We have a couple of commercial buildings that are currently for sale on Main Street in Sebastopol.
110-112 North Main Street is a single-story commercial building with two tenants. Portico is an Italian restaurant and Sagestown is a gem shop. The building is about 4,000 sf, and so is the lot. The 1965 era building is nothing special architecturally and I don’t think anyone would miss it if the building were torn down and the site redeveloped. If this site had been for sale in an earlier era, say before the modern zoning code, it would make sense to redevelop this at a higher development intensity; i.e. go up. Add floors. This is prime real estate at the primary crossroad in downtown Sebastopol. This site is calling to be redeveloped with commercial ground floor spaces with apartments above.
Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns talks about how throughout the history of civilization, community’s have always developed incrementally. When a new community is established, inexpensive, simple buildings are built. The inexpensive construction declines in value over time, but if the place is successful, the property value increases over time. At a certain point, it makes sense to tear down the simple, cheap building and build the next level of intensity. This increases the improvement value, and also the land value. The cycle traditionally repeats itself. Chuck has a great discussion of this here. The physical building at 110-112 North Main Street has been depreciating for almost 60 years. As you can see, it really is time for it to be redeveloped.
Modern zoning codes have interrupted this historical cycle of incremental development and therefore limit redevelopment opportunities. Because of our current zoning code, this lot cannot be redeveloped to the next incremental level and I will tell you why. Parking. Our zoning code requires on-site parking for any development, even downtown.
There is a bit of an exception to this in Sebastopol. Once upon a time, long before I moved here, there was some kind of parking district created downtown. From what I understand, downtown land owners were allowed to buy into the parking district which allowed the city to develop public surface parking lots and those properties were given an allotment of parking spaces depending on how much they paid into the district. Even though the parking district no longer exists, the spaces are still tied to specific lots. So if you bought 5 parking spaces for 110-112 North Main Street back in the day, those 5 parking spaces will theoretically always be available for you to use towards your parking requirements should you redevelop your property.
It appears that the owner of 110-112 North Main Street did not buy into the parking district. There are zero spaces assigned to this property in the city’s records. So if you want to buy this property, tear it down and build 3 stories of apartments (And we desperately need housing!) over ground floor commercial space, you would have to provide the required parking on the site. The 4,000 sf of commercial space would require 8 parking spaces (1 space per 500 sf net floor area). And let’s assume we would have four 1-bedroom units on each of 3 floors above for a total of twelve units. A 1-bedroom unit requires 1.5 parking spaces, so the total parking requirement would be 18 spaces. Downtown residential uses are allowed to be reduced by 30% which takes it down to 12.6, which the city would round to 13. So you would need 21 parking spaces on-site. Not possible. And it’s not like there is no parking available nearby. In addition to the street parking, there are four public parking lots within two blocks of this location.
The property is about 49′ wide and 90′ deep. You could just barely lay out a parking lot with spaces along one side. You might get 7 spaces. But that is really beside the point because the city would never allow you to make a parking lot on the ground floor. They would rightly want commercial frontage and not a parking lot adjacent to the sidewalk at this location. Actually, I don’t think there is anything in the zoning code that would actually require this to be commercial frontage, with the exception that 100% residential is not allowed, so you would need some mix of uses on the property. Additionally, the property only has vehicular access at the Main Street side, so you would need a curb cut and driveway across the sidewalk (there is a back pedestrian alley for egress). This would be horrible for the pedestrian environment downtown, and Caltrans, which owns the Main Street right-of-way would also never allow that to happen, particularly so close to the intersection.
You can see in the aerial photos above, some of the neighboring properties do have parking lots accessed from a rear alley, but this particular site butts up to another building. But the future redevelopment of any of those lots that do have alley parking will be limited to the amount of parking that can be provided. And much of that parking certainly does not meet minimum requirements for lot size, accessibility, etc.
Because of our parking obsessed zoning code we prevent our cities from taking the next incremental step of development. And by doing so we prevent our cities from increasing in wealth. Because properties cannot redevelop, the land value stagnates, along with property taxes. For now, the future of 110-112 North Main Street is limited to a face lift. There are really no possible redevelopment opportunities until we stop requiring on-site parking everywhere. I’ll look at the second property, 105 North Main Street, in a future post.