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?

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3 Responses to Thus Spoke Olympia’s Ambivalence

  1. Terrence Zander says:

    ,,,,”the kind of growth that TRPC envisioned was not desirable.” Would you please put more flesh on those bones. What kind of growth was not desirable? I don’t see much ambivalence in what people say they want. No large, boxy buildings in downtown, no matter how economically viable they are. Rich people don’t always get their way just because they have money to throw around. I, for one, don’t have much money and would not want a condo even if I did, but I still want my voice to be heard regardless of how much money I pass around.
    Secondly, people say they want more ‘people’ friendly transportation options like bike & pedestrian & mass transit. And, too, less pandering to cars, which have become “an almighty
    god”, second only to money in our culture (well maybe third behind political lying). Still, is the planning based on the premise that “if you build it, they will come.” We heard that argument with housing. In fact a few years ago one member of the city council, standing up for development of an area north of town, said he was speaking for those who were not here yet.
    If you can work within those parameters you will probably be within striking distance of most people’s desires. Except maybe not those who drive big SUV’s & Ford 250’s.

    • Mark Derricott says:

      Thanks for commenting! I’m with you on most of what you said: wealthy make too many calls in a capitalistic society; if you build it they will come is a farce, etc.

      I don’t pretend to have answers. I’m only trying to point out difficult problems in the county’s land-use. Market based planning is ugly, haphazard, and not very sustainable, but it’s basically all we have.

      It’s been well documented that people who have responded to the city’s outreach efforts, who testified to the planning commission, and who submitted written comments, want a vibrant downtown. I have said that enough times on the blog that I didn’t make it clear on this post (blogging is method, not presentation).

      Likewise with the TRPC numbers: TRPC thinks a lot of people are going to move into the area over the next 20 years. Olympia is obligated to “plan” for that under the GMA so assuming of course that such growth occurs, we have an opportunity and a potential crisis in attempting to accommodate them. (Let me know if you’re interested in reading these documents and I’ll post them later. Otherwise, have a look at their website.

      It’s clear that most Olympians aren’t in favor of sprawling suburban developments which gobble up farms and open spaces. It’s also clear that most Olympians, like you, don’t want to live in, or necessarily see boxy condominiums downtown–or perhaps anywhere else in the city limits. Can we have it both ways? These contradicting opinions seem to be the definition of ambivalence to me.

  2. YLlama says:

    It’s clear that most Olympians live in sprawling suburban developments, including those on the close-in West- and Eastside neighborhoods. Bigelow was the sprawling suburbia of the 1800s. The only difference is when the farms and open spaces were gobbled up. Frankly, anyone who lives in a single-family detached home with a mini-private grassy park is thereby contradicting any professed love of non-automobile transportation or sustainable growth.

    As much as I’m not a fan of City Hall architecturally–dull, listless, and vaguely distateful that it is–at least they’re on the right track. What I’d love to see are all the parking lots downtown replaced with minimum three-story buildings. But I’m in the minority. Because most Olympians are, to use your term, ambivalent.

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