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Just read a great blog post from Mr. Money Mustache. Check it out The Happy City and our $20 Trillion Opportunity. It is a succinct description of the inefficiencies of our current development paradigm in the United States. It relates very directly to work I’ve been doing with Urban Community Partnership and the work of Strong Towns.

Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog and I’d suggest you check out some of his other posts. The blog is generally about creating personal financial freedom. Enjoy.

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(For background on this issue, see these previous posts: Smart School Siting, Smart School Siting – 2Smart School Siting – 3Smart School Siting – 4, Smart School Siting – 5, Charter School Proximity to Residential Neighborhoods.)

It’s taken me awhile to get to writing this, but the long-playing saga of my opposition to the Sebastopol Charter School’s move to an out-of-town location is finally over. And I lost. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on the matter on Oct. 23rd. After an approximately 4 hour meeting and around 40 public comments the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Use Permit application. So the City of Sebastopol is about to get a new charter school campus outside its Urban Growth Boundary. scs-campuses

I must say I’m not surprised by the outcome. The school has been working on this for years and did a very good job meeting with supervisors beforehand and doing their political homework. And who can say ‘no’ to a school? I always knew it would be an uphill battle for me and to be honest I didn’t always have the time or energy required to really fight this. But when I did, I was surprised about how little support I received in my opposition. Maybe it’s just me and this really is a great idea. I find it hard to believe.

The most support I received came from the Sebastopol City Council. They wrote 3 letters expressing opposition to the project. But to be honest, the letters were less opposition to the project than opposition to the impacts of the project to local traffic. Not one of them said simply, ‘We do not want this school to be located on this site outside of our Urban Growth Boundary.’ They talked about traffic impacts, and concern about safety for kids walking and biking to a location that while located adjacent to a bike/walking trail is not a very walkable location and asked that these things be ‘mitigated’. One council member went with me to meet with the supervisor who represents the district, but not a single city council member attended the hearing. A fact that was not missed on the supervisors. The supervisor with whom we had met noted that if this issue was so important to the city council he would of expected ‘at least one of them’ to show up at the public hearing. I don’t disagree. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.

I tried to solicit support from the Greenbelt Alliance. The Greenbelt Alliance has been working for years to protect open space in the Bay Area and has been a leader in the establishment of Urban Growth Boundaries. But when this school proposal came forward directly outside the UGB, the local representative was told not to get involved. Isn’t this what they are about, protecting the open space outside the UGB? I’m not sure why we go to the trouble if we just sit back and watch auto-oriented projects get built outside the UGB. It seems like a waste of time if the UGB is not used to actually focus urban growth within the boundary. The head of the county planning department said this was a great ‘infill opportunity project’. Really? This is infill development? Outside the edge of town? Am I missing the boat on understanding infill development?

I tried to solicit several other local non-profits to get involved, without luck. Again, probably would not have made a difference. The Board of Supervisors saw a great opportunity for an ‘infill site’. There was some concern expressed by several of the supervisors about hundreds of cars crossing the bike trail on a daily basis (as the applicant pointed out this would only happen the 180 days a year or so that school is in session), but not enough concern to withhold their approval of the project. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition did write a letter and speak out about the crossing of the bike path. But not on the inappropriateness of the site for a school.

We are a completely auto-oriented society and will continue to be if we keep expanding our auto-oriented development patterns. A real opportunity to create a 21st century in town school has been missed. The school feels confident that walking and biking to school will increase at the new location. I hope they are right, but I just cannot imagine it. Look at the image above. While a 1 mile radius from the existing in town school location basically includes the entire town, a 1 mile radius from the proposed location doesn’t even reach half the town. And the pedestrian/biking infrastructure is horrible to that location. Yes, yes, it is located on a bike path, but nearly every child will have to cross a very busy state highway to get there. I just don’t get it. Children will continue to be driven to school for as long  as the school remains open. And we are all the worse off for it.

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Sidewalk and state highway near the location of the proposed school. This environment continues for at least 1/2 mile from the school. As you get further from the school there is more development and curb cuts.

I must say I’m happy that I don’t have to consume brain space for this anymore. It did weigh on me as my daughter had attended the school, and I actually really like the school and the education my daughter received. I do want to see the school succeed. And it was difficult to be on the opposite side of this issue from many friends. But I still truly believe this is a mistake for our community. We can, and must, do better than this.

 

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This post in in the response to the following comment from the Press Democrat Close to Home published by advocates of the Charter School.

Paul, I read your opinions as being very much centered on your own neightborhood. Not very many people live in walking distance of the current campus. I wish you could approach the situation from a slightly larger point of view. The potential of the new campus is that many more people would be able to get there without cars than is the case at the current campus. This is what is exciting to me about the new campus from a let’s-not–drive-if-we-don’t-have-to point of view. I realize that there is a risk that it might not develop this way, But if we can put the infrastructure in place — a campus served by a bike trail — then there is a possibility that it WILL happen. For me it is worth the risk.

My Response:

I wish I could believe that John. I did an overlay on an aerial photo with a 1 mile radius circle centered on the existing downtown campus, the existing K-2 campus and the proposed campus. The downtown campus circle encompasses pretty much the entire city limits of Sebastopol. The proposed campus gets almost to Bodega Ave., leaving out anyone south of there. Which yes, that includes my neighborhood, but it also includes about half of the residential neighborhoods of town. Unless there is some strange coincidence that the families of the Charter School only live north of Bodega Ave., I’m not sure I understand where you are coming from.

The blue circle is a 1 mile radius from the existing downtown campus. The yellow circle is a 1 mile radius from the K-2 campus and the red circle is a 1 mile radius from the proposed campus. The blue circle clearly encompasses more of the residential neighborhoods of Sebastopol than the red circle. Am I missing something?scs-campuses

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The end is near. After many years of working with and against the Sebastopol Charter School on a new facility a final decision from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for October 25th for a proposed new campus for the school. I have been encouraging the school to stay in town expand the downtown campus, and share the local facilities available at that location. The other alternative would be to work with the local school district and other charter school to develop a long-term facilities plan for all the students given the fact we have fewer students than we did 20 years ago. There must be empty classroom space somewhere. But the school has relentlessly pursued a location on the edge of town, adjacent to, but outside of, our Urban Growth Boundary.

Existing Schools Plus Proposed Sebastopol Charter School Campus

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

I had an op-ed published yesterday in the local paper. It was co-written by Sebastopol City Council member Patrick Slayter. Here is a link to the op-ed. The primary focus of the op-ed is that Patrick and I, and others, do not believe the county should be approved an auto-centric use like this school campus right outside the City of Sebastopol’s Urban Growth Boundary. If the county approves these kinds of projects, why do we go to the effort of creating Urban Growth Boundaries?

I will say it has been disappointing to try to rally significant opposition to the project. I’m not sure if people are simply afraid to say no to a school for fear of being anti-education or what. Or maybe I’m crazy and this really is a good place for a school. I hope that is not the case.If you’re interested in reading more history, I have 4 other posts about it which you can read here, and here, and here and here. And if you are interested in writing a letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors you can find their email addresses on the county’s website. If you want to attend the meeting it is schedule for October 25 at 2PM. At least a final decision will be made at that time and I won’t have to devote any more time or brain space to this issue. It’s been going on for many years and I am ready to move on. But having said that, if the supervisors do not approve the use permit and the school wants to discuss other options, I would be more than happy to engage them. I believe their is an alternative that can work for everyone. This proposed site only serves the school without consideration of the impacts on the wider community.

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I went to a conference recently and participated in a tour and session on ‘Missing Middle Housing.’ Missing Middle housing is a term coined by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. Missing Middle refers to housing types between a single-family home and multi-family apartments that are compatible in scale to single-family residential neighborhoods. Some examples include duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments and bungalow courts. These were common housing types at one time and may still be found in older neighborhoods but they are generally not compliant with zoning codes developed post WWII and we subsequently do not see them built much anymore.

In older neighborhoods these housing types served an important function as affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods. They provide a diversity of housing choices for households of different sizes and incomes in predominately single-family home neighborhoods. Individual units of Missing Middle housing are generally smaller than average home size today and even when multiple units are combined on one property, the overall scale still fits in neighborhoods with single-family homes. They help support walkable neighborhoods with transit, services and amenities within walking distance by increasing the number of residents in a given area.

Missing Middle housing often result in housing densities in the range of 16-35 units/acre. But as was discussed at the conference only looking at density can be very misleading. Density is very abstract for most people and not a good way to evaluate whether a project ‘fits’ in a neighborhood or not. It really has much more to do with the scale and detailing of the building than with the resulting density.

I decided to investigate Missing Middle housing in Sebastopol with a couple of examples.

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img_20160316_122149404.jpgimg_20160321_174449244.jpgThis is an apartment building on the corner of Main Street and Calder. Built in the early 20th century, it is just south of the downtown core where the street is populated mostly by  early 20th century single-family homes, some of which have been converted to commercial buildings. This building has 6 apartments. I believe they are a mix of 1 and 2 bedrooms and probably some of the more affordable rental units in town. I think if asked, most people would find the building is appropriately scaled and fits well in the neighborhood.

The lot size for this property is 9,846 sf or 0.23 acres. The resulting density is 26 units per acre. I think there might be 3 off-street parking spaces.

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The on-site parking for a 6 unit apartment building. Not only is  this not enough parking under the current zoning code it also does not meet any modern standard for the design of a parking lot. No striped spaces, driveway access is not wide enough, no accessible parking space, etc.

This property is currently zoned Office Commercial. That zoning designation does allow for residential uses with a maximum of 1 unit per 2,900 sf of lot area. On this parcel that would allow 3 units. The parking requirement is 3 spaces for every 2 units if they are limited to 1-bedroom. A 2-bedroom unit would require 2 parking spaces on its own. So if you were to develop three 2-bedroom units you would be required to provide 6 parking spaces on the site. If you built three 1-bedroom units you could probably get away with 4 parking spaces. So today you could build half the number of units currently on the site, and need to double the amount of on-site parking. The current 6 unit building with 3 on-site spaces is an existing non-conforming use of the property.

However, I don’t believe anyone would find this building out of place, or that it generates too much traffic, or that it creates a parking shortage in the neighborhood. Residents of this building can easily walk downtown and have a relatively affordable rent. But we’ve zoned this kind of building out of existence.

I live around the corner from this building.

High St-Duplex

My house

My house is modest bungalow built in 1922 with 2-bedrooms and 1 bath, a little over 1,000 sf. My lot is 3,750 sf (0.09 acres) which results in a density of 11 units/acre. (for readers not familiar with the measurement  of density you take the number of units and divide by the lot size in acres. It’s like determining how many units would be created if you built out an entire acre of land with my exact property).

My lot is zoned Residential Single Family 2. This is considered a medium density single-family home district. I’ve realized there are a lot of requirements in this zone that my house does not comply with. Minimum lot size is 6,000 sf in my zoning district which results in a density of 7 units per acre, hardly what I would consider medium density. My lot density of 11 units/acre is a bit more medium density in my mind. Minimum lot width is 60′ in this district; mine is 50′.

The front yard setback in this district is 20′. There is an exception that if the block is already developed, the front setback may be the average of the setback of the improved lots on the block. So my 12′ setback technically complies because all my neighbors have setbacks less than 20′. I’ll also note that the rear yard setback is 20′ (my house is about 16′ from the rear property line) so my 75′ deep lot would be limited to building in the center 35′ if I stuck to the current zoning requirements.

I started to wonder about the creation of a duplex on my property. Doubling the size of my house would still only be about 2,100 sf which is still below the average size of a single-family home built today. Adding an identical unit on the second floor is perfectly conceivable and would not look out of place in the neighborhood.

High St-Duplex

My house as a duplex – please excuse the crude photoshopping…

But it would not be allowed by current zoning which for one does not allow duplexes. Creating a duplex would increase the density to 22 units/acre. Far above the current allowed 7 units per acre.

With a duplex I would be required to provide 4 on-site parking spaces. I have a single-car width driveway along the side of my house (which I currently don’t park in because my car bottoms-out when I try to get into it). I don’t know if I would be allowed to provide all 4 spaces tandem style (one behind the other) but it’s the only way to fit 4 spaces on-site. Parking spaces are required to be 18′ long which would reach 72′ into my 75′ deep lot. Which is technically is achievable, although probably not desirable as it would consume nearly 20% of my lot area.

I am allowed to create a second dwelling unit on my property. Sebastopol limits second dwelling units to 840 sf. So instead of doubling my house footprint I could build a second floor addition and make it a separate unit, but the size would be limited to 840 sf. Not bad, but I’m not sure what harm another 160 sf would cause, which is the size of another bedroom, or a home office. The parking requirement for a second dwelling unit is only 1 on-site parking space which is easier. A second dwelling unit also does not count toward the density of a parcel. So I could add a second dwelling unit and not increase the density as far as the zoning code is concerned.

Through the General Plan update process currently underway, the medium density residential land use would be increased to 12 units/acre which would allow my current property to be in zoning compliance. But really, what harm would come of allowing two 1,000 sf units on my property? It would provide me with rental income, another family with an affordable apartment and increase the number of people that can walk to the amenities and services that downtown Sebastopol has to offer.

Sebastopol real estate is expensive and there is a lot of concern about creating more affordable housing. Updating our zoning code to allow more missing middle housing would go a long way to helping with the affordability problem. I’ll discuss some ways this can happen in a future post.

 

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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-Master-Plan-2006_Greenbelt-Hillsides_700

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.

SMART map

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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Last week, the local newspaper ran an article about the city of Santa Rosa’s consideration of updating their development fees to spur housing construction.  The article explains how the city has hired an economist to review the city’s fee structure and advise how they can spur housing development to counteract soaring rents and home prices. Housing production has been minimal  and the economist reported that even though rents have been increasing, they are not yet high enough to encourage developers to start new projects. Average rent  in the city is $1.84 per square foot. The economist told the City Council that rents needed to be at least $2.50 per square foot for developers to be able to afford to build projects. The city is hoping to learn if adjusting their various impact fees will encourage new housing development.

The article notes that city impact fees are used to fund various infrastructure projects. Over the past 20 years, the city has collected $230 million in these fees. The projected cost of infrastructure needs over the next 20 years is about $1 billion.

The city is left facing a major dilemma. It needs development to pay for its infrastructure costs, but it also needs to invest in its infrastructure to make the city attractive for economic growth.

  • The Press Democrat

This perfectly plays into the message of Strong Towns. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn describes the development process in the post WWII period as a Ponzi scheme (This is a great summary of the central argument).  Because cities typically fund infrastructure projects with development fees, they need more and more development to pay for the maintenance of their existing infrastructure. Strong Towns argues that what they refer to as the ‘suburban experiment’ is now a primary reason so many cities are finding themselves in financially challenging places. Suburban development patterns generate a small fraction of the revenue, in the form of property, sales and income taxes, necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports the development (streets, water, sewer etc.). Strong Towns argues that a return to more traditional development patterns of mixed-use, walkable places will provide for more financially resilient communities. Traditional development provides much more revenue when compared on a per acre basis than sprawling suburban development.

Urban3 is an organization that specializes in evaluating development patterns in regards to tax production and infrastructure costs. Their work supports the Strong Towns thesis that traditional mixed-use urban development patterns provide much more revenue than sprawling suburban development when compared on a per acre basis. They have developed a fascinating way to graphically present data that really shows where communities generate most of their revenue. And on the flip side, shows how little the return on investment is for sprawling development patterns.

This article comes at a most opportune moment. I’m part of a committee that is bringing Urban3 and Strong Towns to Sonoma County to complete an analysis of land use and development patterns with a focus on the areas around the SMART train station areas. The SMART train will run from northern Sonoma County into Marin County to the south where it will connect to the ferry terminal at Larkspur for those wishing to continue on to San Francisco. The train is scheduled to start service late 2016. The areas around the train stations need to be developed as high-density mixed-use neighborhoods to provide the ridership needed for the train to be financially successful. So far little, if any development has occurred in the station areas. And some of the projects that have been proposed are facing backlash against the proposed densities. If we don’t develop the areas around the stations correctly, the train is not going to be able to survive on rider fares and will require more subsidies.

It is crucial that we get this right. The data to be provided by the Urban3/Strong Towns team will provide hard data for decision makers to understand the importance of developing the station areas in a manner that will support this expensive piece of infrastructure. But also, how to create more resilient communities overall. At the culmination of their analysis, Urban3 and Strong Towns will conduct a series of public workshops and a ‘Boot Camp’ to explain their results and teach local officials how to use the analysis tools to study the impact of future development proposals. We need to take a long hard look at how we are building and the associated long-term costs. To develop in a manner that will create truly resilient places, we need to fundamentally transform the way we develop and grow our communities.

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