Archive for the ‘SebastopolConnect SDAT’ Category

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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Sebastopol has a traffic problem.  And It’s not the number of cars passing through downtown and backing up at times as concerns many people.  The traffic problem has to do with the one-way street couplet created by Petaluma Avenue and Main Street. These streets were originally two-way streets but were converted to one-way in the mid 1980’s.  I believe this was done to improve vehicular traffic flow, which it may or may not have improved. It also may have been a response to the removal of the train tracks (there had been a train running down the middle of Main Street, which is partly to blame for it’s extra-wide width).  Sitting at the intersection of two state highways, Sebastopol has had it’s issues with pass-through traffic congestion. And there is a limit to what can and should be done to alleviate this. We need to choose if we want a pedestrian-friendly downtown, or one that caters to cars. Our current one-way street network caters to the car at the expense of the pedestrian.

Given the limited street network, the one-way streets further limit choice for maneuvering through town.  Everyone entering downtown from the south has to travel on Petaluma Ave. heading north.  Traveling through town to the south you have to take Main Street.   Changing the one-way streets to two-way streets will provide more choice for motorists moving around downtown.  It also will limit the amount of backtracking required to get to your destination inherent in a one-way street network which can be particularly confusing for visitors to our community.

south main street

South Main Street, Sebastopol, 50′ curb-to-curb, 17′ wide travel lanes

The one-way streets are also detrimental to the pedestrian and bike experience in town.  I live one block from South Main Street and walk this stretch of road on a regular basis.  Once cars cross the main intersection downtown at Bodega Ave. there are no traffic controls other than crosswalks.  The speed limit is 25 MPH transitioning to 30 MPH as you head further south. These posted speed limits are difficult to abide by on the straight extra-wide travel lanes. The travel lane width along this stretch of Main Street is 17′! That’s crazy! The minimum recommended lane width for interstate freeways is 12′, and that is generally the width they are designed. This is for design speeds of 65 mph. The travel lane width on South Main is 5′ wider than the standard for a freeway! Two 17′ wide lanes, side-by-side, and we somehow expect drivers to adhere to 25-30 mph. People will drive at the speed they feel safe at and a 17′ wide lane allows a lot of room for error, encouraging fast driving. The police regularly sit in wait for speeders along this stretch of road, but tickets alone do not discourage fast driving. The design of the street has much to do with how fast people feel comfortable driving.

One way roads also encourage fast driving because drivers do not have to concentrate on oncoming traffic. We tend to get more distracted when we don’t have oncoming traffic to pay attention to and often engage in risky driving behavior when on one-way streets, particularly when the lanes are 17′ wide!

Speeding along this one-way road is further exacerbated by the fact only the right lane continues south out of town, so drivers in the left lane speed up to pass traffic in the right lane in order to continue south. The same things happens on Petaluma Ave. as most traffic continues north which requires you to be in the right lane. To attempt to bypass the often backed-up right lane, drivers stay in the relatively clear left lane and try to cut back in to the right at the last possible minute. Northbound Petaluma Avenue is narrower, but the lanes are mostly 12′ minimum, and are 13′ in some locations.

North Main Street at Bodega Avenue, 3 lanes of traffic coming at you. Is this a pleasant pedestrian experience?

North Main Street at Bodega Avenue, 3 lanes of traffic coming at you. Is this a pleasant pedestrian experience?

Even on the main commercial block of Main Street the 3 driving lanes are 12′, 18′ and 12′. With an 8′ parking lane on each side the curb to curb width is 58′. And yet the sidewalks are only 9.5′ wide. Who is prioritized on the downtown Sebastopol street system, pedestrians or cars? Clearly it is the cars. If we want Sebastopol to become a pedestrian-friendly environment, we need to take back some of the right-of-way for pedestrians. And do we really need 3 lanes of traffic all heading in the same direction? We are a town of 7,200 people. Granted, we serve a much larger market area, but how many small towns have 3 lanes in one direction. This is certainly a street that could benefit from a road diet.

It has also been shown that two-way traffic is better for business. With one-way streets, you only get half of the potential exposure by passing vehicles. Communities that have converted one-way streets to two-way streets often see an increase in revenue for the businesses along the route. A one-way street system is confusing for visitors. As Sebastopol becomes more of a tourist destination we need to make the experience of circulating downtown as easy as possible. I have seen people drive the wrong-way on more than one occasion. Here is an interesting article about the conversion of many one-way street systems to two-way. And another urban design blog about one-way streets

The problem with the road design in downtown Sebastopol is that the streets have been seen as tools for traffic engineering only. They have not been viewed as an important piece in the creation of a good urban experience for a variety of users, or for being able to enhance the quality of urban life. This happens all the time. Streets are designed to move vehicles as efficiently as possible, often to the detriment of other users. One of the recommendations of the SDAT was to return downtown Sebastopol to a 2-way street network (see pages 70-72 of the report). You could convert Main Street to two ways with an 8′ parking lane on each side, a 6′ bike lane in each direction and an 11′ wide travel lane in each direction which is plenty wide for an urban thoroughfare. Imagine how this would improve the pedestrian experience. Bulb-outs at the intersections would reduce pedestrian crossing distance further enhancing the pedestrian experience.

An improved crosswalk. Bump-outs and flashing crossing signal improve safety, but Main Street still often feels like a highway rather than a small town main street.

An improved crosswalk. Bump-outs and flashing crossing signal improve safety, but Main Street still often feels like a highway rather than a small town main street.

Sebastopol is a crossroads community with a street network that is currently designed to move the most through-traffic as efficiently as possible at the expense of the pedestrian experience. Even with the one-way streets designed to move the most traffic, we still have traffic congestion at certain times and a pedestrian-unfriendly environment. We should move to a city-first approach as discussed in the SDAT report. A two-way street network will benefit the city-first approach. It may not help traffic congestion, but are we designing our communities for people or for cars? For a long time we have been designing our communities for cars. It’s time to for our cities and towns to welcome back pedestrians and bikes and share the space with cars. Returning the downtown Sebastopol street system to two-ways will go along way in rehumanizing downtown.

I’ve reblogged another post which discusses some general issues surrounding one-way streets.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged but I have a lot of ideas for entries so I hope I can keep up with it.

I would like to start back up again by discussing Sebastopol’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) grant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). I am the chairman of the steering committee that successfully applied for the grant last fall (view the application here). In the application, the committee expressed a need to address issues of connectivity in our community and as such titled our effort SebastopolConnect. There is a need to improve pedestrian and bike connections between our core and the surrounding neighborhoods; improve connections between the core and beautiful nearby surrounding natural environment; improve connections between downtown businesses and their clientele; and improve interpersonal connections between members of the community to support a creative long-term plan for future development in our core.

The way the grant works is that the AIA sends a multidisciplinary team of professionals to a community to help develop a vision and framework for a sustainable future. The team spends an intense 3 days meeting with a community and developing recommendations for long-term sustainability. The team spent May 15-17 in Sebastopol and was comprised of planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects and a transportation engineer.

poster image

The first day consisted of public workshops to solicit feedback from the community on several targeted issues: Transportation and parking, pedestrian, bike and community connections, urban design and design standards, and land use and land use standards. The workshops were well attended and the team received valuable and insightful feedback from the community. The team spent the next 2 days working on their recommendations with graphic and logistical support from a team of local volunteers.

final presentation

At the end of the last day the team unveiled their recommendations at a public meeting. Since that time they have followed up with a written report providing more detail on their recommendations and suggestions for implementation.

The steering committee made a presentation to the city council October 1, 2013. We gave brief presentations on short, medium and long-term recommendations. It was well received by the council and we agreed to delve further into the report at a study session in the near future. It’s been exciting to get to this point, and a bit daunting to think about implementing the suggestions. I plan on discussing many of the recommendations through this blog.

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