Mixed-use buildings at risk in Briggs Village

Businesses on bottom, homes on top was the idea; now the plan may change

mbatcheldor@theolympian.comSeptember 8, 2013 

When the master plan for Briggs Village was introduced in 1999, mixed-use buildings were to be the centerpiece of the 137-acre urban village at Henderson Boulevard and Yelm Highway.

Six long, three-story buildings in the village center were to have commercial space on the bottom and people living in the upper levels. The concept: Allow people to live a lot closer to, or on top of, the places they work and shop, thus reducing car trips. The plan was huge: 810 living units with single-family homes, apartments, lofts, condominiums, town homes, a senior housing community and a city park near a grocery store and retail spots for banks, restaurants and coffee shops.

Fourteen years later, much of the residential area has been developed, but the commercial center sits undeveloped like a doughnut hole. That’s why developer Briggs Village LLC is asking the city’s hearing examiner to recommend replacing the mixed-use buildings with seven single-story commercial buildings, which it thinks will sell better.

“You can wait 10 more years and the likelihood is nothing’s going to develop,” said Ron Thomas, the architect who designed the amended plan for the village.

But some neighbors such as Emmett O’Connell, who moved into a house three years ago about a block away from the proposed town center, are unhappy about the proposed changes.

The center, with a “sort of multistory community area within walking distance was one of the reasons we moved there,” O’Connell said, “and I don’t like the idea of having a strip mall next to my house.”

Jeff James, who lives nearby, said “the whole point” of Briggs Village was “something different, something new.” But the proposed changes to the development is the “same old stuff we’ve always had.”

THE RECONFIGURATION

The Olympia City Council will have the final say on the proposal, perhaps reaching a decision this year.

Under the planned changes, office space would be reduced 72 percent to 31,000 square feet. Retail space, excluding a planned grocery store, would be reduced 44 percent to 33,700 square feet. A plan for a 28,410 square-foot Thriftway grocery has already been approved, a reduction from the original plan for a 50,000 square-foot grocery. Some 272 planned underground parking stalls would also be eliminated.

The number of residential units would be redistributed in traditional apartment buildings and remain about the same.

Joe Mastronardi, project manager for Briggs Village LLC, said securing financing has been difficult in a tough economic climate. To ensure financial feasibility, “it is our professional belief that the reduction in size and some of the components is necessary both from a building-it standpoint” and “allowing it to be fully leased out.”

KEEPING MIXED USE, ADDING FLEXIBILITY

Former Mayor Mark Foutch, who sat on the Olympia City Council that approved the original Briggs urban village, said the proposed amended plan defeats the purpose of the original urban village and rolls back a lot of work the council and planning commission did at the time. He noted that Briggs is the city’s only urban village, and other developers have gotten out of requirements for smaller mixed-use villages in other areas, in part because they don’t find them easy to finance.

“The whole idea of the Urban Village in Olympia’s comprehensive plan was that it would be a coherent, urban development with multiple housing types and a mixture of housing and commercial space that would make it possible for residents to accomplish more of their daily activities without driving,” Foutch said in an email.

Thomas emphasized that mixed uses would still be in the amended plan, but each building would have a single use rather than multiple functions. He said the village would still have the same street layout and would look much the same. The commercial buildings would have to be at least 24 feet tall, which, though shorter than three-story buildings, would be taller than conventional one-story buildings and would frame the village green.

Three-story buildings would still be allowed if the demand arose. “So, we’re trying to keep this flexible enough to allow for the marketplace to take its own course in the years ahead,” Thomas said.

DEVELOPMENT’S HISTORY

The idea for Briggs Village dates to the early 1990s, when the area was the Briggs Nursery. The project first came to public attention in 1994, when the City Council included the urban village in its 1994 comprehensive plan. City officials liked the idea, while neighbors at the time didn’t, saying it would increase traffic and housing densities.

Ground wasn’t broken, however, until 2005. The housing was built first, along with a YMCA branch at the corner of Henderson and Yelm Highway. Work slowed considerably around 2008, when the housing market crashed. It has slowly recovered, and crews are now building the senior living community on the east side of Henderson Boulevard.

O’Connell said he had been following the development for years, fascinated with the idea of living in an urban village. He hopes the city stays with the original plan for mixed use “even if it does take a little bit longer for it to come to fruition.”

HAVE YOUR SAY

A proposal to change the master plan for Briggs Village will be the subject of a public hearing, likely in October, said Steve Friddle, Olympia’s principal planner. A date has not been set. The Olympia City Council is likely to decide the matter before the end of the year.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@theolympian.com @MattBatcheldor

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