As an architect, I have witnessed many occasions where the design review process has taken a good design and made it mediocre.  Why is this?  Isn’t the point of design review to make better buildings?  Or at least prevent really bad buildings from being built.  But it often does neither.  Much of what gets built is mediocre and some is just plain bad.  There are some examples of great design here and there, but by and large we live in a mediocre built environment.  Is this because it’s all we expect?  Since our daily experience of great architecture is limited, maybe people don’t understand what good architecture is and we get mired in this endless mediocrity.  I don’t know.  Maybe this is a subject for another post.

But the reason I ask the question is that the proposed Sebastopol CVS/Chase development was back before the Sebastopol Design Review Board recently.  The DRB had denied the project’s previous design.  The developer appealed the DRB decision to the City Council.  The City Council denied the appeal and the developer went back to the drawing board (instead of just going away as many hoped).

The primary problem with the design of the project starts with its conception.  It’s just a completely inappropriate building typology for its site.  The 2.45 acre site sits at one of the most prominent intersections in town.  A true ‘gateway’ property, and one of the last remaining parcels of its size in the downtown area.  The proposal is for 2 stand-alone buildings; a CVS Pharmacy, and a Chase bank.  Total building area is around 20,000 which is an FAR (floor area ratio) of 0.18.  Most of the remainder of the site is a parking lot, and driveways for the pharmacy and ATM drive-throughs.  It completely wastes valuable land in our urban core.  Given the proposed uses (including the drive-throughs) and limited building area, the site plan really has no chance to be good.

CVS/Chase Site Plan – May 2012

If the site design has no chance to be good should the project be approved by the design review board at all?  If the design review board has jurisdiction over project design, including the site design, then they should be able to deny the project on the basis of a poor site design.  The DRB has been asking for site plan changes from the very beginning.  Some small gestures have been made, but the overall general layout has not changed at all.

To be fair, the project has evolved some from the very first DRB hearing, particularly the building plan.  The original design was a generic corporate CVS you have seen all over the country.  The site plan included a drive-through window on the corner with drive lanes wrapping around the building.  The entrance faced away from the street toward the parking lot.  The loading area was adjacent to the sidewalk.

Sebastopol CVS/Chase Site Plan – April 2011

Sebastopol CVS, April 2011

Sebastopol Chase, April 2011

(Looking at these the design has come a long way, but I can’t believe these were even proposed – an obvious non-starter if you know anything about Sebastopol.)

However, let’s assume, for the sake of this blog post, the design review board does not deny the project based on the bad site design.  We’ll assume the site can be made as good as it can be given the program and focus on the architecture.  At least maybe the architecture could be interesting.  Right?

Some improvements have been made to the project from a site and building design standpoint in the latest revision.  A big improvement in the architecture is that the design now includes clear glazing that actually allows you to see into the store along the entirety of Petaluma Ave. and for 2 bays (of 5) along Sebastopol Road.  The plaza, previously located between the CVS and the street, has been relocated between the two buildings.  It’s a better location and has more chance of actually being used, although it could still be bigger.  The parking stalls facing the street were also eliminated which is an improvement.  The site is still overparked but the elimination of parking spaces is good.

Ignoring the fact the development is completely auto-centric in its conception and is a waste of a valuable infill property, there are still many problems with the design.

1 – There is still a driveway from Petaluma Ave.  The driveway has been reduced to an in-only driveway but the mid-block driveway creates an unnecessary conflict point between cars and pedestrians.  The driveway used to be an in-out, so this is better, but still a problem.  Abbott Street is approximately 60′ to the south and could provide satisfactory access to the site from the south.  I don’t buy the argument that this driveway is required for emergency access.  First, given the location of the fire station and the one-way street system downtown, a fire truck would in all likelihood use the driveway from Sebastopol Rd.  Second, even if they did require access from Petaluma Ave. they could use the street just like all the other buildings in urban areas that are not surrounded by parking lots.

2 – The project still has a drive-through pharmacy window and a drive-through ATM.  Any kind of drive-through is a completely inappropriate use downtown.  And although Sebastopol does have a prohibition against drive-through windows it only applies to fast food restaurants.  The zoning code should be amended to prohibit any kind of drive-through downtown, immediately.

3 – The CVS doors faced the sidewalk in the previous design.  Now, even with all the DRB comments about the importance of the building addressing the sidewalk, the doors are now facing the parking lot(?!?).  The doors could easily face the sidewalk and they should be changed.
4 – The biggest problem with the redesign is the architecture itself.  The previous design at least had interesting architecture.  The location of the site is at the edge of a light-industrial district downtown.  There are many existing buildings, old and new, with metal siding and roofs, concrete, concrete block, wood and glass.  Many of them are simple, boxy forms with detailing reflecting the agricultural heritage of the area.  The previous design really addressed this context in a contemporary way.  It used concrete block, metal siding, steel and glass awnings, horizontal wood siding and glass in an clean, honest manner.

CVS Elevations – January 2012

Chase Elevations – January 2012

What the developer came back with is completely out of character with Sebastopol.  It looks like a generic CVS attempting to be contextual in a small downtown dominated by late 19th century brick mercantile buildings.  First off, other than glass windows and steel awnings, and a short concrete base, the only other material is brick.  I cannot imagine where the inspiration for this comes from.  We do not have a tradition of brick architecture in Sebastopol.  Not to say there is no brick, but it’s not a common material here.  And this proposed building is covered in it!  Don’t get me wrong, I love brick.  I grew up in the Midwest and there was a lot of it and in some ways I miss it.  But brick in Sebastopol looks completely out of place.

CVS Elevations – May 2012

Chase Elevations – May 2012

The applicant states they are addressing comments to make the building fit better with the early 20th century architecture of Main Street.  I admit, a common criticism made at previous hearings was that the project should look more like the buildings on Main St.  As a design professional, this kind of comment makes me cringe.  Why do people look to replicate the past in our contemporary buildings?  Is it a nostalgia for fonder times?  A lack of creativity?  It is also one thing to reference a historical precedent in a contemporary design and another to try to mimic it.

The reason contemporary buildings which try to look like buildings of another period generally don’t work is because we don’t build in the same manner.  If this were to be a ‘real’ brick building it might be better, but it’s a brick veneer, and it won’t look good when it’s finished.  At best it will have a Disneyland quality to it, at worst, it will just look silly.  The materials and detailing of the previous design were much more authentic and of our time.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Whether this is seen as a ‘transitional’ site between the industrial east side of downtown and Main Street, or more a part of Main Street this design fits in with neither.

It’s unfortunate, because we had a poorly conceived project and bad site design with interesting architecture.  Now what we are left with, and what will probably be approved is a poorly conceived project, bad site design and boring architecture.  As an architect, I wish the design review process resulted in improving a project.  But this is just often not the case.  The CVS/Chase proposal is a perfect example of the process gone awry.