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Posts Tagged ‘urban design’

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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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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One of the topics at our General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) meeting this week was ‘Community Character.’ It was an interesting conversation and it made me think about the form of the public spaces in Sebastopol and how they may be improved. People often describe Sebastopol as ‘quirky.’ I don’t know that that adjective is meant to describe the physical form of the community. There are a variety of building types and styles that I suppose could be described as quirky, but so do many other places. I think when people describe Sebastopol as quirky, it has more to do with the characters in our community than the character seen in the physical make-up of the town itself.

The physical character of Sebastopol is largely defined by the state highways that bisect the town. As in most of America the car has come to dominate the public realm. In the 50’s 60’s, and continuing into the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s commercial development began it’s sprawl toward the edges of town. In the 80’s the north-south state highway was converted into a pair of one-way streets through downtown. This has done much to define the character of downtown, and not in a good way.

All of the primary gateways to town are lined with auto-oriented sprawl.

East Entry - SR 12

East Entry – SR 12

South Entry - SR 116

South Entry – SR 116

No sign - but this is the north edge of town.

No sign – but this is the north edge of town.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

This strip mall is near the northern edge of town on Gravenstein Hwy North.

There has been a focus in the last 20 years on improving the downtown character in Sebastopol. A new town plaza has been created on the site of a former parking lot, utility lines have been relocated underground, some streetscape improvements have been undertaken and the city has offered facade improvement grants to downtown businesses which has resulted in some much-needed makeovers. A couple of new buildings and remodels have improved the character of downtown, most significantly in The Barlow.

Downtown Plaza

Downtown Plaza

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

McKinley Street in The Barlow

McKinley Street in The Barlow

A lot more work needs to be done at the gateway entrances to town, particularly from the north and south. While these areas are car-oriented in their physical form, they are close to residential neighborhoods and have many resident-serving businesses. During our conversation at the GPAC meeting this week I realized that most, if not all, residents of Sebastopol are within walking distance of a major grocery store. The south end of town has Fircrest; center of town has Whole Foods, Community Market and Safeway; and the north end of town has Pacific Market and Lucky. I think that’s remarkable given a population around 7,400!

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

Circles represent 1/2 mile radius from the 6 grocery stores in town. Pretty much everyone in town is within walking distance of a grocery store, except maybe the SW corner.

What we need to do is strengthen the links between the residential neighborhoods and these commercial nodes to encourage people to leave their cars at home and walk to these services. And we need strengthen the links between the nodes for pedestrians. That largely involve making route 116 more pedestrian friendly.

Sidewalks would be a good start. The sidewalks on the east side of Gravenstein Highway South are spotty. You have to walk on the shoulder of the road in some locations. I’m a dedicated walker so I’ll do it. But I’m sure it discourages many people. The city needs to prioritize connecting the sidewalks to support these businesses.The east side of Gravenstein Highway North also has stretches of missing sidewalks.

One of the stretches of 'missing' sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

One of the stretches of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

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Another section of ‘missing’ sidewalk on Gravenstein Hwy South

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

There is a sidewalk here, but would you want to walk on it?

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Sidewalk on west side of Gravenstein Hwy South.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it's still not a great place to walk.

Gravenstein Hwy North, the trees help, but it’s still not a great place to walk.

While the west side has a sidewalk it’s not a great walking experience at either the north or south ends of town. The sidewalk is adjacent to the curb and there is no parallel parking so traffic whizzes by at 35 mph or faster. You feel out of place as a pedestrian. The road is a reasonable 3 lanes (1 northbound, 1 southbound and a center turn lane) except a couple of stretches at Gravenstein Highway North, but you feel like you are walking along a highway. A similar experience may be found at the north end of town. Although a large extent of the frontage of the west side of the road is taken up by strip commercial shopping centers which makes it even less pedestrian friendly since the frontage is all parking.

More frequent pedestrian crossings would help. The city has recently installed two ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks on Gravenstein Hwy South. They are about 740′ apart.

Gravenstein Hwy South - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy South – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

There is a street intersection about halfway between them which would be a great opportunity for another crosswalk. The next crosswalk to the south is about 760′ and is at a traffic light. Again, there is an intersecting street about halfway between, another opportunity for a crosswalk and a more reasonable distance between crossings. The next crossing to the north is about 1,200 feet. There is an opportunity for a crossing about 400′ north, but then it’s tricky due to the geometry of the streets where they turn into the one-way streets. If/when the streets are converted back to 2-way, this would be a great location for a roundabout. A roundabout would also make it easier for a pedestrian crossing at this location.

Good place for a roundabout

Good place for a roundabout

North of downtown, Healdsburg Ave. has several ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crossings, but from the crossing at Murphy Street, the next crossing to the north is about 2,300′. There could be a crosswalk at Lyding lane, 300′ from Murhpy, but then you get to the awkward intersection of Covert and Healdsburg Ave. A roundabout has been mentioned in the past for this intersection as well which could accommodate a better pedestrian crossing.

Gravenstein Hwy North - existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Gravenstein Hwy North – existing crosswalks are shown in yellow, proposed in red

Parallel parking would make it more comfortable to be a pedestrian. You feel a measure of protection from moving traffic when you have cars parked between you and the travel lane. And parallel parking does serve to slow traffic as you have to be more alert to cars’ parking maneuvers. New developments on North and South Gravenstein Highway have been required to install parallel parking. I don’t know if the width of the right-of-way is enough to accommodate parking lanes on both sides at all locations, but where possible it would help.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

This is the site of a proposed mixed-use project. The adjacent residential development was required to improve the frontage with a sidewalk, street trees, parallel parking and even enough room for a bike lane. The proposed project is 2-stories and will be located at the back of sidewalk.

Street trees would also improve the pedestrian experience. Many of the existing curb-adjacent sidewalk on the west side are probably too narrow to allow for street trees in the sidewalk. But maybe the private property owners could be encouraged to plant trees behind the sidewalk. Maybe the city could donate the trees, or provide them at cost to interested residents/businesses. New developments have been including street trees in addition to the parallel parking and should be required to do so in any future development/redevelopment.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

Strip shopping center on Healdsburg Ave. Not a positive contribution to the community character.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

A couple new projects and a renovation are creating a better restaurant/commercial hub on Healdsburg Ave. about a block away from the strip development above.

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Healdsburg Ave, where the sidewalk ends.

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Gravenstein Hwy North, where the sidewalk ends on the east side.

Even with the crosswalks, you still have a problem with traffic speed. South Main Street and Healdsburg Ave. have several of the ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ pedestrian crossings, but traffic tends to travel faster than the posted speed limit along both stretches. These crosswalks do not eliminate all conflicts between pedestrians and cars (several pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks, one man unfortunately died last year after being hit in a crosswalk across Healdsburg Ave.) but they generally make drivers more aware of pedestrians than if there were not crosswalks. In a previous post I discussed the concept of raised intersections which would serve to slow traffic. Another option would be to install stop signs. Traffic from side streets does probably not meet whatever Caltrans’ standard would be for the installation of stop signs, but installing stop signs at every block or 2 would definitely slow things down. And it certainly is not without precedent to have a stop sign at every intersection in an urban area. Drivers may not like to have to stop so often, or have to slow over a raised intersection, but who cares. We need to decide if our public right-of-way is to be designed to benefit people or cars. This is a key decision that will effect the overall character of the community. So far we have been prioritizing the car at the expense of our community’s physical character. I argue that to improve our character we should favor the pedestrian at the expense of the car. The added benefit is that when people feel more comfortable walking, they will, which will in turn reduce traffic.

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

Not an easy crossing for pedestrians. Another possible roundabout location?

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized a very easy low-cost first step would be to rename the north and south stretches of 116 as they enter town. At the south end of the we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY South and at the north end of town we have Gravenstein HIGHWAY North (The gravenstein is a type of apple that is produced locally, although there are not as many apple orchards as there once were. Trader Joe’s does sell gravenstein apple sauce). Maybe we could start by renaming both roads to eliminate the word HIGHWAY. This may start the transformation of how we view these roads and their function differently in our community. It’s sometimes amazing how the smallest gestures can trigger a tidal wave of change. Maybe we start with changing the names to Gravenstein Avenue North and Gravenstein Avenue South. I feel better about them already.

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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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I am a member of the Sebastopol General Plan Advisory Committee. Circulation was the topic of our meeting last month. It was a robust conversation for 3.5 hours, and we still managed to omit large topics, like transit. But it gave me another opportunity to look at circulation issues in Sebastopol. And while there is plenty to talk about, I’d like to discuss traffic calming today.

Two state highways intersect in the middle of Sebastopol. Highway 12 actually starts in the center of downtown and travels east. Highway 116 travels north/south and is Main Street in the center of downtown. North of downtown 116 is known as Healdsburg Avenue and is the primary route to the north. South of downtown it is South Main Street and is one-way in the southbound direction. Posted speed limits are 25 mph on Main Street downtown and 30 mph on both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street about 4 blocks south of downtown. In my observation, and based on comments from many other committee members, traffic speeds are often exceeded along most of the length 116 and the result is that these streets do not feel like safe places to walk or bike. There are several reasons for this.

Sebastopol Aerial

Sebastopol Aerial

Both Healdsburg Avenue and South Main Street are very straight (actually Healdsburg Ave. has a couple slight bends as you can see in the photos, but given it’s width and the slope you can see along it’s entire length). People have a tendency to drive faster on straight streets because you can see far ahead. Streets with bends tend to slow drivers down as you can’t see what’s around the next corner and you need to be prepared for the unexpected. This is evident on the segment of 116 that serves as the one-way northbound approach to downtown. The street is Petaluma Avenue and it has several bends and changes in elevation. Traffic definitely drives slower on this street than on Main Street which is just a block away and is one-way in the southbound direction.

In addition to being very straight, Healdsburg Avenue also slopes down most of it’s length heading towards downtown which encourages cars to speed up as they are heading into downtown.

Healdsburg Ave. is configured with a center turn lane, single travel lane in each direction and parallel parking on each side (parallel parking is omitted at some locations). The curb to curb width varies from 52′ to 54.5. Travel lane widths vary from 12′ (which I believe is the Caltrans minimum) to 20′ (yes, 20′!) at the east end where there is no parallel parking. Most of the driving lane width is in the 12′-14′ range.

Crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. It would be nice if the white line was indicating a bike lane, but it's not. Not sure why it's there

Healdsburg Ave. at intersection with Main St., looking west

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Crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. It would be nice if the white line was indicating a bike lane, but it’s not. Not sure why it’s there

Healdsburg Ave., near the top looking east

Healdsburg Ave., near the top looking east

The configuration of S. Main starts as 3 lanes all in the southbound direction at Bodega Ave., but one lane is dropped after a block so the bulk is 2 lanes. Where 3 lanes, the lane configuration is 13′, 12.5′, 13′ with 8′ parking lanes for a total width of 54.5′. Where it goes to 2 lanes each lane is 17′ wide with 8′ parking lanes (curb to curb 50′).

Looking South on Main Street - How fast would you want to drive here?

Looking South on Main Street – How fast would you want to drive here? The speed limit is posted 25 mph here and changes to 30 mph a block south of this location. Driving lanes are 17′ wide.

The lane widths of both Healdsbug Ave. and S. Main allow for much faster driving than the posted speed limit. While I don’t have a radar gun it is obvious as a pedestrian walking these stretches that vehicles are traveling over the speed limit. It’s also obvious when driving. I’m very aware of the speed limit and the environment and have to be extremely alert when driving these streets so as not to speed. And it is also obvious to the police department who have several spots they like to park to catch speeders. The police department also uses those portable speed detectors that display your speed. (You know a street is designed for a speed far greater than it’s posted speed limit when they have to pull these out.)

Speed Detector - not being used today

Speed Detector – not being used today

Both street segments have been the recipient of ‘Street Smart Sebastopol’ crosswalks which typically include bulb-outs, pedestrian crossing signs, flashing lights and sometimes include in-roadway lights and colored crosswalks (although the green color of the crosswalks does not differ much in value from the regular asphalt). While I believe these have helped in making drivers more aware that they are in an environment shared with pedestrians, it’s really not enough to keep speeds low.

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

Street Smart Sebastopol crossing of Main Street and Calder

Main Street crosswalk at Willow

Main Street crosswalk at Willow

One idea for slowing traffic I believe deserves to be explored, would be to create a raised intersections between Healdsburg Avenue and Main Street and their respective side streets (See the National Association for City Transportation Officials guidelines for raised intersections here). The street would be ramped up at intersections ahead of the crosswalk, to the sidewalk level. The raised section is continued to the opposite side of the intersection. This allows pedestrians to cross without a curb ramp and encourages drivers to slow down as they travel over the raised intersection. Raised intersections are often constructed of pavers or stamped and/or colored concrete/asphalt to bring attention to themselves. This type of installation prioritizes the pedestrian over the car which is rare in our urban places. It may be a bit much to include at each intersection with Healdsburg Ave. or Main St., but even a couple on each length of street would limit a driver’s ability to speed up much in between raised intersections, keeping vehicle speeds lower and safer for everyone.

When the lanes are wide and streets are straight drivers are more likely to engage in other distracting behaviors (like texting) and take their minds off the activity at hand which is driving a car. By introducing an unexpected piece of infrastructure like a raised intersection you cause drivers to pay more attention to their environment, they can’t just go into autopilot mode on the wide straight street.

To be honest, I’ve never seen a raised intersection used on a busy main street like I’m proposing, but I think they would definitely serve to keep speeds in check. If would be great to see some examples. (If anyone has any please forward to paul@fritzarchitecture.com.)

It has been shown that pedestrian fatalities are much reduced when cars are traveling at 25 mph or less. The design of Healdsburg Ave. and Main St. allow for much higher travel speeds, and have been the sites of bad collisions between pedestrians and cars (there was 1 fatality at a crosswalk on Healdsburg Ave. earlier this year). We’ve been prioritizing cars in the design of our streets for a long time now. We need to recognize the importance of pedestrians and other non-motorized street users in street design and raised intersections is one way to do that while at the same time reducing traffic speeds and hopefully accidents between cars and people.

 

 

 

 

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This is an interesting blog post that discusses good and bad density. Many people, particularly in small towns like where I live, are very resistant when you mention density. But when advocating density in a town like Sebastopol, I’m not talking about skyscrapers or even multi-family type buildings. Single-family neighborhoods can be dense as discussed in the post. And can create walkable, human-scaled places.

Building Dense Does Not Have To Be Dense.

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

 

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day 2014

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

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

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

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

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day at West County Cycle Services

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