High-density urban living the goal, but it’s not happening in Thurston

jdodge@theolympian.comFebruary 2, 2014 

South Sound urban planners, both the professionals and the citizens serving on city and county planning commissions, require equal doses of vision, patience, pragmatism and optimism to stay focused on their jobs.

That was my take-home observation Thursday night after spending three hours with dozens of professional and citizen planners from Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County who gathered at the Thurston Regional Planning Council office in Olympia to listen and talk about development plans for some of the region’s key urban corridors and development centers, including Capitol Boulevard, Martin Way, the Brewery District in Tumwater, downtown Olympia and Lacey’s Woodland District.

In most cases, it was a discussion of what planners hope will happen: high-density, mixed-use development that is less reliant on cars compared with today and years past. One thing these areas have going for them is 15-minute bus service supplied by Intercity Transit.

It’s not as if this is a new idea. Some of the first urban plans after the 1990 state Growth Management Act sang the same tune. Trouble is, nobody seems to be listening. The statistics bear that out: In the past 10 years, less than 5 percent of new housing permits issued in the county were along or next to the key urban corridors. Sprawl may be a dirty word, but it’s still acceptable behavior in South Sound.

There are many forces at play in the communitywide failure to foster a major uptick in true urban living.

The population density pales in comparison to the Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas. Land values here are lower, which translates into lower returns on investment for would-be developers who do take the plunge. Banks are less willing to finance redevelopment or new development in communities such as ours that don’t have a proven track record of urban infill success.

“We’ve had this vision on the books for 20 years, but if the vision doesn’t pencil out economically, it won’t happen,” Thurston Regional Planning Council planner Thera Black observed.

Resistance to new development, whether it originates at city hall or a neighborhood group or due to an environmental concern, has been a stumbling block to a new urban reality. There’s a growing recognition among the municipalities that they need more skin in the game for urban corridor development to happen.

“Most of the areas in Olympia aren’t feasible for development without help from the public sector,” suggested Leonard Bauer, Olympia deputy director of community planning and development.

Some of the ideas batted around Thursday for greater public-private partnerships that go beyond typical infrastructure improvements include:

 • Lacey is looking at a new type of zoning called form-based zoning for its Woodland District, which would become the city’s downtown area. Rather than zoning for specific uses such as residential, commercial, light industrial, etc., the city would establish zoning based on what the city wants the building to look like. Developers would then have some flexibility to pick and choose the occupants based on the marketplace.

 • The cities could embrace changes in their impact fees to charge less for smaller multi-family dwellings that put less of a strain on city services. Property tax breaks for multi-family housing projects in areas targeted by the cities is another idea floating around.

There seemed to be an “it’s time to try new ideas” mentality in play Thursday night. Tumwater city planners talked frankly about Capitol Boulevard between Southgate Center and Israel Road as a blighted area with three miles of overhead utility lines covering one-mile of right-of-way and drab, cinder block buildings pointing every which way. The city envisions a future with underground utilities and more buildings with street-front entrances and parking in the back, plus neighborhood centers near residential neighborhoods.

Olympia is studying a 1.5-mile stretch of Martin Way between Sawyer Street and Lilly Road to figure out how to attract urban corridor development that meshes with a giant wetlands complex that is the headwaters of Indian and Woodard creeks. It’s also one of the last unimproved stretches of Martin Way with original concrete roads and old utility infrastructure.

Everyone at the meeting agreed that the urban corridor redevelopment effort is a tough nut to crack. Adjoining neighborhoods need to be protected from the impacts of new development, and commuters need to get used to redesigned roadways that don’t just exist to get from Point A to Point B.

If it happens at all, it will take decades, not years. Urban living isn’t for everyone, but the bookend demographics of aging baby boomers and youthful millennials are groups likely to be drawn to these new neighborhood centers.

Trying to provide the basic urban amenities within easy reach — one-quarter-mile — of city dwellers is a far better goal than continuing to allow the cancerous sprawl that has already eaten away at much of the South Sound landscape.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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