Auto-oriented development has been the scourge of cities across the country for the past 75 years or so. Since World War II, the primary development pattern has been one that has embraced the automobile. From wide roads with limited pedestrian infrastructure, to strip malls, our landscape is littered with development catering to people in cars. Downtown Sebastopol bears the scars of this type of development. The core of Main Street, from McKinley to Burnett street was developed in the pre-auto era. The buildings are built to the back of the sidewalk and fill their lots from property line to property line. These two blocks of Main Street were clearly developed before widespread automobile use.
North of McKinley and south of Burnett, this pattern breaks down quickly. The Whole Foods shopping center, Rite Aid and Safeway are typical of the type of development more common on multi-lane arterial roads, but there they are, right downtown. Miller Oil Company which does smog testing, on the site of a former gas station, marks the abrupt deterioration of the pre-auto development pattern. Rite Aid does it no favors as does Safeway on the next block to the north, each block with a successively larger parking lot. The Burnett Street parking lot brings the pedestrian environment to an end past Burnett on the east side of Main Street, while the west side of Main Street still offers a good pedestrian environment, until you get to El Favorito/Golden Gears Automotive/Hippizzazz. It’s hard to know how to even walk across this frontage as a pedestrian with the parking lot and bus stop breaking the flow of the sidewalk. Most of these developments were built years ago, at the height of our embrace of auto-oriented development. But we know better today, right?
Recent years have brought a renewed interest in our downtowns. People are seeing that downtowns can bring vitality to a community. Downtowns are places where we can shop, dine, drink, have chance encounters with friends and conduct business. But there is an inherent conflict between people and cars in downtown Sebastopol, where Main Street is also State Highway 116. Main Street feels like it has been designed to move cars through town as quickly as possible, at the expense of pedestrians. There have been some people-oriented improvements in recent years like a bike lane and bulb outs with flashing pedestrian crossing lights at select intersections. And there has generally been a lot of interest in improving Downtown Sebastopol, but the baby steps towards improving the environment for people have been running counter to larger recent development decisions which further cement downtown Sebastopol’s car-centric orientation.
Some of the recent decisions made by our community leaders have kept us in the auto-oriented development mode that has been the undoing of many once vibrant communities across the country. The most recent bad decision made by the Sebastopol City Council was to approve a variance and use permit application for a new car wash DOWNTOWN. A development can’t be much more exclusively car-oriented than a car wash! If you’re not in a car, you’re not likely to be using a car wash. If we are serious about making a downtown that is a place for people, we cannot continue allowing development downtown that prioritizes cars. We have to make a decision about who we want to be when we grow up. From the decisions like this one, the Sebastopol City Council seems to be saying we are okay with cars dominating our downtown environment.
This car wash is only the latest in a string of bad decisions by the City Council that go back a number of years. The Northeast Area Plan was a specific plan designed to provide a roadmap for the redevelopment of the area directly to the east of downtown Sebastopol (it included the parcel of the future car wash), much of which is within the flood plain of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. It went through years of planning, community outreach, stakeholder meetings and reports until the plan was finalized. The plan envisioned a return to a more traditional mixed-use type of downtown of active ground floor storefronts with residences and offices on upper floors. The plan required that all buildings, and streets, be built on podiums above the flood plain level which would allow for a significant amount of parking below the podium and protect the buildings from potentially catastrophic flooding. It included civic uses and public spaces with walkable, narrow streets. It was a return to the way we used to develop communities, prioritizing people and not cars. After recommendation of approval by the Planning Commission, the City Council denied it on a 3-2 vote.
This decision left the owner of most of the land that was part of the Northeast Area Plan to redevelop his mostly vacant warehouses in a manner allowed by the zoning code in place at the time. What came of that redevelopment is The Barlow Marketplace. Some of the original buildings were repurposed and new ones were created. The intent of the development was to provide space for local food and beverage production. Retail spaces and restaurants are allowed with a use permit and some have developed in addition to the food and beverage producers. It has been relatively successful, and is more vibrant than Main Street, but it is all commercial and light industrial space. The 300 units of housing that would have been allowed by the Northeast Area Plan are noticeably absent from the neighborhood. And while parts have a good pedestrian-friendly vibe, there are a lot of surface parking lots. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that much of the surface parking has been converted to outdoor dining/drinking. I hoping that those conversions outlive the pandemic.
Oh, and while the developer of The Barlow was required to prove the buildings would be ‘flood-proof’ by using a system of bolt-in-place dams across openings, in practice, that system has not been particularly successful. Many businesses ended up with up to 5’ of water during the flooding of the Laguna de Santa Rosa is 2019. The Barlow is a relatively vibrant and active area, particularly when compared to Main Street, but it could have been so much more, particularly if much-needed housing had been built if only the City Council had allowed the Northeast Area Plan to move forward.
About 10 years ago, a developer proposed a new project in downtown Sebastopol on the site of a vacant former Chevrolet dealership. The proposal was for a CVS and Chase bank (while the CVS opened, Chase bowed out of the project and a vacant building stands in its place). The developer proposed about 20,000 sf of development on a 2.45 acre (106,722 sf) lot, a block off Main Street and at the gateway corner to downtown from the east. The project became hugely controversial for a number of reasons, including being a completely inappropriate building typology for a downtown. The Planning Commission denied the project’s Use Permit application, but on appeal, it was approved by the City Council. CVS already had another location in town, there is a Rite Aid 2 blocks away and a Safeway with a pharmacy another block beyond the Rite Aid. There was really no need for another downtown chain pharmacy, particularly one in an oversized parking lot. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I believe the amount of parking required by the zoning code, based on the project size, was around 45 spaces which in and of itself, was probably way more than would ever be needed at any one time. The development provided over 90! So it is one more large surface parking lot in our downtown. One of the largest redevelopment opportunities in our downtown was essentially redeveloped as a strip shopping center, albeit one with the buildings close to the sidewalk. At least they didn’t approve it with a wrap-around drive-through window driveway which was included in the originally proposed project. We apparently did not learn the lesson of how these types of projects destroy the pedestrian environment from the Whole Foods center, Safeway or Rite Aid examples.
Another site with significant redevelopment potential had a better fate. A former lumber yard across the street from the town plaza was purchased by a local hotel developer who proposed a new 70 room hotel on the site. While the project did generate some controversy because of a 4-story section and its modern architecture, the project was approved and was slated to start construction just as COVID lockdown descended upon us all. I hear the hotel developer is hoping to break ground spring 2022. The city council helped lead a community discussion with the previous owner of the site on how to redevelop the property which did lead to the development of the proposed hotel. I’ll give them some credit for activating a vacant and underutilized site with a high intensity use which will bring people downtown.
Downtown housing has been an interest of the Sebastopol community in general and the City Council in particular, for a number of years. Unfortunately, with the failure of the Northeast Area Plan and the approval of the CVS and hotel projects, large sites that could have provided much needed housing contain none. A couple of city council members proposed a study of the possible redevelopment of a city-owned parking lot on Main Street which was dubbed Pine Grove Square. The oddly shaped parking lot has a long frontage on Main Street and extends through the block to Petaluma Avenue. The council commissioned a feasibility study to look at best uses of this land. A report with a market analysis, both commercial and residential, and several possible development scenarios was completed. The report suggested that redevelopment of the city-owned parking lot could be accomplished with a mixed-use development of ground floor retail and upper levels of housing. The report was very preliminary and suggested taking further exploratory steps. Of course there was push back regarding the loss of parking. So, the council commissioned a parking study to determine if there was sufficient parking in the area to accommodate the loss of the public parking lot. The result of the report was, yes, there was an abundance of underutilized parking available within a 2 block radius of the existing parking lot. A good number of the underutilized spaces were located on the CVS site. (As part of the development agreement with the city, and in light of the fact that there were more than double the number of parking spaces required by the zoning code, the CVS developer agreed to allow the parking lot to be used as free public parking).
However, in the end, there was not a majority of the council in favor of moving forward with further refinement of the redevelopment idea. The primary reason was that the surface parking lot was just too important and they could not imagine losing the parking spaces. Once again, the council favored the status quo of prioritizing cars over people in our downtown core.
Sebastopol undertook a General Plan and Zoning Code update several years ago. As a member of both the General Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission, I tried to get more housing friendly policies implemented. My success was limited. I did succeed in getting a new zoning district (R5) established which would allow single-family and multi-family dwellings up to fourplexes and residential densities of up to 12 units/acre. My hope was that this new district would be applied to most of the properties in town that were currently single-family only zoning. This wasn’t supported by a majority of the planning commission, so I suggested an area within ½ mile or so of downtown, to encourage higher densities at least in the close-in neighborhoods. Not a whole lot of support for that either. But we did manage to identify some blocks near downtown where this district would be applied. However, after the council was finished revising the new zoning map, there were a total of 9 lots in Sebastopol with this new zoning designation. Six of the lots were on a single street and were already developed with duplexes. The 3 other lots were on a street near downtown. One of the three lots was also already developed with 2 units. So this new, housing-friendly zoning district has the potential to add 2 units of housing if those 2 remaining lots were to be converted to duplexes.
Which leads us to the most recent council approval of the downtown car wash, which I blogged about recently. So far, what I see is a City Council that is in favor of the status quo when it comes to favoring car-oriented development. We can’t seem to be able to envision a future in which we prioritize people in our development decisions. It is very hard to break the pattern of auto-oriented development. But we can, and must, do better. The preference given to auto-oriented development is simply not acceptable if we want a vibrant, successful, pedestrian-oriented downtown. Unfortunately these decisions seem to reflect our leaders’ true priorities which is to protect the status-quo auto-centric development of recent decades.