Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fast Tracking a Vision for Downtown Olympia under a Community Renewal Area Plan – Part One

Above: Fast-moving city council sponsored design workshops and discussions are generating a proposed vision for downtown Olympia. At an open house this coming July, the public will be invited to comment on just two downtown and isthmus-area scenarios.

By Janine Unsoeld

An active visioning process for downtown Olympia is well underway and almost nobody knows about it. The results of this vision for downtown Olympia could seriously influence the built environment of downtown Olympia.
The public is not scheduled to be included in the process until this coming July, when the community will be invited to comment on just two possible downtown and isthmus-area scenarios.

Keith Stahley, the City of Olympia community planning and development manager, says there may be a public outreach component added to the city's scope of work. The objective, he says, is to finish the Community Renewal Area process in 2014.
What’s a Community Renewal Area?

In 2011, the city formed an ad hoc Community Renewal Committee and changed the name of this committee to the Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC) in February of this year to deal with downtown blight. This committee intends to deal with downtown blight through a community renewal area plan.
Under the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 35.81, Community Renewal Law, the City of Olympia has started a process to develop a Community Renewal Area (CRA).

The intent of a Community Renewal Area is to combat blight, such as dilapidated, vacant buildings, and focus limited resources to create the greatest possible return on an investment. The city hopes to do this by creating a CRA and developing a formal community renewal plan.

RCW 35.81 has some potentially controversial elements. Washington State law prohibits the “lending of credit,” or transferring of public property to a private party. Olympia cannot acquire land and then turn it over to a private company for development purposes.
RCW 35.81, however, provides an option for cities to overcome this restriction as long as certain conditions are met and there has been a “sufficient community process” undertaken to ensure the need for the project.

The city has embarked upon this path and apparently considers the visioning process currently underway as “sufficient.”
With a CRA, the city will be able to acquire property, transfer city-owned property to private parties, improve properties for public or private use, perform rezones for particular properties regardless of the growth management or comprehensive planning cycle, and borrow money or apply for grants to carry out community renewal. And this is all for starters.

A CRA feasibility study was recently prepared by the consulting firm ECONorthwest and is being used to address the many challenges facing the revitalization of Olympia.
The Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC)

A city Community and Economic Revitalization Committee is composed of Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, and city councilmembers Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones and Julie Hankins.
A grandly titled Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) was chosen to advise the committee since June of 2013. The 30 plus member group has been meeting on a regular basis, fast-tracking a vision for downtown Olympia’s isthmus area, meeting several times in the past couple of months.

When asked about the citizen advisory committee membership, Stahley, said it was created by the city’s consulting team, ECONorthwest, “with input from the staff and the CERC to provide a balanced perspective on downtown redevelopment.”
With the help of consultants, the group’s visions for downtown Olympia will be distilled into two scenarios, which will be presented to the community for public involvement in July.

In addition to those two committees, several additional downtown property owners have been invited to participate in at least three recent Community Renewal Area urban design workshops held on March 6, April 5, and April 16. An earlier fourth meeting with property owners was held in February to frame the purpose and timing of the subsequent workshops. 
These property owners include representatives of the Olympia Yacht Club, Bayview, the Oyster House, Traditions Fair Trade, the Capitol Center Building, and ImageSource.

Above: Traditions Fair Trade is on the corner of 5th and Water Street with the nine story Capitol Center Building rising above it on the next block. In the March 6 city meeting with property owners, Ray LaForge, who has owned the building for 31 years, said he believes the building should be replaced. He says that it is no longer energy efficient and envisions a new structure facing Heritage Park and the fountain, but was adamant in saying that during potential changes, the economic viability of the tenants must not be harmed.

Letting the Chips Fall Where They May – The Vision of a Few
The players invited to create this vision for downtown reads like a Chamber of Commerce roster, with five organizations or groups being allowed two seats at the table, such as the Thurston County Economic Development Council, Thurston Regional Planning Council, the West Olympia Business Association, the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, and the city Planning Commission.

Three seats are offered for downtown property owners, occupied by Camron McKinley, Erica Cooper, and Jim Morris.
Other invited organizations with one representative each include the Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Olympia Downtown Association, the Thurston County Chamber, the Port of Olympia, the Yacht Club, Intercity Transit, and Timberland Regional Library.

City advisory committees such as the Olympia Parking Business Improvement Area, and the Heritage Commission are also represented by one person each.
Other businesses or organizations invited are Olympia Federal Bank, Capital Recovery Center, and a social service position represented by Paul Knox, executive director of the local United Way.

The lone citizen at large position is held by Kris Goddard, who is listed as a member of a now defunct community group called Olympia 2020.
The consultant group is currently budgeted to accomplish its work at $155,000. Stahley says that an offsetting $25,000 grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board is included in that amount.

Step One: Categorizing Downtown Properties
Property ownership continues to be cheap and easy in downtown Olympia, leading to a myriad of owners and visions that look like a crazy scene inside of a kaleidoscope.

Indeed, the community is still deeply divided on a cohesive vision for downtown.
Uncertainties around retail, housing, environmental hazards, old infrastructure such as aging water pipes, some older than 50 years, shoreline regulations, zoning, and sea level rise are just a few factors that keep private investors away from downtown.

At a March 6 CERC/CAC/property owners meeting, the group categorized downtown property parcels into categories for future land use: stable, redevelopment, and adaptive reuse.
Indicated by name cards, workshop participants were told where to sit at each table, as much as possible, to include a city councilmember, a planning commissioner, a city staff person, and assorted others.

Along 4th and 5th Avenues heading east into downtown, the checkerboard results considered Bayview grocery store to be stable, the former Kentucky Fried Chicken (now ImageSource) to be adaptive or re-developable; the now City of Olympia owned properties to be re-developable; the Olympia Yacht club to be stable and adaptive; the Capitol Center building and related properties to be adaptive and re-developable; the Oyster House property to be stable; and the City of Olympia owned Heritage Park fountain area stable.
The buildings bordered by Water Street and 4th and 5th Avenues, owned by three different entities, which includes Traditions Fair Trade, is considered re-developable property. 

Let’s Play!
On April 5 and April 16, the select group met at several tables for design workshops in city hall chambers. Using scissors, glue, and multi-colored pieces of paper, the purpose of the meetings was to create a vision for what many call the most valuable and visually spectacular six blocks of real estate in the country: downtown Olympia and the area known as the isthmus.

“You’d have to go far and wide to find land like this…it’s a world class piece. You all know that, if you can come together…it’s a remarkable piece…” gushed John Fregonese, a consultant also working with the city, at the April 5 workshop.
At the Saturday, April 5 workshop, Olympia councilmembers Stephen Buxbaum, Nathaniel Jones, and Julie Hankins participated, while councilmembers Cheryl Selby and Jeannine Roe sat in the back to observe the process or mill around during the discussions. Councilmembers Steve Langer and Jim Cooper did not attend.

Buxbaum and Hankins also participated with a make-up session on April 16 including several participants for those unable to attend the April 5 session. Several members of the public sitting in the back of the room at each of these meetings were not invited to participate or give comment.
The meetings are not officially audio or videotaped, but Walt Jorgensen, a Tumwater citizen, was seen in the back of the room videotaping the April 5 workshop.

The possibility of increasing building heights in downtown Olympia came up in at least two table groups.

Above: From lower left to right: Urban design workshop participants Rachel Newmann, city councilmember Nathaniel Jones, Allen Miller, Craig Holt, Max Brown, and Amy Buckler plan a vision for downtown Olympia on April 5.

April 5: Sample Table Discussion/Visioning Process
Quickly milling around the tables did not provide me a cohesive picture of the rationales being discussed for why the multi-colored pieces of paper were being placed where they were. I decided, with city manager Steve Hall’s permission, to become a potted plant on the side of a randomly selected table.

The table was represented by Councilmember Nathaniel Jones; city planner Amy Buckler; city Planning Commission chair Max Brown; Rachel Newmann, a member of the Heritage Commission; Allen Miller, attorney; and Craig Holt, representing the Olympia Downtown Association.
The paper chips: Red represented “mixed use.” Ochre represented “commercial.” Pink represented “employment.” Yellow represented “residential.” Blue represented “civic.” Green represented “open space.”

Some color “chips” were set aside off the map of downtown for the sake of quick resolution, and what was actually glued down to the map was heavily influenced by the desires of the individual participants of the table. 
Blank colored chips were provided for participants to write in their own ideas. And that they did. Four times, attorney Allen Miller repeated his desire during the course of the hour conversation that he wanted to see a big carousel down on the isthmus, and in the end, he got it.

Right off, Miller wanted a public restroom right next to Heritage Park Fountain, and he got it – a big one. Then, Miller wanted a museum in cooperation with the Squaxin Island Tribe. He got it.
Newmann wanted an amphitheater.

“I can see Olympia enjoying that on a summer night and in winter, it could be iced over and have it be an outdoor ice rink!”
Brown agreed, “You’ve got a show without a T.V.”

A daycare, library, and garden center were also discussed. No senior housing was wanted by the group “because the Boardwalk is nearby.”

A hotel/conference center? No.
A fitness center? “I can see it incorporated into something else, like a daycare,” said Jones.

An adult learning facility? “I can see TESC or St. Martin’s having a vision here…” said Jones.
A bookstore? “Put an asterisk on it,” said Jones.

Gateways such as monuments, bus shelters, crosswalks, and streetlights were discussed.
“What about the Yacht Club?” someone asked.

“I’m not sure if their location is tenable,” said Jones. They may need to move onto land due to sea level rise…Percival Landing may also apply. It may be extended on land.” The complications of the fact that all tidelands are leased by the state Department of Natural Resources were pointed out.
Newmann suggested that Bayview’s parking lot doesn’t need to be a surface lot and suggested it be turned into mixed use housing facing Budd Inlet.

“I think that’s a great concept…there’s a lot of hard surface on this property. I’m interested. That’s a good conversation to have,” said Brown.
Miller interrupted, saying he’s more interested in getting rid of blight.

Asked for his opinion, Holt said, “I have a hard time starting the discussion on the one big piece of nice property.”
Jones agreed with Newmann that the group needed to think of downtown in terms of its context, taking advantage of the setting.

“We need to exploit it in the most positive sense, what we’ve got here.”
Miller reminded the group that there’s a 35 foot height limit in this area.

“Whatever goes here should look nice 350 degrees…housing, retail….” said Newmann, pointing to the area currently occupied by Traditions.  

Jones pointed to the retail strip near the Heritage Park fountain lot. “Do we want it to stay retail?”
“I have no problem with Traditions staying. I could live with it,” said Miller.

People could get different kinds of mortgages if they live above their shop,” said Newmann.
The consultant stopped by to check on their work, and remarked on the big restroom placed next to the Heritage Park fountain. It took up the whole space where Da Nang restaurant, the Alano Club, and other businesses currently occupy.  Buckler said, “We like water,” but acquiesced, trimming it down to a tiny square.

“One block done!” someone in the group exclaimed at 10:45 a.m.
Next, the group tackled the block occupied by The Views on Fifth Avenue, also known as the Capitol Center Building, but better known as the nine-story “Mistake on The Lake.”

“There are concerns about how it can be reused…it’s a challenge…it could be lofts, mixed retail…” started Jones. “I don’t know…I don’t have a grand vision – it would be incredibly expensive to take down and rebuild.”
Miller said, “It’s blight, it needs to come down. We need a covered carousal, or an artesian well fountain. There used to be one in Capitol Lake that was capped. We need another draw.”

Brown: “Anchor fountains!”
Newmann said that in Missoula, there’s a carousal that is loved, where receptions and weddings are held. “It’s not just for kids.”

Holt said, “I’ve never considered that. The building needs to come down. I don’t know what it would cost to bring it down, and there’s a contamination issue….”
Brown called the question. Does anyone think it should stay in its current state?

No one did.
Brown said there needs to be a cohesive feel to the area.

“These two blocks need to match, or these two, or all of it,” he said, pointing to a couple blocks. “I’m going to say something that I think will get me into trouble. I think we need a height increase. Not 90, or 75, but maybe 42 feet….I like the idea of a live-work space….I’m not opposed to TESC downtown – I don’t think the isthmus is the right place. We need office space. I’ve heard people say (when they worked there), ‘It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever worked.’ We could bring in tech companies, family wage jobs or better!”
“And then we can bring back KFC!” exclaimed Holt.

“I don’t think Larida Passage was the greatest idea…” started Brown.
Newmann interjected. “It’s my turn – it’s a million dollar view! I understand Olympia is in dire straits but we need to put it in context. What does it mean for Olympia and the Capitol? People in Olympia voted and changed the council because we didn’t want to raise the height. The community is exhausted on that. Now we want to do something to maintain this. We could have attractive housing looking over Budd Inlet, looking out. I don’t think we need to give the best of Olympia away….”

“Think how drastically we could make things work if we had seven more feet,” mused Brown.
What about an artist space?” asked Newmann. “A civic space? A plaza and place for people to bring people in after they walk around the lake. They need a place to duck into….an art space with TESC and the Squaxin Tribe….”

“We need revenue. It’s not huge revenue on its own. We need partnerships,” said Brown.
“I don’t think any developer is going to want to be down there with housing at 35 feet,” said Holt.

“I want a destination that brings people off of I-5, like the Hands On Children’s Museum on steroids,” said Jones.
“We need to touch the water. I want to see a corridor. I don’t care about the current street pattern,” said Newmann.

“We can do anything…” said Jones.
“Seventy percent of people would vote for a bond to bring that building down,” said Newmann.

“There’s no need for the CRA,” said Brown. “It sounds like what we’re getting at is a public purpose…This is an area where we have one shot at it,” said Brown.
Newmann again urged housing in the parking lot of Bayview and the Yacht Club looking toward the water.

The subject of more civic and park space was discussed.
“I don’t want pasture land. Being in Olympia, it rains a lot, it would create another marsh. I don’t mind a little green - we live in a climate that that doesn’t make it useful,” said Brown.

“What’s this?” Buckler picked an orange chip off the map. It was the hotel/conference center chip. It was taken off the map by quick consensus.
As time was called for the tables to wrap up, Buckler proceeded to glue down the chips the group had agreed upon, onto the map.

Above: Urban design workshop participant Jerry Reilly, a member of the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, acts as spokesman to explain the rationale for his table's group vision. The table participants for this group included Reilly; Olympia city councilmember Julie Hankins, Ray LaForge, a business and property owner; Kris Goddard; and city paid group facilitator, Scott Fregonese.
Scenario Review

Holding up his table’s map for the group to inspect, Jerry Reilly asked the group to “suspend beliefs and assumptions.” His group, which included Councilmember Julie Hankins, featured a very large park, and some housing with retail below, to “preserve the area’s iconic views.”

Amenities included an electric trolley instead of DASH, a restaurant where ImageSource is, an extension of Percival Landing, and keeping Bayview, what he called “America’s most beautiful grocery store.”
Brown explained his table’s design and Thera Black, Thurston Regional Planning Council, offered her table’s design, which included a small boat launch where the current restroom is on Percival Landing near the Oyster House. Historically, one used to be there.

“Restore it, gain public access to the water, close off the road…extend Percival Landing, with a second place for public access by ImageSource, make a U-Turn in the parking lot, and create a new connection to Deschutes Parkway to help circulation…”
Lori Drummond, Olympia Federal Savings, offered her table’s design featuring a blocked off street, a parking garage with retail on the bottom, a second floor on Bayview, an amphitheater, kiosks, and a public market.

She said the group was neutral on ImageSource since it has 45 employees, “but if something could be worked out to move it, it could be a park with a fountain, widening Yashiro Street for a library….” Her group kept all the thoroughfares and extended Percival Landing, created a walkway under the bridge and a pedestrian overpass to the Westside, and kept the retail area on Water Street currently occupied by Traditions.
It was this group that also suggested that heights could be higher.

Multiple Layers involving Downtown

The city is currently involved in a variety of concurrent, multiple, overlapping master processes, i.e. Imagine Olympia, the Comprehensive Plan, the Shoreline Master Plan (which is now at the state Department of Ecology for review), and the upcoming Downtown Master Plan which will soon be undertaken by the Planning Commission.
Asked later how these all work together with the new downtown revitalization plan, Stahley said, “That remains to be seen. It depends on the outcome. Generally all of the documents you reference support the continuation of our downtown as a vital and central part of our community and our region. Each of these planning efforts helps to move us in that direction. The Community Renewal Area is primarily directed at the elimination of blight in downtown. The Saturday, April 5 workshop was an effort to start to define what shape that might take and to learn how to talk to one another.”

Next: Part Two - Fast Tracking a Vision for Downtown Olympia under a Community Renewal Area Plan

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