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Archive for the ‘The Core Project’ Category

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Recently closed restaurant

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Recently closed toy store

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Great corner retail opportunity.

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Soon to close wine shop

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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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The blog today comes from a parklet constructed by the CORE Project for PARK(ing) Day. The original PARK(ing) Day was started by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio and has now spread around the world, always occurring on the third Friday in September. The idea is to concert a public parking space into a park for a day. Taking space away from the cars and giving it back to the pedestrian. We hope the parklet will spark ideas about the use of our streets and reconsider how we think about urban design and placemaking in our communitites.

 

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

The parklet has been well received so far by locals. People are of course curious to see what this structure is in the parking space. We setup the parklet in front of West County Cycle Service, our Main Street bike shop. The owner is a very enthusiastic supporter of the idea. Several nearby business owners asked us if we could move it in front of their business. Most people are disappointed to learn the park will only be up for the day.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

The CORE Project has been trying to support the idea of permanent parklets in Sebastopol. They would be a great addition to our downtown and help reclaim some of our right-of-way for people. The city council is supportive of the idea, and wants to create an ordinance to allow people to construct parklets in downtown, similar to the successful Pavement to Parks program in San Francisco.

This has been a fun place-making exercise and it’s been great to see the community’s response. Hopefully this will push the idea of a permanent parklet in Sebastopol a bit further.

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

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I have been involved with a volunteer group of residents and business owners in Sebastopol in the organization of a international design ideas competition.  The competition is called The Core Project and has been designed to generate ideas for the ‘vitalizing’ of our downtown.  As I noted in my last post, downtown Sebastopol has a lot of potential that is not being realized.  The Core Project seeks ideas to help inspire a collective vision for what our town may become.  We hope to support and grow our existing downtown businesses and create the space to attract new businesses and residents to create a vibrant and thriving urban core.

The competition opened in August 2011 and entries were due last Friday, February 3rd.  A panel of local professionals including architects, urban designers, a developer, an artist and a permaculture designer will by judging the entries Saturday, February 11th.  The day will be capped by a public reception where all 24 entries received will be on view.  The winner(s) will be announced and ballots will be available for the public to vote for their favorite design.  Entry boards will be on display in downtown storefronts for a week after the competition to allow the public additional time to see the ideas generated.  It’s been really an exciting process and very satisfying to see the level of thought put into the competition.

The steering committee sees the competition as the catalyst for the start of a public dialogue regarding the future of our town.  There is a serious lack of vision, and development and change has been happening in a very piecemeal fashion for years.  Although the downtown ‘works’ the lack of a clear and focused vision is obvious.  As in so much of the country the car has completely dominated development patterns in the post WWII era at the expense of us humans.  We are planning a series of follow-up meetings to further engage the community, political leaders and downtown stakeholders to determine how to move forward with ideas generated by the competition.  The city is about to undergo a general plan update so we are hoping to help guide that visioning process with ideas inspired by the competition.

If you are in Sebastopol February 11th please stop by.  The event details are:

Public Reception:

When: Saturday, February 11, 6-9 PM

Where: 176 N. Main Street (site of the former Copperfields Used Bookstore)

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