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Reinventing the Barlow

Author: Juliet Porton
March, 2012 Issue


The former Barlow Apple Factory is being reinvented to better serve the community of Sebastopol and west Sonoma County.

 
Thousands of people drive the stretch of Sonoma County’s Highway 12 that flows into and out of downtown Sebastopol every day, but most probably never really notice the piece of the town’s agricultural history tucked away within the fading warehouses just east of Main Street. That will change this summer with the opening of the Barlow, a community of food, beverage and art producers setting up shop in the town’s old canning district. The project is hoping to recreate a vibrant, working city center that connects locals and visitors alike to the variety of world class products being made in Sonoma County.

 

Plan A

Barney Aldridge of Ross is managing partner of Sebastopol Industrial Park, LLC, and the developer behind the Barlow project. Born in Illinois, Aldridge’s family moved to Sonoma County in 1976, eventually settling in Santa Rosa. After dropping out of high school, Aldridge was given a shot working at a local bank, where he found he had a knack for loan originations and a passion for real estate. With talent and hard work, he moved quickly from employee to manager to owner of his own mortgage brokerage firm. Since leaving the mortgage business in 2006, Aldridge has focused his attention on his kids and real estate, building custom homes and several large commercial development projects in California, Idaho and Colorado.

In 2006, he got a call from Ken Martin and his son, Brett Martin, who were the then-owners of a 12.5-acre property at the corner of Sebastopol Avenue and Morris Street in Sebastopol. The property was home to the old Barlow Processing Plant and an assortment of warehouses, some vacant and others still in use. The Barlow Plant had been a hub of Sebastopol’s apple industry dating back to the 1940s; it was where the Barlow family processed local apples, like Gravensteins, into products for shipment far and wide. The Martins thought it was time for the area to be redeveloped and believed that Aldridge, with his mixture of calm determination and easy self-assurance, was the man for the job.

“At the time, the city wanted to bulldoze all the old buildings and rebuild the center of Sebastopol around 300 new housing units and 100,000 square feet of retail,” recounts Aldridge. So he came up with a proposal that included these elements. But during the subsequent public approval process, the always outspoken residents of Sebastopol got together and expressed some very different views. “Some connected, conscious people decided they liked the character of what was already at the site, like the food production and artists,” he says. “They became really vocal at city council meetings, fought the original plan and were successful—and thank God they were. They saved me from building 300 residential units right before the market crashed.”

During the years of public debate surrounding the Barlow site, a picture began to emerge of what the people of Sebastopol did want for the area, and it was to that picture Aldridge turned next. Priorities included welcoming light industry, with an emphasis on local businesses and the arts. People said they wanted spaces to gather as a community and insisted the area be walkable and well-connected to the existing downtown. Another specific request was to relieve any increased traffic from the development by extending McKinley Street to Morris Street (creating an east-west connection through the area) and connecting Sebastopol Avenue to Laguna Parkway (creating a north-south connection).

 

A new vision

During this time, places like the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco and the Oxbow Public Market in Napa were just coming into their own as destinations for those seeking the best local products direct from producers. In creating a new vision for the Barlow, Aldridge says he was inspired by those permanent public markets but saw a potential in the Barlow that the other locations lacked.

He noticed that the busiest and most successful places in the Ferry Building were often shops, like Acme Bread and Cowgirl Creamery, where visitors could actually see the bread and cheese being made rather than just purchasing what had been brought in from another location. “We have such a great opportunity here because we have so much space, great buildings and wonderful things already being made locally,” says Aldridge. He envisioned a business community that could connect people not just to local products, but to the production process itself.

Just as Wine Country visitors today seek out winery tours and tastings, visitors to the Barlow will come away with firsthand connections to the process of making a variety of artisan products, from foodstuffs to artwork. Shoppers will often be able to see the steps their purchases have taken, from raw material to finished product, and to build relationships with the producers. For example, local olive oil maker Via Giusti will not only have oils for visitors to taste and purchase, it will also offer them a chance to learn about how the oils are processed and to watch as local farmers bring their olives in to be pressed. At Mama Tina’s Ravioli, shoppers will be able to see owner Tina Eliason rolling out her handcrafted ravioli and buy it fresh from her kitchen.

Instead of making the development a stand-alone attraction, the revamped plan is to have the Barlow fit seamlessly into the existing community. To retain some of the history and authenticity of the site, more than half of the original Barlow building will be restored for use, and 10 new buildings will be constructed on the east side of the property. Many of the other existing buildings need mainly cosmetic upgrades to serve their intended purposes and fit into the overall design of the development. Approximately 80 percent of the 220,000 square feet of working space will be used for production and only 20 percent for retail. Because of this, the project’s success will rely less on the uncertainties of tourist dollars than on the individual business models of its diverse tenants.

In keeping with its role as a community gathering place, the Barlow’s plans include two outdoor stages for public performances, a children’s play area, public restrooms, bocce ball courts and fire pits, as well as public art and garden space. There will be restaurants and cafés scattered throughout, where visitors can linger over a meal or stop for a quick cup of coffee. A new outpost of local favorite Rosso Pizzeria, known for house made burrata cheese and cured meats, is among the businesses slated to take up residence.

 

Coming full circle

Chris Martin of Occidental admits he has a soft spot for the Barlow buildings. Born and raised in Sebastopol, he was just 15 years old when he lied about his age to get his first job—processing apple cider there. And one of its warehouses was the original home to Martin’s company, Taylor Maid Farms Coffee and Tea. Nearly 20 years later, Martin was the first tenant to pre-lease a spot in the development, moving Taylor Maid back to its original location.

Founded in 1993, Taylor Maid Farms has made a name for itself by selling organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee, as well as teas and brewing equipment, to wholesale suppliers within a 75-mile radius of its Sebastopol headquarters. Martin, who also owns Howard Station Café in Occidental, had been looking for an opportunity to expand his Sebastopol operations to include space for retail sales and a café. Soon, people will not only be able to watch what goes into roasting and producing the coffee they buy, but Martin’s staff will have the chance to prepare the products to best showcase their quality to their customers and business partners.

Martin says he was willing to sign on to the project early because it fits so well with Taylor Maid’s company values and business model. “Barney and I are on the same page in terms of supporting local companies and making connections between farms and business,” he says. “If you’ve spent time with him, you know he really comes from the heart and wants to make this a beautiful place.”

 

A downtown winery

The Barlow will also be home to a brand new, 40,000-square-foot production facility for Kosta Browne Winery. Kosta Browne, founded in 1997 and owned by partners Dan Kosta, Michael Browne and Chris Costello, is a small winemaker known for outstanding Pinot Noir. Its 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was recently named the 2011 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator magazine.

“We were looking at opportunities for a new facility when the Barlow became available, and we believe the spirit of the project really parallels our own,” says Kosta. “The whole idea of a downtown winery is a little more irreverent and more appropriate for our brand than the obligatory bucolic, rural setting.” The new headquarters will be for production and administration only and won’t include a tasting room or retail shop at this time. “Our wines are allocated [for wholesale] and we have a lengthy waiting list for the public, so we really don’t have the resources to have a tasting room,” he says. “We just don’t have enough wine.”

Kosta believes the Barlow will be a boon not just to the local business community, but also to the area at large. “Creating a central location geared toward what we do best here in Sonoma County—which is food, wine and other artisan products—will give us a sense of community and could quickly become a hub for the entire West County,” he says. Though not technically open to the public, Kosta says the company is looking forward to meeting occasional mailing list guests and working alongside other food producers and artisans. “We like to see people, talk to them and answer their questions,” he says. “We aren’t the type of winery to have locked doors.”

 

A new home for the Farm Market

The Sebastopol Farm Market is hoping to move from its current home in the Sebastopol Plaza to the Barlow when construction is complete. Paula Downing of Sebastopol, manager of the Farm Market, is excited about the possibilities that the new location brings. “I see the Barlow as a place to help bring Sonoma County together as a food and wine community—a place to define, announce and celebrate our farmers, past and present, and, you could say, our terroir,” she says.

The market will continue to be held on Sunday mornings but will be able to welcome more vendors in a larger space. “There are so many people doing exciting things with food, and this will give them the physical place to do it,” she says. The new location also offers more parking and a safer place for families to gather. Downing is already hard at work thinking of ways to connect market vendors with the Barlow’s permanent tenants and brainstorming special events that can showcase Sonoma County goods to a larger audience. “It’s a beautiful vision and we just want to be a part of it,” she says. “The Barlow not only brings us back to our agricultural roots, it’s another incarnation of those roots.”

 

One-of-a-kind experiences

With 75 percent of the spaces leased as of December 2011, the Barlow already promises an interesting mix of food and alcohol producers, as well as artisans, retailers and restaurateurs. Pax Mahle’s Wind Gap Winery will be moving in, as will two breweries: Woodfour Brewing Company and Barley and Hops Brewery. Spirit Works Distillery will be fermenting and distilling artisan spirits, including gin and whiskey. Village Bakery will be setting up its ovens at the Barlow, as will the gluten-free Bliss Bakery. Guayakí Tea will continue to anchor the development with its yerba mate production site and tasting room. Other items being processed onsite will include olive oils, herbs, spices and pastas, with more to be announced. There will also be a collection of retail shops offering everything from vintage clothing to locally grown lavender.

The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is already in residence at the Barlow, offering gallery and studio space to local artists and room for special events. Also present are Wolfard Glassblowing, Spiral Fusion Glass Art and the Bronze Plus Art Foundry, where visitors can see artisans at work creating one-of-a-kind pieces. For those craving an even more unique experience, Barlow tenant Circus Arts Playground offers classes in acrobatics and trapeze, while at Intuitive Hearts, members will gather to learn meditation practices.

 

The next chapter

After weathering a long approval process and uncertain economy, the Barlow is scheduled to be completed by July 2012, just in time for Kosta Browne to process this year’s harvest in its new home. Throughout our conversation, Aldridge was eager to share the long list of names of those who helped him finally make this idea a reality, including the city of Sebastopol, general contractor Steve Kilgannon, who freely shared his expertise and contacts, the bankers at Wells Fargo, who helped him secure financing, and the Sebastopol activists willing to work with him on a plan everyone could be proud of. He further credited original building designer Thad Geldert of Sonoma, site and landscape designer Sandra Reed of Petaluma, Santa Rosa structural engineers MKM & Associates, Petaluma civil engineers LaFranchi & Associates and architectural firms O’Malley Wilson Westphal and archilogix (both of Santa Rosa) and Kathy Austin (Sebastopol).

Aldridge is looking forward to seeing the kind of ideas and partnerships that arise from getting so many creative artisans together in one place and says his management company will facilitate as many connections and combined events as possible. “This means bringing national and international attention to Sonoma County for its food, wine and art,” says Aldridge. “There will be just one place that people from around the world can come to see what Sonoma County does best.”

When asked how he can be confident of such an ambitious project in these times, his response comes quickly. “It’s all the signed leases we have and the support the business community has shown,” he says. “If we didn’t have businesses saying they want to be a part of this and to be producing in downtown Sebastopol, we wouldn’t have the Barlow.”


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