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Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day

The blog today comes from a parklet constructed by the CORE Project for PARK(ing) Day. The original PARK(ing) Day was started by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio and has now spread around the world, always occurring on the third Friday in September. The idea is to concert a public parking space into a park for a day. Taking space away from the cars and giving it back to the pedestrian. We hope the parklet will spark ideas about the use of our streets and reconsider how we think about urban design and placemaking in our communitites.

 

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

The parklet has been well received so far by locals. People are of course curious to see what this structure is in the parking space. We setup the parklet in front of West County Cycle Service, our Main Street bike shop. The owner is a very enthusiastic supporter of the idea. Several nearby business owners asked us if we could move it in front of their business. Most people are disappointed to learn the park will only be up for the day.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

The CORE Project has been trying to support the idea of permanent parklets in Sebastopol. They would be a great addition to our downtown and help reclaim some of our right-of-way for people. The city council is supportive of the idea, and wants to create an ordinance to allow people to construct parklets in downtown, similar to the successful Pavement to Parks program in San Francisco.

This has been a fun place-making exercise and it’s been great to see the community’s response. Hopefully this will push the idea of a permanent parklet in Sebastopol a bit further.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

Cittaslow Sebastopol is exploring a method of encouraging people to walk to various destinations around town in order to ‘reduce traffic and help make Sebastopol a more walk-friendly community.’ Dubbed ‘The Sebastopol Ped Line‘ they have designed 3 different walks that begin and end at the downtown plaza and loop you through the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Blue Line to Ives Park

The Blue Line to Ives Park

The Blue Line takes you to Ives Park, Sebastopol’s ‘Central Park’. Ives Park has a public pool, playgrounds, baseball field and picnic areas. It is in need of a serious facelift which the city has recognized in the adoption of a master plan for the renovation of the park, but it functions well enough for an urban park. The park is used for a variety of festivals throughout the year including the Apple Blossom Festival, Roma Festival and this weekends Renaissance Faire to benefit the public school district.

The Florence Avenue Art Walk

The Florence Avenue Art Walk

The Red Line takes you to Florence Avenue, home of sculptures by local artists and Florence Ave. residents Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, passing city hall and the library on the way. The most common question I get from visitors to Sebastopol is ‘How do I get to Florence Ave./the street with the sculptures? Now instead of describing the route I can tell them to follow the signs of the Red Line.

Florence Avenue Art Walk Sidewalk Stencil

Florence Avenue Art Walk Sidewalk Stencil

The Green Line takes you from the plaza, through The Barlow and to the community center which sits in a park on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. In summer months there is a floating bridge that takes you across the laguna to trails on the opposite bank. On the way back to the plaza the route passes the skate park, community garden and police station.

The project is currently in its trial period. There are temporary signs attached to light posts, street signs, etc. and sidewalk stencils providing directions along the route. Cittaslow Sebastopol is soliciting input on the project through a survey. The plan is to apply for funding to make the signage more permanent and support an online application.

In general I think it’s a great way to make residents and visitors alike more aware of how easy it is to get around town. One comment I plan on making is that I think it would be helpful to have distances in minutes to get to various destinations. I know that each destination is no more than 10 minutes from the plaza, but visitors, and some residents, wouldn’t necessarily know this from looking at the maps. The concept is similar to Walk Your City and I hope it will encourage people to get out of their cars, get some exercise and explore our community on foot.

Green Line to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Village Building Convergence Announcement

Green Line to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Village Building Convergence Announcement

This photo is a good segue to another placemaking event that begins in Sebastopol today and runs through September 21. The Sebastopol Village Building Convergence will bring a variety of placemaking events to Sebastopol including the creation of street murals, community gardening projects and other community building events. The full schedule is here.

On my walk to the cafe this morning I walked by my inspiration for today’s post. As much as I’d love to get rid of all cars downtown, I have to acknowledge that many visitors to downtown Sebastopol arrive by car and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Parking in Sebastopol does not feel like it has been planned intentionally but more that it has been allowed to happen. We need to be more pro-active about where we are providing parking and the impact of parking on the pedestrian experience and surrounding uses.

 

Sebastopol public and private parking lots

Sebastopol public and private parking lots

 

Sebastopol has 6 city-owned parking lots all of which are free. There are also several private lots like the Rite Aid, Safeway and Whole Foods lots that I imagine are intended to be used exclusively by patrons of those businesses. I know people use the Rite Aid lot when going to other downtown businesses and I think Rite Aid generally acknowledges and accepts this, as they should. Their parking lot has destroyed the Main Street experience so the least they can do is allow people to park there when frequenting other businesses. I’m sure people parking at the Whole Foods center lot which is directly across the street from the plaza, also walk to other locations downtown. The ‘Tacqueria’ site on South Main street is also private, but is utilized by people frequenting the businesses on site as well as other nearby businesses including the post office. The city-owned lots are scattered around and include the parking lot surrounding two sides of the plaza. An important consideration for the future of parking in Sebastopol is the construction of a parking garage which would allow some, if not all, of the existing city-owned lots to be put to higher and better uses by consolidating the parking in a structure. There are two sites downtown which offer the best opportunity for structured parking.

There are two vacant lots on Brown Street which is a kind of an alley a block off the plaza and a common route for me to get the the cafe in The Barlow where I often write this blog. Both lots are dirt with a hedge of blackberries along the property line separating the two. They’ve been in this condition for as long as I’ve lived here which is 12 years, and I’m sure for much longer.

 

Brown Street Vacant Lot

Brown Street Vacant Lot

CPS Parking Lot

CPS Parking Lot

The 0.21 acre site in the middle of the block has been for sale for some time. The other 0.28 acre lot is posted ‘Parking for CPS’ only (CPS is a real estate office located a very short block away). The site is a little over a quarter acre. You could easily park 25 cars on this lot. Does an approximately 3,500 square foot real estate office really need parking for 25 cars? The zoning code would require 4 spaces for every 1,000 square feet which would total 14 spaces and that’s probably more than they need as well. I’m not sure if CPS owns the property or if they rent it for their parking purposes but it seems like they could be a good neighbor and allow anyone to park. Both sites should allow public parking as a first step. It’s a convenient location, located 1 short block from the plaza and another block to Main St. The movie theater is a block away as is the west edge of The Barlow. I wouldn’t mind if they put out a fee box and charged for parking. In fact I’d encourage it, although given the fact that the rest of the parking in town is free, they may have a hard time getting takers. But allowing parking here will plant the seed in the community that these lots should be utilized for parking. The next step would be to build a parking structure.

 

Proposed Brown St. and South Main parking structures, in yellow.

Proposed Brown St. and South Main parking structures, in yellow.

Generally, I’d suggest a good mixed-use project on an urban infill site, but even though this site is only a block off the plaza, it does not seem like a place where retail or other uses would be able to thrive. It is a corner lot, but the two streets function more like alleys. Brown Street is 2 blocks long and the block to the south is one-way in the opposite direction fronting a 2-story commercial building. Depot Street is the other street which dead ends a block to the east at what feels like the back of The Barlow. The south side of Depot street is the back of a Napa Auto, Goodwill and a mini-market/deli. The north side of the street is a cast concrete manufacturer, Barlow parking lot and a Barlow building.  Locating a parking structure on this site would not interrupt current or potential pedestrian connections or vehicular flow.

A parking structure on this site could also provide the parking for the property on the opposite side of Brown Street which is ripe for redevelopment. It’s currently a tractor sales store (great use for the property fronting your town plaza!) and was originally a lumber yard. To be fair, the plaza was not there when the lumber yard was built and this was the edge of a light industrial district to the east of the main street commercial district. The site is 2.5 acres and should be developed with ground floor retail with several floors above. The city conducted a public workshop recently to get community feedback on what they would like to see on the property. The city does not control the property, but the property owner is interested in learning what the community wants for the site which could help market it to potential developers. The site is large enough that it could possibly include it’s own parking structure, but utilizing the two other Brown Street properties would allow more of the site to be developed with higher value uses.

The other site that is a good opportunity for a parking structure is the city parking lot at the corner of Main Street and Burnett Street. The current parking lot is the beginning of the end of the Main Street commercial area. It is about 265′ from the intersection of Main and Burnett to the first building on this side of the block, which is a single story office-building of approximately 1,500 sf. It takes the wind out of your sails as a pedestrian traversing this distance with nothing but parked cars to look at. The West County Museum, located in the former passenger rail depot, and Chamber of Commerce would probably see more foot traffic if this ‘gap’ in the pedestrian fabric was filled in with a building. Now this site would be more appropriate for a parking garage with some mix of uses lining the street frontage with the parking in the center of the block. The ground floor retail would extend the pedestrian experience and mirror the buildings on the opposite side of the street which already have good pedestrian frontage. The upper levels could accommodate office and/or residential along the edges, again with the parking on the interior of the property.

Structured parking is probably a long way off for Sebastopol, but we should be thinking about it now and make necessary preparations. Structured parking would allow existing surface lots to be redeveloped and improve the pedestrian experience downtown. Structured parking would encourage a park once and walk by eliminating options for moving your car around downtown. We must be intentional and strategic in developing parking downtown. And we must develop parking in a way that supports rather than compromises the pedestrian experience if we want to improve the economic vitality of our downtown. We also need to rethink our downtown parking requirements, which will be a good discussion point for a future post.

The proposed CVS/Chase bank project that I have written about before has a new twist. The project is proposed on a prominent intersection at what is essentially the gateway to downtown Sebastopol. The project went through a long drawn out entitlement process that included the Planning Commission denying a use permit only to be overturned by the City Council and the Design Review Board rejecting 2 proposed designs the final of which was also approved on appeal by the City Council. There was a great deal of public comment about the project, some in support, but a vocal majority against the proposed project which included a drive-through pharmacy window and drive-through ATM.

A local citizens group, the Committee for Small Town Sebastopol (CSTS), sued the developer of the project and the city over what they perceived to be a flawed Mitigated Negative Declaration. The group felt the project should be required to go through a full Environmental Impact Report because of the impact on traffic at this congested intersection. Subsequent to the approval of the project, the Sebastopol City Council implemented a moratorium on new drive-throughs in town. This applied to any project that did not already have a building permit, which the CVS project did not. CVS then filed a lawsuit against the city stating the city violated their civil rights when they implemented the drive-through moratorium.

CVS/Chase Site Plan - May 2012

CVS/Chase Site Plan – May 2012

CVS approached the CSTS and the City of Sebastopol to settle both lawsuits this spring. All parties sat down to negotiate a settlement which will hopefully result in a better project. Some of the items CVS, CSTS and the City of Sebastopol (the City Council has not yet officially signed-off on the settlement as of the writing of this blog) agreed to are:

  • CVS agreed to eliminate both the drive-through pharmacy and the drive-through ATM (during the entitlement process they repeatedly said would be a ‘deal-killer’ when they were asked to eliminate the drive-through).
  • CVS will be required to prohibit left turns into and out of the project driveways.
  • The property will be divided into 5 separate parcels which will allow future development of what will largely be a parking lot.
  • The CVS building will be 2 stories to allow for more redevelopment options in the future (the developer had repeatedly rejected this request during the entitlement process as well).
  • Both buildings will be required to install solar panels on their roofs.
  • The CVS building will be required to be setback from the corner. I’m not sure this is a good idea. Generally buildings in urban areas should be built up to the sidewalk. I guess the devil will be in the details and how far back the setback is and what is done with the space in between.
  • The CVS signage will be ‘discreet’

While I think the best outcome would have been for CVS to walk away from the site entirely, I think it is generally a good compromise. I have heard that Chase is no longer interested in the site so maybe CVS will also come to this conclusion in the end. They already have a location in Sebastopol, in a strip shopping center at the north side of town, which will be closed when this store opens. We already have a Rite Aid and Safeway with a full pharmacy downtown, both about 3 blocks away from this site so it’s not like we are lacking in pharmacy options downtown. Many people I know no longer shop at CVS and have vowed to continue to boycott them if/when they build this new store. They haven’t had any of my business since this all started.

It’s interesting to me that the perseverance by a citizens group and the actions of a small town city council were able to fight back and get some fairly significant concessions from a corporate behemoth. You don’t hear too many success stories like this and it is heartening to know it’s possible. Hopefully other communities will take action against assaults on their urban environments like this.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows how sprawl is bankrupting communities that cannot keep up with the maintenance of all the infrastructure required to serve the sprawl. New infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, electric, gas) is often conditioned on the developer to install, but they have no obligation to maintain it. That responsibility falls on the local jurisdiction. However, the taxes generated by sprawling developments come nowhere close to being able to pay for the maintenance on the infrastructure. The infrastructure put in place to support the past 70 years of sprawl is needing replacement and many cities are finding themselves without the financial resources for that maintenance.

Chuck Marohn, of Strong Towns, discusses this issue at length and travels the country repeating this message. He compares our post WWII method of growth to a Ponzi scheme. We need continued growth to pay for our long-term liabilities which is simply not sustainable. That’s generally how it’s worked over the past 70 years. Cities approve new development, collect development fees and use those fees to maintain the previously installed infrastructure. They need to continually grow to keep up with maintenance demands. When growth slows, so does infrastructure maintenance.

Part of the problem is that the tax revenue generated by sprawling development is not sufficient to maintain the infrastructure that serves it. Chuck wrote an article comparing a traditional pattern of pedestrian-friendly small-town development with a new auto-oriented fast food development. He analyzed the tax base value of each and found that the traditional development pattern, even though it was ‘old and blighted’, was 41% more valuable than the new auto-oriented development. Read the full article here. That article serves as the inspiration for this post. I was also inspired by the work of Joe Minicozzi of Urban 3. At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference session I attended he introduced me to the idea of looking at property taxes on a per acre basis to give an apples to apples comparison of how ‘valuable’ a property is to a community’s coffers. A good summary of his work can be found in this Planetizen article.

So I’ve looked at property tax data from 2013 (available from the Sonoma County Treasurer-Tax Collector website) for 2 types of development found in downtown Sebastopol. The first type is a traditional Main Street development pattern of small lots with buildings built out to the front and side property lines. Most of the buildings along this block are single story structures. The predominant use is retail. There is very little mixed use. I compared the amount of property tax generated by these ‘traditional’ properties to three ‘sprawl’ type developments adjacent to the traditional development (yes, 3 sprawl shopping center type developments right on Main St!). The first of these two properties contains a Rite Aid. I think this store was constructed in the 1960’s. It’s a single store sitting at the back of the lot with a parking lot fronting Main Street. The second property was developed more recently (1980’s?) and contains a Safeway, again sitting at the back of the lot behind a large parking lot fronting Main Street. The third is the Whole Foods shopping center which I also believe was built in the 1960’s.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings. This block generates $45,059.08 per acre in property taxes.

The traditional block contains 12 properties fronting Main Street with lot sizes varying from 0.05 acres to 0.36 acres. These 12 properties generated $91,920.53 in property taxes in 2013. The total acreage of the 12 lots is 2.04 acres. In contrast, the Rite Aid property generated $29,531.62 in property taxes and is 1.35 acres. The Safeway property (actually 2 separate parcels) generated $65,199.17 in property taxes and is 3.64 acres in total. Whole Foods’ shopping center generate $44,042.60 and is 1.64 acres. Safeway looks like it generates a good deal of money for a single business, but when you look at it on a per acre basis the picture is quite different.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building (below)

The traditional block of Main Street generated $45,059.08/acre in property taxes in 2013. Rite Aid generated less than half that at $21,875.27/acre and Safeway generated even less per acre – $17,911.86/acre. Whole Foods center generated a little more than half the traditional block at $26,823.10/acre. Better than Rite Aid and Safeway. (Part of the reason for the higher per/acre value of this shopping center can be attributed to it’s much lower ratio of parking than Rite Aid or Safeway as anyone that tries to parking in this lot can attest.) I’d like reiterate that the traditional Main Street block is a very low density development with mostly older 1-story buildings and little mix of uses. The newest building on the block, which was built roughly 11 years ago, is a 2-story building sitting on 0.36 acres. It generated $42,775.17 in property taxes in 2013 for a per acre rate of $118,819.92!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

This higher density (and it’s only a 2-story building) generates 6.6 times the property tax per acre than Safeway! Imagine if the whole block were developed to this value. Why would a city allow a Safeway-type development? We certainly need places to buy groceries and I have nothing against Safeway per se, but what if it were part of a mixed-use development? What if Safeway had offices or residences above it? What if the building was up at the sidewalk, with structured parking behind? It would generate a great deal more in property tax revenue than in its current sprawling configuration. So in addition to contributing a fraction of the property taxes of more traditional development Safeway and Rite Aid properties completely kill the pedestrian-oriented function of the Main Street block to the south.

The City of Sebastopol will be conducting a public meeting to get input on ideas for the development of a prime 2+ acre property in the heart of downtown. The property is privately owned, but the owner is interested in selling and is open to hear what ideas the community has for it’s future. It will be important to keep the value of a new development in mind when considering what to build there. It is obvious to me from this analysis that it is imperative that this parcel should be developed as a mixed-use multi-story project. It will be crucial to get this right. We cannot afford to approve a single-story, single-use structure on this property. It was never discussed in this manner, but it is another argument against the proposed CVS/Chase project located a block away.

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This was an easy analysis to complete and I’d encourage others to do the same in their communities. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much better traditional urban development patterns contribute to a communities tax base. And it’s a conversation that is long overdue.

I came across this interesting video that demonstrates the concept of ‘Shared Streets’ which is the inspiration for this post. Prior to the widespread use of the automobile, streets were shared by all users. We didn’t have the segregation we see today in which priority is given to the movement of the automobile. Today, streets are generally designed to move the highest volume of cars possible, at the expense of all other street users. Granted, vehicles are generally larger and can move faster than any other transport used in human history. However, this doesn’t mean they should be given priority in our street design. We need to reestablish a balance between all users to improve our streetscapes and to encourage more people to leave the car behind and walk and bike, particularly in urban areas.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Generally, the concept of shared streets reduces or eliminates the demarcations between various users of the streets and traffic controls with the intent to improve safety and flow for all involved. Importantly it eliminates giving priority to the vehicle, which is what happens with our current street design standards. Setting up a hierarchy between street users sets the stage for conflict as the user given ‘priority’ assumes they have more of a right to the space than others. Traffic controls allow the driver of a car to abdicate their responsibility for safety. For example, a green light gives a driver the authority to ‘go.’ The driver of a car may not realize someone has not quite made it through the intersection since they have only been watching the light and they start  to move. If they don’t see the person in the crosswalk and apply their brakes in time, an accident occurs. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2012 there were 33,561 fatalities caused by motor vehicles. Of these 4,743 were pedestrians and 726 were cyclists. An additional 76,00 pedestrians and 49,000 cyclists were injured. Obviously giving vehicles priority in our street system design has been, and continues to be. dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

In a shared street, all street users are equal which results in more cooperation between users of the street. Generally demarcation lines between pedestrian, bike and vehicle space are blurred and most traffic control, including traffic lights, are eliminated. This gives the impression of a less safe environment which naturally makes all users take more responsibility for their safety. “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” (Hans Monderman, “European Towns Remove Traffic Signs to Make Streets Safer. Deutsche Welle. 27 August 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2014)

I’ve heard of the concept of shared space before but must admit I was a bit dubious of its implementation. It remains controversial but in most places it has been implemented accidents have been significantly reduced, and vehicular travel times have also generally been reduced, even though speeds are lower. This occurs because although peak speeds are reduced, the amount of time spent waiting at an intersection is also reduced, or eliminated, which results in a higher average speed. How many times have you waited at a traffic light or stop sign, whether in a car, on foot, or on a bike with no opposing traffic, yet you sit and wait for the light to turn. By eliminating the traffic controls, all types of movement can occur with less delay.

The video below shows the potential of shared space in a real life trial. It shows the before and after of an intersection in the English town of Poynton, which in some ways reminds me of Sebastopol. It appears to be a crossroad town, like Sebastopol, with a main street (or ‘high’ street as they say) dominated by motor vehicles. The intersection has an average of 26,000 vehicles passing through each day which is similar to the number of cars traveling through the center of Sebastopol (according to California Department of Transportation 2011 counts). So I found it interesting to wonder if a similar approach could help restore the balance between cars and people in downtown Sebastopol. Right now, downtown is completely dominated by the car at the expense of other users, which I believe hinders the vitality of downtown.

Even though Caltrans is supposedly embracing complete street guidelines, if seems that a shared street concept would be difficult to get approved. (The main streets in downtown Sebastopol are state routes under Caltrans’ jurisdiction.) But there are lessons to learn about priority and sharing of streets in the creation of more pedestrian-friendly spaces. And there are certainly other precedents for sharing of streets. Having been to Rome recently, one of the things I noticed is that many of the streets in the center of Rome are shared, and the pedestrian obviously has as much, or more, right to the space as the car. Sidewalks, if they exist at all, are minimal and yet it seems to work.

Shared use Roman street - pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Shared use Roman street – pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Now Rome is a totally different scale, and has had time to develop over millennia. Importantly, the center of Rome evolved prior to cars so streets were naturally human scaled. Sebastopol once had a train running down the center of Main Street which is one of the reasons it’s so wide. However, it seems like there must be a way to reclaim some of the street for pedestrians and bicyclists, and establish a more even balance among all users of the public way. I will continue looking for other examples of small towns creating a more shared and balanced approach to transportation. Please contact me if you have any suggestions.

I came across this interesting website today that is exploring the history of sprawl, and the regulations that have been encouraging sprawl type development over more compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. It also gives ideas for changing the sprawl-inducing regulatory system to level the playing field so to speak. So far 3 essays have been published: Setting the Stage, Zoning Regulations and Water. There are 5 more to come. It’s from Community Builders which is a project of the Sonoran Institute.

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