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Just read a great blog post from Mr. Money Mustache. Check it out The Happy City and our $20 Trillion Opportunity. It is a succinct description of the inefficiencies of our current development paradigm in the United States. It relates very directly to work I’ve been doing with Urban Community Partnership and the work of Strong Towns.

Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog and I’d suggest you check out some of his other posts. The blog is generally about creating personal financial freedom. Enjoy.

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(For background on this issue, see these previous posts: Smart School Siting, Smart School Siting – 2Smart School Siting – 3Smart School Siting – 4, Smart School Siting – 5, Charter School Proximity to Residential Neighborhoods.)

It’s taken me awhile to get to writing this, but the long-playing saga of my opposition to the Sebastopol Charter School’s move to an out-of-town location is finally over. And I lost. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on the matter on Oct. 23rd. After an approximately 4 hour meeting and around 40 public comments the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Use Permit application. So the City of Sebastopol is about to get a new charter school campus outside its Urban Growth Boundary. scs-campuses

I must say I’m not surprised by the outcome. The school has been working on this for years and did a very good job meeting with supervisors beforehand and doing their political homework. And who can say ‘no’ to a school? I always knew it would be an uphill battle for me and to be honest I didn’t always have the time or energy required to really fight this. But when I did, I was surprised about how little support I received in my opposition. Maybe it’s just me and this really is a great idea. I find it hard to believe.

The most support I received came from the Sebastopol City Council. They wrote 3 letters expressing opposition to the project. But to be honest, the letters were less opposition to the project than opposition to the impacts of the project to local traffic. Not one of them said simply, ‘We do not want this school to be located on this site outside of our Urban Growth Boundary.’ They talked about traffic impacts, and concern about safety for kids walking and biking to a location that while located adjacent to a bike/walking trail is not a very walkable location and asked that these things be ‘mitigated’. One council member went with me to meet with the supervisor who represents the district, but not a single city council member attended the hearing. A fact that was not missed on the supervisors. The supervisor with whom we had met noted that if this issue was so important to the city council he would of expected ‘at least one of them’ to show up at the public hearing. I don’t disagree. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.

I tried to solicit support from the Greenbelt Alliance. The Greenbelt Alliance has been working for years to protect open space in the Bay Area and has been a leader in the establishment of Urban Growth Boundaries. But when this school proposal came forward directly outside the UGB, the local representative was told not to get involved. Isn’t this what they are about, protecting the open space outside the UGB? I’m not sure why we go to the trouble if we just sit back and watch auto-oriented projects get built outside the UGB. It seems like a waste of time if the UGB is not used to actually focus urban growth within the boundary. The head of the county planning department said this was a great ‘infill opportunity project’. Really? This is infill development? Outside the edge of town? Am I missing the boat on understanding infill development?

I tried to solicit several other local non-profits to get involved, without luck. Again, probably would not have made a difference. The Board of Supervisors saw a great opportunity for an ‘infill site’. There was some concern expressed by several of the supervisors about hundreds of cars crossing the bike trail on a daily basis (as the applicant pointed out this would only happen the 180 days a year or so that school is in session), but not enough concern to withhold their approval of the project. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition did write a letter and speak out about the crossing of the bike path. But not on the inappropriateness of the site for a school.

We are a completely auto-oriented society and will continue to be if we keep expanding our auto-oriented development patterns. A real opportunity to create a 21st century in town school has been missed. The school feels confident that walking and biking to school will increase at the new location. I hope they are right, but I just cannot imagine it. Look at the image above. While a 1 mile radius from the existing in town school location basically includes the entire town, a 1 mile radius from the proposed location doesn’t even reach half the town. And the pedestrian/biking infrastructure is horrible to that location. Yes, yes, it is located on a bike path, but nearly every child will have to cross a very busy state highway to get there. I just don’t get it. Children will continue to be driven to school for as long  as the school remains open. And we are all the worse off for it.

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Sidewalk and state highway near the location of the proposed school. This environment continues for at least 1/2 mile from the school. As you get further from the school there is more development and curb cuts.

I must say I’m happy that I don’t have to consume brain space for this anymore. It did weigh on me as my daughter had attended the school, and I actually really like the school and the education my daughter received. I do want to see the school succeed. And it was difficult to be on the opposite side of this issue from many friends. But I still truly believe this is a mistake for our community. We can, and must, do better than this.

 

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The end is near. After many years of working with and against the Sebastopol Charter School on a new facility a final decision from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for October 25th for a proposed new campus for the school. I have been encouraging the school to stay in town expand the downtown campus, and share the local facilities available at that location. The other alternative would be to work with the local school district and other charter school to develop a long-term facilities plan for all the students given the fact we have fewer students than we did 20 years ago. There must be empty classroom space somewhere. But the school has relentlessly pursued a location on the edge of town, adjacent to, but outside of, our Urban Growth Boundary.

Existing Schools Plus Proposed Sebastopol Charter School Campus

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

I had an op-ed published yesterday in the local paper. It was co-written by Sebastopol City Council member Patrick Slayter. Here is a link to the op-ed. The primary focus of the op-ed is that Patrick and I, and others, do not believe the county should be approved an auto-centric use like this school campus right outside the City of Sebastopol’s Urban Growth Boundary. If the county approves these kinds of projects, why do we go to the effort of creating Urban Growth Boundaries?

I will say it has been disappointing to try to rally significant opposition to the project. I’m not sure if people are simply afraid to say no to a school for fear of being anti-education or what. Or maybe I’m crazy and this really is a good place for a school. I hope that is not the case.If you’re interested in reading more history, I have 4 other posts about it which you can read here, and here, and here and here. And if you are interested in writing a letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors you can find their email addresses on the county’s website. If you want to attend the meeting it is schedule for October 25 at 2PM. At least a final decision will be made at that time and I won’t have to devote any more time or brain space to this issue. It’s been going on for many years and I am ready to move on. But having said that, if the supervisors do not approve the use permit and the school wants to discuss other options, I would be more than happy to engage them. I believe their is an alternative that can work for everyone. This proposed site only serves the school without consideration of the impacts on the wider community.

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Last week, the local newspaper ran an article about the city of Santa Rosa’s consideration of updating their development fees to spur housing construction.  The article explains how the city has hired an economist to review the city’s fee structure and advise how they can spur housing development to counteract soaring rents and home prices. Housing production has been minimal  and the economist reported that even though rents have been increasing, they are not yet high enough to encourage developers to start new projects. Average rent  in the city is $1.84 per square foot. The economist told the City Council that rents needed to be at least $2.50 per square foot for developers to be able to afford to build projects. The city is hoping to learn if adjusting their various impact fees will encourage new housing development.

The article notes that city impact fees are used to fund various infrastructure projects. Over the past 20 years, the city has collected $230 million in these fees. The projected cost of infrastructure needs over the next 20 years is about $1 billion.

The city is left facing a major dilemma. It needs development to pay for its infrastructure costs, but it also needs to invest in its infrastructure to make the city attractive for economic growth.

  • The Press Democrat

This perfectly plays into the message of Strong Towns. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn describes the development process in the post WWII period as a Ponzi scheme (This is a great summary of the central argument).  Because cities typically fund infrastructure projects with development fees, they need more and more development to pay for the maintenance of their existing infrastructure. Strong Towns argues that what they refer to as the ‘suburban experiment’ is now a primary reason so many cities are finding themselves in financially challenging places. Suburban development patterns generate a small fraction of the revenue, in the form of property, sales and income taxes, necessary to maintain the infrastructure that supports the development (streets, water, sewer etc.). Strong Towns argues that a return to more traditional development patterns of mixed-use, walkable places will provide for more financially resilient communities. Traditional development provides much more revenue when compared on a per acre basis than sprawling suburban development.

Urban3 is an organization that specializes in evaluating development patterns in regards to tax production and infrastructure costs. Their work supports the Strong Towns thesis that traditional mixed-use urban development patterns provide much more revenue than sprawling suburban development when compared on a per acre basis. They have developed a fascinating way to graphically present data that really shows where communities generate most of their revenue. And on the flip side, shows how little the return on investment is for sprawling development patterns.

This article comes at a most opportune moment. I’m part of a committee that is bringing Urban3 and Strong Towns to Sonoma County to complete an analysis of land use and development patterns with a focus on the areas around the SMART train station areas. The SMART train will run from northern Sonoma County into Marin County to the south where it will connect to the ferry terminal at Larkspur for those wishing to continue on to San Francisco. The train is scheduled to start service late 2016. The areas around the train stations need to be developed as high-density mixed-use neighborhoods to provide the ridership needed for the train to be financially successful. So far little, if any development has occurred in the station areas. And some of the projects that have been proposed are facing backlash against the proposed densities. If we don’t develop the areas around the stations correctly, the train is not going to be able to survive on rider fares and will require more subsidies.

It is crucial that we get this right. The data to be provided by the Urban3/Strong Towns team will provide hard data for decision makers to understand the importance of developing the station areas in a manner that will support this expensive piece of infrastructure. But also, how to create more resilient communities overall. At the culmination of their analysis, Urban3 and Strong Towns will conduct a series of public workshops and a ‘Boot Camp’ to explain their results and teach local officials how to use the analysis tools to study the impact of future development proposals. We need to take a long hard look at how we are building and the associated long-term costs. To develop in a manner that will create truly resilient places, we need to fundamentally transform the way we develop and grow our communities.

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I like the way this blog post illustrates what would happen if our traditional downtowns were required to provide parking at today’s zoning code parking ratios. You can understand why we have so much strip commercial development. This is something I struggle with when considering infill development opportunities in Sebastopol. Any new development will essentially be required to provide the parking required by our current zoning code on it’s site. This will not create a good walkable environment. We need to get a handle on downtown parking.

Surrey Parking Standards.

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There is a growing body of evidence that shows how sprawl is bankrupting communities that cannot keep up with the maintenance of all the infrastructure required to serve the sprawl. New infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, electric, gas) is often conditioned on the developer to install, but they have no obligation to maintain it. That responsibility falls on the local jurisdiction. However, the taxes generated by sprawling developments come nowhere close to being able to pay for the maintenance on the infrastructure. The infrastructure put in place to support the past 70 years of sprawl is needing replacement and many cities are finding themselves without the financial resources for that maintenance.

Chuck Marohn, of Strong Towns, discusses this issue at length and travels the country repeating this message. He compares our post WWII method of growth to a Ponzi scheme. We need continued growth to pay for our long-term liabilities which is simply not sustainable. That’s generally how it’s worked over the past 70 years. Cities approve new development, collect development fees and use those fees to maintain the previously installed infrastructure. They need to continually grow to keep up with maintenance demands. When growth slows, so does infrastructure maintenance.

Part of the problem is that the tax revenue generated by sprawling development is not sufficient to maintain the infrastructure that serves it. Chuck wrote an article comparing a traditional pattern of pedestrian-friendly small-town development with a new auto-oriented fast food development. He analyzed the tax base value of each and found that the traditional development pattern, even though it was ‘old and blighted’, was 41% more valuable than the new auto-oriented development. Read the full article here. That article serves as the inspiration for this post. I was also inspired by the work of Joe Minicozzi of Urban 3. At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference session I attended he introduced me to the idea of looking at property taxes on a per acre basis to give an apples to apples comparison of how ‘valuable’ a property is to a community’s coffers. A good summary of his work can be found in this Planetizen article.

So I’ve looked at property tax data from 2013 (available from the Sonoma County Treasurer-Tax Collector website) for 2 types of development found in downtown Sebastopol. The first type is a traditional Main Street development pattern of small lots with buildings built out to the front and side property lines. Most of the buildings along this block are single story structures. The predominant use is retail. There is very little mixed use. I compared the amount of property tax generated by these ‘traditional’ properties to three ‘sprawl’ type developments adjacent to the traditional development (yes, 3 sprawl shopping center type developments right on Main St!). The first of these two properties contains a Rite Aid. I think this store was constructed in the 1960’s. It’s a single store sitting at the back of the lot with a parking lot fronting Main Street. The second property was developed more recently (1980’s?) and contains a Safeway, again sitting at the back of the lot behind a large parking lot fronting Main Street. The third is the Whole Foods shopping center which I also believe was built in the 1960’s.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Downtown Sebastopol showing properties compared in this post.

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings

Block of Main Street with traditional development, although not much mixed-use and mostly single-story buildings. This block generates $45,059.08 per acre in property taxes.

The traditional block contains 12 properties fronting Main Street with lot sizes varying from 0.05 acres to 0.36 acres. These 12 properties generated $91,920.53 in property taxes in 2013. The total acreage of the 12 lots is 2.04 acres. In contrast, the Rite Aid property generated $29,531.62 in property taxes and is 1.35 acres. The Safeway property (actually 2 separate parcels) generated $65,199.17 in property taxes and is 3.64 acres in total. Whole Foods’ shopping center generate $44,042.60 and is 1.64 acres. Safeway looks like it generates a good deal of money for a single business, but when you look at it on a per acre basis the picture is quite different.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Rite Aid which generates $21,875.27 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Safeway generates 17,911.86 per acre in property taxes.

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building

Whole Foods center generated $26,823.10 per acre in 2013. This property is directly across the street from the Basso Building (below)

The traditional block of Main Street generated $45,059.08/acre in property taxes in 2013. Rite Aid generated less than half that at $21,875.27/acre and Safeway generated even less per acre – $17,911.86/acre. Whole Foods center generated a little more than half the traditional block at $26,823.10/acre. Better than Rite Aid and Safeway. (Part of the reason for the higher per/acre value of this shopping center can be attributed to it’s much lower ratio of parking than Rite Aid or Safeway as anyone that tries to parking in this lot can attest.) I’d like reiterate that the traditional Main Street block is a very low density development with mostly older 1-story buildings and little mix of uses. The newest building on the block, which was built roughly 11 years ago, is a 2-story building sitting on 0.36 acres. It generated $42,775.17 in property taxes in 2013 for a per acre rate of $118,819.92!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

The Basso Building on Main Street generated $118,819.92 per acre in property taxes, a whopping 6.6 times more than Safeway!

This higher density (and it’s only a 2-story building) generates 6.6 times the property tax per acre than Safeway! Imagine if the whole block were developed to this value. Why would a city allow a Safeway-type development? We certainly need places to buy groceries and I have nothing against Safeway per se, but what if it were part of a mixed-use development? What if Safeway had offices or residences above it? What if the building was up at the sidewalk, with structured parking behind? It would generate a great deal more in property tax revenue than in its current sprawling configuration. So in addition to contributing a fraction of the property taxes of more traditional development Safeway and Rite Aid properties completely kill the pedestrian-oriented function of the Main Street block to the south.

The City of Sebastopol will be conducting a public meeting to get input on ideas for the development of a prime 2+ acre property in the heart of downtown. The property is privately owned, but the owner is interested in selling and is open to hear what ideas the community has for it’s future. It will be important to keep the value of a new development in mind when considering what to build there. It is obvious to me from this analysis that it is imperative that this parcel should be developed as a mixed-use multi-story project. It will be crucial to get this right. We cannot afford to approve a single-story, single-use structure on this property. It was never discussed in this manner, but it is another argument against the proposed CVS/Chase project located a block away.

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 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 was an easy analysis to complete and I’d encourage others to do the same in their communities. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much better traditional urban development patterns contribute to a communities tax base. And it’s a conversation that is long overdue.

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The word density tends to elicit a strong, generally negative, response from many people. The mere mention of the word brings out opponents to a proposed development project, en masse.  Particularly in a small town like Sebastopol, density seems to conjure images of overcrowded tenement-like living conditions, faceless apartment tower blocks, crime, congestion, and pollution. Some people live in small towns like Sebastopol to avoid what they perceive as the ills of living in higher-density cities. However, there are many examples of higher density neighborhoods that are lovely places to be and quality walkable environments depend on some level of higher density to be successful. San Francisco is one of the most sought after places to live in the country. There may be many reasons for this but one certainly has to be because it is such a walkable city. Even with all those hills it’s a great place to walk. The numerous commercial neighborhoods thrive because of the number of people living within walking distance. Small town commercial districts also need people to survive and a certain amount of density is necessary. It is obvious, however, that all density is not created equal and we need to support the development of ‘good’ density if we want our towns to thrive without being choked with traffic.

Density is a metric that is used in zoning codes to describe the number of dwelling units per acre allowed in a given land use category. Unfortunately density as a measure of dwelling units per acre or people per acre is a sterile metric. It says nothing about the experiential nature of a neighborhood which is critical in understanding whether the allowed density will help create a walkable environment. A 3-story development of 30 units/acre with well-detailed architecture, front stoops along a generously wide sidewalk with street trees and quality street furniture can feel much less dense than a bland 20 story apartment building surrounded by open space and parking built to the same ‘density’. Simply building a 30 acre/unit apartment building without considering how it will contribute to the pedestrian environment will not in itself create the desired outcome. The pedestrian realm must be considered. Sidewalk width, landscaping, street design, building architecture all impact how the building will connect to the larger neighborhood. There are many examples of both good and bad density. The Lincoln Institute has a great section of it’s website and has published a book Visualizing Density devoted to understanding the many faces of density.

A successful walkable urban environment depends on a mix of uses and people frequenting those uses. It has shops, restaurants and business open throughout the day. It has an interesting streetscape with good landscaping, seating and dynamic shop windows. A good walkable urban environment creates opportunities for spontaneous social interaction. This happens often in a small town. I almost always run into someone I know when I walk downtown. It has been shown that places where these spontaneous meetings occur are more creative and productive. They also serve to strengthen community connections.

Opposing density for the sake of opposing density will limit our ability to create a successful walkable environment. I think it’s safe to say most residents of Sebastopol want a thriving Main Street. But for Main Street businesses to thrive, they need customers. Most of the existing older residential neighborhoods around downtown are in the 4-8 units/acre density range. This is not very dense. There are also very few mixed-use buildings downtown that contain residential units. (In regards to actual ‘downtown’ housing I think there might be 3 buildings with at least 1 residential unit on the second floor. I’m sure there are no more than 10 second floor units downtown.) With the addition of The Barlow we now have more retail and restaurant destinations downtown, which is exciting, but I am concerned that we lack the amount of residential density necessary for these businesses to thrive (as discussed in a previous post, the 12 acre development does not include any residential units – a huge missed opportunity). With the limited number of people living within walking distance of downtown, many people patronizing downtown businesses have no other option but to drive. This is what creates congestion downtown.

By increasing the number of people living downtown we can reduce traffic congestion as those people will be able to walk to their destinations and leave the car at home. Unfortunately there are a limited number of sites available downtown that could be developed with a mix of residential units. The city should be doing all it can to support the development of housing on these remaining parcels. There is a 2.5 acre parcel across the street from the town plaza that is ripe for a mixed-use development that includes housing. The city council recently approved formation of a committee to evaluate the future development potential of the site. This will hopefully lead to the successful marketing of the property to a developer who will include housing as part of the eventual program.

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

The Sebastopol Northeast Area Specific Plan had proposed 300 new residential units in a 20 acre area (or 15 units/acre) adjacent to our existing downtown. (The 12 acre Barlow development was a significant part of the plan area). This is a medium range density and something that was completely achievable. But the proposed density was a rallying cry for people opposed to the plan – and a significant reason for the failure of the adoption of the plan. Opponents painted a picture of a crowded congested city and implied that the proposed number of units would be developed overnight inciting fear in the community for those slow to accept change. What was muddled in the discussion was although the specific plan would have allowed for the development of that total number of units, it did not require it. The current zoning designation for the downtown core zoning designation ( which encompasses most of the downtown care) allows residential units to be built when part of a mixed use project at the density of 1 unit/1,000 sf of lot area. This is an effective density of 45 units/acre. (By contrast, Sebastopol’s high density residential zoning district allows for half that density.)  This is a fairly high density for a small town like Sebastopol and would be allowed by right under the current zoning. The failure of the Northeast Area Specific Plan dealt a real blow to the creation of more housing downtown.

We need to learn to describe housing projects by a means other than density. We need to explain the real benefits to the public realm that will occur when we provide more people living within walking distance of working, shopping, transit and recreation. A project is more than it’s density. A great pedestrian environment is about the qualitative experience, not the quantitative which is a limitation of the word ‘density.’ Density downtown needs to be understood in a qualitative manner and not dismissed because of the negative associations it triggers for some. Walter Chambers writes in the Voice of San Diego that instead of talking about density in the units/acre way we should discuss it in terms of social exchanges per acre. I like this idea, because more density does allow for more social interactions which are an important aspect of a great place. If anyone has other ways to describe density I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

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