On Olympia’s Neighborhood “Retail” Centers

I prefer to discuss neighborhood centers in the context of overall development in Olympia, but given that the iron is hot, and I am behind in my pieces on the spatial and temporal side of development I’ll take this one out of turn.

You’ll notice the white paper on Neighborhood Development which does a good job of laying out the issues from the city’s perspective. When I look at these issues in application to Olympia, I cannot miss a potentially irreconcilable tension: Olympians want urban amenities like neighborhood retail centers, but do not want the density on which they depend.

As I’ve said early and often, we Olympians love our “small town feel”. This is well documented in almost all of the outreach programs through which the city solicits public comment. In some cases, it goes beyond just the desire to maintain a quiet and livable city: several comments I read encouraged the city not to accommodate TRPC’s projected 20,000 new Olympia residents by 2025. The double edged sword of life with other people is that not all desires are mutually inclusive—some people’s desires won’t be gratified.

I think it’s necessary to flesh out my personal views on this subject before I analyze the neighborhood retail concept, because I don’t want my comments to be taken for anything else than the personal opinions they are. Like many of you, I have lived in Seattle and similarly urban environments for the majority of my life since childhood. Olympia was the first city I lived in since I was 18 that has fewer than 2,000,000 people. I spent almost three years in Moscow, Russia where the population was over 10,000,000 people. Furthermore, I have spent at least a couple of weeks in many major European cities (London, Paris, Stockholm, Geneva, Zurich, Milan, Rome, Frankfurt, Hamburg, St. Petersburg etc.) mostly for professional reasons. I also grew up in as mundane a suburb as has ever existed. As a result, I developed a love for a good urban area and hatred for suburbs. I’ve lived at least 15 years in apartments in large cities and sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. Now I live in a house. Sometimes I love it, but like this weekend, when the crawl space beckoned, I wondered why I wasn’t reading a book in Sokolniki Park instead.

I like walking and taking the bus, and I hate driving. On the other hand, I hate trendy sushi joints and wine bars for tourists and the wealthy, but neighborhood bars, cafés, coffee shops, and delis that the locals (and Rickniks) patronize. I hate the uniformity and conformity and suburbs. Paradoxically, or perhaps obviously, while I miss some of those things about the urban areas I’ve visited, I don’t generally miss the urban environment in Olympia because it does have elements of both. We enjoy surburban-car accessibility which is convenient until the morning we wake up to realize we have to wait three changes of the light to get through an intersection and the freeway entrance is backed up to the driveway. The best coffee I’ve ever had anywhere is here, as is one of the best selections of microbrew IPA’s in Cascadia. I love Olympia’s laid back environment which is radically different from what Seattle has become (as opposed to what it might once have been). I do miss activity in the mornings when I’m hopping off the bus to walk into my office. A little more fresh bread smell, people with overcoats and umbrellas, and newspapers would make being downtown a much more lively affair.

For me, Olympia is a paradoxical reconciliation between an urban and suburban environment. There are elements of both, but because you can’t freeze time, those things are bound to change. Luckily, we adopt comprehensive plans because we want to make sure that we have a hand in that change as community members and private citizens. And one of those suggestions has been neighborhood retail centers. First of all, what is that? From the paper:

“…small scale neighborhood-oriented businesses will be established in residential neighborhoods for the convenience of area residents.”


[N]eighborhood centers, including recreation areas, to vary by neighborhood, depending upon location, access, neighborhood character, local desires, and market opportunities. Limit commercial uses in neighborhood villages to businesses that primarily cater to neighborhood residents, such as small grocery stores, personal and professional services, dry cleaners, day care facilities, small banks, video shops, cafes, and small bakeries. Prohibit auto-oriented uses which are not primarily oriented to the neighborhood, including “drive-through” businesses which serve customers in their vehicles

A quick read will yield the contradiction—is there such a thing as small banks anymore? Do viable small grocery stores exist? Professional services? I’d suggest that depression therapists might be appropriate in suburban locations given the pervasive though undiagnosed demand. We’re all familiar with the San Francisco Street bakery and each of us would love to have one in our neighborhood, but if we all did, would any one of them be able to survive? Would we like people driving around our neighborhoods looking for a bakery or coffee shop that a friend recommended especially when that might mean they would be texting while our children are playing in the street? What about parking in front of the house? (Full disclosure: I don’t have children and I never text while driving.) What about people smoking cigarettes on the other side of your fence or speaking loudly over early morning coffee while recounting the previous night’s still continuing exploits? Who enjoys the din of commercial refrigerator preserving the next day’s cream filled pastries?

On the other side, would you as a developer, want to apply for a permit for a zoning and comprehensive plan change to develop a commercial center in the middle of a neighborhood? This I believe is the one area where the city actually has a role—but I’m sure that if people were applying for permits, citizens would be supporting rather than proposing neighborhood retail.

Finally, as a retailer, be it a chain or single outlet, would you want to locate in a neighborhood retail center? I’d say if you were the former, there’s almost no chance you’d ever want to locate in a neighborhood center. Aside from difficulties associated with scaling such an approach, there are powerful forces working against you—not the least of which would be your tenant’s broker. If you were the latter, would you consider a location buried somewhere in the eastside or westside neighborhood far away from the arterials that would bring your customers to you? (I’m not going to pretend that most shoppers and eaters in Olympia won’t come by car.) In fact, but for a laundromat, I can’t think of any other viable concept in a neighborhood center. I actually lived across the street from a long time laundromat/bar in Seattle that I personally witnessed turn into a cheap watering hole until the city alcohol regulations forced it to start serving food, at which point it become a trendy BBQ joint. While I loved the $14 sweet potato fries, I rarely went there after the change—not because of the expensive food, but because of the crowds of people drooling over it.

The white paper’s author seems to understand these contradictions and does a good job of attempting to transcend them. Their suggested policy recommendation?

The preferred option is a hybrid. The Comprehensive Plan should […] support a citywide review of neighborhood-scale businesses. Design guidelines for new development could feasibly be addressed through neighborhood/small-area plans that capture the unique characteristics of our older neighborhoods, both in terms of the built and natural environments. Neighborhood/small area plans may also be the place to address Home-based businesses as a means to create “third places” and neighborhood-scale businesses.

Home-based business regulations should be relaxed to the extent possible. We should embrace anything that might foster small scale business startups and if people can run these out of their homes more easily, that is certainly a step in the direction that citizens say they want to go. On the other hand, another white paper, distributed simultaneously with this one, wasn’t so sanguine about the potential of neighborhood/small area plans. I imagine this contradiction can be reconciled more easily than those congealed in Olympia’s pre or quasi-urban urbanism.

Despite the above, I do believe there are options. We’ll discuss them later.

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