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Archive for the ‘vision’ 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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I came across this video today which I think does a great job of summarizing the qualities that make a place human.

Prosperity means place

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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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As an architect, I have witnessed many occasions where the design review process has taken a good design and made it mediocre.  Why is this?  Isn’t the point of design review to make better buildings?  Or at least prevent really bad buildings from being built.  But it often does neither.  Much of what gets built is mediocre and some is just plain bad.  There are some examples of great design here and there, but by and large we live in a mediocre built environment.  Is this because it’s all we expect?  Since our daily experience of great architecture is limited, maybe people don’t understand what good architecture is and we get mired in this endless mediocrity.  I don’t know.  Maybe this is a subject for another post.

But the reason I ask the question is that the proposed Sebastopol CVS/Chase development was back before the Sebastopol Design Review Board recently.  The DRB had denied the project’s previous design.  The developer appealed the DRB decision to the City Council.  The City Council denied the appeal and the developer went back to the drawing board (instead of just going away as many hoped).

The primary problem with the design of the project starts with its conception.  It’s just a completely inappropriate building typology for its site.  The 2.45 acre site sits at one of the most prominent intersections in town.  A true ‘gateway’ property, and one of the last remaining parcels of its size in the downtown area.  The proposal is for 2 stand-alone buildings; a CVS Pharmacy, and a Chase bank.  Total building area is around 20,000 which is an FAR (floor area ratio) of 0.18.  Most of the remainder of the site is a parking lot, and driveways for the pharmacy and ATM drive-throughs.  It completely wastes valuable land in our urban core.  Given the proposed uses (including the drive-throughs) and limited building area, the site plan really has no chance to be good.

CVS/Chase Site Plan – May 2012

If the site design has no chance to be good should the project be approved by the design review board at all?  If the design review board has jurisdiction over project design, including the site design, then they should be able to deny the project on the basis of a poor site design.  The DRB has been asking for site plan changes from the very beginning.  Some small gestures have been made, but the overall general layout has not changed at all.

To be fair, the project has evolved some from the very first DRB hearing, particularly the building plan.  The original design was a generic corporate CVS you have seen all over the country.  The site plan included a drive-through window on the corner with drive lanes wrapping around the building.  The entrance faced away from the street toward the parking lot.  The loading area was adjacent to the sidewalk.

Sebastopol CVS/Chase Site Plan – April 2011

Sebastopol CVS, April 2011

Sebastopol Chase, April 2011

(Looking at these the design has come a long way, but I can’t believe these were even proposed – an obvious non-starter if you know anything about Sebastopol.)

However, let’s assume, for the sake of this blog post, the design review board does not deny the project based on the bad site design.  We’ll assume the site can be made as good as it can be given the program and focus on the architecture.  At least maybe the architecture could be interesting.  Right?

Some improvements have been made to the project from a site and building design standpoint in the latest revision.  A big improvement in the architecture is that the design now includes clear glazing that actually allows you to see into the store along the entirety of Petaluma Ave. and for 2 bays (of 5) along Sebastopol Road.  The plaza, previously located between the CVS and the street, has been relocated between the two buildings.  It’s a better location and has more chance of actually being used, although it could still be bigger.  The parking stalls facing the street were also eliminated which is an improvement.  The site is still overparked but the elimination of parking spaces is good.

Ignoring the fact the development is completely auto-centric in its conception and is a waste of a valuable infill property, there are still many problems with the design.

1 – There is still a driveway from Petaluma Ave.  The driveway has been reduced to an in-only driveway but the mid-block driveway creates an unnecessary conflict point between cars and pedestrians.  The driveway used to be an in-out, so this is better, but still a problem.  Abbott Street is approximately 60′ to the south and could provide satisfactory access to the site from the south.  I don’t buy the argument that this driveway is required for emergency access.  First, given the location of the fire station and the one-way street system downtown, a fire truck would in all likelihood use the driveway from Sebastopol Rd.  Second, even if they did require access from Petaluma Ave. they could use the street just like all the other buildings in urban areas that are not surrounded by parking lots.

2 – The project still has a drive-through pharmacy window and a drive-through ATM.  Any kind of drive-through is a completely inappropriate use downtown.  And although Sebastopol does have a prohibition against drive-through windows it only applies to fast food restaurants.  The zoning code should be amended to prohibit any kind of drive-through downtown, immediately.

3 – The CVS doors faced the sidewalk in the previous design.  Now, even with all the DRB comments about the importance of the building addressing the sidewalk, the doors are now facing the parking lot(?!?).  The doors could easily face the sidewalk and they should be changed.
4 – The biggest problem with the redesign is the architecture itself.  The previous design at least had interesting architecture.  The location of the site is at the edge of a light-industrial district downtown.  There are many existing buildings, old and new, with metal siding and roofs, concrete, concrete block, wood and glass.  Many of them are simple, boxy forms with detailing reflecting the agricultural heritage of the area.  The previous design really addressed this context in a contemporary way.  It used concrete block, metal siding, steel and glass awnings, horizontal wood siding and glass in an clean, honest manner.

CVS Elevations – January 2012

Chase Elevations – January 2012

What the developer came back with is completely out of character with Sebastopol.  It looks like a generic CVS attempting to be contextual in a small downtown dominated by late 19th century brick mercantile buildings.  First off, other than glass windows and steel awnings, and a short concrete base, the only other material is brick.  I cannot imagine where the inspiration for this comes from.  We do not have a tradition of brick architecture in Sebastopol.  Not to say there is no brick, but it’s not a common material here.  And this proposed building is covered in it!  Don’t get me wrong, I love brick.  I grew up in the Midwest and there was a lot of it and in some ways I miss it.  But brick in Sebastopol looks completely out of place.

CVS Elevations – May 2012

Chase Elevations – May 2012

The applicant states they are addressing comments to make the building fit better with the early 20th century architecture of Main Street.  I admit, a common criticism made at previous hearings was that the project should look more like the buildings on Main St.  As a design professional, this kind of comment makes me cringe.  Why do people look to replicate the past in our contemporary buildings?  Is it a nostalgia for fonder times?  A lack of creativity?  It is also one thing to reference a historical precedent in a contemporary design and another to try to mimic it.

The reason contemporary buildings which try to look like buildings of another period generally don’t work is because we don’t build in the same manner.  If this were to be a ‘real’ brick building it might be better, but it’s a brick veneer, and it won’t look good when it’s finished.  At best it will have a Disneyland quality to it, at worst, it will just look silly.  The materials and detailing of the previous design were much more authentic and of our time.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Whether this is seen as a ‘transitional’ site between the industrial east side of downtown and Main Street, or more a part of Main Street this design fits in with neither.

It’s unfortunate, because we had a poorly conceived project and bad site design with interesting architecture.  Now what we are left with, and what will probably be approved is a poorly conceived project, bad site design and boring architecture.  As an architect, I wish the design review process resulted in improving a project.  But this is just often not the case.  The CVS/Chase proposal is a perfect example of the process gone awry.

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Sebastopol is in need of a strong vision and development policies that support that vision.  The city’s general plan was last updated in 1994 and is required to be updated by 2014.  The time is right to shape a vision for our future.  Without a strong vision, Sebastopl will continue to develop in a piecemeal fashion as it has been.  The result of this piecemeal development has been a poorly defined ‘core’ and emphasis on accommodating vehicular traffic at the expense of other modes of transportation.

Sebastopol had once been the civic, cultural and commercial center for the surrounding community.  The downtown focus of the community was eroded with the introduction of the car and development patterns that favored cars over people, as happened in so many places across the country.  Commercial activities spread from the center of town along the north-south state highway which diffused the importance of downtown.   People are now realizing the importance of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods strengthen the local economy, contain sprawl, support community and healthier lifestyles.  Sebastopol needs to develop a strong urban core along these lines.  If we can create a strong downtown,  I believe Sebastopol can once again become the civic, cultural and commercial center for the area known locally as West County.

In 2003, the city began a process to create a specific plan for the area to the northeast of downtown which had become known as the Northeast Area.  The area had developed through the years as the apple-processing zone of town and primarily contains warehouses and light industrial uses today.  The area had been crossed by railroad spurs which have been removed but have left their legacy in various rights-of-way and odd-shaped parcels.  The area lacks through streets and a general connection to the rest of town but is situated between downtown and the eastern boundary of Sebastopol which is the Laguna de Santa Rosa.  In its current configuration it is a barrier to this local natural resource.  But the location holds great potential to expand the downtown core and connect to the resource we have been ignoring for years.

The city hired a consultant, Design Community & Environment, to complete the specific plan.  The process took several years and involved numerous public meetings including community workshops, meetings with property owners, and public hearings including design review board, planning commission and city council.  In the end, the design review board and planning commission both recommended approval but the city council never adopted the plan.  It’s probably sitting on a shelf in the planning office.  A strong vocal opposition came forward during the draft approval process and succeeded in completely derailing the plan.  Things had been moving rather well to that point and the proponents of the project were not prepared to adequately address the opposition.

This was unfortunate because the plan provided the groundwork for creating an effective pedestrian-oriented mixed-use environment which is exactly what must happen in the Northeast Area.  Many of the parcels in the area were rezoned from industrial to allow for a mixture of commercial, retail and residential uses and a SmartCode form-based code was included as part of the specific plan.  It required green development features, and incentivized others.  It was a progressive vision for an underutilized area of town.  It was a plan for the future that included new residences, office, retail and civic space.  It would have given future developers direction for how development should occur in that area of town, and allowed for higher density development than the existing zoning code allowed for.

But as I’ve said, it was never adopted.  One of the biggest arguments posited by the opposition was that the plan would increase traffic congestion.  The current general plan has a level of service (LOS) standard for downtown intersections that would have been exceeded at peak hours if/when the plan was fully implemented (many downtown intersections already operate at LOS F during PM peak traffic).  The specific plan included language to drop the LOS requirement at downtown intersections from the general plan while acknowledging that successful downtowns are often congested places.  Sebastopol does have its traffic issues, but they are of limited duration, primarily from 3-6 in the afternoon, although the public perception is that traffic is much worse.  This is a topic for a future post.  Here is an interesting discussion regarding LOS standards and traffic modelling and why they are misapplied in downtown settings such as this.

I could see that without a plan such as the Northeast Area Specific Plan that the area could be developed in a random manner which is exactly what is starting to happen.  A large development called The Barlow has started construction at the east end of the Northeast Area.  This development, while having good intentions, could have been so much better had the specific plan been adopted.  I think the development is as good as can be expected under current zoning, but it is essentially single-story buildings, surrounded by parking.  The strength of the development lies in the tenants.  Most are locally grown businesses, many featuring locally grown foods and artisan food producers.  What is lacking is any residential development at this point.  The residential component is important to create the clients for the new businesses as well as the existing businesses downtown.  The Barlow will also add an important through street connection to provide additional circulation options through downtown.

The Barlow Site Plan

Another result of the failure of the Northeast Area Plan is a proposed CVS/Chase bank development.  Also very suburban in nature, the development includes about 20,000 sf of development on a 2.45 acre site (a FAR of 0.18) at one of the most prominent intersections in downtown.  http://ci.sebastopol.ca.us/page/special-projects.  The project was rejected by the city planning commission, a ruling which was overturned by the City Council.  The design of the project was rejected by the design review board, a decision which was upheld by the council.  It remains to be seen what course the developer will take at this point and if the project is dead, or will come back revised.  This site needs to be a mixed-use multi-story building to be good urban design.  This is what was required by the smartcode, but not by current zoning.

CVS/Chase Site Plan

With current significant development proposals coming forward, we have no time to waste.  We must come together to create a vision for a mixed-use pedestrian friendly urban environment that provides housing for a mix of incomes, local availability of goods and services and access to transportation options to secure Sebastopol’s position as the civic, cultural and commercial center of West County.  This vision MUST be supported by general plan policies and a zoning code so developers know what is expected of them.  Without a vision and required supporting development documents the core of our downtown will continue to be eroded and we will have lost a significant opportunity.

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