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Archive for July, 2014

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.

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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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