Posted April 26, 2017 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

City Finalized Downtown Design Guidelines

By Jasmine Kozak-Gilroy

Recent events like the removal of the parklet in front of Burial Grounds and the wall a local business owner built around her neighboring spice shop have peaked my curiosity about the City of Olympia’s downtown Strategy and the city’s priorities for downtown. On Wednesday, April 12 I attended the City downtown Design Guidelines update open house in an attempt to glean more information about the City’s downtown project and the conversation in the broader Olympia community.

The downtown project is the broad name for a collection of separate plans all aimed at accomplishing the City’s established vision for downtown. The vision is repeated over and over again on their website and pamphlets in several different variations. One version, a narrative statement encompassing the vision in terms of what local residents deem important states, “Olympians value neighborhoods with distinct identities; historic buildings and places; a walkable and comfortable downtown; increased urban green space; locally produced food; and public spaces for citizens in neighborhoods, downtown, and along our shorelines.” The list of guiding principles provided on the City’s website for the downtown Olympia area mimics this statement almost exactly, but also includes a point relating to affordable housing—“Ensure that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can live downtown”. Despite this holistic vision, the plans themselves revolve around increasing economic development and providing the grounds for new development. Growth in density is considered a priority in order to provide the living spaces necessary for a growing Olympia population.

The downtown design guidelines are being updated in accordance with this vision and, when finalized, could theoretically dictate what developers can and cannot build, and will provide direction and recommendations for what both public and private development projects should build. In cities around the world, localized building codes and guidelines have been used to limit the destruction of historic buildings and the aesthetic homogenization of neighborhoods and towns.

The open house was divided into two parts, the first of which was a short update on the status of the guidelines, which will be recommended to City Council for them to vote on April 25. The second portion was a forum made up of a general discussion and then an exercise that involved the moderator showing the audience different theoretical buildings and design ideas and having the audience rate the design’s viability for different parts of downtown. Voting was done using small remote controls which allowed for the results to be broadcasted on the screen immediately, voting was followed by a short discussion about what attendees liked or disliked about the design idea.

During the discussion participants were asked to contribute desires and concerns for development in downtown. When asked what folks were concerned about in terms of development, one audience member sited “Gentrification,” to which the moderator replied, “Certainly the social issues, right,” before moving on, looking for other answers. In general the conversation was directed towards conversations centered around aesthetics and tackling the issue of a need for density in order to house the population of in Olympia as is expected to grow in the coming years.

A couple of people in a crowd of 30 or so brought up concerns around access to fresh, affordable food downtown, asking that the city work towards maintaining access to real food. One community member saying they hoped that the city would “not allow food deserts”, a comment that was also touched on in several discussions relating to the lack of access to affordable groceries downtown, and a conversation regarding community gardens, which the moderator seemed to mistake for a desire for space to garden as opposed to a space for free and open access to growing your own food and fresh vegetables.

When I brought up that my concern was the lack of affordable housing options in downtown Olympia and the fact that the pamphlet provided to me detailing their objectives seemingly did not address that, the moderator informed me that concern was outside the scope of the design guidelines. Similarly, questions of capping building height and changing outdoor public spaces were outside the scope of conversation, although questions of using sustainable building materials, the prioritization of single family housing, and the construction of spaces in accordance to Community Policing Through Environmental Design (CPTED), were not outside of the City’s scope.

CPTED refers to a set of guidelines and suggestions that are supposed to cultivate the feeling of being watched constantly in an attempt to deter crime, a tactic heavily promoted by City initiatives, including in the past providing grant money for owners of downtown businesses to paint their buildings.

Parklets came up just once, when one appeared as a design option and during the discussion a self identified downtown business owner said that parklets are complicated to maintain and that they would continue to be against their installation “until the business owners and the city are on the same page.”

In general, there seemed to be a real dissonance between the conversations the city wanted to have regarding questions of density and painting buildings, and the conversations that seem urgent and relevant to the majority of the community, regarding providing homes for folks without them, access to food for those who lack access, and bathrooms for everyone. One participant announced a desire to “decrease homelessness in the downtown area,” but the request was oriented more around feeling uncomfortable downtown, and hoping to decrease the visibility of homelessness in the area rather than a desire to provide housing or resources to houseless folks.

On several occasions, the moderator made it clear that development was inevitable, and that these design standards were just a small measure in an attempt to moderate construction downtown and were unlikely to provide any restrictions for developers, instead focusing on providing guidance and encouragement.

If you are interested in reading more about development in Olympia, I recommend checking out 2015 the Cooper Point Journal article On the Rise: City Hall Wants a Denser, More Affluent downtown– What Will It Mean for Us?, which was written around the time of the 2015 revitalization of the comprehensive development plan, and is available on our website. There is also plenty of information available on the City of Olympia website, where you can also sign up to be notified of future meetings.