Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Imagine Olympia: It's a Conversation About the Community (and oh yeah, the Comprehensive Plan)

Above: Imagine Olympia: Community members and city staff gathered tonight at Roosevelt Elementary School to discuss the city's Comprehensive Plan goals and objectives, and at the same time, build relationships.

by Janine Gates

The City of Olympia held the first of six community meetings tonight at Roosevelt Elementary School to educate and involve the community in the development of the city's update of its comprehensive plan. (For more information, see article dated November 15, 2009 at

About 40 community members met in small groups to discuss several questions posed by city staff. City councilmember Stephen Buxbaum was present as well as several members of the city's Planning Commission. The evening's discussion was facilitated by local consultant Steve Byers.

Participants were asked to evaluate several comprehensive plan goals. For example, a chapter of the comprehensive plan is titled Sustainable Economy. The plan says this goal is to maintain the strength of downtown as the economic center of the community.

City staff asked participants three questions: Do you think this goal is important? What do you think is getting in the way of better implementation? How can we as a community work together to realize this goal?

The meeting drew several community members from around the city who are not usually involved in city planning conversations.

Larry Siminski, a certified financial planner who lives on the Eastside, has lived in Olympia since 1979. He participated in one of the small groups and said he was interested in promoting downtown's economic growth and development.

"We have to accept the fact that we have an obligation to be a state capital. We have to play the role. We want to be a small town, but we have to play the game even if it means more large buildings." Siminski offered the idea of bringing a light rail line directly to the area around the bluff under the state capitol building to bring workers directly onto the capitol campus without adding additional parking. "We could use the existing rail lines that were in place in the 1920's when the capitol was built...and it wouldn't affect views."

Jacqueline Arlow, a state worker who lives in the South Capitol neighborhood, said she is interested in historic preservation. "In Tumwater, one thing that troubles me a lot is the condition of the Old Brewery. It should be preserved. It's a treasure. It would be a good thing for tourists - the tile and brickwork is astounding. It could be converted into a little restaurant and shops. In Olympia, the State Capitol Museum is also important to fund and maintain. It's important to not tear down old buildings downtown."

In terms of what is getting in the way of succeeding in the goal of economic development downtown, Siminski cited his difficulties in the permitting process to build a two story office building for his business. "The development regulations, design review process and fees all add up to costs. Pretty soon you're saying you want to go to Lacey to build." Siminski eventually succeeded in building his office in Olympia.

Victor Short, 21, a student at South Puget Sound Community College who lives by the Thurston County Courthouse, said he came to the meeting because it was an assignment for his Environmental Science class.

In an interview midway through the evening's discussion, Short said, "I feel like we're groping in the dark, trying to get a grip on what we need to do but people are pulling in different directions. We're not unified - we're tripping over ourselves....but, it's really simple to get involved. I didn't realize that before."

Above: Vicki Faust, middle in red shirt, participates in a small group discussion. Faust, 27, works for Community Youth Services as an AmeriCorp coordinator. She is also a Masters in Public Administration student at The Evergreen State College.

Byers asked the group at the end of evening, "What is the community's role in moving forward?" Comments came forth.

"We need to walk the talk," said Wendy Sternshein, who lives in the Northeast neighborhood. "We need to be prepared to be involved and offer our resources in a variety of ways...."

"There is a lot of energy in the room but maybe it would be nice to bring it out to the wide community as an ongoing thing without the city staff - because that's expensive. We could get to know more people that way," said Pat Holm.

Bob Jacobs, former mayor of Olympia, said that "moving forward" to him meant including all 45,000 Olympians - "it means volunteering and caring for our families and neighborhoods."

Enid Layes said, "I think the community's role is to read the comprehensive plan. We need to know what's in it now. We need to encourage our neighbors and friends to read it."

Layes later expressed skepticism about the process and direction of the conversation. "There's something bugging me about tonight. This is an update (of the comprehensive plan) but we really don't know the parameters of the review - we're not rewriting it - I have a problem walking into the universe. There's got to be more focus...."

Peter Guttchen, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association and chair of the Olympia Coalition of Neighborhood Association presidents offered clarity on why he came to tonight's meeting.

"I think what we're doing tonight is community building. I want a stronger, healthier, connected, more viable place to live. We're hanging our hat on the need to update the comprehensive plan...but there are people who don't even know we have a comprehensive plan. I'm concerned that we're setting too high of expectations for us. We can do this in different ways - it doesn't need to be a city-led process. I want it (the comprehensive plan) to reflect our values. The question is, why aren't we doing that? The challenge is, how do we come together as a community? How do we build on this and support this conversation?"

Lynn Scoggins, who lives by Olympia High School, said we can build community by engaging civic involvement on all levels. "One way to do it is to point out what we can't do and let a community organization do it. Then they have ownership in it and can make it happen."

Jacqueline Arlow felt good about the evening's discussions. "Everyone was really participating. It's OK to have a sampling of the community in small groups. It's like taking a poll. We'd have a heck of a time finding parking for 45,000 people."

Asked about accessibility to the currently cumbersome 300 page document, Keith Stahley, director of Olympia community development and planning, said the plan is available to read at the city's community development and planning office and in the reference section of the Olympia Timberland Library.

Gita Moulton, however, said she went to the downtown library two weeks ago to read it and it was not there. She was told there was a copy at the Lacey library. There are also no copies available to check out for those who do not have computer access or the time to sit at the library to read the document. The document is available online at the city's website.

Above: Gita Moulton, left, and Barb Scavezze chat after the Imagine Olympia meeting at Roosevelt Elementary School tonight.

This is just the first of several Imagine Olympia gatherings planned by the city. "We have 23 months to go, so hang in there with us," said Stahley.

Future Imagine Olympia community meetings are planned as follows:

February 4, 6:30pm, Hansen Elementary, 1919 Road Sixty-Five NW
February 11, 6:30pm, The Knox Building, 1113 Legion Way SE
February 25, 6:30pm, Lincoln Elementary, 213 21st Ave SE
March 3, 6:30pm, LP Brown Elementary, 2000 26th Ave NW
March 11, 7:00pm, McKenny Elementary, 3250 Morse Merryman Road SE

For more information, go to the city website at or call the City of Olympia Community Development and Planning Department at (360) 753-8314.

Above: Amy Tousley, vice-chair of the Olympia Planning Commission, speaks with former Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs after the meeting tonight.