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Posts Tagged ‘Sebastopol’

I am often troubled by the complete disregard many drivers have for pedestrians.

A situation I encounter on a regular basis is vehicles parking on the sidewalk. On my route between home and work, I walk by The Grateful Bagle, a bagel shop on Main Street. Given the form of the building my guess it was a service station back in the day. But today it’s a popular bagel shop. There is no indoor seating but there are tables in front of the store that are often filled with patrons.

I suppose it’s because of the former service station life of the property that drivers feel entitled to pull up in front of the shop, but many of them end up parking on the sidewalk. This happens all the time. img_20151012_101352009.jpgimg_20151022_080737406.jpgimg_20150914_081231457.jpgimg_20151209_082841202.jpgimg_20160127_130544562.jpgimg_20150910_082508032.jpgimg_20151015_134315108.jpgimg_20150914_081326859_hdr.jpgimg_20151214_082942606_hdr.jpgimg_20151015_134150526.jpgimg_20160411_081812938.jpgimg_20160406_123126960_hdr.jpgIt’s not that it’s impossible to get around the car, but I do feel that it shows a disregard for the pedestrian and the small amount of space in the public realm that is allotted to us. Most of the space on our streets is devoted to the car. the curb-to-curb width of Main Street in front of The Grateful Bagel is 50′. There are two 8′ parking lanes and two 17′(!!!) drive lanes. The sidewalk is about 6′ wide.

The Grateful Bagel does have parking in the back, and there is generally space nearby on Main Street. But still, people park on the sidewalk. And given the extensive curb cut along the side street it’s easy to pull right in. (It’s interesting to look back at these photos and notice that most of the offenders seem to be driving pick-up trucks…).

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I admit the parking lot is difficult to access from the side street as the curb cut is in the wrong location, but there is a curb cut on Main Street which leads to a driveway on the opposite side of the building from where the photo is taken. And it would not be difficult to add a curb cut on this street as well.

It would be easy enough to add a planter along the backside of the sidewalk along the side street and expand the amount of outdoor seating. I don’t believe this would hurt business, but actually would improve it as it would be a nicer place to sit without the imposition of a car or truck adjacent to your table.

I’m sensing an opportunity for some tactical urbanism…

 

 

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I went to a conference recently and participated in a tour and session on ‘Missing Middle Housing.’ Missing Middle housing is a term coined by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. Missing Middle refers to housing types between a single-family home and multi-family apartments that are compatible in scale to single-family residential neighborhoods. Some examples include duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments and bungalow courts. These were common housing types at one time and may still be found in older neighborhoods but they are generally not compliant with zoning codes developed post WWII and we subsequently do not see them built much anymore.

In older neighborhoods these housing types served an important function as affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods. They provide a diversity of housing choices for households of different sizes and incomes in predominately single-family home neighborhoods. Individual units of Missing Middle housing are generally smaller than average home size today and even when multiple units are combined on one property, the overall scale still fits in neighborhoods with single-family homes. They help support walkable neighborhoods with transit, services and amenities within walking distance by increasing the number of residents in a given area.

Missing Middle housing often result in housing densities in the range of 16-35 units/acre. But as was discussed at the conference only looking at density can be very misleading. Density is very abstract for most people and not a good way to evaluate whether a project ‘fits’ in a neighborhood or not. It really has much more to do with the scale and detailing of the building than with the resulting density.

I decided to investigate Missing Middle housing in Sebastopol with a couple of examples.

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img_20160316_122149404.jpgimg_20160321_174449244.jpgThis is an apartment building on the corner of Main Street and Calder. Built in the early 20th century, it is just south of the downtown core where the street is populated mostly by  early 20th century single-family homes, some of which have been converted to commercial buildings. This building has 6 apartments. I believe they are a mix of 1 and 2 bedrooms and probably some of the more affordable rental units in town. I think if asked, most people would find the building is appropriately scaled and fits well in the neighborhood.

The lot size for this property is 9,846 sf or 0.23 acres. The resulting density is 26 units per acre. I think there might be 3 off-street parking spaces.

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The on-site parking for a 6 unit apartment building. Not only is  this not enough parking under the current zoning code it also does not meet any modern standard for the design of a parking lot. No striped spaces, driveway access is not wide enough, no accessible parking space, etc.

This property is currently zoned Office Commercial. That zoning designation does allow for residential uses with a maximum of 1 unit per 2,900 sf of lot area. On this parcel that would allow 3 units. The parking requirement is 3 spaces for every 2 units if they are limited to 1-bedroom. A 2-bedroom unit would require 2 parking spaces on its own. So if you were to develop three 2-bedroom units you would be required to provide 6 parking spaces on the site. If you built three 1-bedroom units you could probably get away with 4 parking spaces. So today you could build half the number of units currently on the site, and need to double the amount of on-site parking. The current 6 unit building with 3 on-site spaces is an existing non-conforming use of the property.

However, I don’t believe anyone would find this building out of place, or that it generates too much traffic, or that it creates a parking shortage in the neighborhood. Residents of this building can easily walk downtown and have a relatively affordable rent. But we’ve zoned this kind of building out of existence.

I live around the corner from this building.

High St-Duplex

My house

My house is modest bungalow built in 1922 with 2-bedrooms and 1 bath, a little over 1,000 sf. My lot is 3,750 sf (0.09 acres) which results in a density of 11 units/acre. (for readers not familiar with the measurement  of density you take the number of units and divide by the lot size in acres. It’s like determining how many units would be created if you built out an entire acre of land with my exact property).

My lot is zoned Residential Single Family 2. This is considered a medium density single-family home district. I’ve realized there are a lot of requirements in this zone that my house does not comply with. Minimum lot size is 6,000 sf in my zoning district which results in a density of 7 units per acre, hardly what I would consider medium density. My lot density of 11 units/acre is a bit more medium density in my mind. Minimum lot width is 60′ in this district; mine is 50′.

The front yard setback in this district is 20′. There is an exception that if the block is already developed, the front setback may be the average of the setback of the improved lots on the block. So my 12′ setback technically complies because all my neighbors have setbacks less than 20′. I’ll also note that the rear yard setback is 20′ (my house is about 16′ from the rear property line) so my 75′ deep lot would be limited to building in the center 35′ if I stuck to the current zoning requirements.

I started to wonder about the creation of a duplex on my property. Doubling the size of my house would still only be about 2,100 sf which is still below the average size of a single-family home built today. Adding an identical unit on the second floor is perfectly conceivable and would not look out of place in the neighborhood.

High St-Duplex

My house as a duplex – please excuse the crude photoshopping…

But it would not be allowed by current zoning which for one does not allow duplexes. Creating a duplex would increase the density to 22 units/acre. Far above the current allowed 7 units per acre.

With a duplex I would be required to provide 4 on-site parking spaces. I have a single-car width driveway along the side of my house (which I currently don’t park in because my car bottoms-out when I try to get into it). I don’t know if I would be allowed to provide all 4 spaces tandem style (one behind the other) but it’s the only way to fit 4 spaces on-site. Parking spaces are required to be 18′ long which would reach 72′ into my 75′ deep lot. Which is technically is achievable, although probably not desirable as it would consume nearly 20% of my lot area.

I am allowed to create a second dwelling unit on my property. Sebastopol limits second dwelling units to 840 sf. So instead of doubling my house footprint I could build a second floor addition and make it a separate unit, but the size would be limited to 840 sf. Not bad, but I’m not sure what harm another 160 sf would cause, which is the size of another bedroom, or a home office. The parking requirement for a second dwelling unit is only 1 on-site parking space which is easier. A second dwelling unit also does not count toward the density of a parcel. So I could add a second dwelling unit and not increase the density as far as the zoning code is concerned.

Through the General Plan update process currently underway, the medium density residential land use would be increased to 12 units/acre which would allow my current property to be in zoning compliance. But really, what harm would come of allowing two 1,000 sf units on my property? It would provide me with rental income, another family with an affordable apartment and increase the number of people that can walk to the amenities and services that downtown Sebastopol has to offer.

Sebastopol real estate is expensive and there is a lot of concern about creating more affordable housing. Updating our zoning code to allow more missing middle housing would go a long way to helping with the affordability problem. I’ll discuss some ways this can happen in a future post.

 

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morpheus traffic meme

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns was in Santa Rosa last week. During one of our conversations he told me about this meme and I had to share it.  I have been feeling this way for years. One of the biggest complaints about the state of our town is traffic and it drives me crazy.

Traffic is far down the list of my concerns. Partly because the times when there is traffic are relatively limited. Also, because I generally avoid driving during times when I know there will be traffic. If I have to drive during the morning or afternoon commute times, then I expect I will encounter traffic and plan accordingly. Most of the time I transport myself around town on foot or on bike. So traffic is a non-issue for me.

The most common time I find myself in traffic is when I pick up my daughter from high school in Santa Rosa. That was a choice we made and because of that choice she needs to be driven to school. When driving back to town from Santa Rosa there is often a backup before you get to downtown Sebastopol. There are probably quite a few people in that backup because their kid(s) go to school in Santa Rosa, or because they live in Santa Rosa and are picking their kid up from school in Sebastopol. Open enrollment schools are responsible for a lot of the traffic we experience around here. Sitting in the backup at 3:30, I am traffic and I don’t have anyone to blame but myself.

Sebastopol is a crossroads town. There are 40,000+ people that live in the ‘country’ to the south, west and north of town. Many of those people must pass through Sebastopol to get to work or shopping. Not much we in Sebastopol can do about it. This creates some traffic, at limited, and mostly predictable, times during the day.

The people that complain about traffic drive. And as Morpheus says in the meme ‘ You are traffic.’ Get over it. You think you are the only person that wants to be on the road at 5:00? You’re not.  The larger problem in my mind is that there is a serious lack of traffic downtown at 7:00 in the evening. The streets are empty which has an impact on Sebastopol’s vitality, or lack thereof. This is the problem we need to be addressing.

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The City of Sebastopol recently debuted it’s most recent attempt at slowing traffic in town. Created by local sculptor Patrick Amiot, Slow Down Cat is seen as a way to enhance local traffic safety and help the police department enforce safe speeds while building goodwill between the community and police department. While I love the idea of using art as traffic calming we’re going to need a lot more Slow Down Cats to create any real impact. We need a battalion of Slow Down Cats.Slow Down Cat (in the police department parking lot)

Slow Down Cat moves around town. He gets parked on the side of the road, usually staying in one spot for several days and then moving. To be honest, I often see Slow Down Cat parked in the police station parking lot. I’m not sure how often he is let out.

Unfortunately, parking Slow Down Cat on the side of the road makes it too easy to ignore for a driver. Just like those speed limit signs. However, putting an obstruction in the road is a much more effective way to reduce speeds. If Slow Down Cat were located at the center of the road it would likely have a bigger impact. The army of Slow Down Cats  could be located at intersections, particularly those along Main Street and Healdsburg Avenue. And they could each be a unique design. Slow Down Dog, Slow Down Bear, Slow Down Rocket Ship…I’d put them at every intersection that doesn’t already have a 4-way stop or traffic signal, and maybe even at some of those just for fun. The sculpture could be installed on a concrete platform, like a mini-roundabout. This would remind people to slow down where it’s most important, at intersections where pedestrians are crossing. It would be a relatively inexpensive traffic calming solution which we desperately need, as I discussed previously. And we certainly have space at these excessively wide streets to accomplish it.

Slow Down Petaluma-Sebastopol Slow Down Petaluma-Main Slow Down Gravenstein Slow Down Healdsburg Ave Slow Down Main-Bodega Slow Down Healdsburg-FlorenceThe artist of Slow Down Cat lives in Sebastopol and many of his neighbors have his sculptures in their yards. The most common question I receive by visitors to Sebastopol is how to get to the street where the sculptures are. Imagine the impact of having them located up and down our main streets. This is a great tourist attraction and placemaking opportunity as well.

The straight and wide design of the roads in town encourages people to drive fast than the posted speed limit. And we need a traffic calming plan beyond a radar gun, which is the primary means of traffic calming in Sebastopol today. Slow Down Cat is a nice idea, but he needs to be a more widespread presence in order to have a lasting impact. Drivers need constant reminding to keep their speeds down in town. Let’s employ local artists to make more Slow Down fill in the blank and start populating our streets with them. We could have a competition! Drivers will take notice and we’ll all benefit from the slower speeds, and interesting artwork.

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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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I’ve discussed the issue of lane width several times on this blog (here and here). Main Street in Sebastopol has absurdly wide travel lanes. This is largely a legacy of the days when a train rumbled down the center of the street. But the train is long gone and yet we have lanes that are up to 17′ wide. I walk Main Street several times a day between my office and home and people drive really fast. And I’m the first to admit that it’s difficult to stick to the posted 25 mph speed limit when driving in an 17′ wide lane. It really takes attention and effort to drive 25 mph here. And I’m uber-aware of the situation. Most people don’t give a second thought to traveling at 35+ mph on Main Street.

This article discusses several recent studies that demonstrate the benefits of a 10′ wide travel lane in reducing accidents and being able to move just as many cars as a wider lane.

We need to right-size our streets in Sebastopol, and around the country, if we are serious about slowing cars and improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

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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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