Saturday, November 14, 2009

Imagine Olympia: Community, the Comprehensive Plan and Cake

Above: Mayor Doug Mah revs up the crowd to get excited about Olympia's upcoming Comprehensive Plan process.

By Janine Gates

"We're going to do it right, we're going to do it well, and we're going to invite all of you, and because this is Olympia, we have cake!" exclaimed City of Olympia Mayor Doug Mah at the Olympia Center downtown today.

The City of Olympia kicked off its “Imagine Olympia” campaign this afternoon to get the community engaged in the city’s update of its comprehensive plan. Mah's comments about 'doing it right' referred to the public participation process, perhaps acknowledging skepticism expressed by some on the city's ability to handle a major campaign using in-house resources and staff to effectively listen to and incorporate citizen input into a document that needs to be completed by 2011.

The Washington State Growth Management Act requires that cities develop plans to manage population and urban growth. The Olympia comprehensive plan is the city's blueprint for how it grows and accommodates citizen desires for the city to be a beautiful place to live, work and play. The city’s current plan was adopted by the City Council in 1994 after a two-year community involvement effort. As required by law, it is now time for the city to review and update the plan.

Above: Yea, the current Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map is kind of complicated, but it tells you exactly what's zoned where in Olympia.

About 200 people attended the event to learn more about city programs and priorities, meet city staff, and contribute their vision for Olympia's future. The city had staff at numerous tables around the room to discuss topics such as climate change and sea level rise, housing affordability, shoreline planning, and transportation. The Comprehensive Plan has thirteen chapters, but not all chapters will need to be extensively updated. Chapters on land use and the environment, for example, will take significant effort and time to update.

As City Councilmember Karen Messmer wandered around, she revealed an auspicious fortune inside her Dove chocolate wrapper: "Shape the future by dealing with the present."

City associate planner Jennifer Kenny handed out cloth bags that contained Imagine Olympia "home kit" host instructions for gathering comments from friends, family and neighbors on what they value about life in Olympia and what they would like the community to be like in the future. The kit contains information on projected growth statistics and visioning questions to use as talking points. The self-guided home meeting discussion should take about an hour or two. There is no firm deadline for hosting a discussion, but "the sooner the better," would be good, said Kenny.

Kenny says "Imagine Olympia" teacher curriculum packets are also available for teachers to use in the classroom and that she and Erin Scheel, Intercity Transit youth education coordinator are also available to come into classrooms to guide the process. "The goal of the curriculum is to get kids to think about the built environment and the big picture," said Kenny.

Above: "I'd like to see Oly retain its small town independent, quirky charm - I'd like buildings to be kept on the short size on isthmus or better yet a park - don't lose the artsy edge too!" (click on image to enlarge)

The only portion of the day's event that actually allowed community members to publicly express their vision for Olympia's future was on a wall of butcher paper. City staff member Kraig Chalem encouraged people to write their responses, on multi-colored sticky notes, to three city-offered questions that asked for their vision of Olympia with an assumed significant future county population growth.

The Thurston Regional Planning Council projects that Olympia and the Olympia urban growth area will grow by 20,000 people between 2010 and 2030. Some question this figure. A question posed by the city asked: How can we accommodate 20,000 more people and achieve the atmosphere you hope for? Some offered suggestions such as, "If we don't build it, they won't come," or "Send them to Lacey."

As Chalem struggled to keep the sticky notes affixed to the paper throughout the afternoon, he explained that the comments will be tabulated into general themes. "This is just a shotgun approach...we're going to have more events - we don't want to be leading people, we want people to give us their reactions."

Above: Butcher paper and sticky notes are pretty cheap - The City of Olympia has allocated $30,000 to develop and implement the two year Comprehensive Plan process. This note says, in response to what a city means to you, "This means where I know people wherever I go, where I feel kindness/friendliness (a hello and smile), where people care about their environment by keeping it clean and beautiful (more parks)."

Above: Kraig Chalem and Carlos Gemora at Saturday's "Imagine Olympia" event.

Carlos Gemora, 21, has lived in Olympia for five years and works in residential construction. Gemora says he came to the event because he has opinions on how the city should be run and likes the idea of neighborhood village zones that allow small retail areas within a neighborhood.

Gemora's mother, Teresa Staal, said, "I'm here because I feel like there is so much potential in Olympia that we are not fulfilling. We have intelligent, creative people here that we need to tap. We have the advantage that we are the state capital and have the potential to be the shining example of the state of Washington."

Above: Keith Stahley helps newly elected city council candidate Jeannine Roe get on board with the "Imagine Olympia" campaign by giving her an Imagine Olympia Home Kit.

Above: Kathy McCormick of the Thurston County Regional Planning Council speaks with former City of Olympia Mayor Mark Foutch.

Looking at various mixed land use models, former Olympia Mayor Mark Foutch ran down the list of options. "Look at this current land use menu - we can see what hasn't worked, and what has...Downtown housing hasn't panned out yet (but) when the market improves, and lending improves, we might see some action on those lots," he said, pointing to areas throughout downtown.

"These haven't worked not because the comprehensive plan is faulty, but because the market hasn't caught up with the vision of the last comprehensive plan. There are so many variables - what is the price of motor fuel going to be in ten years? Can we concentrate more jobs in Olympia so that we're able to provide a market for high density corridors without spilling over into neighborhoods?"

Asked what his vision of Olympia is, Foutch said, "I'd like Olympia to remain a place where everyone feels welcome, valued, safe, secure and heard. These things are not expressed just in the built environment - and this may sound corny - but by the hearts of the people who live and work and go to school here. Over the decades, I think we've done a good job in striving for that goal."

Longtime city Planning Commissioner Roger Horn attended the event and later said, "Clearly, there's a lot of interest in the process and we can maintain this (if) people feel like they are being heard. They are contributing to something that will have a big impact - it's a 20 year plan, but its impact will be felt for a long time - 50 years or longer."

The city will hold neighborhood meetings from January through March, 2010, and public hearings will be held at by the Planning Commission and the city council in 2011.

For more information, go to or call city Community Planning and Development staff at (360) 753-8314.

Above: For some, the day's events really was just about the cake - a little boy eagerly watches Keith Stahley, city Director of Community Planning and Development, serve up cake at the Olympia Center this afternoon.