Epilogue: Notes on the State of Olympia

Unless the temptation to post a thought here or there becomes too great, there will be no more posts here. As has been obvious for a while, I think Olympia or Thurston County the land use-zoning scheme is mired in the fundamentals and traditions of yesteryear. I find it not only frustrating but counter to our own stated goals (at least as to how the latter were presented to the planning commission while I served on it). On the other hand, these land-use regimes are completely consistent with our actions: we have sprawl, parking lots and boxy buildings because we like, we use, and we buy. We’re not any different from anywhere else I suppose except we seem to be a little more outspoken about our aspirations if our bumper stickers are sincere. When one starts feeling this way about its subject, one must back away.

Furthermore, I have much less free time than ever and during that time, I don’t want to think about things that frustrate me. Indeed, the OPC is at it again with the Comprehensive Plan. Unless you like train wrecks, pay them no mind.

On that note, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

P.S., here’s a list of my most viewed posts and I didn’t think this stuff was even close to my best work. 🙂

OPC: The Tragedy of the Shoreline Master Program Deliberation, 2010-2012

What amenity do you desire for Olympia?

Will Olympians buy a condominium when they can afford a house?

Thoughts on the Project for Public Spaces Presentation October 3, 2011

What does a local economy mean for Olympia?

A Favorite Downtown Olympia Walk

Summary of August 29, 2011 Olympia Planning Commission Meeting

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We Are Olympia and So Are You

The most intriguing city of the Northwest for me is not Seattle, Portland and/or the trendier, more bohemian haunts of either or even of Tacoma. It’s not Olympia either. My vote goes to Astoria, Oregon. Weird, huh? Remember, intriguing does not mean “best”, it means “engaging, interesting, and fascinating.” With a population one fifth that of Olympia’s, but a third again as dense, I’ll take it!

Astoria has the same urban amenities you see in many Northwest cities and towns. The farmer’s market features a food court and stage (improvised under a bank drive through) with loads of craft and food venders winding through the downtown’s remarkable and historic streets. There is a brewery for each 3,000 people: Fort George, Astoria Brewing Company and a Rogue Brewery on the Pier. (At the same ratio, Olympia would have 15 breweries!) The architecture of the city is a rarity in the northwest. There are too many Victorian-style houses to count and the commercial streets in the downtown make for a truly unique experience in this part of the world especially in the backdrop of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. Ok, I suppose Port Townsend is similar even if it somehow feels smaller. On the whole though, Astoria has the same basic components that you find in Olympia, but despite the latter’s much larger population, Astoria’s product and presentation is more intriguing.

The single most interesting aspect of any city for me is its history. Every city has its own history, but some are lucky enough to maintain that history and present it in the buildings, land-use, street layouts, and long-standing industries. Astoria is one of them. The paradox unfortunately is that as the industries which once propelled a city into prominence early last century concentrate and centralize, we lose the historical flavor of the land to the value extraction from the real estate. (This is another way of saying gentrification.) In ideal situations, the historical sites cease to be the personal possession of the owner and become community amenities and the community is wise enough to preserve them. On the other hand, that line is hazy and depends almost entirely on demand to redevelop. The greater the demand, the more difficult it is to preserve the historical attributes of the city or neighborhood. In cities, without robust job growth and demand and purchasing power for housing—like Astoria—the historical character does not face these pressures and is therefore preserved.

Where is this going? A burned out industrial town that once boasted robust shipping, timber, fishing and canning, as well as fur-trading industries has declined for a couple of generations and now has something rather than nothing to show for it. Maybe, if we’re only concerned about the surface appearance of the city rather than what actually makes it tick. Can we reduce those questions to things like a node on the tourist trail, a larger farmer’s market, an iconic bridge instead of a Capitol building, or the rise and decline of the dominant industry? The stability of government jobs?  My posts over the last few days have really been musings about what fuels the city and how we influence it.

A city like Astoria might have some interesting questions and ideas for us as we examine the relationship between people and problems in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. I can’t help but think about why some northwest cities (e.g. Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Olympia) which were all much smaller than Astoria, but grew much faster over the last 150 years to have hundreds of thousands if not millions of residents, stable (relatively at least) job growth and productivity, and finally more affluent characteristics that other cities seem to have missed. Why doesn’t Aberdeen, WA for example have more of these attributes with a population almost twice as large as Astoria? Most importantly, how can you use what you learn from such analysis to improve your own city? What are the barriers to such progressive development in a place like Olympia?

I have written at length that these kinds of positive developments do not result directly from planning. Poor or a complete lack of planning can inhibit an interesting city or interesting places therein, but planning cannot by itself affirmatively ensure the creation of a town that people will want to live in. So what do we do in places like Olympia, where most people who pay attention to these kinds of issues, say they want something else to happen to their city? Furthermore, much of what makes a city the size of Astoria interesting is that its historic architecture is still place, which simply cannot be said about Seattle anymore and is less so about places like Tacoma each time I visit.

Cities change and how they change, for better or worse and over how much time are important questions. We know those changes result from individuals acting alone and together, consciously and subconsciously—both real and their corporate forms—reacting to and changing themselves for the city.  Look at Boeing’s history here in the Puget Sound and compare its history with any other company around, for example our own Olympia Brewery. How many people moved in and out of Olympia because of that brewery? How many move in and out or ultimately stay in Olympia because of state employment? How does their presence shape our town? How does their presence shape the business environment who depend on that kind of primary employment drivers but not on state work primarily? Think retailers, caterers, car dealers, and contractors who sell their goods and services to people with stable wages? Where is the individuals place in this social fabric?

We can probably all accept that interesting places i.e. cities, result from some immeasurable diversity of incomes, people, jobs, which make and are made by a mix of interesting ideas, and behaviors, beliefs, consumer tastes and other intangibles all of which are impossible to quantify. (I suppose that makes my conclusions impossible to summarize which makes a blog a fun place to discuss them.) I am skeptical of straightforward solutions because I imagine that means the diagnoses are overly simplistic. This is obvious if you’ve read any of my posts here. We have to dig deeper than simple answers and we need to be prepared to re-evaluate our assumptions at every turn in both individual and collective activities. Implementing any sort of plan in the first place assumes some kind of widespread agreement among the people involved and I don’t need to repeat how difficult that has been in my own experience. If these things happen at all in our day and age, the “good” tends to be unintended at the planning phase.

And then there’s the ugly reality of our larger cities: Seattle included, but more commonly associated places like London and New York, are going so far the other direction that those enamored with the idea of a city find them less interesting than the suburbs. Homogeneous and more glibly, boring places arise from all points of the continuum. How then do we proceed?

Astoria, just like any city I visit, has the ultimate intangible benefit of being a place I don’t call home, where something unexpected is more likely to happen if only because I know what to expect in my home town. Is the unexpected event what makes a city so much fun in the first place? It’s one aspect I personally really appreciate in them. Spontaneity arising from us and our environment, perhaps because of us and our environment, keeps us awake, stimulated, interested and interesting. There was never any shortage of the unexpected in Moscow, Russia, and I suppose that’s one thing I look back on so fondly about my time there.

I’m not suggesting here that Olympia, should be more like Astoria or any other place and planning for something like that makes even less sense. The key is making the most of what competitive advantages it does have, not wishing it had something else. A city’s competitive advantage is as subjective a factor as we can imagine because the benefit of a space is entirely an individual consideration.

It’s possible that places like Astoria only allows me see another place in a light that inspires me to reach for more in my own town. The central proposition here is what do we do with these experiences in other places? How does a single individual—in a city of 50,000 thousand individuals—in her/his city help a city along. We’ve all seen groups starting and stopping generally around specific land use decisions rather than around some larger vision. Nary a week goes by that I don’t have a discussion with someone about what they think should happen to the built environment of Olympia, and of course, the planning commission is full of, and is often visited by, people who have that vision and believe that the place to start is the planning commission as though a decree would bring it about.

Changing the bad and maintaining the good requires recognition and understanding of what influences people to think about these things in the first place. A visit to another intriguing place provides refreshing inspiration because it brings out comparisons, and allows us to see our own city from a new vantage point.

Where do I think Olympia is? I hate to say it, but I’d call it the worst of all possible worlds: it’s moving further away from what makes places like Astoria interesting, while not getting anything closer to a hegemonic vibrancy that you can attach to Seattle and less so to Portland. There are small, tiny, steps: the placemaking and downtown ambassador initiatives are very positive, but the free parking rancor, the dog park mess, and the constant complaints to the city council about nearly every proposal makes me very pessimistic for the next 15 years or so. (Free parking is the cause of and solution to every municipal problem out there.) We’re also trying to deal with the lack of downtown housing as though there’s pent-up demand from an affluent population for a trendy downtown condo. If Olympia were a suburb, it might be one of the most interesting out there and perhaps the proximity to Seattle and Tacoma will forever shackle its ability to transcend today into something more intriguing tomorrow.

What do you think? Are you satisfied with Olympia, now that we have an REI, Panera Bread, and Trader Joes?  What would you change, and how will you do it?

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How Do We Analyze a City?

The theme running though the recent set of thoughts I’ve posted here is how do we reconcile the contradiction embodied individual and social behaviors that shape our city’s look and feel.  We cannot see an entire city at once from the ground. When we have the ability to see the city as a whole, we cannot interact with it. This contradiction makes analyzing a city in a totality difficult. This article makes an attempt. It breaks apart and analyzes the interrelated components of Chicago (or that together comprise any city) including, the industries that drive them or inhibit them and even the relevant people involved.

If we look closely, we can see the forces described below at work daily in Olympia, in the necessarily tiny steps through which this process unfolds. How are decisions today going to affect our city (and of course our lives) tomorrow? My fascination with these kinds of questions led me to apply for the planning commission (and ultimately leave it), and as I’ve said before, write my thoughts about it here.

In any case, before we had anatomy, there were artists and professors who would dissect corpses subjecting what they saw to some kind of scientific inquiry. Sometimes I feel like we are living in the dark ages in municipal anatomy. Cities are probably much more complex and do not lend itself at all to control groups. And of course, long articles do not lend themselves to reading these days.

This is a lengthy way of introducing a lengthy piece whose author takes the scalpel deeper than most on the subject.  Most of all I love that he’s not analyzing the city by looking at its current state but by looking at its history, analyzing those long term and recent trends, all in an attempt to piece together what’s going on now.

But that isn’t the whole story. Many of Chicago’s woes derive from the way it has thrown itself into being a “global city” and the uncomfortable fact that its enthusiasm may be delusional. Most true global cities are a dominant location of a major industry: finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles, government in Washington, and so on. That position lets them harvest outsize tax revenues that can be fed back into sustaining the region. Thus New York uses Wall Street money, perhaps to too great an extent, to pay its bills (see “Wall Street Isn’t Enough,” page 12).

Chicago, however, isn’t the epicenter of any important macro-industry, so it lacks this wealth-generation engine. It has some specialties, such as financial derivatives and the design of supertall skyscrapers, but they’re too small to drive the city. The lack of a calling-card industry that can generate huge returns is perhaps one reason Chicago’s per-capita GDP is so low. It also means that there aren’t many people who have to be in Chicago to do business. Plenty of financiers have to settle in New York, lots of software engineers must move to Silicon Valley, but few people will pay any price or bear any burden for the privilege of doing business in Chicago.

Chicago’s history militates against its transforming itself into a global city on the scale of New York, London, or Hong Kong. Yes, its wealth was built by dominating America’s agro-industrial complex—leading the way in such industries as railroads, meatpacking, lumber processing, and grain processing—but that is long gone, and the high-end services jobs that remain to support those sectors aren’t a replacement. Chicago as a whole is less a global city than the unofficial capital of the Midwest, and its economy may still be more tied to that troubled region than it would like to admit. Like the Midwest generally, parts of Chicago suffer from a legacy of deindustrialization: blighted neighborhoods, few jobs, a lack of investment, and persistent poverty. Chicago is also the “business service center of the Midwest, serving regional markets and industries,” Chicago Fed economist Bill Testa wrote in 2007; as a result, “Chicago companies’ prospects for growth are somewhat limited.”

It’s easy to understand why being a global city is the focus of civic leadership. Who wouldn’t want the cachet of being a “command node” of the global economy, as urbanists put it? It’s difficult, too, to think of a different template for Chicago to follow; its structural costs are too high for it easily to emulate Texas cities and become a low-cost location. But just because the challenge is stiff doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tackled. Chicago isn’t even trying; rather, it’s doubling down on the global-city square. Senator Mark Kirk wants to make O’Hare the most “Asia-friendly” airport in America and lure flights to central China, for example. A prominent civic leader suggests that the city should avoid branding itself as part of the Midwest. One of Mayor Emanuel’s signature moves to date has been luring the NATO summit to Chicago.

This analysis is much more thought-provoking than what we usually hear from formulators and more of this work I believe would lead us to proposals that have a more realistic prospect of success. I am looking at you, catch phrases disguised as answers: developer-friendly, tax cuts, red-tape cutting, job creator.

There are applications for Olympia in this piece, but only under the surface. The larger global economy is outside the hands of us Olympians and most individual global citizens (though there are a few people of indomitable gravitas who actually can influence it).  Each of us singularly have the ability to influence whatever we interact with. The crux of the problem is how and where we concentrate our efforts, assuming of course that concerted collective action is capable of success in the first place. I’m skeptical of this point in the land-use context of citizen activism.

It’s the contradiction to end all contradictions in urban planning and land-use. Individually, we are omnipotent, but socially, we are limited to opposing projects. (Protests and activism won’t by itself create something.) The converse is also true: collectively, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish, but we are generally helpless as individuals. And ironically, as I’ve said so often in recent posts we don’t much think about our habits and subconscious behavior that ultimately—at least while subconscious—has much more influence than our conscious acts as a member of a whole. That can change as soon as our thinking does: as our subconscious behavior turns into conscious actions, so will the shape and feel of our city, especially when we are armed with frank analysis of where we are in the global, local, and temporal scheme of things.

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The Dollar in Olympia’s Circulation*

*Or how the personification of Demand shapes our Community

I’ve written about our local economy previously. The recent theme here has been our subconscious behavior’s responsibility for the shape and feel of our city. In pursuing this argument, we briefly need to examine the circulation of money in our economy, as a piece of the larger global economy and as an entity within it.

Money in our hands has a fascinating life of its own. This chart describes a typical family’s spending habits.


Instead of the people with money in hand, imagine the converse: money, with people in tow. In any economy, people are swapping dollars in exchange for goods and services. Imagine a single dollar circulating through that economy, the paths it treads, where it goes, who carries it, spends it, saves it and otherwise removes it from or adds it to circulation. Imagine a dollar bill dropped as a tip at the Eastside Tavern, later used to by coffee at Olympia Coffee Roasting, Co., which in turn is given as change to someone who later donates it to the baby shower gift pool, which for that purpose is spent at one of the cutsey baby clothes stores around here, returning to the till until in a similar circuit over and over again until it is given out as change for someone in town for a gift and a quick beer at the Eastside. In the argument for a local economy, the general concept is the more of those dollars stay swirling around town, the better for the townspeople.

Does it really work that way? While this dollar is stilling in wallets and tills, a vast range of goods changes its relationship status—beer, clothing, coffee were all traveled from producer to consumer in exchange for that dollar. Until we start attaching iPhones to dollar bills, as well as the fictional credit that goes along with it, it’s tough to say where the money goes, but we can safely say that hard cash bills and coins circulate in the broader economy.

Recall a particularly poignant example slightly out of context:

We obtain our spending money from our salaries and in Olympia, it’s safe to say that a lot of that money comes into the community in the form of taxes from all over the state. Whether it stays in our local economy is up to us. As I’ve said a few times recently, keeping that circuit local depends on our conscious desire to keep it here. However, our consumer purchases tend to recede to the back burner of our conscious thought. Even when they come to the forefront of our conscious decision making, the data points of consideration turn more on economics than anything else. We have to consciously spend money differently if we want to shape the overall local consumer demand, which examples like these make me think is pretty similar to most other cities in the country.

Over the last five years, our community has seen an influx of non-local stores, and relatively constant turnover of the businesses owned by locals. Remember Rainer Organics? Trader Joes? Panera Bread? When we speak of demand, we’re talking about that collective behavior of our community driving these trends. Our actions are individual, but collectively, they shape the community. What does the circulation of our local dollars say about the present and future of city’s look and feel?  What is the likely result? Are we satisfied with these results?

Now for a more realistic appraisal. Sorry, for the shaky footage, but I’ve always loved this clip.

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Does New Urbanism Work in Olympia?

Here is an article that discusses the patterns of growth in a typical city. We could safely compare these patterns to what we see happening in Olympia and draw similar conclusions. These developments result from our behavior, intentional or otherwise as they are expressed in the market forces of supply and demand. City staff and planners, as well as developers in almost every city in this country believe operate under the assumption that well laid plans make the city. Through these mechanisms, that require public involvement, the people can determine their city’s course. This idea conflicts with reality.

Decades ago, the Department of Transportation, in the name of growth, builds a highway through a traditional neighborhood. The highway maintains its character — high speeds, wide lanes, channeled traffic — despite going through a developed urban neighborhood.

The city embraces the highway and the promise of prosperity it holds. Over the years and at tremendous expense, the city’s traffic engineering department converts the local streets to auto-centric corridors, widening lanes, removing on-street parking and eliminating sidewalks.

The city’s planning department promotes a “modern” land use code, complete with use-based zoning that reinforces a hierarchy of streets (local/collector/arterial), the need for off-street parking and makes much of the traditional development pattern non-conforming.

The state reinforces the horizontal growth pattern with subsidies for new infrastructure on the periphery and a property tax system that rewards dis-investment and decline with lower rates of taxation.

The federal government adds subsidies for single-family homes, energy and transportation to the mix, further reinforcing the horizontal nature of local growth.

In response, the city’s traditional neighborhoods stagnate and decline. The growth that is a natural byproduct of successful is now directed to the periphery. This only reinforces the dependency on the automobile as, perversely, residents of once-walkable neighborhoods with a variety of commercial options are now forced to drive to the periphery.

Further dis-investment. It makes no sense to live in a traditional neighborhood, or own a business in one, if you must drive everywhere anyway. There is no spatial advantage.  When a person of modest means can get a larger home, a larger lot and have the same conveniences — if not more — outside of town while paying lower taxes, it is rational that they will do so. Why stay? Further decline.

This is a marvelous recitation of the dominant development pattern that has held the United States captive since the conquest of the automobile mode of transit. Only a few urban areas have escaped this cycle, and notably, most of them were sufficiently developed in a previous epoch that was dependent on, and perpetuated, a different form of spatial organization.

This cycle in which we’re locked is difficult because there is no blueprint for escaping the automobile mode described above, though there are piles of literature about it online. Proponents of New Urbanism (a school of thought to which I belong), often proclaim successful examples, but they are very few and far between, and unfortunately they are often accompany controversial land-use decisions that often make it impossible separate a desirable theory from  its application in the particular place. In other words, these are supposed to be wonderful places to live, work, and raise a family, but neighbors complain about them, the city doesn’t understand them, and the consumers can’t afford them.

The problem with New Urbanism and New Urbanists arguments is they too often ignore the ambivalent attitude people have about the decisions people make in the range of housing choices, just like their lifestyle decisions, just like their professional work. For example, proponents of dense living in Olympia could live in huge, sprawling houses, nowhere near a dense development easily accessible to transit (in Thurston County, basically downtown). Proponents of local food systems in Olympia eat tomatoes in January. Environmentalist liberals drink bottled water and swear by Apple products produced under questionable conditions for the workers. And of course, there’s nothing better than the liberal guy who works in a biochemical or engineering firm plying his trade at tremendous but plausibly deniable personal fault. All of these examples of human ambivalence and irrationality demonstrate the problems of transcending the automobile epoch to the post-automobile epoch. It’s not so much that we don’t want to transcend this epoch, but we’re conflicted about it. And it’s hard enough to do even if we were resolved, because a huge segment of the economy is structured towards its continuation.

There’s no better example as far as I’m concerned that with our dear liberal Olympia’s parking issues that are so well documented. People here generally want a sustainable existence (if responses to surveys can be trusted), local farmers to fill the farmer’s market stalls, but they better not have to pay for parking and there better be plenty of it at the market full of local food. Who will deny the success of Hawkes Prairie and the continual decline of downtown Olympia even in the face of its strong local push, impressive marketing, and the attention it gets in the local papers? Until we reconcile these contradictions, we’re going to be spinning our wheels on the policy front and that means we’ll have difficulty reaching our goals assuming of course we can agree on them in the first place.

We actually have an example of it here in Olympia with Briggs Village. It will probably look nice but I don’t see the benefit of a master planned village in the relative middle of nowhere. It’s dense without the benefits of density. In fact, in this application we see the real shortcoming of trying to force urbanism. Just like you can’t create a person using the materials found in people, you can’t really make a city by putting buildings, streets, corners, and plazas together. Why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

New Urbanism is a beautiful theory, and has several success stories that are well deserved. However, I don’t believe it is able transcend the contraction of human behavior that I’ve described over the last couple of posts, and unfortunately I think it presents particular problems for Olympians.

What do you think?

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Above and Inside Olympia

The city made up of various buildings, organized by streets, and populated by the people. While we can interact with the city in its various spaces: the corners, plazas, squares, and other places people go, we cannot interact with the city while seeing it in its totality.  Here’s Las Vegas, for example, in its totality from a vantage point that renders interaction with it impossible:

It’s almost as if the city grows like an organism in a petri dish. If we adopt that analogy the question becomes what is the fuel for that ever-expanding outward growth? What perpetuates it? The patterns that these developments take are different in different countries, but tend to be very similar in cities of the United States where the geography allows it (i.e. where the growth’s tentacles don’t run into water or mountains, although less so in the latter’s case).

As people in the roles of the financier and developer take ownership, appropriate, and extract value out of the land, growth typically comes in the form of sprawl. Sprawl gives consumers less expensive housing, wide variety of spacious floor plans, and often a sense of security and convenience, not to mention a yard for the kids and dog. It has been the dominant form of housing production over the last 50-60 years. While that may be changing, it is still entrenched in Thurston County. Only in scale, would Thurston County  look that much different from the Las Vegas video over the same period of time.

Our city-organism that I describe here results from individual action that appears so chaotic is controlled by market forces personified as developers and regulators which are the personification of the community itself. The government should be the manifestation of citizen action, but our democratic process goes both ways: it can either be the citizens or the developers. Both are necessary, but in many communities the balance isn’t exactly healthy. (In our own community, for example I heard often enough on the OPC that the developers are absent.) Whatever the case, the development occurs in the form in question not because of developers, any more than it is due to smart or obtuse planners, or even community activists. It occurs because people buy the houses, shop at the stores, and otherwise undertake the role of consumers in this paradigm. These consumers are the only absolutely necessary ingredient because they provide the fuel that drives the process itself.

This growth is a continuation of a process that began here 150 years ago. Imagine the initial homestead land claims. Imagine the parceling out of various lots. Imagine the guy 100 years ago who decides to build a store and live in the second floor. These are the individual actions which ultimately create a town or city. They continue on an individual level expressed socially to this very moment. Therefore we need to observe the development not only spatially, but temporally.

It is extremely difficult to believe that through some kind of coordinated comprehensive plan, we could change the behaviors that weed out undesirable expressions of growth—at least when those processes elicit conscious desires—because at issue is individual actions that are inseparable from the whole. The city of Olympia has spent thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars and staff hours with the idea of somehow furthering the creation a desirable city. I spent what seems now like hundreds of volunteer hours thinking that was possible. Assuming the planning process is sound (and I wrote several pieces about my disgust with the SMA, and hear now that the planning commission is repeating most of the problems again with the comprehensive plan update) these public processes are still a sideshow to what is really going on. Regardless of planning efforts, the same developments that are discouraged through these public processes continue because the fuel that drives them are individual consumer choices, that are not even connected consciously by those who undertake them.

So we’re left with the uncomfortable notion that while the individual—including fictional individuals like corporations—can shape the city by building particular projects, there is little that the city (if we consider that the collection of the individuals who comprise it manifested through the municipal government) can do to shape itself consciously.

I’ve concluded that our subconscious behavior shapes the city much more than our conscious actions, things like our desire for more space and yard at a price we can pay, how we satisfy our hunger, and desires we have for our consumer-ables, and the uncompromising desire for an easy parking space, have more to do with our city looks and feels than what we say we want. I leave you with a question: what individual action can we take to make our city closer to the one we want it to be?

Update: I revised the first paragraph after initial publishing. The revision will hopefully clarify my point.

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The Story of Olympia’s Development

Can the development of a city be reduced to a coherent narrative? What would drive that story? Who are the characters? These questions interest me because it’s necessary to put ourselves into that story at some point if we want to have some influence over its conclusion. This was the reason I joined the OPC; it was the reason I left the OPC; and the thoughts I have on these questions compel me to write here.

In many previous posts here, I followed the OPC’s meetings and agendas in an attempt to keep an eye on how the policies that supposedly shape our future are crafted. (Thankfully, the city’s recent technology is making it very easy to follow everything without someone like me keeping up with the thousands of OPC meetings.) We have also kept abreast of various developments by observing permit applications and construction projects. Typically, someone trying to follow a city’s development uses some combination of these two methods to tell the story of their city. There is value to both of these methods, but both concentrate on the surface appearance without really telling the story as far as I’m concerned.

My objection is simple. The succession of construction projects does not create the city any more than a group of people sitting around to discuss policy at regularly scheduled meetings. A city that people love arises from their collective—though rarely coordinated—behavior and action as individuals within that city. In that statement we collapse the major contradiction of planning and municipal development: it’s our subconscious behavior and as I’ll argue over the next few posts, rarely our conscious behavior that makes the city what it is. Over the next few posts I hope to offer some conclusions about our dear Olympia’s development in whole and in its component parts. I hope to provide some guidance in our understanding of how we can improve what we don’t like about Olympia, and how we might maintain what we do.

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Keeping an Eye on the Olympia City Council

The City of Olympia has offered some additional tools by which we can keep track of public meetings. One of my final meetings on the planning commission was a presentation of the new Granicus system for archiving, locating, indexing, using, the agendas and minutes from previous meetings as well as keeping oneself apprised of future meetings. The system isn’t up and running completely, but it’s not too early to take a look at what is in store.

This link takes you to future meetings of the OPC. (I found this by clicking on the URL associated with the City Council meetings.) If you scroll down to click on the City Council meeting archives, you’ll be in for a wealth of minutes and agendas, as well as the videos for those meetings. Nice!

I recall hearing, but perhaps erroneously, that the OPC meetings will be likewise archived (audio only). This will be valuable to the four or five people who pay attention to the OPC absent a controversial land use decision. Much more important than the OPC and other advisory committees will be the availability of the council committees (e.g. Land Use, General Government etc.).  The current .zip files which have loads of staff reports–in fact all for the week–are a bit clunky when there are so many better technology options around.

What do you think?

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A Favorite Downtown Olympia Walk

I am a frequent user of the pedestrian and public-transit modes of transportation. As some of you may know by now, I’ve decided to move my office from Fourth and Washington up the Eastside hill near the Olympian building and because of that, one of my favorite downtown walks will no longer be a part of my regular work-week programming. The walk in question begins at the Security Building and ends at the Lee Creighton Justice Center (i.e. the old City Hall building at 900 Plum). Here are some landmarks that I’ll miss:

The back-end of the newly refurbished Artesian Well. (Imagine it without the parking!)

The Fish Brewing Company–especially when the brewing is in full progress.

I always loved this bench that, on the day in question, David Sanborn’s Voyeur saw fit to occupy.

Next of course is the mouth watering SouthBay BBQ, whose move to its current location, and subsequent revitalization of a warehouse is the stuff that belongs in every town of Olympia’s size.

Posted in Comprehensive Plan, Local Economy | 2 Comments

Thus Spoke Olympia’s Ambivalence

I have been critical of Olympia’s urban development (or lack thereof ) on this blog. The reason is during my tenure on the planning commission—which by the way will apparently be reduced to nine members going forward—I concluded that people in this community are completely ambivalent if not hostile to the idea in the first place.

For example, density is a scary word in the land use concept in this town. It was often used as a code word for developments like the proposed Larida Passage which featured luxury condominium towers on the isthmus parcels  Furthermore, the description “Small Town Feel” was the single most used term to describe what Olympians wanted to maintain in Comprehensive Plan Update. There are a thousand ways to contextualize that description but it appeared to me that usually it meant the kind of growth that TRPC envisioned was not desirable. (In my less generous moments, I figure it means that Olympians want free parking and conveniently motorized accessibility, from one sector of the town to the next.)

On the other hand, people also voiced a strong desire for a sustainable Olympia with most of the “green” components that entailed (e.g. less oil on the supply chain, local food production, and neighborhood developments that allow for a variety of transportation options like walking and cycling).

This is the talk and it was as healthy an exercise in community outreach as I have experienced since living in Olympia. There was no dividing line between the for-the-proposal or against-the-proposal crowds as is so typical in a land use actions. Instead, people were encouraged to articulate their aspirations about the future of their city, which naturally assumes that they think about these aspirations prior to writing them out.

If in fact we can draw conclusions from our stated desires, are those reflective of what we really want? Most of the time, I don’t believe our actions and words are consistent. In a context like land use, I think we have to look at general social trends to determine what we really want. In our economic system, market viability is the determining factor rather than what we say we want. (Do we really think McDonald’s is gross, and do we really care about poorly paid workers producing our consumables?) A condominium developer will not develop a parcel because people in Olympia write her letters asking for downtown housing, but if they send in a deposit on a new unit–I guarantee you–the proposal will be in front of the commercial credit department of every single bank in the state. That’s just the way it works.

If this piece on the Port’s potential acquisition near the Farmer’s Market is any indication, Olympia is not moving closer to our stated desire, but we can at least comfort ourselves with the notion that we’re getting what we actually want (more parking):

Note also that Parcel 605 just to the south is part of the concept. From The Olympian:

Port executive director Ed Galligan said his agency is interested in acquiring additional parking space near the farmers market to meet changing needs in the city’s north downtown.

“We really need parking for the farmers market and development down there,” Galligan said. “We’ve been shifting vendors back and forth down there every time a situation comes up.’’

Galligan said the larger of the two parcels on Northeast Washington Street would be resold immediately to LOTT Clean Water Alliance for storage tanks to handle overflows during storms at its stormwater and sewer treatment facility. The preliminary purchase agreement lists the value of the latter parcel at $550,000.

The port’s property deal has been kept a bit under wraps, but Galligan said the port’s interest in the properties has been publicly known for years. A staff presentation to the Olympia Port Commission is planned Monday.

A long-term possibility for one or both of the parcels could be a parking structure. Galligan said there also has been interest – going back as far as five years – in developing the Fish and Wildlife property in such a way. One vision, which drew private developers’ interest before the recent economic downturn, would have put retail shops on the street level and parking on upper floors, Galligan said.

On the other hand, the city presents the stated-desire as an alternative which of course doesn’t necessarily need to answer to market dynamics in considering these kinds of projects:

The state has a third Fish and Wildlife parcel along Capitol Way in downtown Olympia that contains offices still in use. Olympia City Manager Steve Hall says the city doesn’t have money at this time to purchase that $1.5 million lot and building, but it is seeking a grant from the Department of Ecology to explore the environmental conditions at the site for a possible future purchase.

“It’s a really important piece of property in our downtown’s redevelopment,’’ Hall said, suggesting the city could potentially team up with a private developer to get a housing project going. “Our ideal is a mixed-use development with some market-rate housing and some retail – probably ground-floor retail.’’

Let’s assume that we get both more parking, perhaps even a parking garage next to the Farmer’s Market as well as the mixed use project nearby. I’d call this attempting to have one’s cake and eat it too. It’s impossible to mitigate the problems associated with excessive auto-use by building more capacity for it any more than one loses weight by wearing larger clothing sizes. With more parking capacity, we simply encourage more people to drive. This altogether makes a mixed-use building next door less desirable (and perhaps even less financially viable) because the entire concept of a mixed use development that includes housing depends on favorable urban amenities that make living in the development more–or at least as–interesting as in a spacious house from which you can easily drive to the Farmer’s Market anyway. Thus spoke Olympia’s ambivalence.

So what do you want to see happen to the parcel, and more importantly, do you know anyone ready to move in if the city’s ideal is realized on that third parcel?

Posted in Comprehensive Plan, Local Economy, Public Participation | 3 Comments