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Archive for the ‘Urban Vitality’ 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-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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Sebastopol, like many other small towns, needs to get a handle on its parking requirements. Current zoning code parking requirements is often at odds with good urbanism. Without a mechanism such as a parking assessment district, or simply reducing on-site parking requirements, our attempts at creating good pedestrian-friendly urban environments fight an uphill battle. Sebastopol has several city-owned, free surface parking lots that, like surface parking lots everywhere, leave gaping holes in the urban fabric.

Main Street Sebastopol has almost 2 whole blocks without a parking lot or auto-oriented use. (The north end of the west side of Main Street has what used to be a gas station but is now a smog check business.) These two blocks are full of traditional zero-setback buildings, mostly one story with a couple 2-story buildings sprinkled in. And while I think the buildings could be taller, these 2 blocks generally work.IMG_20150718_113337891_HDR

IMG_20150718_113245274IMG_20150717_171825281_HDR IMG_20150717_171532233 IMG_20150717_171720942_HDR IMG_20150717_171707259_HDRUnfortunately, these two blocks could not be built today. Any new building needs to provide on-site parking. Now this isn’t 100% true. Sebastopol apparently did have some kind of parking district at some point, although it’s a little vague. My understanding is that once upon a time, downtown property owner’s were allowed (required?) to buy into a parking assessment district. They paid for a certain number of spaces to be allotted in municipal parking lots for their building. If one of these lots is redeveloped they can credit the number of spaces they had ‘purchased’ toward any new parking requirement.

I would like to look at one specific example. We have a live theater company in Sebastopol, Main Stage West. The theater is in a small 2-story building on the corner of Main Street and Bodega Ave. My understanding is that the ground floor was originally a pharmacy with offices on the second floor. The offices are still on the second floor, but the ground floor has been converted to an intimate theater. It’s a great resource to have in such a small town, and does provide some after hours activity downtown. I don’t know the exact seating count, but I think it’s around 80 seats. The building takes up it’s entire lot. There is no parking on the property.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

Main Stage West Theater. The theater is on the ground floor with offices above. The building takes up the entire lot.

If someone wanted to build a theater of this size on Main Street today, they would have to provide on-site parking. The Sebastopol Zoning Code requires 1 parking space for every 4 seats in a theater. For the Main Stage West theater, this would require 20 parking spaces. for the roughly 2,200 sf second floor offices you would need 6 parking spaces (1 per 400 sf). That’s 26 parking spaces total required for this building. You couldn’t get 26 parking space on their existing site even if there was no building. The lot is 25’x87′. you actually can’t even make a parking lot with those dimensions. Assuming you could line up parking spaces in the 87′ dimension and just pull in off Bodega Ave you could get 8 parking spaces. But no room for a building, unless you built it above the parking lot. Theoretically, the building could have purchased some parking spaces when the parking assessment occurred, but I’m fairly certain they did not purchase 26 parking spaces.

We’ve essentially made the Main Street we love today impossible to build.

There is a very underutilized property at the opposite end of the block the theater is on. It had been a gas station but today is a smog check station. (Great use for Main Street, right?). The lot is about 59′ wide and 165′ deep. 9,735 sf. Say the theater wanted to move and build a slightly larger facility, assume 150 seats. That would require 38 parking spaces. If you wanted second floor offices about 24 parking spaces. Total 62  parking spaces required. I’m pretty sure that since the site had been a gas station, they never bought into the parking assessment district and would be required to supply all 62 spaces on-site. Impossible.

Smog Check property

Smog Check lot

Smog check lot

Smog check lot

Forget the theater. Make the ground floor retail with 1 floor of office above. 48 parking spaces would be required. Maybe you just make the ground floor parking and build above with a small retail space along the sidewalk to screen the parking behind. Say 800 sf of retail with 9,735 sf of office above. 26 parking spaces required. You could fit about 14 spaces on the ground floor behind the retail. That doesn’t work either. It is impossible with today’s zoning code to build a good urban building on this site.

This is not right and needs to be fixed if we have any hope of creating a good walkable people-centric downtown. Sebastopol needs a parking assessment district where downtown property owner’s are required to pay a fee that will be used to construct and maintain a municipal parking garage. And the parking garage must NOT be free. People that choose to drive and park downtown should be required to pay for the privilege and for the financing and maintenance of the parking facility. We cannot have good urbanism with the current parking requirements downtown.

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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.

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