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Transactions of Decline

A great post about a wasted opportunity. The street along the Santa Rosa Junior College is a mish-mash of low density, car-oriented sprawl. Given the thousands of people that attend and work at the junior college and the adjacent high school it is appalling how we have developed this stretch of Mendocino Ave. This should be a lively mixed-use district. Small local shops on the ground floor with apartments for students above. In addition to the parking lot discussed in the blog, other recent additions to this stretch of road are the culinary center, which completely ignores the street frontage and is oriented to its parking lot and a Chick-Fil-A. The zoning code must prohibit this low-value development. It’s a completely missed opportunity.

Granola Shotgun

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Santa Rosa Junior College is installing another parking lot near campus. No big deal, right? This is a commuter school serving people from all corners of the county. Faculty and students need places to park.

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This parking lot is carefully designed to meet all sorts of requirements. There’s comprehensive handicap accessibility.

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Thoughtful landscaping will include drip irrigation for drought tolerant native plantings.

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Here’s a shade structure on the corner for pedestrians. I have no doubt there will be electric vehicle charging stations and that the lighting will be downward facing to preserve the night sky and view of the stars. As parking lots go this one will be as attractive and well appointed as possible.

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I pulled up some images on Google to see what was there before – three completely unremarkable old buildings. No one will miss them at all now that they’ve been removed. The…

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You Are Traffic

morpheus traffic meme

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns was in Santa Rosa last week. During one of our conversations he told me about this meme and I had to share it.  I have been feeling this way for years. One of the biggest complaints about the state of our town is traffic and it drives me crazy.

Traffic is far down the list of my concerns. Partly because the times when there is traffic are relatively limited. Also, because I generally avoid driving during times when I know there will be traffic. If I have to drive during the morning or afternoon commute times, then I expect I will encounter traffic and plan accordingly. Most of the time I transport myself around town on foot or on bike. So traffic is a non-issue for me.

The most common time I find myself in traffic is when I pick up my daughter from high school in Santa Rosa. That was a choice we made and because of that choice she needs to be driven to school. When driving back to town from Santa Rosa there is often a backup before you get to downtown Sebastopol. There are probably quite a few people in that backup because their kid(s) go to school in Santa Rosa, or because they live in Santa Rosa and are picking their kid up from school in Sebastopol. Open enrollment schools are responsible for a lot of the traffic we experience around here. Sitting in the backup at 3:30, I am traffic and I don’t have anyone to blame but myself.

Sebastopol is a crossroads town. There are 40,000+ people that live in the ‘country’ to the south, west and north of town. Many of those people must pass through Sebastopol to get to work or shopping. Not much we in Sebastopol can do about it. This creates some traffic, at limited, and mostly predictable, times during the day.

The people that complain about traffic drive. And as Morpheus says in the meme ‘ You are traffic.’ Get over it. You think you are the only person that wants to be on the road at 5:00? You’re not.  The larger problem in my mind is that there is a serious lack of traffic downtown at 7:00 in the evening. The streets are empty which has an impact on Sebastopol’s vitality, or lack thereof. This is the problem we need to be addressing.

This post was originally published as a guest post on the Strong Towns website.

Like many other cities in California, Santa Rosa is struggling with high housing costs and deteriorating infrastructure. Rents have risen 40% in the past 4 years. Median sale price has risen about 10% in the past year. Even with the economic recovery new home construction has been relatively slow. The cost of construction in Santa Rosa is similar here to the rest of the Bay Area. However, housing costs, while high, are generally higher elsewhere. So developers are developing where they get a larger return on their investment.

The City of Santa Rosa has $1 billion in projected infrastructure projects over the next 20 years. There has been limited discussion of where this money is going to come from short of changing the development fee structure which over the last 20 years has generated $230 million in revenue. Increasing development fees to offset this imbalance is not feasible and will only further discourage new housing development.

The City Council has been discussing these issues in recent months. In addition to considering changes to development impact fees the council has considered implementing rent control, which has been highly contentious. The city has commissioned a study to look at possible solutions to these issues which is due out this month. So far, no silver bullets have been found.

In addition to development impact fees the city also collects revenue through property and sales taxes. As readers of the Strong Towns blog know, development patterns have a significant impact on the amount of revenue generated through these two sources. To understand this dynamic further the city has contracted with Strong Towns and Urban 3 to undertake an analysis to look at the financial productivity of different development patterns across Santa Rosa with a focus on the differences between downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. This study will help show city leaders the financial productivity of the areas of town developed in a more traditional manner of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, to those that are more suburban in nature.

Santa Rosa, in addition to the 8 other incorporated cities in Sonoma County, has an urban growth boundary. The urban growth boundaries are complemented in the county by designated ‘community separators’. While these policies have been nominally successful in focusing development within city limits, the types of development that have been happening continue to be largely of the suburban sprawl variety. When voters approved the urban growth boundaries, city policy was not changed to encourage infill development within the boundary. Most policies continue to favor sprawl. City regulations make infill development difficult in part due to parking requirements, height restrictions, setback requirements, etc. We need to rethink these policies and encourage more infill development. Having the data from Urban 3’s analysis will help to refocus this conversation.

Sonoma-County-Master-Plan-2006_Greenbelt-Hillsides_700

Sonoma County is also anticipating the beginning of service on a new passenger train by the end of 2016. The SMART train system runs along the highway 101 corridor of Sonoma County from Cloverdale in the north to Petaluma in the south and continuing on through Marin County to eventually connect to the ferry terminal in Larkspur for connection to San Francisco.

SMART map

This is a $650 million infrastructure project whose success will depend on the development of the areas around each station. Santa Rosa has two stations: a station downtown in a neighborhood called Railroad Square and second station a few miles north of downtown. There is a large amount of vacant land in the station areas in Santa Rosa, and the rest of the county, waiting for appropriate development. This is a great opportunity to refocus development around the station areas into walkable, high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods. Proposed higher-density projects have been meeting resistance. However, the only way the train will be successful is if we develop the station areas appropriately. Low density, car-oriented development is not going to cut it. We need to get this right.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner.

I am a member of a new non-profit called Urban Community Partnership. Urban Community Partnership was established to facilitate this project with Strong Towns and Urban 3 but will we continue working to support developments that are financially productive places to live, work and play.  Urban Community Partnership will be using the Strong Towns/Urban 3 events to kick-off our next project which is going to look at the SMART station areas in more detail.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner.  We hope that the events next week help start to change the conversation.  If you are interested in attending any of the sessions below please RSVP at our website.

Strong Towns/Urban 3 Public meeting schedule:

City of Santa Rosa Joint City Council and Planning Commission Study Session –  January 19 – 12:00-3:00

Santa Rosa  City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Avenue

The following evening  events will all be held at Bike Monkey, 121 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa

Curbside Chat – January 19 – 5:30-7:30

A look at the fiscal realities facing America’s cities. The way our cities have grown, and the way we have financed that growth, provides a short term illusion of wealth but leaves us with enormous long term obligations. A different approach can not only help us be more successful financially, it can actually improve our lives.

 Santa Rosa Study Results – January 20 – 5:30-7:30

Measuring the City, a look at how the ways we choose to measure information reflects our reality. We don’t measure automobile fuel consumption in miles per tank, but that is exactly what we do with land when we set up our taxing and development policies. A miles per gallon analysis of fiscal performance reveals many insights on what makes a place truly productive.

Transportation in the Next American  City – Next Steps – January 21 – 5:30-7:30

Thursday: Transportation in the Next American City, a look at the assumptions behind the American transportation system and how they impact the costs, performance and experience of getting places. Driving to a place and driving through a place are different objectives, yet our designs barely distinguish between them. By relating our transportation designs to the way we want our places to perform, we find that we can spend less money and get much better results.

Urban Community Partnership will also be presenting their plans for next steps including bringing Joe and Chuck back to look at development opportunities in the SMART station areas.

 

 

Orderly, But Dumb

Here is a great blog post of why modern zoning codes prevent implementation of human-scaled urbanism today. In most places, it is simply not legal to build mixed-use walkable neighborhooods.

Granola Shotgun

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Municipal governments all have land use policies that attempt to achieve particular goals: economic development, ease of traffic flow, maintaining open space, segregating noxious industries, and so on. So local authorities break out the colored pencils and create big blocks on the map. We all know what this looks like on the ground.
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Single family homes in subdivisions go here.
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Apartment complexes go here.
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Hotels go here.
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Offices go here.
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Restaurants go here. And so on…
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And in order to connect all those separate pods the local authorities need to build and maintain an infinite amount of very expensive attenuated public infrastructure like this.
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This is Ohio, but it could be anyplace. This has been the default land use pattern all over North America since the late 1940’s. Everything in this suburban landscape was built on a large scale by regional or national corporate…

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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.

http://www.streetfilms.org/cycling-copenhagen-through-north-american-eyes/

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