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Posts Tagged ‘Urban Vitality’

The Core Project and the City of Sebastopol are sponsoring The Parklet Project, tomorrow, Saturday, April 29th. The Core Project has been working to bring parklets to Sebastopol and was instrumental in getting the city to adopt an ordinance to allow their development. We have participated in PARK(ing) day several times and sponsored a lecture by Robin Abad Ocubillo from San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program to introduce the community to the idea and the benefits parklets have shown to have in San Francisco.

For those not familiar with parklets, the idea is simply to convert a street parking space to a space for people. Parklets provide for an expansion of the sidewalk for places to stop, rest and relax. It is one way to reclaim part of the public realm for people.

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Sebastopol PARK(ing) Day park on Main Street

The Parklet Project will consist of 3 parklets on Main Street and the creation of a plaza from a strange underutilized section of street for one day. The 3 Main Street parklets will be at The Gypsy Cafe/Sebastopol Cookie Company, Retrograde Coffee Roasters and West County Cycle Services. The blocked street is in front of Screamin’ Mimi’s ice cream shop, Glass Fusion and Pottery Too, and Thrive Yoga.

downtown parklets

The Parklet Project Locations

As downtown Sebastopol sits at the intersection of two state highways we applied for and received a Caltrans encroachment permit for the event. We’re hoping that this project will show the community the benefits of parklets and in improving the pedestrian realm which is dominated by cars. And we hope that it makes it easier to get an encroachment for a more permanent parklet from Caltrans in the future.

So if you are anywhere near Sebastopol, come by and check out the parklets tomorrow. Sit, relax, converse, support our local businesses and imagine a more people-friendly downtown Sebastopol.

parklet barrier4

Standardized Parklet Project Design

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The Parklet Project Apple Blossom Festival Parade Entry, April 22, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smog Check property

Smog Check lot

Smog check lot

Smog check lot

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

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

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I was asked recently to suggest ways to provide vitality in a small town downtown in the evening, after the shops close. It’s a great question and one in which many small towns struggle with. People are out and about downtown during the day and on weekends in particular, but after the shops close at 6:00 things get pretty quiet. Most of the businesses in downtown Sebastopol are retail in nature. We have a decent number and variety of restaurants downtown, particularly for a town its size. But these alone are not enough to create a vibrant downtown scene in the evening. A downtown needs entertainment and social venues to keep it active. It also benefits greatly from people living nearby.

I think one place that helps keep Sebastopol even a little vibrant in the evenings is the movie theater. The movie theater is located in a building that was formerly a distillery (I don’t know when the conversion was made, but it’s probably been at least 20 years). It’s a great re-use of an existing building located in the heart of downtown Sebastopol. It currently operates as the Rialto Cinema which relocated from Santa Rosa about 3 years ago. It shows a combination of independent, foreign, documentary and mainstream films. They also broadcast Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre Live events and screen other special events including a live screening party for the Oscars and the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. It’s a great resource for a small community and a great fit for Sebastopol.

The problem with the theater is the way the physical building fits into the community. I realize they were working with an existing building, and maybe I don’t understand all of the limitations. But physically, it turns it’s back to the town. The aerial photo shows the location of the theater in relation to downtown. Sebastopol downtown aerial with barlow-042013As you can see, it is kitty-corner from the town plaza. Almost all of the residential neighborhoods in Sebastopol are located to the west (left) in the aerial photo. So people approaching the theater will be coming from the direction of the plaza.

View of Rialto Cinema from the plaza

View of Rialto Cinema from the plaza. The logo at the top of the sign announces ‘Rialto Cinema’ but that’s all that identifies this building as a movie theater.

The small park on the corner, which is city-owned property, has a sidewalk that connects visually with the plaza, if you know what you are looking for.

Sidewalk that points  to the plaza across the street.

Sidewalk that points to the plaza behind me across the street.

And it does lead you to the lobby. But the actual entry to the theater is on the opposite side of the building, facing the parking lot.

Entry to lobby, across the parking lot.

Entry to lobby, across the parking lot.

Once again, we expect, encourage, and reward people who drive while making pedestrians search for the entry to the building.

The theater lobby is currently being remodeled, but the entry will still not at all be obvious on approach to the building. To be honest, I lived in Sebastopol at least 3, and maybe as long as 6 months, before I even knew where the movie theater was. I would hear people talk about the movie theater but for the life of me couldn’t figure out where it was. Look at the location of, I guess you would call it a marquee? You really cannot see it unless you are across the street from it. This is not a location many people would find themselves.

Cannot see this 'marquee' from just about anywhere.

Cannot see this ‘marquee’ from just about anywhere.

An entrance on the west side would make this building feel much more a part of the community. People leaving the theater after a film would be directed toward Main Street to maybe grab a bite to eat or have a drink. As it is now, you are sent back to your car and on your way back home. Or if you go out to dinner after, you are encouraged to get in your car and drive. Doesn’t bode well to encourage you to park once and walk when downtown.

The theater also now serves as a critical link between The Barlow and Main Street. On that score it is particularly not successful. This is the frontage on McKinley Street which leads to The Barlow behind me.IMG_20150410_110025068 While The Barlow and Main Street are about a 3 minute walk apart, this wall and the largely vacant site across the street make it feel much farther. To be fair, this is a new arrangement. When the building was converted to a theater, the area which is now known as The Barlow was warehouses and light industry and there was no reason to walk down McKinley Street which was a dead end. But thinking of how this frontage could be at least a bit more interesting is crucial to linking Main Street and The Barlow, along with the redevelopment of the property on the opposite side of the street, which doesn’t even have a sidewalk.

It would also be great if the theater could do something to announce it’s presence. I realize it’s too late to relocate the lobby to the west end of the building. But new signage, including a real marquee that reaches toward the plaza, would be great to let people who are just visiting, or even new arrivals to Sebastopol, that we have a great movie theater in town. I don’t know that it would increase the vitality of downtown, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

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