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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.

Building Dense Does Not Have To Be Dense.

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.

Looking South on Main Street (at Calder)

Looking South on Main Street (at Calder)

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.

Main Street at Burnett.

Main Street at Burnett. This is where I was crossing as discussed below.

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.

Current configuration of Main Street

Current configuration of Main Street

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.

Proposed center protected bike lane.

Proposed center protected bike lane.

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.

Section of Main Street existing condition (Bodega to Burnett)

Section of Main Street existing condition (Bodega to Burnett)

proposed ROW section

Proposed section with center protected bike lane

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.

Existing/proposed bike routes in downtown Sebastopol. Existing class I trails shown in yellow; existing connection shown in blue; and proposed route down the center of Main St. shown in red.

Existing/proposed bike routes in downtown Sebastopol. Existing class I trails shown in yellow; existing connection shown in blue; and proposed route down the center of Main St. shown in red.

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.

I came across this article today by Jeff Speck where he discusses reducing drive lane widths on urban streets from 12′ to 10′. Reading down through the comments there are obviously strong opinions on both sides, but it seems like an obvious safety improvement to me and I think would go a long way to helping create more human-scaled streets here in Sebastopol, and probably many other communities across the country.

You can read the whole article here, but in a nutshell in the article Speck looks at several studies showing that a reduction in lane width leads to reduced accidents, and those accidents that do occur result in less fatalities as cars are generally traveling slower when in 10′ lanes than 12′ lanes. He states people drive at the speed at which they feel safe:

On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

28' wide High St - how fast would you drive here?

28′ wide High St – how fast would you drive here?

I see the difference in how people drive on streets with vastly different lane widths every day. The street I live on is 28′ curb to curb with parallel parking on both sides. With cars parked on both sides you are left with a roughly 14′ travel lane. it’s not a high volume road, but it is used fairly often as it serves as it is a through street as many others in the neighborhood have limited connections. We also have a school at the end of the street so traffic definitely increases before and after school. Given the 14′ travel lane width it’s not comfortable for cars traveling in opposite directions to pass one another. So one car has to ‘give way’ and pull over in between parked cars to let the approaching car pass. The narrow lane width, parked cars, people on the sidewalks, trees and houses with 10′-15′ setbacks are all physical features of the environment that clue drivers to keep their speeds relatively low. Sure there are those that blow through at 30-35 mph from time to time, but generally I would say most people drive less than 25 mph and many drive less than 20 mph because that’s what feels safe.

Looking South on Main Street - How fast would you want to drive here?

Looking South on Main Street – How fast would you want to drive here?

In contrast, Main St., which is 1 block away, has 2 one-way travel lanes that are 17′ wide with 8′ parallel parking lanes on both sides (no bike lane, although one is planned which will reduce the lane widths somewhat). Heck, I’d be thankful for a reduction to 12′ here, but 10′ would be even better. The posted speed limit is 25 mph, increasing to 30 about one block to the south for some reason, but drivers regularly speed along here. And why not, with 17′ wide lanes there is a lot of wiggle room before you would move into the adjacent lane or a parked car (and there are often stretches without parked cars, as seen in the photo, which makes the lane feel even wider – effectively 25′ from center stripe to curb). The road is also very straight. There is little to keep you driving at 25 mph other than self-restraint. All visual signals are for you to drive faster than you should. There are several crosswalks with bulb-outs and flashing lights, but drivers often ignore pedestrians waiting to cross.

It’s unfortunate that the 28′ wide street I live on could not be built today (I could not find a copy of the city’s street standards on-line, but I’m pretty sure a 28′ wide street is not in the standards. Certainly not with parking on both sides). The fire department for one would never allow it. They want 20′ clear. To my knowledge no house has burned down, and no one has died because a fire truck or ambulance could not maneuver the street, and it’s been here probably 100 years. But it works very well for keeping car speeds load and pedestrian, bike and car safety high.

This issue is particularly relevant to a blog post I’ve been working on and will hopefully get out next – It’s mostly written but needs some graphics. I have an idea for adding protected bike lanes to Main St. which will reduce lane widths and allow for shorter pedestrian crossings. The idea is to create a more balanced Main Street experience where all users of the public right-of-way pedestrians, bikes, cars and transit may be accommodated. Stay tuned.

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.

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