The Barlow is a new development on the eastern edge of downtown Sebastopol. It’s probably the largest single development the city has seen in a long time, probably ever. The area was once home to agricultural warehouses and processing facilities. Crossed by train tracks and light industrial in nature, the area has been underutilized and largely vacant in recent years as the once booming local apple industry
has been largely replaced by vineyards and wineries located outside of town. The area was part of the failed Northeast Area Specific Plan which I discussed in an earlier post. After the failure of that plan, the developer moved forward with a project that could be approved under the current Light Industrial zoning of the area. It’s been a long-time coming, but businesses are starting to open and the area is beginning to generate activity.
The Barlow is 215,000 sf on 12.5 acres in a mix of rehabilitated and new buildings. Named after an apple processing facility that used to be on the property, the intent of the development is to showcase local food and beverage producers in both production and retail facilities. There are wineries, a coffee roaster, distillery, bakery a local natural food co-op, in addition to tasting rooms, cafes, restaurants, galleries, artisans (including a bronze foundry) and retail shops. It’s an interesting mix of local businesses which can complement the existing businesses in downtown Sebastopol.
The opening of many of the businesses over the past several months has been met by enthusiasm from a curious public and is generating a level of activity and liveliness which is exciting to see. McKinley Street, which previously dead-ended in the property, runs through the center of the development and is an important new east-west connection into downtown for pedestrians, bikes and cars. On Friday and Saturday evenings the street is lively with pedestrians and outdoor dining in contrast to Main Street which is rather sleepy by comparison. If Main Street is to stay viable it must explore ways to increase the level of evening activity. Most businesses close by 6:00; restaurants, bars and the ice cream shop Screamin’ Mimi’s being the exception. There hasn’t even been a cafe in town open past 6:00 until Taylor Maid in the Barlow which is open until 7:00 during the week and 9:00 of Friday and Saturday nights! Imagine that! (I’m writing from there right now, and it’s quite a hub of activity. I’m wondering where the people here got their caffeine fix before.)
The part of the Barlow that contains the renovated buildings is more interesting to me than the newer section. McKinley street is narrow and slightly askew while the buildings on either side are close to the street and architecturally diverse. Parking lots are largely out-of-site. As you move east on McKinley, the street widens, more parking lots come into view and the newer buildings in the east half lack the diversity and funkiness of the existing buildings.
And while the design language of the new buildings is similar to the existing, with corrugated steel siding and gable roofs with full length cupolas there is a certain sterile quality to them. Maybe over time they will develop a patina that will help them fit in more. The buildings also do not contain the public realm well. The parking lots interspersed among the new buildings do not feel held by the buildings around them the way the existing buildings contain McKinley Street. The exception to this is the private parking lot of Kosta Browne winery. It has been designed to double as an outdoor event space and the extra level of detail has paid off. From Morris Street on the eastern edge, the ratio between parking lots and buildings feels too heavy on the parking lot side.
The big missed opportunity for me is a lack of residential component to the development. There is a severe lack of downtown housing in Sebastopol and The Barlow location would have been an ideal opportunity to make some really interesting higher density urban housing. It also would have given a built-in walkable customer base for the businesses in The Barlow. Downtown residents would also be good for the vibrancy of Main Street and may encourage those businesses to stay open later. I am concerned that once the original excitement with the new development wears off, the lack of customers within walking distance could hurt the long-term viability of the development. The Barlow is currently trying to get approvals to include a hotel in several of the new buildings in the southeast corner of the development. A hotel would be a good addition and provide a good customer base, but permanent housing downtown is still needed. Second and third story residential units would have the added benefit of increasing the heights of the buildings which would help define the public realm and been an efficient use of the limited amount of land available for development downtown. Without additional housing downtown The Barlow will be a largely drive-to destination.
There exists a potential symbiotic relationship between the historic downtown of Sebastopol and The Barlow. It is about a 3 minute walk down McKinley Street from Main Street to the beginning of The Barlow and an additional 3 minutes to get through to the other side. It’s not far. But it feels farther because of an existing key property awaiting redevelopment that will serve as a link between The Barlow and the existing core of downtown. The site is a full block of approximately 2.5 acres on the east side of the plaza.
The site of former lumber yard it is currently home to a tractor shop, which is not the highest and best use of 2.5 acres in the center of town. The redevelopment of this property could really tie the two districts together and encourage the vibrancy of The Barlow to spill over to downtown. This site would be an ideal location for a multi-story building with residential and office uses over a retail ground floor. I hear the site is currently on the market. I hoping a developer can see the importance of the property in uniting downtown with The Barlow and develop a great urban infill project. My fear is that it will become another CVS/Chase type of suburban project.
There is an existing movie theater on the north side of McKinley across from the lumber yard. It’s in a great location to serve as a connection between The Barlow and Main Street. Unfortunately, the street side of the building is not pedestrian friendly. The entrance faces the parking lot on the opposite site of the building.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the former lumber yard site will develop into a great urban infill project and be the crucial link between The Barlow and downtown. The site was also identified as critical for redevelopment in the SDAT report. I’m hoping that as we move forward with implementation of SDAT recommendations we will be able to encourage the appropriate development of this key property. Until then, I look forward to the increased vitality The Barlow has added to Sebastopol. All in all, I think The Barlow is a great addition to downtown Sebastopol. It’s a destination with a draw for both locals and tourists. I wish it could have included a residential component to improve it’s long-term chance for success. And to help ensure the increased vitality of the downtown core of Sebastopol. Hopefully a good mixed-use residential development is in Sebastopol’s future.