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?