On The Rise:

City Hall Wants a Denser, More Affluent Downtown—What Will It Mean for Us?

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By Issac Scott

After dark on Friday night, downtown Olympia bustles and hums with a disoriented mood that creeps out from cafes and bars, casting in stark relief the city’s conflicting identities.

Olympia is the flowing spring of Northwest outsider art and radical activism. Drums echo through an alley murmuring with graffiti and cans and cigarette butts. Twenty-somethings clad in stained thrift store attire linger smoking beside a sea foam doorway, watching their friends hustle amps and instruments inside.

Is it an “All American City,” as the sign on the freeway welcoming visitors likes to declare, or is it consumed by heroin and poverty? A family steps out of a theater, a mother ushering her children hurriedly to the car, past tattooed kids petitioning for spare change and hassling traffic. Two stern police officers wander through the crowd, stopping to question a slouching crew clasping open containers.

Maybe it’s the seat of Washington politics? State workers and business people chat over craft beer and gourmet burgers on the sleek patio of a new brewery, warm light reflecting in the industrial windows of loft apartments.

Above that scene, a crane rises illuminated from the concrete shell and scaffolding of a new building, under construction at Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street. Reaching seven floors, the 123-4th Building will be the tallest addition to Olympia’s skyline since 1972, maxing out the city’s building height limits. When it opens next spring, it promises 138 deluxe apartment units with new shops and cafes at ground level, designed to attract affluent professionals to the block.

If Olympia feels like it’s entering an identity crisis, then the city’s urban planning process helps to explain why. City planners and developers have big ideas to reshape Olympia into a denser, more affluent regional center, and the politics of downtown is at the heart of the upheaval.

When it comes to city planning, the Comprehensive Plan is the city’s most basic text, putting to code what it says are the community’s values, goals, and identity. It outlines in extensive detail how Olympia should grow over the next two decades: where more houses and apartments should be built, what natural areas should be preserved, where there should be more buses and bikes lines, where people should live and work. (You can look at the Plan online.)

The new edition of the Comprehensive Plan was just approved in December, extending city’s vision to 2035. It goes through a laborious revision and update process every 20 years.

What is clear from the new Plan is that Olympia is on the edge of rapid population growth and urbanization. In the next 20 years, the city expects 20,000 new residents to move to town, double the rate of growth since 1995, a 50 percent increase in residents between now and 2035. And if rising costs in nearby cities and climate change in nearby states drives people en masse to Olympia, that number could be much higher.

Downtown will likely be at the crux of the growth, with population in that neighborhood expected to more than triple. Rather than keep building urban sprawl outward into strip malls and highways, the city wants to build up downtown into a denser, more vibrant city center. Indeed, the city government hopes that at least a quarter of new residents over the next two decades will live there, meaning about 5,000 people could be moving downtown. That’s a giant increase in the number of people living there—right now only about 2,000 people live in the neighborhood, just four percent of the city’s population—and city hall is rolling out new policies and programs to encourage the redevelopment of downtown buildings into housing.

“By focusing our employment and population growth into centers and corridors, we can support transit, save money, and preserve rural lands in our county,” said Amy Buckner, Olympia’s senior planner. In April, she gave a presentation at city hall outlining plans to create a Downtown Strategy, which will gather public input on specific measures to accommodate for population growth, starting next fall. The city government, she said, imagines a denser downtown where more people will be able to walk or bike to work and shopping, rather than drive, and enjoy a greater variety of cultural amenities.

Housing in downtown has already increased dramatically in the past year, with 210 housing units either newly open or under construction, representing a more than 16 percent increase in overall housing stock. All of these new units are shifting the balance between affordable and upscale housing in downtown. Until recently, 80 to 85 percent of housing there was either directly subsidized or classified as affordable housing. Now that number is closer to 70 percent. And city officials want to see even more market rate housing built going forward.

For many, these changes trigger fears of gentrification and rent hikes similar to the transformations seen in cities like Seattle and Portland, threatening Olympia’s identity as an affordable cultural hub. As the economy picks up speed after a nearly decade-long recession, Olympia is sandwiched between two of the fastest growing cities in the country. In Seattle—which just overtook Boston in population—rent and housing prices are quickly climbing out of reach. Investors from all over the world are pouring money into the Puget Sound real estate market, fueling worries that gentrification will metastasize to Washington’s capitol, foreshadowed by projects like the 123-4th Building.

“Olympia is in a weird transition phase,” Max Brown told me recently over lunch at a taqueria in Tumwater. Brown is one of the people heavily involved in strategizing Olympia’s future as chair of the Olympia Planning Commission, a group of volunteers appointed by the City Council to advise them on implementing the Comprehensive Plan and a variety of other planning issues. “We want to see our downtown transition a little bit, but we don’t want to lose our culture in Olympia. People do want to see a safer downtown, but not at the expense of turning us into a city that we’re not.”

Brown is something of rising prodigy in the Olympia political scene. A boyish 25 year old, it only took him a couple months after joining the Planning Commission to be elected its youngest ever chair. He’s an almost cartoonishly wholesome guy. Married to his sweetheart from Capitol High School, he’s a vegan and a triathlete. When I asked if he planned to run for City Council, he shrugged it off with a modest smile, citing obligations to his young family.

“I’ve heard from the community that Olympia has its quirks and its problems, but that’s also what makes Olympia unique,” he said. “So how do you hold that tension between having a safer, more welcoming downtown for families, where it doesn’t become corporate, yuppy, you know, Kirkland or something? Olympia has its own culture and you have to make sure it doesn’t die.”

In trying to get a wider segment of Olympians to live downtown, city hall is working aggressively to address perceptions that downtown is dangerous and unclean. That narrative was reinforced by a high-profile article The Olympia ran in September 2014 by Andy Hobbs titled “Downtown Olympia: Taking back the streets.” It depicted the neighborhood as becoming overrun with frightening criminals, drug addicts, and transients, sidewalks littered with dirty needles, and “blood on business doors.”

“The city is a center for government and commerce, culture and entertainment. In recent years, it’s also grown a grittier side,” Hobbs wrote. “The homeless and the criminal are blamed for driving people from downtown, forcing retailers to close and keeping police hopping.”

Recently, the city has put forward efforts like the Downtown Ambassador Program, police walking patrols, increased penalties for drug possession, banning camping on city property, and anti-graffiti teams in attempts to render the neighborhood more palatable to middle class sensibilities. Critics say these measures criminalize homeless and other marginalized people, and tend to exacerbate social issues rather than solve them.

But how unsafe is downtown really, and has it become suddenly more dangerous? In numbers, Olympia’s crime rate has actually been on the decline for the past two decades, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, which releases an annual report tracking crime across the state. In 2013, Olympia’s crime rate hit its lowest point since records began in 1980, although 2014 did see an apparently anomalous spike in incidents. While property crimes, like burglary and theft, are a bit more common than national averages, the violent crime rate in Olympia has always been well below the country as a whole. And Olympia altogether remains one of the safest cities in the state, statistically much safer than many nearby towns, including Shelton, Bremerton, Aberdeen, Longview, and Centralia.

Meg Martin, program director of Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, told me stigmas around homelessness and mental illness have fueled political action to push vulnerable and low-income populations out of downtown on the premise of improving safety. She has been involved with street outreach in Olympia for over seven years, much of that time with the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Program, and at Interfaith Works, which offers shelter to the city’s most vulnerable populations at a church at Franklin Street and Seventh Avenue.

“Any problems that we have are actually the same kind of problems that all places in our country are having right now,” Martin said. “In our city, there’s been a conversation for a long, long time that there’s, like, a concentration of undesirable people downtown, and we need to figure out how to get them out.”

Downtown’s reputation as a place where homeless people congregate is borne out in the numbers. Olympia has many times the national rate of homelessness, absorbing the vast majority of Thurston County’s homeless population, according to the Thurston County Homeless Census. In 2014, the Homeless Census counted 499 homeless people in the county, with 70 percent of those people in Olympia. That means at least 0.8 percent of Olympians were homeless last year, compared to 0.2 percent of all people in the United States.

“When people get stressed out about anything, it’s a natural human tendency to make rules to control the environment,” she said. “On a city level, that’s when you start to see criminalization of homelessness, criminalization of people of color—that’s when cities start to gentrify areas, which moves people out who have been there for ever and ever.”

Martin said that although some newer community groups, like SideWalk and Interfaith Works, have helped introduce more effective solutions to homelessness—like directly offering people housing—in Olympia, other kinds of social services have become less accessible due to political pressure to push those who need them out of downtown.

“What I’ve seen is we’ve gotten smarter about social services,” Martin told me. “But what I’ve also seen is that we’ve gotten even less access to chemical dependency treatment and we’ve gotten even less access to mental health services. So I’ve noticed in my time here that there’s a lot more really serious mental health symptoms happening downtown. And that’s a direct result of the restriction of access to services.”

Martin argues that the city could effectively ameliorate homelessness in Olympia by funding rapid-rehousing programs to get people off the street and connect them with social services.

When I talked to Keith Stahley, director of Olympia’s Community Development and Planning Department, he agreed that safety and economic conditions in downtown have a been a focal point of public debate for a long time in Olympia.

“Someone here had an article from a newspaper from 1994, and it had the exact same concerns,” Stahley told me. “It has been a place where there has been conflict in the past between different kinds of users.”

Enthusiastically, he showed me color-coded map of Olympia indicating public and private investment in downtown. Since 1994, the city has poured tens of millions of dollars into downtown—the Artesian Commons ($253,000), the Heritage Fountain ($4 million), Percival Landing ($17 million), the 4th Ave Bridge ($36 million)—in the hopes of attracting private development, which is now coming to fruition with projects like the 123-4th Building. The sleek new city hall at Fourth Avenue and Cherry Street, where Stahley and I met in his office, set the city back a whopping $55 million.

“In the past four or five years, we’ve really focused our efforts on making improvements downtown. That’s out of a simple recognition that it is an important place,” Stahley said. “It’s where our waterfront is, where our state government is, where we have most of our cultural and historic resources. We want to make sure it’s a place where all people feel comfortable.”

He excitedly pointed out the Cunningham Building, centrally located at Fourth Avenue and Adams Street, as an example of what the city’s desired urban renewal looks like. Until recently, the building had been vacant for years, its windows boarded up and paint peeling, a symbol of urban blight in downtown.

“We thought it was going to fall down or catch on fire,” Stahely told me.

In 2014, a Portland-based developer who took an interest in Olympia’s downtown acquired the property and renovated it. Now the building offers hip studio apartments, and the Deschutes River Cyclery just moved in to the ground floor, next to a hair salon and a shop that sells fancy olive oils.

But to live there costs $625 a month for only 350 square feet of space, equaling about $1.85 per square foot. Even quickly browsing Craigslist for housing nearby, I found a two-bedroom house three times the size of the Cunningham apartment for just over $1000 a month, about $1.12 per square foot. The contrast between the new and the old is even more stark when you consider the large proportion of people in downtown who depend upon government subsidies to pay their rent.

It remains to be seen if higher-end housing projects will even be able to attract renters in Olympia. Apartments at 123-4th will likely cost closer to $2 a square foot, based on the “designer finishes,” “landscaped plaza,” and  “water, mountain and city views” touted by their website. The concept image of the apartment looks like a chic Bellevue pad, with elegant wood floors and a naturalistic modern color scheme. (The architects and developers of the building are based in the Seattle area, with money from Chinese investors.)

Despite hints of trendy new development and city policies aimed at gentrifying downtown, Brown and other involved in city planning doubt Olympia will see a real estate boom on the scale of Seattle or Tacoma in the near future. Even with the population growth predicted in the Comprehensive Plan, Olympia’s cost of living will likely stay relatively stable for the time being.

“If anybody’s going to see it last, it’s going to be Olympia,” Brown told me. “Seattle’s the target and the further away you get the less likely we are to see a lot of development. I don’t think Olympia’s going to see a major boom. It’s not our city, it’s not our market.”

Economically, the city is inextricably linked to the state government, which is the largest employer in the Thurston County. More than a third of non-agriculture workers in the county are employed by Washington state, according to the State Employment Security Office. With Washington strapped for cash, despite the national economic recovery, a flood of new money into Olympia driving up prices seems improbable.

“We’re so dependent on state income, and last time I checked we’re not getting any raises,” Brown said with a laugh.

Additionally, with the public sharply divided on development and city planning issues, political support for changing city codes and regulations to make the overnight transformation of downtown Olympia into a mini-Bellevue is unlikely to materialize.

When I talked to Roger Horn, the longest serving member of the Olympia Planning Commission, he told me that public opposition has dampened attempts at what he sees as downtown revitalization.
Two of the biggest recent controversies were over proposed high-rise condominiums on the isthmus, and legally-questionable closed-door meetings city officials held with developers.

In 2008, public opposition to the proposed condos ousted a number of elected officials and became a focal point of subsequent elections. Critics argued that the condos would obstruct prized views of the sound and the Olympic Mountains, and could be built in any number of other downtown lots, particularly since the isthmus is vulnerable to flooding and climate change-related sea level rise.

“The public went nuts,” Horn told me. “The Council completely turned over. I won’t say it’s 100 percent because of that issue, but within a few years the Council totally turned over and that became a big election issue, of whether you supported or opposed tall buildings on the isthmus.”

Last year, city planning controversy boiled over again, when then-Commissioner Judy Bardin spoke out against closed-door meetings city officials held with developers. The meetings, which included mayor Stephen Buxbaum, and members of the City Council, Planning Department, and Planning Commission, were directly ahead of a vote on changing zoning codes that would have benefited the developers. The Planning Commissioner who organized the meetings was on one of the developer’s payroll as a consultant at the time. Critics, like Olympia Power & Light’s Matthew Green, argued the meetings flouted laws requiring city government meetings to be open to the public and on the record, and that they were intended to hash out secret deals to benefit the developers.

“I just pointed out that I thought the meetings should’ve been open to the public,” Bardin, who is now running for City Council, told me recently. “We should conduct our business in front of the public eye. I questioned having the meetings designed so that there wasn’t a quorum. It didn’t seem open or transparent.”

“The land use decisions we make now will have impacts for generations to come,” Bardin said. “I really think we need to bring our neighborhoods and our communities into the decision-making process.”

When I asked Brown about the meetings, he maintained that the conversation did not touch on any individual projects, but was a general discussion of how the city could better facilitate development. He told me that the meetings stemmed from frustration at city hall over lack of communication between city government, developers, and other segments of the community. Developers had been invited to speak at public meetings, he said, but were hesitant to talk on the record because of the history of public antagonism toward them, such as during the isthmus controversy.

With more city planning decisions to be made as Olympia’s population grows, communities with a stake in downtown’s future face an important choice: either get involved now to shape the direction of development and policy in the city, or organize later against decisions made on behalf of those already invested in the process.

“I think the biggest challenge is—well, have you ever been to a Planning Commission meeting?” Brown asked me. I shook my head. “They’re boring as hell.”

The open house on the Downtown Strategy I went to did offer free fruit and cookies, but I was certainly an outlier in a crowd whose median age I estimated at around 50. With a lack of younger people involved in the process, it’s no wonder the city’s plans seem geared toward the middle-aged and retired: they’re the ones who show up.

In our conversation, Roger Horn asked me what concerns I hear at Evergreen around development and city politics. Through writing this article, many students told me they were afraid of gentrification and the criminalization of homelessness, and losing Olympia’s arts culture if rents rise.

He nodded in acknowledgement. “It would be great it Evergreen would come get involved,” he said, “rather than criticizing from the outside.”

Max Brown echoed this sentiment. “I think Olympia is often defined by what we’re against as opposed to what we’re for, and that’s just how we work,” he told me. “Instead of trying to figure out where can we come to common agreement and start figuring out how we can move forward as a community without getting stuck in the past. I think we’re getting closer to that point but we’re not there yet.”