Seen through a lens of optimism, vision and investment, the city of Lacey’s Woodland District has a fighting chance of being transformed into the city’s downtown.
It will never mirror the more traditional, older version of a downtown that neighboring Olympia offers. Lacey didn’t incorporate until 1966 – 107 years after Olympia. Once Lacey became a city, it grew to resemble a mini-Federal Way, an urban planner’s nightmare marked by haphazard street design, defined by the suburban-style South Sound Center Mall, and prone to sprawl toward the shores of Puget Sound.
But after reading the land-use plan for the Woodland District — a 207-acre area bounded by Interstate 5 to the north, Pacific Avenue to the south, the Chehalis-Western Trail to the west and College Street to the east — I’m more encouraged than ever that Lacey just might create a city center.
I grew up in the Lacey area, moving there from Shelton in 1959 when my dad built the Lacey Animal Clinic on Pacific Avenue, right behind the Lacey Drive-In, which later morphed into Fred Meyer. I came to Lacey not by choice, but what 11-year-old has a say in where he or she lives? Lacey had a poorly defined sense of place and, to my way of thinking, lost a pair of community icons in my teen years: The Lacey Elementary School at the corner of Carpenter Road and Pacific Avenue and the Flavor Nook on Pacific Avenue west of Sleater Kinney Road. It was a burger joint with something I’ve yet to see replicated: oblong, whole-wheat hamburger buns sprinkled with sesame seeds.
I graduated from high school the same year Lacey incorporated, which explains in part why I never felt like I grew up in a real city. Community life revolved around my schools, first the aforementioned Lacey Elementary, then the brand-new Chinook Middle School and finally, North Thurston High School. I couldn’t wait to leave for Seattle and the University of Washington. But I did come back in the spring of 1967 to a meeting of the Lacey City Council. The purpose? Share with them a crude plan I crafted in an urban planning class. It was my vision of what a downtown Lacey could look like.
I know I wasn’t taken seriously. No offense taken. But the leaders of Lacey in those early years could have saved their successors a lot of time and money it they had taken urban planning a little more seriously 40-plus years ago.
I see the Woodland District Strategic Plan as a “better late than never” attempt to create a city center that is pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, vibrant and alive after 5 p.m., and diverse — a place to live, work and play.
Some of the things I took from the plan:
• The Woodland District is a study in contrasts. More than 50 percent of the district is paved over, but it also features a significant number of mature, second-growth trees.
• Most of the buildings are 20 to 50 years old, and are lacking in character. However, buildings added since 2000 tend to include many of the features desired in the Woodland District of the future. They front on the streets with the parking behind them. They included mixed uses and they fit better into their surroundings. Development along Sixth Avenue looks and feels like a downtown street. It serves as a reminder of what could happen in the district in the future.
• The two retail shopping centers — South Sound Center and Fred Meyer — will be a challenge to develop around. But they have enough parking to serve much of the district. And the sea of parking would benefit from some better landscaping, street connections and pedestrian walkways.
• The addition of the South Puget Sound Community College satellite campus on Sixth Avenue beginning in 2015 will breathe new life into the district.
• Some 240,000 square feet of vacant office space in the Woodland Square Loop area could be a catalyst for office or residential redevelopment, but it will require major private investment and city incentives, such as a property tax exemption for multi-family housing and reduced impact fees.
• The district’s major open space — Huntamer Park — could benefit from some compatible development around its edges. How about a covered pavilion for a food market or festivals? A YMCA would be a nice addition to the cultural heart of the district.
Public-private partnerships in the Woodland District built around a common vision of community would give Lacey something it’s never had – a city with an urban identity, a place to linger and return to, not just visit in a hurry, shop and drive away.