Archive for January, 2014

This post is a continuation of 2 previous posts which can be viewed here and here.

During my time on the Sebastopol Charter School facilities committee and the Charter Foundation board, I presented several schemes for the expansion of the downtown campus. One missed opportunity that still haunts me is when a property near the downtown campus was put on the market. The property had been an auto repair shop and it shares a property line with Ives Park. It would have been a great campus for the K-2 classes with the ability to have a direct connection to the park, and only being a block away from the 3-8 campus. This was during the time when the school was in negotiations for the Pine Crest campus which was being vacated by the Sebastopol Shool District. At the time it seemed likely that the school would be moving into the Pine Crest campus. When the school realized the lease was not going to happen we made some inquiries into the for sale property, only to find it had entered escrow the week before. I had suggested looking at the property a couple months earlier to the chairwoman of the facilities committee. She told me she had already looked at it and it wasn’t large enough. I will always regret not pushing the issue harder because it would have been a great solution and avoided the situation we are in now. (Plus the property was sold to another auto repair shop, not the best and highest use of a downtown property with significant access to a public park.)

But even without this site, there are other opportunities to expand the downtown campus. There are two underutilized properties on the block shared by the downtown campus, which are ripe for redevelopment. One is a city parking lot that shares a property line with the school and is used by the school for pick-up and drop-off as well as faculty/staff parking. It is not used much otherwise. (The City of Sebastopol conducted a parking lot survey in 2010. The study found this parking lot was underutilized with an average space occupancy of 22%. The study suggested this lot could be redeveloped and put to better use.) The lot is about 0.7 acres and if acquired by the school would about double the size of the existing downtown campus. I produced several sketches for how this additional land could be used to accommodate the K-2 classes a multi-purpose facility and additional open space. One option would be to add the classroom space on the current campus and use the parking lot exclusively for additional open space, which could be shared by the community after hours. The other would develop buildings and open space on the parking lot site. The newly created open space could be shared with the public outside of school hours, similar to many other school campuses.

South High Street Parking Lot

South High Street Parking Lot

Obviously, expanding into the school parking lot would require the city to sell, or lease it to the school. There have been several very preliminary conversations about this with various city officials which were generally favorable. It would not necessarily be easy or inexpensive, but certainly no more difficult or more expensive than developing a 20 acre campus from scratch outside of town. And it allows us to continue to use the existing downtown campus which is paid for, and it preserves our community identity and connections. We would not end up with anything near 20 acres, but I question why the school leadership thinks we need that much land.

Another possibility would be to expand into the second underutilized property on the block which fronts Main Street. This site currently houses a tacqueria, deli, auto repair shop and self-service laundry, in addition to parking. Not the highest and best use of a prominent Main Street parcel. The school could develop a mixed-use building on this property similar to the existing downtown campus which would have the added benefits of redeveloping an eye-sore site into a more appropriate urban building and be a source of income for the school. This site is 0.8 acres and also shares a property line with the existing downtown campus.

Underutilized Main Street Property

Underutilized Main Street Property – ‘Tacqueria’ Site

Both of these parcels have a storm drain easement across the northern 40′ which cannot be built upon (this easement contains Ives Creek which enters a culvert across the street at the edge of Ives Park and is undergrounded for several blocks). However, there is still adequate space for development. Either parcel provides enough space to add the additional classrooms and open space on it’s own, but developing both would allow for even more open space and could certainly be an option. If all 3 parcels were developed for the school, the total area of the land would be 2.18 acres. But, if you include Ives Park, which is directly across the street from the parking lot property and which the school already use regularly for recess, the total effective size of the school campus could be as much as 6.5 acres. Granted, the park is not private so the students have to share it with other users, but it is not heavily used during the school day, as most children are in school.

Sebastopol Charter School possible downtown expansion sites

Sebastopol Charter School possible downtown expansion sites

I must admit that Ives Park is not in the best condition. It’s old and worn. Many sidewalks are uneven and not accessible. The creek which runs through the center of the Park is in a concrete channel for most of its journey across the park with chain link fences on either side. The play equipment is not all that fun. There isn’t a good large grassy area to play soccer or kickball. However, the city does have an approved Master Plan for the renovation of the park and is pursuing money for the implementation of that plan. The Master Plan includes new accessible walkways, new lighting, naturalizing of the creek and removing the chain link fence, new play equipment and expanded lawn areas The Master Plan also includes a proposal to increase the size of the park by reclaiming land used for an adjacent street which shortcuts a ‘T’ intersection and saves a few seconds of travel time for people in cars, but which creates a difficult street crossing for pedestrians. What if instead of spending money developing a new campus on the edge of town the school made a contribution to the Ives Park Master Plan implementation? Think of how that would strengthen our bonds with the community by helping to improve a shared resource for the benefit of all.

As we look for ways to deal with climate change we must think creatively and learn how to share resources. The existing school location allows resources to be shared throughout our community. In addition to having a park across the street the school is located a block from the public library. Why would we need our own library when the public library is so close and accessible? Many students regularly walk to the library after school. It’s a great opportunity for them. The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is across the street. They have an auditorium that is available for rent. By renting the existing auditorium the school does not need to build and maintain their own, and they also benefit a local non-profit. We could also rent parking spaces from the Center for the Arts, which is not used much during the day, instead of renting the spaces in the city parking lot. Again, this would provide some revenue for a local non-profit. There are many opportunities to share resources with other organizations downtown. This isn’t to say we can’t share resources from the school’s proposed new site, however we cannot easily walk or bike between them. We are a much more integral part of the community at the downtown location. The school is known locally as the downtown charter school.

Locations of existing (in blue) and proposed (in red) Sebastopol Charter School Campuses

Locations of existing (in blue) and proposed (in red) Sebastopol Charter School Campuses

The proposed school campus is 20 acres. There is no way we can get that much space and stay in town. But why does a school of 275 students need 20 acres? Expanding the downtown campus will put some the desires of some in the school community off the table. We will not be able to have a large biodynamic garden at an in-town location. We could certainly develop smaller gardening plots in town, but we’ll never have livestock. We will not be able to plant an orchard, but could certainly plant some fruit trees. Teachers will not be able to open their classroom doors and let the children run free. If going to the park, they will need to walk together and cross the street in an orderly fashion, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. It teaches the children how to live in a community, and how to be aware of streets and cars. I’m sure there are other items on the schools wish list that will need to be scaled down, or eliminated entirely, by expanding the downtown campus instead of relocating to the out-of-town location. But will those ‘sacrifices’ impair the mission of the school to educate children in a public school using a Waldorf curriculum? I don’t believe so. There are plenty of successful Waldorf schools around the world in more urban locations. And I believe the education my daughter, who has spent 8 years at the school, has received has been great.

The impacts of climate change are becoming more evident every day. (We’re experiencing the driest year on record here.) Scientists are confident that the burning of fossil fuels by humans are the cause of climate change (Human Influence on Climate Clear, IPCC Report Says). For the most part we continue to ignore the signs and continue on with business as usual. We need to wake up, and soon, to the fact that we cannot continue developing in this sprawling manner if we hope to slow the impacts of climate change. We need to make quick and substantial reductions to the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. I believe we owe it to our children and their children. The existing downtown location is much more centrally located in Sebastopol and allows for the most students to be able to walk and bike to school safely and is a far more appropriate site for a school.

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Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave.

Probably the number one complaint of residents of Sebastopol and West County, as mentioned in an earlier post, is traffic. This is a common lament of people in communities across the country from large urban areas to small towns like Sebastopol. People just hate traffic. And who could blame them. No one wants to be trapped in a car in a line of other cars moving at a snails pace, or not at all. We want to be moving when we’re in cars, that’s what cars are for after all. Why be in a car if you’re just going to sit. Even the nicest luxury car is not really all that comfortable for extended periods of time (not that I have a lot of experience of sitting in luxury cars). We expect that once we get in a car, we should be able to move freely to our destination. Traffic disrupts this flow.

What I always find interesting is that the people that complain about traffic are usually, if not always, drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t complain about traffic. A stationary car is preferable to a moving car from a pedestrian and cyclist standpoint. Free-flowing traffic is more dangerous for bikes and pedestrians. I love passing cars stuck in traffic while on my bike. It’s immensely satisfying. To the drivers who complain about traffic I would like to say ‘Guess what, by driving your car, you are creating traffic.’ We seem to have this expectation that once we get in our car we should be able to get wherever we want as fast as we want. This is simply not always the case.

I think a reason many people move to Sonoma County is to live in a semi-rural setting, on a large plot of land. That is fine, but it comes with consequences. Today, there are an incredible number of homes in the ‘rural’ countryside to the north, south and west of Sebastopol. And most employment opportunities are to the south and east. Because of the limited road network surrounding Sebastopol, most of the trips must pass through downtown. Hence, much of Sebastopol’s traffic is generated by people driving through town to get to a destination on the other side. To be honest, I really have no patience for people that live in these completely car-dependent locations who complain about traffic when they come into town. It is precisely because of their decision to live outside of town that we have the traffic we do today.

I’m sure there are some people who live out of town simply because the amount of housing stock in town is limited and more people would live in town if they could. I personally know several families looking to move into town but are having a difficult time due to the laws of supply and demand. Limited supply and high demand have served to drive up prices. Due to it’s geography and Urban Growth Boundary, Sebastopol’s best opportunity to increase it’s supply of housing lies in the creation of higher density housing downtown. Because downtown Sebastopol is located on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, it has not been possible to develop to the east. As town developed to the north, south and west it did so in the pattern of early 20th century of single-family homes. There has been very little multi-family development. Even on Main Street today, there are only 2 buildings, that I am aware of, that have any housing above them amounting to probably no more than 10 units total, if that. Most of the housing downtown is of the single-family variety. This has been a missed opportunity to this point and a great opportunity for the future to build more housing in a walkable location. Housing downtown is probably the biggest single thing we could do to ease traffic congestion.

My earlier post on the topic of traffic discussed Level of Service (LOS). I only add it again here to point to 2 great blogs about LOS. The Beginning of the End for Level of Service, on Streetsblog and a description of LOS and why we should not be using it to design our streets from the Project for Public Spaces. LOS is an obstacle to creating lively, walkable urban environments. We need to recognize that there is good congestion and bad congestion and not discriminate against all congestion. Some of our most popular urban destinations are very congested and quite successful because, or in spite of it. Greenwich Village in New York and North Beach in San Francisco to name a couple. Bad congestion is generated by drive-through traffic. Unfortunately, this is a large portion of Sebastopol’s congestion. Good congestion is congestion that is caused by local origins or destinations. That is, people driving to downtown destinations to patronize those businesses which adds to commerce and support of our local economy. Someone simply driving through town in order to get to the other side adds no value, only congestion.

The traditional way to combat congestion is to increase road capacity. The primary way to do this is to widen roads. Main Street on Sebastopol is already 3 lanes wide in one direction downtown so widening further is not at all desirable. The cross-town traffic on Hwy 12 and Bodega Ave is one lane in each direction, with a third turn lane as they pass through downtown. Given the locations of the buildings along Hwy 12, widening is not possible. Widening Bodega Avenue west of downtown would require substantial right-of-way acquisition mostly from single-family homes which would be a political non-starter and would require necking down before reaching Main St.

So what are we to do? The most effective way to reduce congestion is to reduce car dependence. The way to do that is to make driving a car less convenient and create more opportunities for alternative transportation. Creating more pedestrian and bike-friendly streets would encourage the use of those transportation alternatives. Developing a more mixed-use downtown is vitally important. Our downtown is primarily retail with some limited office, light manufacturing in The Barlow and almost no residential. More living alternatives in particular, but also more office space so people would not have to commute to other near and far communities for employment would help. Downtown Sebastopol is also very low density. Most buildings are single-story. However, higher density is not a means in itself. It must be partnered with useful destinations. We have the destinations downtown. We have a Whole Foods, Safeway and Rite Aid all right downtown. We also have a multi-screen movie theater, live theater, good restaurants, library, schools, Center for the Arts, independent bookstores and other locally owned businesses. Downtown Sebastopol has a Walk Score of 98 for crying out loud! Let’s give people the opportunity to live and work there. More people living and working downtown will also help support increased transit service which is limited and highly dependent on transit patrons living close to stops. This is the only way we will be able to combat the congestion downtown. Until then, plan your trips accordingly.

Looking East on Hwy 12 from the intersection with Petaluma Ave.

Looking East on Hwy 12 from the intersection with Petaluma Ave.

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For being at the intersection of 2 state highways and the fact Main Street is 3 wide lanes wide with the traffic heading in one direction, Sebastopol is a surprisingly walkable place. After growing up in a suburban environment I have spent most of my adult life living in places where it is possible to walk for much of what I need and I cannot imagine living in a non-walkable environment. Walk Score is a website that lets you look up the walkability of any address (currently only in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Locations are scored from 0-100 with 100 being the most walkable location. The neighborhood I grew up in has a walk score of 18 – not very walkable, although I was able to walk to elementary school. My current home has a walk score of 89. I live within a 20 minute walk of 5 grocery stores, a movie theater, independent bookstore, used bookstore, other shops, good restaurants and cafes and more. I have a personal goal to walk or bike to any destination in town and being able to walk to much of what I need daily gives a real sense of individual freedom that cannot be matched by a car.

The desire to live in walkable locations is on the rise, with more teenagers waiting to get their licenses and young adults driving less and choosing to live in walkable communities served by public transit. Among 16-23 year olds driving is down 23%, public transit use is up 40% and bicycling is up 24%. Many Baby Boomer retirees are looking for the same. Walk score has shown measurable economic benefits to being in a walkable neighborhood. For example, a 1 point increase in walk score has been shown to increase home value between $700 and $3,000 depending on the market (Walking the Walk). Cities with the highest Walk Scores like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. also have some of the highest property values in the country.

Walking can provide us with myriad health benefits and living in a walkable community makes us much more likely to walk on a regular basis. Two in 3 adults are now considered clinically overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has risen nearly 30% since the 1960’s. Diet has much to do with this, but a lack of regular exercise is also a prime factor. Regular walking can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and anxiety. When we live in a walkable community we are more likely to integrate walking into our daily routines rather than get in a car for all our errands. Diverse nearby destinations and an attractive environment to walk in will encourage us to leave the car behind. Rather than exercise for the sake of exercising, we are able to exercise while making a trip to the grocery store, going to work or out for dinner. And we are much more likely to stick to this routine rather than exercise for exercise sake. Plus it’s free (as opposed to a gym membership). Many people, including the Center for Disease Control, are beginning to recognize that the design of our built environment has much to do with the obesity epidemic, and are advocating for the creation of more walkable communities.

In addition to the health benefits, walking is fun and has many positive social benefits. I’ve lived in Sebastopol for over 11 years now. Being a small town (pop. around 7,200) it’s near impossible for me to walk downtown and not run into someone I know. What could start as a quick 15 minute trip to the video store can easily turn into a 30 or 40 minute trip taking into account the chance meetings that happen along the way. I genuinely enjoy those spontaneous interactions which are vitally important in a strong and connected community. It is much more difficult to make those personal connections in an unwalkable community. I believe that is a reason many people today, particularly in sprawling environments, feel less connected to their neighborhood and community. Many of our built environments do not encourage this connectivity with one another. Walkable places do.

In contrast, driving in a car is incredibly anti-social. We get into cars and feel a complete disconnection from the surrounding environment. The environment becomes something to ‘get through’ as we travel from point A to point B and we are completely disconnected from it. We pass through our communities at speeds that do not allow us to really observe our surroundings, and in ways that do not allow us any personal interaction, other than the possibility of road rage directed at our fellow drivers. Although I have not seen any studies to back me up I would imagine that sidewalk rage is a relatively rare occurrence. I have, however, witnessed, and even participated in, pedestrian rage directed at cars cutting people off in a crosswalk.

We are also much more observant of our environment when we walk through it rather than drive. Walking can be truly enjoyable when you have something interesting to look at. Walkable places must have interesting buildings, close to the sidewalk to stimulate our eyes. When I lived in San Francisco and walked to work from Russian Hill to the Financial District I was constantly seeing new details in the buildings along my various walking routes. It was a visually stimulating environment. I recently noticed a home in my neighborhood tucked behind a rather large garage that I have never noticed before. It seems like there is always something new to observe. On the other hand, sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses are boring to walk through. After walking a couple of blocks, you’ve seen all the variety there is.

Walking is much more freeing for those that cannot drive, particularly children. I have been trying to raise my daughter to show her that she can be responsible for getting herself around town. She has been walking to school since kindergarten and is able to walk to after school activities, and knows that she can get herself around town without depending on her parents for a ride whether that be by walking or biking. Unfortunately her school is moving to a less walkable location (see 2 previous blog posts on the issue here and here). Thankfully it won’t happen before she moves on to high school. Not only does this give children a sense of freedom, it is also freeing for the parents in that they do not have to spend so much time driving their children from destination to destination.

It is commonly accepted that the private car provides us a great deal of freedom in regards to personal transportation. While the car does provide freedom to travel long distances on our own schedule, it is very limiting in some ways. The increase in car ownership over the course of the 20th century has transformed our built environment. Cities and towns used to be built to the scale of the pedestrian and our need to be able to walk to satisfy all our daily needs. We walked to work, school, parks and stores. With widespread car ownership we were ‘freed’ from the limitation of how far we could walk to satisfy our daily needs and our daily destinations were spread farther and farther apart. This separation has been reflected in our zoning codes which often separate uses from one another so that residences are separated from workplaces, schools and shopping so that in many places it is simply not possible to walk between destinations. And even when it is physically possible, it is often not desirable as auto-oriented environments are often at best not pleasant for pedestrians, and at worst downright dangerous.

I don’t ever recall being delayed to a destination due to a pedestrian traffic jam. By walking to a destination I am able to predict exactly how long it will take me. When driving, there are far more factors to affect the time of the trip that are out of my control that you cannot always predict trip length. I had a discussion recently with someone who was late to a meeting because she could not find a place to park nearby and had to circle until she found a parking space. I walked to the same meeting from my office in the 6 minutes it always takes me. If I had driven (which would be absurd for a 6 minute walk) it probably would have taken longer as I would have had the same parking issue. As a pedestrian, I am not beholden to traffic or parking when transporting myself.

And car ownership can be a financial burden. Car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance are typically the second highest household expense after housing. AAA provides an annual estimate of the cost of car ownership which in 2013 $9,122 for an average sedan (costs ranged from $6,967 for a small sedan to $11,599 for an SUV) which is based on driving 15,000 miles annually. The AAA study does not take into account costs associated with driving like tolls and parking which in some areas can be substantial. Parking in private garages in some urban areas can cost up to $300 per month. Not to mention the environmental burden caused by cars of which there are many.

I am fortunate to live in a place where my need to use  my car is limited to trips out of town, which can be as infrequent as once per week. I believe many other people would live in similar communities if they were able. Is is vitally important to our future from health, social, economic and environmental perspectives to create more walkable environments.

Many of the ideas in this blog entry were inspired be the book ‘Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time’ by Jeff Speck. Available at Amazon, or better yet, walk down to your local bookstore. Jeff has given a TED talk that gives a good synopsis of the book. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in making a more walkable environment. The Ten Steps of Walkability as described in his book:

  1. Put Cars in Their Place
  2. Mix the Uses
  3. Get the Parking Right
  4. Let Transit Work
  5. Protect the Pedestrian
  6. Welcome Bikes
  7. Shape the Spaces
  8. Plant Trees
  9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces
  10. Pick your Winners

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