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Archive for January, 2015

I will be attending the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Baltimore later this week. If any of you out there reading this blog are planning on attending and interested in meeting, send me an email (go to my about page and fill out the email form) and maybe we can meet up in Baltimore.

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Today’s post is inspired by an item on last night’s Sebastopol City Council agenda. The item was on the ‘Consent Calendar’ which is reserved for items that are expected to be non-controversial and approved as a matter of course. The name of the item is ‘Approval of Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Improvements.’ Who can argue with pedestrian, bicycle and traffic improvements? Sounds good. Of the 5 requests in the item there are 2 that I have concerns with.

The first concern I have is a request by a business located on Main Street, outside of the ‘core’ downtown zone, to establish a 24 minute parallel parking space directly in front of their shop. The request state that ‘The owner of the business reports that vehicles often park in that space for long periods of time, thereby limiting easy parking for potential customers.’ The business is a mailing/packing center and while I can appreciate that they may have customers carrying packages to be mailed there is generally always parking in the vicinity of the business even if the space directly in front of the business is occupied. I live and work within 2 blocks of the business in question and walk the block frequently. There are 13 parking spaces in this block (both sides of the street) and the density of businesses is low, certainly not as dense as the central blocks of Main street. This photos shows a typical condition. If your business needs ‘easy parking’ you should probably locate your business in a strip shopping center which tend to have way more parking then they ever use (see black friday parking),

South Main Street. The business in question is in the beige building to the right of the photo.

South Main Street. The business in question is in the beige building to the right of the photo. Doesn’t seem to be a lack of parking in the vicinity. There is also a free public lot that ALWAYS has space available behind the green-gray building to the left of center of the photo.

Parallel parking on a public street is public. Approving the request sets up a precedent for all businesses to attempt to ‘reserve’ the space in front of their business for ‘their’ customers. There seems to be a strange assumption by businesses fronting streets that the parking in front of their business is for their customers only. This also extends to residential neighborhoods as well. People often expect to always have the parking in front of their home available for their car, or for someone visiting their house. There is no legal precedent for this. The streets are public, and anyone may park there as long as they are complying with any posted restrictions. It would be silly for the City Council to approve this request, but in fact, they did. Apparently it was pulled from the consent calendar and there was some discussion. But in the end it was approved unanimously.

The second issue is that the City Council was asked to set aside a parking space in the public parking lot closest to city hall for city hall employees. This is arguably the most popular parking lot in town. It is directly behind the primary commercial block of Main Street and adjacent to the library. The lot is small, 43 spaces. While only 1 parking space was requested to be reserved, I don’t think this is wise. Again, it’s a public parking lot and should be reserved for the public.

CITY HALL PARKING-EXHIBIT

Aerial view of the parking lots near city hall. The red line indicates the 650′ walk from the South High Street lot to city hall.

Several years ago the city removed time restrictions at two underutilized public lots to encourage downtown employees to park at the edge of downtown rather than occupy street parking spaces or spaces in one of the more popular, centrally located downtown lots. The idea being that the popular lots should be available to patrons of downtown businesses. Employees can be asked to walk a little farther. City Hall employees should be setting an example by using the South High Street lot to park in. It’s about 1 1/2 blocks from City Hall (650′ as measured on Google Earth).

Public parking should remain available to the public. We should not be reserving downtown public parking for specific businesses. If private businesses are going to ‘claim’ public parking spaces for their customers or employees, they should be financially responsible for the maintenance of and enforcement of the time limits for those parking spaces.

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One of the suggestions of the SDAT Team’s visit to Sebastopol was to actively market development opportunity sites in town in order to attract the kind of development we want, rather than being left fighting development we don’t want. An example of the latter can be seen in the multi-year fight over the development of a 2+ acre parcel in the center of downtown Sebastopol for a CVS and Chase bank. This proposed project resulted in a couple lawsuits which were recently settled (or read about it in a local newspaper article). The city council recently approved the legal settlement and final design review for the project so it will unfortunately be moving forward, although with some concessions, the most significant being the elimination of the drive-through pharmacy and ATM (Chase has since pulled out of the project. No new tenant for the bank building has been announced.)

The city council convened a sub-committee to determine the community’s vision for a highly visible underutilized property downtown and put up a small amount of money ($5,000) to make it happen. The property is known as the ‘Diamond Lumber’ property, although it is currently used as a tractor store. The 2.5 acre parcel is directly across the street from the downtown plaza and completely destroys any pedestrian-friendly experience. It is also an important link between the historic Main Street district of downtown and the new Barlow development to the east of the property. (While I think there is a place for tractor stores, I don’t think that place is the center of town. It doesn’t do anything to support the pedestrian experience downtown.)

This is the property to be discussed in a public workshop. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is not a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

This is the property in question. It is directly across the street from the town plaza. It used to be a lumber yard and is now a tractor sales store. Not the highest and best use of a property in the center of downtown.

The sub-committee conducted a public workshop last June to solicit input for the future of the property. The well attended event started with an introductory talk about what creates a successful building on a public square. Attendants were then encouraged to provide ideas to several tables setup around the room focusing on different topics; urban design, use and connectivity. The public feedback was then distilled into a wish list by the committee and translated into a brochure to provide to prospective developers. The idea being that if they can respond to the desires of the community as articulated, their project would likely have an easier time being approved. Unlike the process the developer of the CVS site had to go through, which was rather painful for all involved.

The lumber yard site is a critical link between the existing Main Street district and The Barlow.

The lumber yard site is a critical link between the existing Main Street district and The Barlow.

The property owner has had the property on the market and has been a willing participant in the project. Some have questioned the appropriateness of the city spending money on the marketing of a privately held property. I believe it is absolutely appropriate and necessary if we want to be proactive about development in our cities. Too often, in fact almost always, our city leadership and staff have been completely reactive to development proposals which tend to serve no one’s best interest.

This proactive marketing approach also reduces the risk to developers inherent in the entitlement process. If the community has publicly stated what is desired and if the developer can match their project to those desires it should be a much easier entitlement process which benefits everyone. Sebastopol has a reputation for being a difficult place to develop and developers tend not to want to take the risk. But there is much opportunity to create a really strong mixed-use core, but the remaining properties need to be developed appropriately to make that happen. The CVS project is not going to contribute in any positive way and we do not have much land available to allow those types of projects to come to fruition.

The brochure was recently completed and both the city and owner can now share with prospective developers. The site is absolutely critical to the future success of downtown Sebastopol, but this approach could be applied to a several other important properties in our community. I hope it becomes a successful example of a jurisdiction taking a proactive approach to future development.

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