Monday, March 14, 2016

Downtown Olympia Views Studied by City

Above: On one of their frequent walks to the popular Madison Scenic Park, Eastside neighborhood residents Michael McFarlan and Ginger appreciate the view of the Capitol Building, downtown and the territorial Black Hills on Monday morning. This view is one of several priority viewsheds to be analyzed by the City of Olympia as part of a downtown strategy planning effort. 

By Janine Gates

Located at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound, Olympia, Washington has long been described as having the most spectacular views of any state capitol.

From downtown Olympia looking north, one sees Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountains. To the south, the state Capitol Dome, the fifth-tallest masonry dome in the world and the tallest in North America, rising 287 feet high. To the east, Mt. Rainier. Looking west, the territorial Black Hills.

On March 3, City of Olympia staff briefed councilmembers serving on the city’s Land Use and Environment Committee on the next steps for analyzing several viewsheds within downtown. 

A viewshed is the line of sight between an observation point and a view. The purpose of the city's analysis is to protect or enhance existing views, not to create new viewsheds. 

The recently updated Comprehensive Plan shifted an emphasis from protecting certain views from public streets to protecting and enhancing views from public gathering places. The city says that the observation points to be analyzed must be in public spaces either in downtown or look through downtown to a landmark view. 

An upcoming online city survey will offer the community an opportunity to comment on the viewsheds proposed for analysis. 

The Downtown Strategy’s process builds on past planning efforts during the Comprehensive Plan and Shoreline Master Plan updates. At a November 2015 workshop, participants prioritized certain viewsheds with observation points within downtown that were most important: the Olympic Mountains, the Capitol Dome, Budd Inlet, and Capitol Lake.

With the input of community members and city staff, consultants will analyze up to ten community-valued viewsheds. The analysis will also consider zoning and potential building height increases. Using 3D graphics, modeling will show each view as it exists now, if redeveloped under current zoning, and under any zoning options being explored.

The viewshed analysis will be presented at a June Downtown Strategy workshop and viewshed protection recommendations will be offered to the city council by August.

Above: The viewshed of downtown and the Capitol Building from a pocket park on East Bay Drive as seen on Monday afternoon. If the Port of Olympia parcels are developed as proposed near Chestnut and Olympia Avenue NE, the view of the Capitol Building would likely be obstructed. 

It is unclear from city documents which East Bay viewshed the city is considering analyzing: there is another pocket park further north on East Bay Drive, created in 2004 through a community partnership with the East Bay Drive Neighborhood Association, the Port of Olympia, and the City of Olympia.

Viewshed Priorities

The city has already identified five priority viewsheds for analysis: the Capitol Campus to Budd Inlet with a view across the isthmus, the effect of the 1063 Building on the view of the Capitol Dome, Madison Scenic Park to the Capitol Dome and the Black Hills, the Puget Sound navigation channel view to the Capitol Dome, and the West Bay Park view to Mt. Rainier through downtown.

Five viewsheds under consideration for analysis include Capitol Way and Union Avenue to the Olympic Mountains, Marathon Park to Mt. Rainier, Park of the Seven Oars (near the Harrison Avenue NW and Olympic Way NW roundabout) to Mt. Rainier, Priest Point Park to the Capitol Dome, and the East Bay Waterfront Park to the Capitol Dome.

Above: The 1063 Building is currently under construction on Capitol Way. During the design process, the city made its concerns known to the state about the five story, 215,000 square foot office building. When completed, the building will block the view of the Capitol Building from downtown. Conversely, views of Budd Inlet and the Olympics, as seen here from the Capitol Campus, will soon be obscured. The city does not have zoning authority over the Capitol Campus. Photo taken February 25, 2016.

Several community members attended the March 3 Land Use and Environment committee meeting, commented on the limited scope of the viewshed analysis, and urged the inclusion of other views. 

Krag Unsoeld commented that Mt. Rainier cannot be seen from Marathon Park on Deschutes Parkway, so that particular viewshed should not be listed, and instead be replaced with another viewshed.

Former City of Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs also commented, saying that view protection should involve the whole city, not just downtown.

“The first step in this kind of process should be a community conversation to define what is important to community members about views,” said Jacobs. 

Jacobs is active with Friends of the Waterfront, a local group that has advocated for view protections for several years. That group offered city staff a specific list of comments, questions, and suggested views.

“….We also note the need for clarification of some terms. For instance, what exactly is meant by Capitol Dome? Just the dome? Or does this include the columns beneath the dome? Does it include the Temple of Justice and other buildings? Wilder and White designed the ‘Capitol Group’ to appear as a single structure when viewed from the north. Also, what exactly is the ‘Navigation Channel’ and where is it? Clear definitions will be necessary to the development of clear regulations….” asks Friends of the Waterfront in their letter.

In response to the city’s call for suggested viewsheds for analysis in addition to those already published, the group offered: Capitol Campus to Mt. Rainier, Port Plaza to Capitol Dome, Percival Landing to Capitol Dome, a larger stretch of East Bay Drive to the Capitol Dome (not just the mini-park), Rt. 101 at the Red Lion hotel to Mt. Rainier, Harrison Avenue roundabout to Mt. Rainier (broader than Seven Oars Park), lower roundabout to Mt. Rainier, Deschutes Parkway to Mt. Rainier, Lakeridge Drive to Capitol Dome and Capitol Lake, San Francisco Street to East Bay Drive and Capitol Dome, Eastern Washington Butte at Heritage Park to Mt. Rainier, Port Plaza viewing tower to Mt. Rainier, views of East Bay and West Bay ridgelines, and the Thurston County Courthouse to the Capitol Dome.

Editor's Note/Full Disclosure: Janine Gates also commented at the March 3 meeting. Providing personal pictures as examples, she said the viewshed of landmarks should be expanded to include the experience of coming into downtown and take into consideration the special viewpoints of children and animals who see the city from different perspectives. She also asked that the city conduct a nighttime viewshed analysis to determine the impact of light pollution. Light pollution from the 123 4th Avenue Building and the nine story Capitol Center Building, if it is ever redeveloped, she said, would mar the nighttime beauty of landmarks such as the Capitol Building. With regard to sea-level rise issues, she also suggested an underwater view analysis of downtown.

For more information about the viewshed analysis, go to or contact Amy Buckler, Senior Planner, City of Olympia, at (360) 570-5847. The city welcomes descriptions and photo(s) of your favorite view(s) which can be emailed to Buckler at

Above: An unencumbered view of Mt. Rainier from downtown Olympia is one of the most spectacular, cherished sights enjoyed by community members. Photo taken from a West Bay Drive office building parking lot in May 2012.