Turmoil in wake of Sebastopol flood clouds recovery at The Barlow

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Save the date

Barlow tenants are hosting a block party benefit on Saturday, May 11 to celebrate their recovery and show off their restored spaces.

The festival will include music, food and a beer garden, as well as open doors at many shops, restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms and pop-ups, said organizer Gia Baiocchi, owner of The Nectary Juice and Smoothie Bar.

Baiocchi said it will be an opportunity for those who are finally back in business – and even those who aren’t – to practice the craft that fills their hearts, whatever it is.

“It’s going to feel really good to kind of open our community back up and let everybody know that we’re back open,” she said.

The event runs from noon to 10 p.m.

Two men atop a hydraulic lift outside Zazu Kitchen & Farm caught people’s attention at The Barlow last week as they carefully freed a massive pink, junk art pig from the upper corner of the eatery and prepared to move it off-site.

The well-known restaurant was among the original Barlow tenants when the marketplace and maker space debuted in 2013, bringing “industrial chic” to Sebastopol’s former apple packing district and revitalizing a corner of town known earlier for rundown warehouses and closed canneries.

The porcine sculpture created by beloved local artist Patrick Amiot — its form providing the signature image for art throughout Zazu — had hung outside like a sentry since the beginning.

But in the wake of flooding that caused millions of dollars in damage throughout the upscale market district in February, the husband-and-wife team behind Zazu abruptly pulled up stakes Thursday and moved their equipment and personal property off The Barlow grounds.

“Uh-oh,” a passer-by said as the move was underway. “You don’t take the pig down for nothing.”

Zazu was well on its way to being restored and readied to reopen. But owner Duskie Estes said she and her husband, John Stewart, reached impasse before they could even start negotiating with Barlow owner Barney Aldridge over compensation for their losses. They and many of their fellow Barlow proprietors believe those losses were avoidable had carefully laid flood protection measures been launched more quickly than they were two months ago.

“We built our dream here,” Estes said last week, as workers loaded trucks with stainless steel ranges, refrigeration units and other commercial kitchen equipment used for Zazu and Black Pig Meat Co., operated within.

Though the floodwaters have long since retreated to the Laguna de Santa Rosa where they originated, the confusion and chaos of the disaster endures for many. Financial hardship persists amid a tangle of lingering questions and finger-pointing over The Barlow’s response in the storm and its aftermath. Zazu’s departure from the village is merely the latest, most visible sign of continued turmoil.

Before the flood, the 12-acre complex had been home to about three dozen businesses, including restaurants, galleries and artisanal shops, brewpubs, wineries and tasting rooms. Many of those spots once inundated with muddy water now gleam with new interiors, while renovations continue at mostly larger, more complex spaces, like the revered Village Bakery, where owners don’t plan to reopen until at least summer.

Eleven of 24 flood-damaged businesses are back in operation. The most reopenings include Adelle Stoll, Gallery 300 and Lori Austin Gallery, side-by-side businesses all owned by women who celebrated together last weekend.

Several proprietors, like Stoll, praised Aldridge for his diligence in getting their doors back open and making generous upgrades in the process.

“Everybody’s situation is different,” said Jake Rand, chef/owner at Sushi Kosho, which is undergoing a complete redesign and adding a bar. “But for us, just like when we’re in business, we consider The Barlow more than just a landlord. The way these leases are set up, it’s more of a partnership.”

But many are still struggling with financial uncertainties even as they march forward with plans to reopen.

While Aldridge and his team are hard at work restoring the shells of the spaces he leases out, the equipment, furnishings and merchandise meant to go inside remain the responsibility of the tenants, most of whom do not have flood insurance, given prohibitive costs.

Save the date

Barlow tenants are hosting a block party benefit on Saturday, May 11 to celebrate their recovery and show off their restored spaces.

The festival will include music, food and a beer garden, as well as open doors at many shops, restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms and pop-ups, said organizer Gia Baiocchi, owner of The Nectary Juice and Smoothie Bar.

Baiocchi said it will be an opportunity for those who are finally back in business – and even those who aren’t – to practice the craft that fills their hearts, whatever it is.

“It’s going to feel really good to kind of open our community back up and let everybody know that we’re back open,” she said.

The event runs from noon to 10 p.m.

The Barlow, on the city’s eastern edge, lies adjacent to one of the region’s largest drainages, the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and in a 100-year flood plain, meaning statistically it has a 1 percent risk of flooding in any given year — accounting for sky-high insurance rates.

Although many tenants have filed claims with The Barlow’s insurance company, the promise of any reimbursement is not guaranteed. The Barlow flood plan specifically states that the landlord’s insurance includes nothing for tenants directly or indirectly related to floods.

That leaves business owners scrambling to replace key provisions and inventory while going on two months without regular income. They have been paying bills through GoFundMe campaigns, a few quite successful, and whatever other resources they can cobble together.

“As a small business owner, it’s not like you have tens of thousands of dollars in the bank just sitting there in case something like this happens,” said Gia Baiocchi, who owns The Nectary Juice & Smoothie Bar, which remains closed for regular business. Pop-up sales have continued at the nearby Fern Bar in The Barlow, as well as the Nectary in Healdsburg.

Several other flood-damaged Barlow shops will not be reopening, including Circle of Hands, a Waldorf-inspired toy and gift store, and Barlow Clay, a pottery studio that had three buildings and had been open just three weeks when the flood hit, Aldridge said.

Andrea Kenner, an original tenant and owner of Tamarind, a high-end clothing boutique, said she’s struggling to find a way to stay at The Barlow absent financial help from Aldridge. She has a store in Healdsburg but said it’s been a battle since the flood to stay afloat, and there’s been nothing done yet to restore her flooded Sebastopol shop, given the prospect she won’t return.

Her next-door neighbor, Brooks Friedeman, is hoping to negotiate compensation from Aldridge so he and his wife can reopen Friedeman Wines.

But he recently learned his once well-appointed space has been listed for lease on Craigslist — a consequence, said Aldridge, of a demand letter from Friedeman’s attorney for a quarter-million dollars. Neither Friedeman nor his attorney responded to an email seeking confirmation.

“There’s no one story here,” Kenner said. “It’s all kinds of devastating.”

A dozen or more tenants — most with flood damage, but a few without — are now represented by lawyers. One of them, San Francisco attorney Stuart Gross, hopes to negotiate reimbursement on behalf of 10 clients, including Friedeman. He said he’s seeking to cover losses flowing not from flooding but “from acts and omissions of the landlord.”

No lawsuits are known to have been filed against Aldridge or The Barlow at this point, but “if we need to file litigation, we will,” Gross said.

“Now my hope, as is my hope in any case, would be that we can resolve things amicably and quickly for a result that makes my clients whole and protects them in the future,” he said.

The atmospheric river that stalled over Sonoma County in late February dumped huge volumes of rain across the region — including a 24-hour record of 5.66 inches in Santa Rosa between Feb. 25 and Feb. 26. It caused the worst flooding on the Russian River in a generation, sending the Laguna over its banks and overwhelming The Barlow.

Internal disputes at the complex over handling of the flood response and the issue of compensation are unfolding amid second-guessing prompted in part by the stark, widely viewed imagery that emerged from the flood in the middle of downtown Sebastopol, as well as the long history of civic controversy over development of the site.

Though city officials say The Barlow bears all responsibility for flood preparation and mitigation on its property, Sebastopol building official and flood manager, Glenn Schainblatt, is under orders to review its execution of the approved flood plan under which the emergency response was carried out.

The plan was required as a condition of developing in the flood plain near the Laguna, a 22-mile-long wetland complex that drains 254 square miles of landscape stretching from Forestville to Oakmont, and north Windsor to Cotati.

The city once sought to plan for redevelopment of the larger, northeastern area in which The Barlow was built, outlining where hundreds of homes, shops and restaurants and civic spaces would go. Planning officials envisioned future construction on fill and podium structures to raise buildings above the 100-year flood level. The raised structures would allow parking underneath. But that planning effort was abandoned in 2009, after voters elected new council members opposed to its scale and approach, redirecting future development in the area, where Aldridge already had a stake.

The approved, smaller-scale Barlow project — 220,000 square feet of commercial space named after the old applesauce cannery on site — was to be built at grade but required an emergency flood plan. Aldridge selected an interlocking flood barrier technology for his project because it was “considered the best flood protection system in the world,” he said.

Working with city officials, as well as federal and state experts, his team developed a plan that spelled out a series of preparatory steps and flood mitigation measures tenants and management would take based on forecast conditions and water levels in the Russian River and the Laguna during major storms.

Tenants were called on to raise items in their units, shut off appliances, and secure outdoor furniture and other items, including propane tanks. Management was responsible for tenant notifications, evacuations and deployment of interlocking flood barriers.

The latter requires mustering up to 50 able-bodied people through a day-labor center to install stackable flood logs — aluminum beams that fit into bracketed rails on each building’s roll-up doors so they can form a seal to hold most of the flood water at bay. Gasket strips along the bottom edge of each horizontal log and a weighted one clamped down on the top of the stack helps provide a pressurized seal. Pumps and floor drains inside the structures are meant to handle any seepage that occurs.

The deployment was required to take no more than 12 hours, a universal engineering standard in such cases, said, Schainblatt said. The Barlow demonstrated it could be done in that time — in dry weather with all hands on deck — during a 2012 drill required for its permit.

When the water came up, “all of us were caught off guard,” said Aldridge, who was on the East Coast monitoring events back in Sebastopol.

There had been warnings of a powerful storm and possible flooding for several days from the National Weather Service, dating as far back as Feb. 22, a Friday. As the storm neared, the predictions grew increasingly pointed and alarming, with very high rainfall and rising waters forecast throughout the North Bay region. By late Feb. 25, a Monday, a weather service bulletin called out low-lying areas of the Laguna de Santa Rosa among those considered a particular concern. On the Russian River, emergency officials were bracing for flooding not seen since 1997.

At The Barlow, the staff was about to start its second ramp-up in under two weeks, after a close call during minor flooding on the lower Russian River earlier in the month.

Internal emails shared by The Barlow show staff members were closely following forecasts and water levels on Feb. 26 as streams and rivers around the region rose again.

Facilities manager Brian Perry noted in one email exchange with Schainblatt on Tuesday afternoon that the Laguna was rising at a faster rate than in the previous storm. Perry said he was pre-staging equipment in anticipation of deploying flood barriers on the northeastern part of the property late Tuesday or Wednesday morning. He noted that he had put necessary labor on standby, and had begun inspecting the flood logs and gathering supplies.

Yet it was well after dark on Tuesday night — when flood water inundating roads and the power was out — before any significant effort was underway to defend The Barlow directly against flooding.

Aldridge said deployment of the flood protection measures was triggered, per the plan, by surface levels on the Laguna that were not reached until almost 11:30 p.m.

But the delay meant that Highway 12 and many other roads were flooded by the time the standby labor force, including 25 to 40 people, was called out to The Barlow to work. Only a handful got through.

Tenants were alerted by a 6:44 a.m. email the next morning from Barlow management. The subject line was “Urgent Update!!!” The email informed recipients of major flooding in areas of the property.

Aldridge disputes those who say the plan wasn’t followed, and said the entire episode has been traumatic for him, as well as his tenants. He said he’s been trying to work with each one to figure out what they need and what he can do without “taking legal positions ... just working together.”

But even as he voices hope he can get some additional reimbursement for tenants through his insurance company, he says those who are looking to lawyers are likely to find they “get in the way of progress a lot of the time.”

“We had a flood plan in place. It was approved by FEMA. It was approved by the city of Sebastopol,” Aldridge said. “We followed it to the T, and we got what we got.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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