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Archive for October, 2013

The Barlow is a new development on the eastern edge of downtown Sebastopol. It’s probably the largest single development the city has seen in a long time, probably ever. The area was once home to agricultural warehouses and processing facilities. Crossed by train tracks and light industrial in nature, the area has been underutilized and largely vacant in recent years as the once booming local apple industry

Old billboard image shown a new life in The Barlow

Old billboard image shown a new life in The Barlow

has been largely replaced by vineyards and wineries located outside of town. The area was part of the failed Northeast Area Specific Plan which I discussed in an earlier post. After the failure of that plan, the developer moved forward with a project that could be approved under the current Light Industrial zoning of the area. It’s been a long-time coming, but businesses are starting to open and the area is beginning to generate activity.

The Barlow is 215,000 sf on 12.5 acres in a mix of rehabilitated and new buildings. Named after an apple processing facility that used to be on the property, the intent of the development is to showcase local food and beverage producers in both production and retail facilities. There are wineries, a coffee roaster, distillery, bakery a local natural food co-op, in addition to tasting rooms, cafes, restaurants, galleries, artisans (including a bronze foundry) and retail shops. It’s an interesting mix of local businesses which can complement the existing businesses in downtown Sebastopol.

The opening of many of the businesses over the past several months has been met by enthusiasm from a curious public and is generating a level of activity and liveliness which is exciting to see. McKinley Street, which previously dead-ended in the property, runs through the center of the development and is an important new east-west connection into downtown for pedestrians, bikes and cars. On Friday and Saturday evenings the street is lively with pedestrians and outdoor dining in contrast to Main Street which is rather sleepy by comparison. If Main Street is to stay viable it must explore ways to increase the level of evening activity. Most businesses close by 6:00; restaurants, bars and the ice cream shop Screamin’ Mimi’s being the exception. There hasn’t even been a cafe in town open past 6:00 until Taylor Maid in the Barlow which is open until 7:00 during the week and 9:00 of Friday and Saturday nights! Imagine that! (I’m writing from there right now, and it’s quite a hub of activity. I’m wondering where the people here got their caffeine fix before.)

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Looking east down McKinley Street

The part of the Barlow that contains the renovated buildings is more interesting to me than the newer section. McKinley street is narrow and slightly askew while the buildings on either side are close to the street and architecturally diverse. Parking lots are largely out-of-site. As you move east on McKinley, the street widens, more parking lots come into view and the newer buildings in the east half lack the diversity and funkiness of the existing buildings.

East end of McKinley Street showing new Barlow buildings

East end of McKinley Street showing new Barlow buildings

And while the design language of the new buildings is similar to the existing, with corrugated steel siding and gable roofs with full length cupolas there is a certain sterile quality to them. Maybe over time they will develop a patina that will help them fit in more. The buildings also do not contain the public realm well. The parking lots interspersed among the new buildings do not feel held by the buildings around them the way the existing buildings contain McKinley Street. The exception to this is the private parking lot of Kosta Browne winery. It has been designed to double as an outdoor event space and the extra level of detail has paid off. From Morris Street on the eastern edge, the ratio between parking lots and buildings feels too heavy on the parking lot side.

The Barlow from Morris Street

The Barlow from Morris Street

The big missed opportunity for me is a lack of residential component to the development. There is a severe lack of downtown housing in Sebastopol and The Barlow location would have been an ideal opportunity to make some really interesting higher density urban housing. It also would have given a built-in walkable customer base for the businesses in The Barlow. Downtown residents would also be good for the vibrancy of Main Street and may encourage those businesses to stay open later. I am concerned that once the original excitement with the new development wears off, the lack of customers within walking distance could hurt the long-term viability of the development. The Barlow is currently trying to get approvals to include a hotel in several of the new buildings in the southeast corner of the development. A hotel would be a good addition and provide a good customer base, but permanent housing downtown is still needed. Second and third story residential units would have the added benefit of increasing the heights of the buildings which would help define the public realm and been an efficient use of the limited amount of land available for development downtown. Without additional housing downtown The Barlow will be a largely drive-to destination.

There exists a potential symbiotic relationship between the historic downtown of Sebastopol and The Barlow. It is about a 3 minute walk down McKinley Street from Main Street to the beginning of The Barlow and an additional 3 minutes to get through to the other side. It’s not far. But it feels farther because of an existing key property awaiting redevelopment that will serve as a link between The Barlow and the existing core of downtown. The site is a full block of approximately 2.5 acres on the east side of the plaza.

Downtown aerial photo showing the relationship The Barlow and existing core

Downtown aerial photo showing the relationship The Barlow and existing core

Old lumber yard parcel. Key link between existing commercial core and The Barlow

Old lumber yard parcel. Key link between existing commercial core and The Barlow

The site of former lumber yard it is currently home to a tractor shop, which is not the highest and best use of 2.5 acres in the center of town. The redevelopment of this property could really tie the two districts together and encourage the vibrancy of The Barlow to spill over to downtown. This site would be an ideal location for a multi-story building with residential and office uses over a retail ground floor. I hear the site is currently on the market. I hoping a developer can see the importance of the property in uniting downtown with The Barlow and develop a great urban infill project. My fear is that it will become another CVS/Chase type of suburban project.

There is an existing movie theater on the north side of McKinley across from the lumber yard. It’s in a great location to serve as a connection between The Barlow and Main Street. Unfortunately, the street side of the building is not pedestrian friendly. The entrance faces the parking lot on the opposite site of the building.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the former lumber yard site will develop into a great urban infill project and be the crucial link between The Barlow and downtown. The site was also identified as critical for redevelopment in the SDAT report. I’m hoping that as we move forward with implementation of SDAT recommendations we will be able to encourage the appropriate development of this key property. Until then, I look forward to the increased vitality The Barlow has added to Sebastopol. All in all, I think The Barlow is a great addition to downtown Sebastopol. It’s a destination with a draw for both locals and tourists. I wish it could have included a residential component to improve it’s long-term chance for success. And to help ensure the increased vitality of the downtown core of Sebastopol. Hopefully a good mixed-use residential development is in Sebastopol’s future.

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Every day, land use decisions are made that will have an impact on the emissions responsible for climate change for decades to come. The siting of buildings determines if they are accessible by foot or bike, or if we will be obligated to drive.  I have been involved in a land use decision over the past several years that unfortunately looks like it’s going to add to our long history of sprawl and continue our dependence on the car as a primary means of transportation. I have written a guest editorial published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about the topic. This post will provide additional information about the issue. You can read the editorial here.

The Sebastopol Charter School is a Waldorf-inspired charter school my daughter, who is currently in seventh grade, has been attending since kindergarten. The school is currently located on 2 campuses in Sebastopol, both of which are walkable for many families. Grades K-2 are located in modular classrooms located on property owned by the Sebastopol Unified School District. Grades 3-8 are located in a corner property on Main Street in downtown Sebastopol in a unique mixed-use building built expressly to house the school. The ground floor Main Street frontage contains 3 locally-owned businesses while the school occupies the ground floor spaces on the side street with the classrooms on the second floor. The school had a difficult time obtaining the Use Permit required to allow it to open on the site. The site (which had been a gas station and I have heard a community garden, but had been vacant for some years) was seen as inappropriate by many in the community as a site for a school. The school was granted the use permit, but with an unusual time restriction as a condition of approval. The understanding being that the school would continue to search for a site that would be able to accommodate the entire student body on a more ‘appropriate’ site.

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Sebastopol Charter School – located on second floor

The school provided a strong anchor downtown and became a hub of activity for the southern end of the Sebastopol Main Street commercial district and was soon seen to be an integral part of the downtown community. So much so that it has become known as the ‘Downtown Charter’ school. When the use permit time restriction was about the expire, the school successfully petitioned the city to eliminate the condition allowing the school to remain downtown indefinitely. During the public hearing on the issue, several city council members expressed hope that the school always remain downtown because of the increased vitality it provides. The central location allows for many children to walk and bike to school. It also allows parents that drop their children at school to combine it with other trips in support of downtown businesses. I’m positive the toy store, children’s second hand clothing store and bike store located in the school building owe a great deal of their business to school families.

The downtown location also allows for strong connections to the community. The school has a great deal of visibility in the community due to it’s location on Main Street. Children take walkable field trips to downtown locations such as banks and the post office, and are able to walk along a nearby trail into the Laguna de Santa Rosa for a dose of nature. They have performed at the Sebastopol Senior Center, located 2 blocks away and are able to walk to the public library. Classes use a nearby public park for recess and a public parking lot for drop-off and pick-up for those families that drive. In town organizations such as the local theater have also used the school multi-purpose room from time to time. This kind of sharing of resources strengthens the ties between the school and its community while saving resources at the same time. It also immerses the children in their community, and teaches them they are an integral part of a larger community. The current downtown location has become a truly progressive example of infill development and is an important example of a development that will help us reduce the emissions of climate change inducing pollution.

The limitation of the downtown school is that it is not large enough to accommodate the entire school population of approximately 275 students which has always been part of the vision for the school. As a result, the school leadership has been looking for a site to accommodate the entire school population for years. Most of these searches have focused on land outside of the city in a more rural location. This is partly due to the fact there are not any sites in town that were seen to be large enough to house the school building and associated outdoor space. I have encouraged the exploration of in-town locations, including the idea of expanding the downtown campus which will be discussed in a future post.

Charter school locations

Current and proposed school locations – click to view larger

One site that has been under consideration for a number of years is a property just outside the northern boundary of Sebastopol. It’s 20 acres on 2 parcels and currently contains one home and a couple of decrepit agricultural outbuildings. Being on the edge of town naturally makes it less convenient for walking and biking than the current in-town locations. Also, since it is outside of the city limits the site does not have access to public utilities like water and sewer. As discussed in my Press Democrat editorial, this site is a prime example of the type of sprawling development we need to move away from if we are to have any hope of decreasing our generation emissions contributing to climate change. I have been active in discouraging the purchase of this property as a member of the Charter Foundation board and the school facilities committee. I have unfortunately lost the debate and the school is currently in contract to purchase the property.

There was a time when we built neighborhood schools. These schools were often focal points of the community and were centrally located because most children walked to school. They tended to be on smaller sites than we build schools today and the facilities were often available to the community outside of school hours. Walking and biking to school gives children regular exercise which is so important in combating the disturbing rise of childhood obesity, which has risen more than 30% in recent decades. It also gives children a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. My own daughter started walking to school in kindergarten. The roughly mile long walk really improved her strength and stamina. It was also a wonderful time to connect with her. She developed such a sense of pride and independence when she was finally allowed to walk to school on her own at the end of third grade. It has had a profound impact on who she is. And has helped teach her that she can take control of how she gets around town, which is truly liberating for for someone unable to drive. I wish more children could have this opportunity. There is a great deal of research in support of the neighborhood school model and school districts across the country are being encouraged to preserve existing neighborhood schools and consider the siting of new schools in locations that support walking, biking and public transportation for the health of our children and communities. It is unfortunate that the Sebastopol Charter School is not among the schools heeding these recommendations.

More discussion of expansion options and the implications of the proposed site will be the subject of future posts. Stay tuned.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged but I have a lot of ideas for entries so I hope I can keep up with it.

I would like to start back up again by discussing Sebastopol’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) grant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). I am the chairman of the steering committee that successfully applied for the grant last fall (view the application here). In the application, the committee expressed a need to address issues of connectivity in our community and as such titled our effort SebastopolConnect. There is a need to improve pedestrian and bike connections between our core and the surrounding neighborhoods; improve connections between the core and beautiful nearby surrounding natural environment; improve connections between downtown businesses and their clientele; and improve interpersonal connections between members of the community to support a creative long-term plan for future development in our core.

The way the grant works is that the AIA sends a multidisciplinary team of professionals to a community to help develop a vision and framework for a sustainable future. The team spends an intense 3 days meeting with a community and developing recommendations for long-term sustainability. The team spent May 15-17 in Sebastopol and was comprised of planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects and a transportation engineer.

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The first day consisted of public workshops to solicit feedback from the community on several targeted issues: Transportation and parking, pedestrian, bike and community connections, urban design and design standards, and land use and land use standards. The workshops were well attended and the team received valuable and insightful feedback from the community. The team spent the next 2 days working on their recommendations with graphic and logistical support from a team of local volunteers.

final presentation

At the end of the last day the team unveiled their recommendations at a public meeting. Since that time they have followed up with a written report providing more detail on their recommendations and suggestions for implementation.

The steering committee made a presentation to the city council October 1, 2013. We gave brief presentations on short, medium and long-term recommendations. It was well received by the council and we agreed to delve further into the report at a study session in the near future. It’s been exciting to get to this point, and a bit daunting to think about implementing the suggestions. I plan on discussing many of the recommendations through this blog.

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