Sebastopol is a great case study in what makes a successful walkable people-oriented place. Sebastopol is a small town with a traditional commercial Main Street. Unfortunately, our Main Street is also a state highway and as such it is designed for the most-efficient throughput of vehicular traffic. For much of the 20th century, there was a railroad down the center of the street. The railroad served both passenger service to nearby Santa Rosa and Petaluma, as well as moved freight, mostly produce from nearby orchards. I wrote about the current condition of Main Street a number of years ago.
The railroad tracks were removed in the 70’s. In the 1980’s, in order to alleviate traffic congestion, downtown vehicular circulation was changed to a one-way couplet system. Petaluma Avenue was turned into two north-bound lanes and Main Street held the southbound lanes. For the two primary blocks of Main Street, there were actually three lanes of traffic in one direction!
About 6 years ago, Caltrans repaved Main Street through the length of town. As part of that project, bike lanes were added and the street was restriped. Now there are 3 lanes on only one block through downtown! But it is still way too much space allocated to cars in our town of 7,500 people.
While the bones of Main Street are good, it struggles to attract people in a significant manner. Having 2 and 3 lanes of cars heading in the same direction is overwhelming and drivers routinely exceed the posted 25 MPH speed limit. This is particularly true after leaving the last traffic signal downtown. Sidewalks downtown are narrow and street trees and pedestrian-scaled lighting are just sad. It’s not a welcoming environment for people.
Contrast this too The Barlow. The Barlow is a district just east of downtown that had been full of apple-processing facilities and warehouses, crisscrossed by railroad tracks. The city worked on a specific plan for a number of years to determine how to guide redevelopment in the area. Unfortunately a small group of vocal protesters fought the specific plan at the 11th hour and the city council failed to adopt it on a 3-2 vote. The specific plan envisioned a mixed-use district with commercial street frontages and a mix of residential and commercial uses above. This area also sits in the flood plain of the Laguna de Santa Rosa and the specific plan envisioned new streets and buildings in this area to be built above the flood plain. In much of the district, this would have allowed lower level parking at existing grade creating a tremendous amount of parking out of view.
When the specific plan failed, the owner of most of the properties in the neighborhood conceived of a development that worked largely with the existing light industrial zoning. The Barlow was envisioned as a place where businesses could produce and sell a variety of goods. Many of the original structures were saved and a series of new buildings were built in an industrial aesthetic. Today, even without the mix of uses envisioned in the specific plan, The Barlow is a thriving neighborhood. While some of this can be attributed to the number of food and beverage establishments including, wineries and breweries, and a variety of restaurants, it is also because there are places for people to be and be seen. And the car is minimized. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of auto-oriented infrastructure, but it feels secondary to the pedestrian experience and it is distributed in such a way that it is not visually overwhelming. McKinley, the primary street through The Barlow, is narrow and slow. You feel you can cross it at any point. You don’t feel this way about Main Street.
Here are some images of The Barlow on a Saturday evening.
You can see the variety of places for people to hang out. And there are more. It really creates an active environment where people can see and be seen. Humans are social creatures. We like to be where other people are, and clearly there are people in The Barlow.
Contrast with Main Street on the same Saturday night. This is what I saw as I walked down Main Street on my way to The Barlow.
Notice that in addition to selling really good ice cream, this location has a parklet/mini plaza where people can actually hang out. I wrote about the fact that this parklet has an activating use previously, and how important that is to a successful urban place. Unfortunately, the parklet has been removed.
The Barlow also has full-time staff to organize programming to draw people. There is a street fair the second weekend of every month which helps draw visitors who not only patronize the street fair vendors, but also the permanent businesses.
In addition to the fact that there is no state highway bisecting The Barlow, it is clear that an important difference between The Barlow and Main Street is that there are places for people to be. People did spend time at the parklet in front of the ice cream shop, when it was there, even though it was one of the busiest vehicular intersections downtown. Other parklets also saw regular human activity. But outside of the parklets which were installed in response to the pandemic, there are not really any people places downtown. And way too much real estate devoted to automobiles. We need more places for people, and less for cars. There is a real imbalance on Main Street. And businesses suffer for it. (We have a number of vacant commercial spaces on Main St., and several that I would say are low pedestrian activating uses.) Until we fix that people-to-cars imbalance, Main Street will never see the kind of activity seen in The Barlow.