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05.21.08

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If You Build It

Questioning the wisdom of Sebastopol's Northeast Plan

By Gianna De Persiis Vona


Rumor has it that new downtown Windsor, called Old Town Windsor and once touted as breathing fresh economic life into the town, isn't working. Buildings stand empty. Stores have gone out of business. Not enough people are shopping or maybe the rents are too high or maybe small towns need to be built with locals in mind rather than a projected tourist industry. With such a nearby example of a revamped downtown gone bad, one could wonder what, exactly, is driving the green city council of the small town of Sebastopol to consider a similar endeavor.

Yet considering it they are. Though most of us do not frequent enough city council meetings to be really on top of the issue, the rustling of local dissent has grown loud enough that even those removed from city politics are beginning to ask, what is this Northeast Plan, exactly? And even more importantly, should we be worried?

According to Magick, a mono-monikered member of the Sebastopol Preservation Coalition and a willing consultant on this issue, we should be worried. Magick and I meet at Infusions tea shop to discuss the plan. As we drink our tea, Magick explains the situation, referring periodically to three massive books she has brought with her, including the general plan and the Northeast Plan's EIR. The more she elaborates, the greater my sense of unease. I happen to like the small, eclectic shops that dot Sebastopol's Main Street. I don't need a new downtown, a fancier downtown, a Laguna de Santa Rosa–smothering, water-sucking, traffic-congesting downtown.

The land in question comprises 52 acres in the lower half of the northeast area of Sebastopol. Most of it is in a flood zone, an earthquake zone and a liquefaction zone—think earth shaking and sliding away all at the same time. The Northeast Plan is not a development project, per se. What it does is change the city's general plan in order, some would posit, to allow for a certain set of developers to have their way with what is now a fairly open area decorated with mostly defunct warehouses.

The changes would include circumventing the current 25-unit-per-year growth limit to allow for the creation of over 300 dwelling units designed in the form of four-story buildings. Changes to the general plan also include Sebastopol's "level of service" rating, which measures the congestion of an area based on stoplight wait times. If the development goes through and 8,000-plus daily car trips are added to the already congested streets, Sebastopol's major intersections would all be demoted to an F. Solution? Dispose of the level of service.

Though few Sebastopol residents would deny the woeful lack of living arrangements in this beautiful town, putting in living units priced at over $500,000 a piece is hardly helping the low-income strata. How 391,000 square feet of retail/commercial space, including another hotel, could add to the beauty of the community is also highly debatable. Magick assures me that the coalition is not buying the idea that the new plan is environmentally sound just because the buildings will be "green." This is yet another example of "sustainability" being tossed around like popcorn: it's vacuous in nature and prone to getting stuck in your teeth.

With a projected 250 new parking spaces, changes in growth management, four-story buildings built on top of 10 feet of fill, up-scale retail and the further drain on the city's water supply, using green building supplies hardly qualifies the project as "sustainable." The coalition believes that this land should be returned to wetlands where possible, and that permeable constructs should be erected in the flood zone. They would welcome the creation of a community garden, a year-round farmers market, parks and an amphitheater.

Any building or reuse of current buildings could be done above the flood zone with actual affordable housing, incubator businesses and the preservation of light industry. Thus far, 24 local businesses have signed a petition requesting a new economic study, because they fear the competition and undercutting of prices brought in by chain stores and tourist-oriented businesses.

 

There is a large monkey tree on the corner of Morris Street. On this tree, way up near the top, is a large yellow ribbon. The ribbon is an indicator. This is what four stories looks like. Go to the monkey tree, look up, then glance across the open lots, and try to imagine them filled with buildings. If this is a disconcerting image, then be sure to attend the final city council meeting addressing this issue. The planning commission has already passed the Northeast Plan.

 June 3 at 7pm at the Sebastopol Community Center, the city council will be holding its next meeting. Exact meeting times can vary slightly. Be sure to attend and have your voice heard. For details, contact Magick at 707.824.1394.


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