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Archive for March, 2015

Here is an interesting editorial from the local newspaper about housing and the cost of sprawl.

Golis: Can we change how we think about | The Press Democrat.

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Here is a good article that discusses the affordability of secondary dwelling units as a follow up to my post.

Accessory Dwellings

This might be the “deepest” post in my whole series about research and policy on accessory dwelling units.   Though ADUs and affordable housing are often mentioned in the same breath, a closer look at this pairing seems to demonstrate a weakness, not in one policy position or another, but in the whole discussion about affordable housing itself.   It takes some work to see how ADUs even fit.

Ultimately, I feel the evidence shows ADUs have tremendous potential for creating  reasonably priced housing.  Studies in two cities indicate that, without any regulation or subsidy, 15-20% of ADUs are occupied for rents that are zero or far below market rates.  But governments and activists need to take time to understand how this form of development is unique.   In particular, it is a mistake to assume that the homeowners who create ADUs have the same skills and goals as professional developers.

But…

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Housing costs can be directly related to the very basic economic theory of supply and demand. As demand increases and supply remains the same, the costs necessarily go up. This is very much evident in Sebastopol today. Sebastopol is seen as a desirable community to live in. It’s small, has good schools, low crime and is located in a beautiful environment with close access to nature. The median home price in Sebastopol is $675,000. A household needs to make well over $100,000 to afford the median priced house in Sebastopol. The median family income in Sebastopol is $50,900. There is a disconnect.

The number of housing units built in Sebastopol in recent years has been quite small. From 2010 to 2013 there have been 55 residential units constructed.  Thirty-four of those units were part of a single-family self-help affordable housing development. These numbers have done little to make housing more affordable in Sebastopol. While I’m all for advocating more multi-family housing near downtown I believe there is another option for improving housing affordability.

Secondary dwelling units (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units, granny units, as well as numerous other names) are allowed in Sebastopol. These have the ability to create much needed affordable housing. Currently, second dwelling units are allowed on all parcels zoned for single-family, duplex or multi-family uses. The city has reasonable development standards when it comes to second units. Single-story detached units may reduce rear and sideyard setback requirements by half (2-story or attached must comply with the setbacks established for the district they are located in). The height for a single-story unit can be up to 17′ and a two-story unit up to 25′. Second dwelling units do not need to be considered part of the maximum lot coverage allowed. Secondary dwelling units of 2 bedrooms or less only require 1 off-street parking space which may be parked in tandem with other off-street parking required for the property. Secondary dwelling units are allowed by right, except that 2-story units must be reviewed by the Design Review Board. For those of you not familiar with secondary dwelling units, this website has a lot of information and examples.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

In Sebastopol, the maximum allowable size for a second unit is limited to 840 sf. While it may be possible to get a 2-bedroom unit in 840 sf, it would be rather tight. I imagine most secondary dwelling units that are built to 840 sf are probably 1 bedroom units. The property next door to mine added a second unit about 10 years ago. It is close to 840 sf and 2 stories tall. It has 1 bedroom, and a loft area that functions as a second bedroom, but does not have a separate door, or closet for that matter. The home is nicely designed and fits well in the neighborhood and it’s property. The owner actually had to get a variance for a reduced backyard setback (which abuts my sideyard), to make it work. The woman who built the home had raised her family in the house, but she was now living in her home alone. Her original plan was to move into the second unit and rent the main house. But in the end she decided to stay in the large house so there would be room for her children and grandchildren when they visited and she rented the second unit.

Secondary Dwelling Unit

Secondary Dwelling Unit

The house is on it’s third set of renters. The first 2 families were each a single-mom with 1 daughter. A married couple recently moved into the house part-time. The unit worked well for the single-parent with 1 child, and was probably more affordable than renting a house on it’s own parcel. There are a significant number of single-parent households today and they often do not have the same financial capacity as two-parent households which makes it difficult for them to find housing in Sebastopol.IMG_20150327_155941151

The previous renters in the house next door had to move out as the new property owners needed to move in while they renovated the main house on the property. It took the woman several months to find replacement housing during which time she spent house-sitting or living with friends. I know it was a stressful and challenging time for the woman and her daughter, but in the end they did find something that suits them. Another recently divorced friend with 2 children also had to find new housing and spent months looking for something in town. She was finally able to find a small home for rent, but again after several very stressful months, and in the end the home she ended up with was less than ideal, but all she could afford and find at the time.

I think we need to take a look at our secondary dwelling unit ordinance, and allow for larger second units. These could serve to house underserved population in our community all without needing to expand our infrastructure and without significant impact on our existing community. I think we should allow second units up to 1,000 sf which would allow for 2 decent-sized bedrooms. In order to allow for the larger units, I think a parcel should have a minimum size, and maybe include the second unit in a maximum lot coverage. it certainly wouldn’t work well on my 3,750 sf lot, but there are certainly some larger lots in town that could easily accommodate a 1,000 sf second unit. The nearby city of Novato allows second dwelling units up to 1,000 sf on lots over 10,000 sf. There is another property in my neighborhood that has a second building on the property that actually contains 2 additional units. As far as I can tell, it provides affordable housing, at no detriment to the rest of the neighborhood.

Single parents, young families, young adults living in shared housing, the elderly, families working in the lower wage service or agricultural industries, all could benefit from having more, and larger, second dwelling units in Sebastopol. Housing for these populations will keep a strong mix of people and incomes in our town which is important for a vibrant community. It enriches our lives to mix with people who might be from different income levels or age brackets, or ethnic backgrounds. And these units also make housing more affordable for the property owners by providing an additional source of income. My new neighbors have told me that one of the reasons they purchased the property was because it had an income-generating unit.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

Not only will these larger second units provide affordable housing for a segment of the population that has a difficult time finding it, but when built in town they allow for the residents of the second dwelling units opportunity to walk and bike more than getting in their cars. We do not need to build more infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, gas etc.) to accommodate these additional families, but rather use existing infrastructure. It increases the density without impacting the overall character of our neighborhoods. Secondary dwelling units create additional housing in our already built-up environment and take pressure off adding new housing outside of town, which will only adds to more traffic congestion.

The Sebastopol City Council will be reviewing the draft Housing Element of the General Plan on March 31st, 2015. They should approve strong language in support of secondary dwelling units and allow for larger units to provide housing for a wider variety of incomes and family types.

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One of the topics at our General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) meeting this week was ‘Community Character.’ It was an interesting conversation and it made me think about the form of the public spaces in Sebastopol and how they may be improved. People often describe Sebastopol as ‘quirky.’ I don’t know that that adjective is meant to describe the physical form of the community. There are a variety of building types and styles that I suppose could be described as quirky, but so do many other places. I think when people describe Sebastopol as quirky, it has more to do with the characters in our community than the character seen in the physical make-up of the town itself.

The physical character of Sebastopol is largely defined by the state highways that bisect the town. As in most of America the car has come to dominate the public realm. In the 50’s 60’s, and continuing into the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s commercial development began it’s sprawl toward the edges of town. In the 80’s the north-south state highway was converted into a pair of one-way streets through downtown. This has done much to define the character of downtown, and not in a good way.

All of the primary gateways to town are lined with auto-oriented sprawl.

East Entry - SR 12

East Entry – SR 12

South Entry - SR 116

South Entry – SR 116

No sign - but this is the north edge of town.

No sign – but this is the north edge of town.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

There has been a focus in the last 20 years on improving the downtown character in Sebastopol. A new town plaza has been created on the site of a former parking lot, utility lines have been relocated underground, some streetscape improvements have been undertaken and the city has offered facade improvement grants to downtown businesses which has resulted in some much-needed makeovers. A couple of new buildings and remodels have improved the character of downtown, most significantly in The Barlow.

Downtown Plaza

Downtown Plaza

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

The Basso Building on Main Street

McKinley Street in The Barlow

McKinley Street in The Barlow

A lot more work needs to be done at the gateway entrances to town, particularly from the north and south. While these areas are car-oriented in their physical form, they are close to residential neighborhoods and have many resident-serving businesses. During our conversation at the GPAC meeting this week I realized that most, if not all, residents of Sebastopol are within walking distance of a major grocery store. The south end of town has Fircrest; center of town has Whole Foods, Community Market and Safeway; and the north end of town has Pacific Market and Lucky. I think that’s remarkable given a population around 7,400!

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

What we need to do is strengthen the links between the residential neighborhoods and these commercial nodes to encourage people to leave their cars at home and walk to these services. And we need strengthen the links between the nodes for pedestrians. That largely involve making route 116 more pedestrian friendly.

Sidewalks would be a good start. The sidewalks on the east side of Gravenstein Highway South are spotty. You have to walk on the shoulder of the road in some locations. I’m a dedicated walker so I’ll do it. But I’m sure it discourages many people. The city needs to prioritize connecting the sidewalks to support these businesses.The east side of Gravenstein Highway North also has stretches of missing sidewalks.

One of the stretches of 'missing' sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

One of the stretches of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

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Another section of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

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Sidewalk on west side of Gravenstein Hwy South.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it's still not a great place to walk.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it’s still not a great place to walk.

While the west side has a sidewalk it’s not a great walking experience at either the north or south ends of town. The sidewalk is adjacent to the curb and there is no parallel parking so traffic whizzes by at 35 mph or faster. You feel out of place as a pedestrian. The road is a reasonable 3 lanes (1 northbound, 1 southbound and a center turn lane) except a couple of stretches at Gravenstein Highway North, but you feel like you are walking along a highway. A similar experience may be found at the north end of town. Although a large extent of the frontage of the west side of the road is taken up by strip commercial shopping centers which makes it even less pedestrian friendly since the frontage is all parking.

More frequent pedestrian crossings would help. The city has recently installed two ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks on Gravenstein Hwy South. They are about 740′ apart.

Gravenstein Hwy South - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy South – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

There is a street intersection about halfway between them which would be a great opportunity for another crosswalk. The next crosswalk to the south is about 760′ and is at a traffic light. Again, there is an intersecting street about halfway between, another opportunity for a crosswalk and a more reasonable distance between crossings. The next crossing to the north is about 1,200 feet. There is an opportunity for a crossing about 400′ north, but then it’s tricky due to the geometry of the streets where they turn into the one-way streets. If/when the streets are converted back to 2-way, this would be a great location for a roundabout. A roundabout would also make it easier for a pedestrian crossing at this location.

Good place for a roundabout

Good place for a roundabout

North of downtown, Healdsburg Ave. has several ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crossings, but from the crossing at Murphy Street, the next crossing to the north is about 2,300′. There could be a crosswalk at Lyding lane, 300′ from Murhpy, but then you get to the awkward intersection of Covert and Healdsburg Ave. A roundabout has been mentioned in the past for this intersection as well which could accommodate a better pedestrian crossing.

Gravenstein Hwy North - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy North – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Parallel parking would make it more comfortable to be a pedestrian. You feel a measure of protection from moving traffic when you have cars parked between you and the travel lane. And parallel parking does serve to slow traffic as you have to be more alert to cars’ parking maneuvers. New developments on North and South Gravenstein Highway have been required to install parallel parking. I don’t know if the width of the right-of-way is enough to accommodate parking lanes on both sides at all locations, but where possible it would help.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

Street trees would also improve the pedestrian experience. Many of the existing curb-adjacent sidewalk on the west side are probably too narrow to allow for street trees in the sidewalk. But maybe the private property owners could be encouraged to plant trees behind the sidewalk. Maybe the city could donate the trees, or provide them at cost to interested residents/businesses. New developments have been including street trees in addition to the parallel parking and should be required to do so in any future development/redevelopment.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a better restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

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Healdsburg Ave, where the sidewalk ends.

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Gravenstein Hwy North, where the sidewalk ends on the east side.

Even with the crosswalks, you still have a problem with traffic speed. South Main Street and Healdsburg Ave. have several of the ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ pedestrian crossings, but traffic tends to travel faster than the posted speed limit along both stretches. These crosswalks do not eliminate all conflicts between pedestrians and cars (several pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks, one man unfortunately died last year after being hit in a crosswalk across Healdsburg Ave.) but they generally make drivers more aware of pedestrians than if there were not crosswalks. In a previous post I discussed the concept of raised intersections which would serve to slow traffic. Another option would be to install stop signs. Traffic from side streets does probably not meet whatever Caltrans’ standard would be for the installation of stop signs, but installing stop signs at every block or 2 would definitely slow things down. And it certainly is not without precedent to have a stop sign at every intersection in an urban area. Drivers may not like to have to stop so often, or have to slow over a raised intersection, but who cares. We need to decide if our public right-of-way is to be designed to benefit people or cars. This is a key decision that will effect the overall character of the community. So far we have been prioritizing the car at the expense of our community’s physical character. I argue that to improve our character we should favor the pedestrian at the expense of the car. The added benefit is that when people feel more comfortable walking, they will, which will in turn reduce traffic.

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized a very easy low-cost first step would be to rename the north and south stretches of 116 as they enter town. At the south end of the we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY South and at the north end of town we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY North (The gravenstein is a type of apple that is produced locally, although there are not as many apple orchards as there once were. Trader Joe’s does sell gravenstein apple sauce). Maybe we could start by renaming both roads to eliminate the word HIGHWAY. This may start the transformation of how we view these roads and their function differently in our community. It’s sometimes amazing how the smallest gestures can trigger a tidal wave of change. Maybe we start with changing the names to Gravenstein Avenue North and Gravenstein Avenue South. I feel better about them already.

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