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.
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.