Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘The Barlow’ Category

IMG_20150911_104438746

Recently closed restaurant

IMG_20150911_104351392

Recently closed toy store

IMG_20150928_082725655

Great corner retail opportunity.

IMG_20150911_104703040_HDR

Soon to close wine shop

IMG_20150911_142606092

Corner storefront location occupied by the jiu jitsu studio

I’ve noticed something a bit troubling recently. There are a couple of vacant storefronts on Main Street. In addition, there is another that is about to close and a recently closed business was replaced with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio. I don’t know about you, but a martial arts studios opening on a main commercial street in a community is often not a good sign. Storefronts on Main Street should be just that, the fronts of stores. Stores, restaurants, bars, cafes generate pedestrian activity which is necessary for the vitality of a downtown commercial district. Martial arts studios and professional offices do not. Often you walk to a store on Main Street with a specific task at hand. But other times you walk along Main Street to window shop, and sometimes you see something in the window that draws you into the store. I doubt many people walking down Main Street suddenly decide they need to take a Jiu Jitsu class, and if they did if would be too bad because it seems to have rather limited hours, mostly in the evening as far as I can tell. I rarely see anything going on inside.The economy seems to have improved over the days of the recession, yet these businesses have closed.

Some people may be ready to blame The Barlow. It’s been a concern of Main Street merchants from the early planning stages of the project. The Barlow is a rehabilitated former warehouse/light industrial area adjacent to downtown. And while there are still vacancies in some of the spaces at The Barlow, it generally seems more lively than Main Street. There is a mix of light industry like wineries, breweries, a coffee roaster, a distillery, a bakery, a glass blower and a foundry. But there are also retail shops, restaurants, a local co-op market and cafes.

If The Barlow seems to be doing better than Main Street, and I have no data on whether or not this is true, I would offer a couple of reasons why. Firstly, The Barlow has done a very good job of marketing itself. It was recently written up in the New York Times travel section, Sunset Magazine and USA Today. They have billboards around the Bay Area, they sponsor a weekly street fair during summer months. It’s a definite draw.

Barlow

McKinley Street in The Barlow

IMG_20150911_140528707_HDR

Narrow lanes and on-street parking keep speeds slow on McKinley Street.

IMG_20150911_140648676IMG_20150911_140714280_HDRBut more importantly, it’s just a nicer place for people. One of my early blog posts was about how Main Street is not a place for people. It feels like a highway, and it is, California Route 116. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Main Street needs a face lift. To start with, returning streets to two-way traffic, and reducing the lane width would help. The one-way traffic, wide lanes, straight street and limited traffic controls encourage speeding, particularly once traffic is ‘freed’ from the light at the main downtown intersection. Traffic literally takes off at that point and speeds over the posted 25 mph are a regular occurrence south of Bodega Ave.

IMG_20150717_171825281_HDR

Storefronts are nice enough, but this environment is dominated by cars.

IMG_20150718_113240033

Lots of space devoted to cars, not much to people.

IMG_20150911_142233154_HDR The pedestrian infrastructure takes second seat to the car. As a pedestrian, you feel this is a place for cars, and you are here provisionally. Most of the street furniture is decent enough, but sidewalks are narrow, trees are pathetic and lighting is dismal. The Barlow has much nicer landscaping, street furniture and narrow, slow streets. When walking in The Barlow, you feel welcomed, relaxed. This is a place for you. If something catches your eye in a store front across the street, you can cross mid-block without concern that you’ll be run down. Traffic moves slowly here; it’s not on it’s way somewhere else. You don’t feel welcomed as a pedestrian on Main Street, you feel like you always have to keep an eye  on the cars, particularly when crossing the street. Even at crosswalks, cars are not looking out for you.

The Barlow also has restaurants with outdoor seating.

Covered outdoor seating

Covered outdoor seating

IMG_20150928_122759864_HDR

Uncovered outdoor seating

With the narrow sidewalks of Main Street this is not really possible. One solution I’ve come across recently is to extend the sidewalk into the parallel parking zone to allow for outdoor dining.

Outdoor seating in San Rafael, CA. Notice how the sidewalk swings out to occupy the parallel parking zone.

Outdoor seating in San Rafael, CA. Notice how the sidewalk swings out to occupy the parallel parking zone in order to allow for the seating.

If we want Main Street businesses to succeed we need to improve the streetscape to benefit the pedestrian. The Core Project has partnered with the City of Sebastopol on the submittal of an encroachment permit to Caltrans for a parklet demonstration day on Main Street. We have 5 different  locations selected where we propose to construct a parklet for a day. The hope is that this will inspire businesses to apply for more permanent parklets. And we hope that the demonstration will make Caltrans comfortable with the idea of permanent parklets. To our knowledge, Caltrans has never approved the construction of a parklet on a state highway.

Parklets could be a first step to improve the pedestrian environment of Main Street. But not the only solution. We need to turn the tables and make people in cars feel that they are passing through a pedestrian priority zone.  There are enough visitors and people living in Sebastopol and it’s environs to support both Main Street businesses and The Barlow. We just need to be able to put the Main Street businesses on equal footing when it comes to a pleasant pedestrian experience.

Read Full Post »

I was asked recently to suggest ways to provide vitality in a small town downtown in the evening, after the shops close. It’s a great question and one in which many small towns struggle with. People are out and about downtown during the day and on weekends in particular, but after the shops close at 6:00 things get pretty quiet. Most of the businesses in downtown Sebastopol are retail in nature. We have a decent number and variety of restaurants downtown, particularly for a town its size. But these alone are not enough to create a vibrant downtown scene in the evening. A downtown needs entertainment and social venues to keep it active. It also benefits greatly from people living nearby.

I think one place that helps keep Sebastopol even a little vibrant in the evenings is the movie theater. The movie theater is located in a building that was formerly a distillery (I don’t know when the conversion was made, but it’s probably been at least 20 years). It’s a great re-use of an existing building located in the heart of downtown Sebastopol. It currently operates as the Rialto Cinema which relocated from Santa Rosa about 3 years ago. It shows a combination of independent, foreign, documentary and mainstream films. They also broadcast Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre Live events and screen other special events including a live screening party for the Oscars and the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. It’s a great resource for a small community and a great fit for Sebastopol.

The problem with the theater is the way the physical building fits into the community. I realize they were working with an existing building, and maybe I don’t understand all of the limitations. But physically, it turns it’s back to the town. The aerial photo shows the location of the theater in relation to downtown. Sebastopol downtown aerial with barlow-042013As you can see, it is kitty-corner from the town plaza. Almost all of the residential neighborhoods in Sebastopol are located to the west (left) in the aerial photo. So people approaching the theater will be coming from the direction of the plaza.

View of Rialto Cinema from the plaza

View of Rialto Cinema from the plaza. The logo at the top of the sign announces ‘Rialto Cinema’ but that’s all that identifies this building as a movie theater.

The small park on the corner, which is city-owned property, has a sidewalk that connects visually with the plaza, if you know what you are looking for.

Sidewalk that points  to the plaza across the street.

Sidewalk that points to the plaza behind me across the street.

And it does lead you to the lobby. But the actual entry to the theater is on the opposite side of the building, facing the parking lot.

Entry to lobby, across the parking lot.

Entry to lobby, across the parking lot.

Once again, we expect, encourage, and reward people who drive while making pedestrians search for the entry to the building.

The theater lobby is currently being remodeled, but the entry will still not at all be obvious on approach to the building. To be honest, I lived in Sebastopol at least 3, and maybe as long as 6 months, before I even knew where the movie theater was. I would hear people talk about the movie theater but for the life of me couldn’t figure out where it was. Look at the location of, I guess you would call it a marquee? You really cannot see it unless you are across the street from it. This is not a location many people would find themselves.

Cannot see this 'marquee' from just about anywhere.

Cannot see this ‘marquee’ from just about anywhere.

An entrance on the west side would make this building feel much more a part of the community. People leaving the theater after a film would be directed toward Main Street to maybe grab a bite to eat or have a drink. As it is now, you are sent back to your car and on your way back home. Or if you go out to dinner after, you are encouraged to get in your car and drive. Doesn’t bode well to encourage you to park once and walk when downtown.

The theater also now serves as a critical link between The Barlow and Main Street. On that score it is particularly not successful. This is the frontage on McKinley Street which leads to The Barlow behind me.IMG_20150410_110025068 While The Barlow and Main Street are about a 3 minute walk apart, this wall and the largely vacant site across the street make it feel much farther. To be fair, this is a new arrangement. When the building was converted to a theater, the area which is now known as The Barlow was warehouses and light industry and there was no reason to walk down McKinley Street which was a dead end. But thinking of how this frontage could be at least a bit more interesting is crucial to linking Main Street and The Barlow, along with the redevelopment of the property on the opposite side of the street, which doesn’t even have a sidewalk.

It would also be great if the theater could do something to announce it’s presence. I realize it’s too late to relocate the lobby to the west end of the building. But new signage, including a real marquee that reaches toward the plaza, would be great to let people who are just visiting, or even new arrivals to Sebastopol, that we have a great movie theater in town. I don’t know that it would increase the vitality of downtown, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: