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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.