Olympia is preparing for 20,000 new residents in the next 20 years, including 5,000 more residents living downtown who will further reshape the transportation landscape.
Aside from luring more investment and housing to downtown Olympia, the city’s goal is to create a more walkable and bike-friendly atmosphere in what is considered the county’s social, cultural and economic center.
The Olympia Planning Commission will host a public meeting next week to explore these transportation issues and more in downtown Olympia.
The one-hour event begins at 6:30 p.m. March 16 at City Hall. The discussion will cover the history of downtown transportation as well as solutions that other cities have tried.
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To understand today’s transportation issues in downtown Olympia, it helps to understand the past, said Thera Black of the Thurston Regional Planning Council, who will be a guest speaker March 16.
Black said downtown traffic has come a long way since the days before Interstate 5. Back in 1949, State Avenue and Fourth Avenue were converted into parallel one-way streets to alleviate congestion and help with traffic flow. Those are still one-way streets today.
Much of the land north of State Avenue was devoted to heavy industry, with a steady stream of trucks shipping materials into and out of the city, Black said. A report from 1944 noted that 68,000 vehicles passed through downtown daily, Black said, noting how that number “would cripple us today.”
The construction of I-5 in the 1960s provided much-needed relief, but also reshaped downtown’s transportation corridors. For example, Harrison Avenue no longer doubles as U.S. 101, and current traffic suggests that State and Fourth should be turned back into two-way streets, she said.
Black said today’s downtown Olympia residents are pioneers who can set the tone for future investments, especially when it comes to transportation and encouraging more walkability between destinations.
“There’s no better expert than the people who are truly doing it now,” she said. “We have tremendous walking, cycling and transit ridership. The more people who live downtown, the more true that will be.”
Olympia recently updated its comprehensive plan, which outlines the city’s long-range vision for community development and downtown revitalization.
Max Brown, chairman of the planning commission, said the city’s downtown strategy is gaining momentum and can help create more investment-friendly conditions down the road.
“This is going to be a huge public process with a lot of stakeholders,” Brown said.
A second public meeting by the planning commission is slated for 6:30 p.m. April 6 at City Hall, and will focus on Tacoma’s waterfront development and soil contamination. The two-hour discussion will cover the complexities of redevelopment in historic downtowns, according to the city.