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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.

War on Cars?

Paul Fritz:

Nice blog post keeping things in perspective when comparing the impacts to our communities between cars and bikes and how the scales have been tipped in favor of the car for quite some time.

Originally posted on Dom's Plan B Blog:

By Dom Nozzi

Many in Boulder seem to believe that City government is engaged in a “war on cars.” Let’s tally the “casualties” over the past century.

Number of motorists who killed a cyclist when crashing into them: An unacceptably large number. Number of cyclists who killed a motorist when crashing into them: Probably zero.1414284640

Taxes and asphalt cyclists (and others) must pay or put up with due to the negative costs of motoring: Very substantial and always increasing.

Taxes and asphalt motorists must pay or put up with due to the negative costs of cycling: Comparatively tiny.

Quality of life harm that cyclists (and others) must bear due to motorist noise and air pollution (cars are the largest source of noise pollution in Boulder): Substantial and uncontrollable.

Noise and air pollution caused by cyclists: Negligible.

Destinations that cyclists (and others) cannot get too because the destinations are too far…

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Sebastopol, like many other small towns, needs to get a handle on its parking requirements. Current zoning code parking requirements is often at odds with good urbanism. Without a mechanism such as a parking assessment district, or simply reducing on-site parking requirements, our attempts at creating good pedestrian-friendly urban environments fight an uphill battle. Sebastopol has several city-owned, free surface parking lots that, like surface parking lots everywhere, leave gaping holes in the urban fabric.

Main Street Sebastopol has almost 2 whole blocks without a parking lot or auto-oriented use. (The north end of the west side of Main Street has what used to be a gas station but is now a smog check business.) These two blocks are full of traditional zero-setback buildings, mostly one story with a couple 2-story buildings sprinkled in. And while I think the buildings could be taller, these 2 blocks generally work.IMG_20150718_113337891_HDR

IMG_20150718_113245274IMG_20150717_171825281_HDR IMG_20150717_171532233 IMG_20150717_171720942_HDR IMG_20150717_171707259_HDRUnfortunately, these two blocks could not be built today. Any new building needs to provide on-site parking. Now this isn’t 100% true. Sebastopol apparently did have some kind of parking district at some point, although it’s a little vague. My understanding is that once upon a time, downtown property owner’s were allowed (required?) to buy into a parking assessment district. They paid for a certain number of spaces to be allotted in municipal parking lots for their building. If one of these lots is redeveloped they can credit the number of spaces they had ‘purchased’ toward any new parking requirement.

I would like to look at one specific example. We have a live theater company in Sebastopol, Main Stage West. The theater is in a small 2-story building on the corner of Main Street and Bodega Ave. My understanding is that the ground floor was originally a pharmacy with offices on the second floor. The offices are still on the second floor, but the ground floor has been converted to an intimate theater. It’s a great resource to have in such a small town, and does provide some after hours activity downtown. I don’t know the exact seating count, but I think it’s around 80 seats. The building takes up it’s entire lot. There is no parking on the property.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

If someone wanted to build a theater of this size on Main Street today, they would have to provide on-site parking. The Sebastopol Zoning Code requires 1 parking space for every 4 seats in a theater. For the Main Stage West theater, this would require 20 parking spaces. for the roughly 2,200 sf second floor offices you would need 6 parking spaces (1 per 400 sf). That’s 26 parking spaces total required for this building. You couldn’t get 26 parking space on their existing site even if there was no building. The lot is 25’x87′. you actually can’t even make a parking lot with those dimensions. Assuming you could line up parking spaces in the 87′ dimension and just pull in off Bodega Ave you could get 8 parking spaces. But no room for a building, unless you built it above the parking lot. Theoretically, the building could have purchased some parking spaces when the parking assessment occurred, but I’m fairly certain they did not purchase 26 parking spaces.

We’ve essentially made the Main Street we love today impossible to build.

There is a very underutilized property at the opposite end of the block the theater is on. It had been a gas station but today is a smog check station. (Great use for Main Street, right?). The lot is about 59′ wide and 165′ deep. 9,735 sf. Say the theater wanted to move and build a slightly larger facility, assume 150 seats. That would require 38 parking spaces. If you wanted second floor offices about 24 parking spaces. Total 62  parking spaces required. I’m pretty sure that since the site had been a gas station, they never bought into the parking assessment district and would be required to supply all 62 spaces on-site. Impossible.

Smog Check property

Smog Check lot

Smog check lot

Smog check lot

Forget the theater. Make the ground floor retail with 1 floor of office above. 48 parking spaces would be required. Maybe you just make the ground floor parking and build above with a small retail space along the sidewalk to screen the parking behind. Say 800 sf of retail with 9,735 sf of office above. 26 parking spaces required. You could fit about 14 spaces on the ground floor behind the retail. That doesn’t work either. It is impossible with today’s zoning code to build a good urban building on this site.

This is not right and needs to be fixed if we have any hope of creating a good walkable people-centric downtown. Sebastopol needs a parking assessment district where downtown property owner’s are required to pay a fee that will be used to construct and maintain a municipal parking garage. And the parking garage must NOT be free. People that choose to drive and park downtown should be required to pay for the privilege and for the financing and maintenance of the parking facility. We cannot have good urbanism with the current parking requirements downtown.

Paul Fritz:

I am working with a group of people to bring Urban3 and Strong Towns to Sonoma County to study the existing development patterns and evaluate the financial productivity of different forms of land use. We hope this will help community officials make better decisions about growth by showing that sprawl is financially counterproductive to our communities. Johnny shares a great explanation here of the physical impact of pre- and post-
WWII development styles. Enjoy.

Originally posted on Granola Shotgun:

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This week I participated in a newly formed group that will be bringing Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 to Sonoma County, California this fall. Sonoma County is experiencing the same challenges as most places across the country in terms of urban form and municipal governance and there’s a need to redefine the conversation.

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Santa Rosa is the seat of government for Sonoma County. I’m going to highlight two different parts of town and two very different forms of urbanism to demonstrate the basic message behind both Strong Towns and Urban3.

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This is the historic downtown of Santa Rosa. It’s compact, walkable, bikeable, and has good quality public parks. Most buildings in downtown are two stories tall, although there are many one story buildings and a few buildings that are five or six stories. This is a textbook example of a traditional pre World War…

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Just wanted to send out a quick link to a recent blog post on Strong Towns about small towns and urbanism which is obviously the focus of this blog. We don’t often think of small towns as being urban. But good small towns are urban places, albeit on a different scale from some place like New York City. And we can take lessons from big places and scale them down and apply them in small towns. The result is places that are oriented toward people. Enjoy.

Small Scale Lessons for New York City Skeptics

I walk. A lot. I try to walk or bike when I need to get around town as much as possible. Which generally works well. I’m fortunate in that I live 2 blocks from my office and within walking or biking distance of most of my daily needs. Occasionally I need to drive to an out of town meeting, but I often do not drive at all during the week.

Sebastopol has been making improvements to the pedestrian infrastructure, but generally, our streets are still dominated by cars and pedestrians need to remain vigilant. The most significant thing the city has been doing is installing improved crosswalks. These have signs, stamped colored asphalt paving and flashing lights (some crosswalks have them embedded in the paving in addition to pole-mounted lights) that are triggered by pedestrians pushing a button prior to crossing. Not every car stops when the lights are flashing, but eventually they do and it makes drivers more aware of pedestrians.

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

However, as pedestrians, we cannot assume that we are always seen by drivers and must take responsibility for our own safety. Cars are big and potentially dangerous to pedestrians, and pedestrians need to remain alert to that fact. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2012 and over 76,000 were injured. I often see pedestrians engaging in activities that could put themselves into danger. Most often it is texting or talking on their phone or listening to music. While it may not be as dangerous as doing so while driving it does take your attention away from what you are doing. This is particularly dangerous when you find yourself in a space you have to share with a car like crossing a street or driveway. Drivers do not always see you and it is your responsibility to make sure they do.

While the newer, improved crosswalks are helpful, I never walk into the crosswalk until I am positive that the car is stopping, and then I proceed slowly until I know that the car in the second lane is stopping as well. It is amazing how often a car in the lane closest to me stops and several cars blow by in the next lane, as if the first car is stopping for no reason. And they are more effective when activated. I see many people just walk into the crosswalk without pushing the button to  turn on the flashing lights. I know it’s one more thing to do, but it’s worth the effort.

Pedestrians also must never assume that just because you have a walk signal at a crosswalk, or a green light that it is safe to cross. You still need to watch for cars making right hand turns and cars running a red light. Drivers are not always looking for you, so you must be aware of them.

One-way streets create a difficult situation for pedestrians crossing intersecting side streets. And because Main Street and Petaluma Avenue are one-way we have quite a few of these locations in Sebastopol. Drivers on the side streets that are turning onto the one-way street tend only to look for vehicular traffic coming from the single direction. If you are a pedestrian coming from the opposite direction it is likely they will not look in your direction. You need to make sure they are aware of you before you enter the street.

I will say that I think being a regular walker has made me a better driver. Since I’m so often a pedestrian I find myself more aware of pedestrians and bikes when I’m driving. If we design our communities to encourage more walking we may end up with better drivers. Much of the emphasis on decreasing traffic accidents focuses on drivers, and they do have a big responsibility as cars can be deadly and we need to always be aware of that fact as drivers. However, traffic safety is a shared responsibility and pedestrians must remain vigilant and accountable for their own safety.

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