I believe deserves to be explored, would be to create a raised intersections between Healdsburg Avenue and Main Street and their respective side streets (See the National Association for City Transportation Officials guidelines for raised intersections here). The street would be ramped up at intersections ahead of the crosswalk, to the sidewalk level. The raised section is continued to the opposite side of the intersection. This allows pedestrians to cross without a curb ramp and encourages drivers to slow down as they travel over the raised intersection. Raised intersections are often constructed of pavers or stamped and/or colored concrete/asphalt to bring attention to themselves. This type of installation prioritizes the pedestrian over the car which is rare in our urban places. It may be a bit much to include at each intersection with Healdsburg Ave. or Main St., but even a couple on each length of street would limit a driver’s ability to speed up much in between raised intersections, keeping vehicle speeds lower and safer for everyone.
When the lanes are wide and streets are straight drivers are more likely to engage in other distracting behaviors (like texting) and take their minds off the activity at hand which is driving a car. By introducing an unexpected piece of infrastructure like a raised intersection you cause drivers to pay more attention to their environment, they can’t just go into autopilot mode on the wide straight street.
To be honest, I’ve never seen a raised intersection used on a busy main street like I’m proposing, but I think they would definitely serve to keep speeds in check. If would be great to see some examples. (If anyone has any please forward to email@example.com.)
It has been shown that pedestrian fatalities are much reduced when cars are traveling at 25 mph or less. The design of Healdsburg Ave. and Main St. allow for much higher travel speeds, and have been the sites of bad collisions between pedestrians and cars (there was 1 fatality at a crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. earlier this year). We’ve been prioritizing cars in the design of our streets for a long time now. We need to recognize the importance of pedestrians and other non-motorized street users in street design and raised intersections is one way to do that while at the same time reducing traffic speeds and hopefully accidents between cars and people.
Posted in Sebastopol, street design, streets, Traffic, Uncategorized, urban design, walkable streets | Tagged human places, pedestrians, Placemaking, raised intersection, street design, traffic calming, urban design, walkability, walkable streets | 4 Comments »
This is an interesting blog post that discusses good and bad density. Many people, particularly in small towns like where I live, are very resistant when you mention density. But when advocating density in a town like Sebastopol, I’m not talking about skyscrapers or even multi-family type buildings. Single-family neighborhoods can be dense as discussed in the post. And can create walkable, human-scaled places.
While this post started as a way to look at how to cross Main Street safely it has evolved into a way to incorporate protected bike lanes which can help with street crossings as discussed below. Often solutions to our urban design problems have multiple benefits.
As someone who moves through town primarily on my own 2 feet I am constantly aware about how our public infrastructure is completely geared toward the automobile. Main Street feels as if it were designed to move cars through town as quickly as possible at the expense of any other user of the public right-of-way. To their credit, the city has been installing new crosswalks to help increase pedestrian visibility on the primary routes that cross our town which include 5 along the roughly 1.5 mile length of Main St. Generally, I think these have been successful in increasing pedestrian safety. But we still have a long way to go before we have a balanced system.
I’ve previously discussed the current design of Main St. here and here. The amount of space devoted to users other than the automobile in Sebastopol is limited to the sidewalks, which are rather narrow, particularly when compared to the SUPER-wide car lanes (lanes are 17′, even 18′ wide in some locations! This is a relic of a time when a train traveled down the center of Main St.) Main St. and Petaluma Ave. currently operate as one-way couplets through downtown. Petaluma Avenue has been designed for 2 lanes of one-way northbound traffic and Main Street has 2-3 lanes of one-way southbound traffic.
The half mile stretch of Main Street from the traffic light at Bodega to the re-joining of the couplet roads feels like a racetrack. Drivers wait for the green light at Bodega Ave. and then they are off. The first block has 3 lanes of southbound traffic, 13′, 12.5′ and 13′ in width, with 8′ wide parking lanes on either side. So at Burnett St, the first intersection to the south., there is 54.5′ from curb to curb for a pedestrian to cross. After this intersection, the left lane tapers out eventually leaving two 17′ wide travel lanes with 8′ wide parking lanes on either side.
The posted speed limit on Main St. is 25 mph, but realistically the design speed is much much higher. Even though the lane widths would allow driving at 55 mph, or faster, the parallel parking and proximity of buildings on either side of the street discourage it a bit, but people definitely speed frequently. And who could blame them. Most indications, from the motorist perspective, is that you should drive fast after you get through that light. There are 4 of the improved crosswalks with flashing lights as you move through the first half mile before the left lane directs you back to Petaluma Ave. and only the right lane continues southbound. (This feature also encourages speeding as those drivers in the left lane that want to continue south need to merge back into the right lane within a half mile. And speed they do.)
I live a block west of Main St. and so frequently walk this section of road and have seen firsthand how it is designed to move the cars through as quickly as possible with little regard for the pedestrian. The intersection at Burnett, which has a high volume of pedestrian crossing, has had no improvements made for the pedestrian. It’s simply a crosswalk.
On a recent crossing of this intersection there was a rather large pick-up parked in the closest parallel parking space to the corner. I cautiously stepped off the curb and peered around the truck to view oncoming traffic. The traffic light had just turned green. Several cars sped past. The fourth or fifth car in the closest lane stopped for me. I stepped into the travel lane in front of the first stopped car. The first two cars in the next lane sped past at speeds definitely exceeding the 25 mph posted limit. Another car passed in that lane and I began waving my arms wildly which the next car responded to by stopping for me. I was able to get across this lane and the next without further incident, but the experience was very threatening as a pedestrian.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make this intersection safer. An obvious first step would be to install bulb-outs at the intersection. This would allow a pedestrian to make themselves visible before stepping off the curb and into the travel lane and it would allow for a shorter crossing distance. But I don’t believe this one design change would be enough. Installing the flashing lights, both in the street and on lamp posts similar to other new crossings would also help. But I’ve used these crosswalks plenty of times and had similar experiences when cars blithely ignore the flashing lights. I think the best way to reduce the urge to speed is to narrow the driving lanes to a width that would encourage drivers to stay within the 25 mph speed limit, or better yet 15 or 20 mph. This would feel much safer from a pedestrian perspective.
A possible solution is inspired by a proposal from Cleveland I read about recently (read about it on Streetsblog). The idea proposed in Cleveland is to create separated bike lanes in the center of the street on streets where streetcars once ran. In Cleveland, and many other places, the streetcar tracks have long been paved over resulting in extra-wide streets. Main Street Sebastopol has a similar history in that a train track, for both passenger and freight trains, once ran down the center of Main St. It was paved over, I believe in the ’70’s, with the same result: an extra-wide street for cars only.
I am an advocate for returning Main St. to 2-way traffic with a protected center bike lane. Something like this.
There would be a landscaped protected bike path in the middle of Main St. with a single travel lane and parking lane on either side. The benefit to pedestrians is that there is now a pedestrian refuge area in the center of the street and you only have to cross one travel lane at a time. Given the current width of Main St., providing an 8′ parking lane, 11′ travel lane would leave 16′ in the center of the right-of-way for a bike path separated from the drive lanes with landscaping. The bike lane itself could be 10′ wide for 2-way bike traffic with 3′ of landscaping on either side. And at the center of the right-of-way it puts the bikers in a very visible location rather than relegating them to the edges of the road in potential conflict with parked car doors. Increasing the visibility of bikers is not a bad thing. And this protected bike path in the center of the street would completely change the feel of Main Street for everyone.
Jeff Speck writes about separated bike lanes in his book ‘Walkable City’. The kind he discusses are located between the parking lane and the curb. But a location along a commercial street may not make sense as it separates the parked cars from their retail destinations. By locating the separated lanes in the middle of the street you can still have separated bike lanes in the center of town, but they do not interrupt the important connection between parallel parking and the sidewalk.
Such a feature could also function as a connection between the Joe Rodota and West County bike trails which start/stop in downtown, but are not well connected. (The current ‘connection’, which is not well signed, takes bikers around downtown to the east and north.) This connection would bring bikers directly downtown encouraging people to stop and support our local businesses. An article in Streetsblog a couple of years ago discusses the economic impact of cyclists to commercial streets. And Main Street is wide enough for this length for this to be feasible.
Such a bike path may need to limit left-hand turn movements by cars, but who cares. I don’t have a problem with inconveniencing cars in order to gives us a more balanced transportation system that takes all users into account. We have given cars center stage in our public infrastructure design at the expense of other users. It’s time to take a more balanced approach. A center bike lane with landscaping could also help the aesthetics of Main St. by introducing trees to the center median. Imagine a beautiful tree canopy providing a shaded bike path down the center of Main St. It would certainly make a more human-scaled street and reduce the impact of the car downtown.
Certainly there are many details that would have to be worked out, but I believe that such a system would help with pedestrian crossings of Main St. and create a more balanced transportation system by giving bicyclists a space of their own. We need creative solutions to creating a balanced transportation system. One that acknowledges all forms of transportation and does not prioritize automobile drivers at the expense of other street users.
Posted in bike lanes, pedestrian connections, Placemaking, Sebastopol, streets, urban design, walkable streets | Tagged bikeability, connectivity, human places, one-way streets, pedestrians, Placemaking, protected bike lane, safe street crossing | Leave a Comment »