January 16, 2008 Town Meeting
Combined notes on the meeting with consultants, Laura Hall and Robert Alminana, regarding the design of the proposed Thiessen development.
The Downtown Planning Committee and the Boards of the Chamber of Commerce and the FPA were invited to attend.
I. Ken Smith’s notes:
Laura and Robert felt that our design for the Town Square itself was good, or at least good enough for now. They liked non-linear path design, the use of the sloping land for the amphitheater, saving the existing oak trees, and the choice of new landscape trees.
They compared our design to the Sebastopol town square (which is only slightly larger in size). It was obvious that our design looks much more inviting than Sebastopol’s town square!Laura emphasized that it was important not to over-design the square, that we allow the design to evolve over time.
They spent very little time on the Town Square design itself. Their main concerns were (1) that the Square is two small compared to the square footage of parking around the square, and (2) that the Square is not adequately contained by the surrounding buildings.
They recommended parallel parking around the square instead of perpendicular parking. This would allow for a larger square, the edges of the square being closer to the activity and presence of the surrounding buildings.
They also recommend parallel parking along the main highway to soften this edge. Laura said this should only be done if Orrin could find additional parking somewhere else and/or justify less parking space for the needs of the project and the downtown area.
Comparison of sizes of Town Squares:
Forestville: . 45 acres (or . 54 acres if parallel parking rather than vertical parking around the Square: this makes the Square more of a square than a rectangle)
Sebastopol: . 58 acres
Healdsburg: . 92 acres
As to the containment of the park by the buildings: Laura and Robert showed us slides of public spaces that really felt comfortable, places you would want to hang out. They also showed us slides of spaces that were decidedly unfriendly. It was clear that the friendly places were well contained by the surrounding buildings. This containment can be achieved by either bringing the buildings closer together, or increasing the height of the buildings.
The ideal height-of-building to distance-between-buildings ratio for a square is from 1:3 to 1:6. They arrived at these ratios from studying successful (and unsuccessful) public spaces throughout the world. Orrin’s design has a ratio of 1:9.
One solution they suggested (and strongly recommended) was that there be three story buildings around the square instead of the currently designed two-story buildings. This would result in a 1:6 ratio for the Town Square area. Note that Healdsberg’s Square is 1:9, but it works. Laura suggested the large, mature trees probably make the difference.
One of the members in the room pointed out to Laura that three-story buildings would feel too tall compared to the other one and two-story buildings in downtown Forestville. Laura agreed that they would, but she challenged us to envision a future Forestville one hundred years from now.
If the town square is truly to be the heart of the downtown, the three-story height would feel right as Forestville downtown evolves over the coming decades.
Laura was very complimentary towards Orrin’s architectural design–in terms of variety, of fitting in with local styles, and of “defensible space. ” Defensible space is about areas that are not only attractive to pedestrians but feel (and are) safe for them. She also pointed out a couple of areas in the larger project (away from the Square) which seem non-defensible and could become problem areas.
Additionally, she noted with satisfaction that Orrin has designed store entrances around the Square to be 30 feet or less apart. Studies show that if pedestrians have to walk more than 30 feet to the next store, they often will just turn around.
If Orrin’s project gets built it is likely to be around for one hundred years. As property values continue to increase in our beautiful Sonoma County downtown property owners will want to upgrade their buildings and/or rebuild on their very valuable land. Ideally the height and density of buildings should decrease the further away from the town square they are according to Laura. And it would be ideal that the town square also be the core of downtown Forestville.
Laura asked us to imagine a pedestrian friendly downtown boulevard with wider sidewalks that allow for places to hang out, bike lanes, and more trees and landscaping. This can happen if we can get CalTrans to designate River Road as the Highway 116 route, and can also get the bypass built.
Laura and Robert urged us to envision what we want for our town and then create a plan to make it happen. There are new ways to do this, such as the use of “form-based codes” and codes that ask for what we want rather than what we don¹t want. I am not an expert at all this, but will try to help out as best I can.
Laura commented that no growth in our area is not an option. Therefore, we have a choice between creating a vision and planning for that growth now, or just waking up one morning and seeing what’s happened.
We can all congratulate ourselves for deciding to take this journey together. Of course there will be many points of view and rough going at times. But this is to be expected.
II. Wayne Gibbs additions:
(1) The need to construct streets in such a way that, when/if the bypass gets built, they can be easily extended at the project’s southern border to intersect with it. Laura Hall and Robert Alminana also stressed the desirability of constructing a sort of dog-leg, southwest-heading branch of the project’s E-W street nearest the Mirabel-Hwy 116 intersection so that it, too, can intersect with the bypass.
Their point with connecting interior streets to the bypass was the critical need to promote several route choices for cars and people as a way to make the streets & sidewalks inviting to use, as has been done in Portland, “The Most Walkable City in America. ”
(2) The potential for undesirable behavior that will be promoted by the isolation of the small green area behind the hotel. They both stressed the need for this area to have doors open onto it at its level (not just windows and balconies looking down from above) or to have some sort of foot-traffic-promoting intersecting pathway(s) to reduce/eliminate its isolation. Laura Hall, especially, stressd that, left unaddressed, this orphaned green space will mean trouble in the future.
III. Lynn Axelrod’s notes:
1. An important reason for emphasizing the square size, I thought, is that some green spaces look like add-ons and become user unfriendly — size matters.
2. They also suggested to Orrin where he could put additional parking (at the back) to make up for whatever loss in changing the parking configuration.
3. And emphasized having other road outlets to avoid the congestion of a single U-shaped road; he pointed out one road that will lead to the area of the drug store parking area.
4. They felt having stubs at the southern end for eventual roads leading to the bypass is a good idea.
5. There was a discussion about the green area behind the hotel (which will face the square). They thought that it could turn into an unpleasant hangout for hangers out because it won’t be used much and thought it should be divided/bisected, suggesting a road go through it to the eventual bypass.
He said that can’t be done because the road would have to go through a retaining wall at the western side and it’s too steep a grade. Suggestion (by moi) of a staircase (like a lovely one I know in SF. It’s built into the hill, ie, no underside space for nasty stuff to happen. ). They then said they would send him photos of such staircases that are in the Berkeley hills.
6. He said the project has to conform to ADA standards because it’s considered a “project,” not just a development. Said this as a reason sort of contra to the staircase idea. (But it could be built with a ramp and if the grade so steep or long, should have level areas, anyway, on the way up. )
7. They praised his building facades, that he maintains an appropriate distance between doors on the front side (30′ between doors makes people feel safe) except on the western end of the big building. He said that will be a cafe and that having a door there would be problematic because of the grade. They basically said ok.
8. The overall height of the buildings on the western side will appear taller than on the eastern side because of the grade but they felt that the trees would make this insignificant.
9. They suggested there should be no parking bulbs, which create individual spaces in a row, is best to avoid the suburban parking lot feel. Whatever green planting they might have is more than made up for by the large trees that will be at corners.
10. Rue Furch was there and mentioned having a design review code (although she didn’t use these words, it’s what it’s usually called) to help maintain the entire downtown in a coherent fashion and said the Supes these days are more willing to let communities govern themselves with this sort of thing. (Problem, though, is that unless it’s incorporated into the county regs, or somehow within the county authority, it has no teeth and is dependent on voluntary compliance.
I know you’ve all explored this via a business district and they didn’t want it. Maybe she has some insight on something that’s changed- or maybe, cynical me, it was a way to make people think she could be a help if she’s elected. . . . ) Feel free to compare this to what Ken remembers.