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The battle to reshape downtown Sebastopol
There is a new effort afoot to re-envision Sebastopol’s downtown, which includes the possibility of restoring two-way traffic to Main Street and Petaluma Avenue.
Gal about town Jann Eyrich invited a group of downtown Sebastopol merchants to a Main Street Roundtable on Wednesday night, to hear architect Paul Fritz lay out his plans to rescue Sebastopol’s permanently struggling downtown by improving its urban design.
The occasion for the roundtable was the availability of a $200,000 Caltrans planning grant that Fritz says would allow the city to re-envision and ultimately help reshape its downtown into a place people would actually like to be.
Why would Caltrans be interested in downtown Sebastopol? Because downtown Sebastopol consists of two Caltrans right of ways – Highway 116 and Highway 12. Since Caltrans basically owns the streets and sidewalks, nothing of significance can happen in downtown without their OK.
The Caltrans Sustainable Transportation Planning Grant is available every year, and Fritz said that every year for the last several years he has urged the city to apply for it – to no avail.
This year, with Eyrich’s help, he’s taking matters into his own hands and attempting to foment a revolution from below – think of hordes of angry merchants at city council meetings – that would force the city to take action.
A new battle in a long war
Fritz, who has lived in Sebastopol for 20 years and worked here for 12, has a long history of re-envisioning Sebastopol’s downtown. He is part of the Core Project, a group of local architects and other interested parties, who spearheaded a couple of large planning and re-envisioning efforts ten years ago. They sponsored an international design competition in which designers from around the world weighed in on what downtown Sebastopol should look like. Then in 2013, the group won a $250,000 grant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to have the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team visit Sebastopol and make recommendations for improvements. That team produced a large and inspiring report that sat on a shelf gathering dust like every other report ever to enter the gravitational black hole known as municipal government.
At the meeting, Fritz gave a slideshow of some of the things that he said would improve the allure downtown: wider sidewalks paved with paving stones, more attractive light poles, more greenery, a daylighted creek, and — wait for it — restoring two-way traffic to Main Street and Petaluma Avenue.
City officials often use the excuse of the Caltrans right of way to explain to frustrated residents why we can’t have nice things downtown so Fritz included in his slideshow photos of other nearby towns, Saint Helena and Calistoga, that also have Caltrans right of ways running through them, but that manage to be attractive tourist magnets in spite of that.
The one-two punch of the grant writing world: planning and implementation
“What makes and doesn't make a good Main Street commercial street? We need to start thinking about what we want to see or what we envision or how do we want Main Street to function. Because obviously, it's not right right now,” Fritz told the group.
He hopes to use the planning grant to revisit Sebastopol’s official Downtown Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1990.
“That’s 32 years,” he said. “We need an updated downtown plan. I mean, think of 1990: people didn’t even have personal computers, let alone one you carried with you in your hand. There was no plaza and I don't think there was a movie theater yet. There's all kinds of things that have changed in the past 32 years. It is time to revisit the downtown plan.”
Fritz’s goal is to win the Caltrans planning grant, create a new downtown plan, then use that plan to win a Caltrans implementation grant, which would essentially play for most of the improvements he envisions.
By the end of the evening, most of merchants had pledged to show up at the next city council meeting on April 19 to voice their support for Fritz’s call for the city to hire a grant writer to apply for the Caltrans Sustainable Transportation Planning Grant.
There was a lot of energy in the room – not pitchforks and torches, exactly – but as close to that as a decorous group of downtown merchants planning to march (via Zoom) on the city council gets. Eyrich and Fritz are planning another Downtown Roundtable for May, date to be announced.
The Sebastopol Times is a new venture by Dale Doughterty and Laura Hagar Rush, the former editor of the Sebastopol newspaper, Sonoma West Times & News.
Note: Laura Hagar Rush is currently working as a contractor for the city of Sebastopol and part of the contract involves improving the downtown core.