Archive for the ‘Background’ Category

This post was originally published as a guest post on the Strong Towns website.

Like many other cities in California, Santa Rosa is struggling with high housing costs and deteriorating infrastructure. Rents have risen 40% in the past 4 years. Median sale price has risen about 10% in the past year. Even with the economic recovery new home construction has been relatively slow. The cost of construction in Santa Rosa is similar here to the rest of the Bay Area. However, housing costs, while high, are generally higher elsewhere. So developers are developing where they get a larger return on their investment.

The City of Santa Rosa has $1 billion in projected infrastructure projects over the next 20 years. There has been limited discussion of where this money is going to come from short of changing the development fee structure which over the last 20 years has generated $230 million in revenue. Increasing development fees to offset this imbalance is not feasible and will only further discourage new housing development.

The City Council has been discussing these issues in recent months. In addition to considering changes to development impact fees the council has considered implementing rent control, which has been highly contentious. The city has commissioned a study to look at possible solutions to these issues which is due out this month. So far, no silver bullets have been found.

In addition to development impact fees the city also collects revenue through property and sales taxes. As readers of the Strong Towns blog know, development patterns have a significant impact on the amount of revenue generated through these two sources. To understand this dynamic further the city has contracted with Strong Towns and Urban 3 to undertake an analysis to look at the financial productivity of different development patterns across Santa Rosa with a focus on the differences between downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. This study will help show city leaders the financial productivity of the areas of town developed in a more traditional manner of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, to those that are more suburban in nature.

Santa Rosa, in addition to the 8 other incorporated cities in Sonoma County, has an urban growth boundary. The urban growth boundaries are complemented in the county by designated ‘community separators’. While these policies have been nominally successful in focusing development within city limits, the types of development that have been happening continue to be largely of the suburban sprawl variety. When voters approved the urban growth boundaries, city policy was not changed to encourage infill development within the boundary. Most policies continue to favor sprawl. City regulations make infill development difficult in part due to parking requirements, height restrictions, setback requirements, etc. We need to rethink these policies and encourage more infill development. Having the data from Urban 3’s analysis will help to refocus this conversation.


Sonoma County is also anticipating the beginning of service on a new passenger train by the end of 2016. The SMART train system runs along the highway 101 corridor of Sonoma County from Cloverdale in the north to Petaluma in the south and continuing on through Marin County to eventually connect to the ferry terminal in Larkspur for connection to San Francisco.


This is a $650 million infrastructure project whose success will depend on the development of the areas around each station. Santa Rosa has two stations: a station downtown in a neighborhood called Railroad Square and second station a few miles north of downtown. There is a large amount of vacant land in the station areas in Santa Rosa, and the rest of the county, waiting for appropriate development. This is a great opportunity to refocus development around the station areas into walkable, high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods. Proposed higher-density projects have been meeting resistance. However, the only way the train will be successful is if we develop the station areas appropriately. Low density, car-oriented development is not going to cut it. We need to get this right.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner.

I am a member of a new non-profit called Urban Community Partnership. Urban Community Partnership was established to facilitate this project with Strong Towns and Urban 3 but will we continue working to support developments that are financially productive places to live, work and play.  Urban Community Partnership will be using the Strong Towns/Urban 3 events to kick-off our next project which is going to look at the SMART station areas in more detail.

At a critical time when cities increasingly face the reality of unfunded infrastructure maintenance needs and of an acute shortage of affordable housing, we are confident that Urban3 and Strong Towns will provide very practical insights for addressing these concerns in a robust but fiscally stable manner.  We hope that the events next week help start to change the conversation.  If you are interested in attending any of the sessions below please RSVP at our website.

Strong Towns/Urban 3 Public meeting schedule:

City of Santa Rosa Joint City Council and Planning Commission Study Session –  January 19 – 12:00-3:00

Santa Rosa  City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Avenue

The following evening  events will all be held at Bike Monkey, 121 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa

Curbside Chat – January 19 – 5:30-7:30

A look at the fiscal realities facing America’s cities. The way our cities have grown, and the way we have financed that growth, provides a short term illusion of wealth but leaves us with enormous long term obligations. A different approach can not only help us be more successful financially, it can actually improve our lives.

 Santa Rosa Study Results – January 20 – 5:30-7:30

Measuring the City, a look at how the ways we choose to measure information reflects our reality. We don’t measure automobile fuel consumption in miles per tank, but that is exactly what we do with land when we set up our taxing and development policies. A miles per gallon analysis of fiscal performance reveals many insights on what makes a place truly productive.

Transportation in the Next American  City – Next Steps – January 21 – 5:30-7:30

Thursday: Transportation in the Next American City, a look at the assumptions behind the American transportation system and how they impact the costs, performance and experience of getting places. Driving to a place and driving through a place are different objectives, yet our designs barely distinguish between them. By relating our transportation designs to the way we want our places to perform, we find that we can spend less money and get much better results.

Urban Community Partnership will also be presenting their plans for next steps including bringing Joe and Chuck back to look at development opportunities in the SMART station areas.



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Setting the Stage

As I noted in my About page this blog will examine urban design issues as they relate to redeveloping our cities into more pedestrian and resource-friendly places.  For the past 70 years our built environments have been shaped by the automobile.  This has resulted in sprawling cities of  separated uses connected only by cars with no sense of place.  Sprawling development patterns have resulted in a degraded natural environment, negative health impacts, and left us with a deteriorated sense of community.  (Check out this article about the health impacts of sprawl)  It’s long past time we re-start designing our cities for people rather than cars.

I live and work in the small town of Sebastopol, California (pop. 7,400).  Sebastopol is located in Sonoma County, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.  While the population of Sebastopol is on the small side, the surrounding countryside, referred to locally as ‘West County,’ is home to over 50,000 residents.  Many of these people frequent Sebastopol to shop, go to school, work and play but the city does not provide all necessary services which sends people to larger nearby towns.  This is particularly true for both shopping and work.  This travel between West County and other places, which happens almost exclusively by car, creates a lot of pass-through traffic on the two state highways which bisect Sebastopol from north to south and east to west.  The residential growth of the surrounding countryside was not accommodated for in the street network in town which has resulted in a lot of traffic in the center of town, at the literal crossroad of the state highways.

Sebastopol is located in a picturesque landscape on the edge of rolling hills and is bordered on the east by the Laguna de Santa Rosa (the largest freshwater wetlands complex on the northern California coast) and lies about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Sebastopol had been the center of gravenstein apple production and includes many facilities in and around town that had been used for the processing and shipping of apples and apple products.  This included a train which ran down the center of Main Street to bring apples in from surrounding areas and ship them out to the world.  The train also provided passenger service to the nearby cities of Petaluma and Santa Rosa.  The tracks have since been removed but the legacy of the train can still be seen in various locations in town.  While there are still some orchards in the surrounding countryside, many of the orchards have recently been converted to vineyards to support the burgeoning Sonoma County wine industry.  Many of the former apple processing facilities are located downtown and have been vacant and underutilized for years.

Downtown Sebastopol works to a limited degree.  It contains a number of stores providing a mix of goods and services for its residents and visitors.  There are two national chain grocery stores, a chain pharmacy, an independent bookstore, housewares store, clothing stores and boutique/gift shops.  There are restaurants, bars and a multi-screen movie theatre.  There is a popular weekly organic farmers market.  I live and have a home office in what would be considered downtown and I can go days without needing to get in a car.  Sounds great?  It is.  Sebastopol has a great starting point and a lot of potential to be a model of smart development.  However Sebastopol faces some real issues that are preventing this from happening.

Many of the urban design issues facing Sebastopol are the same as those facing other cities large and small.  I will use Sebastopol as my case study city as I consider current urban design issues.  Because of the small size of the town I have been able to get more directly involved in the urban design issues facing this community which has given me more insight than if viewed from a distance.

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