Downtown liaison Brian Wilson is leaving Olympia better than when he found it.
The 33-year-old Olympia native will relocate Oct. 6 to Juneau, Alaska, where he will work as a research analyst for the Alaska Mental Health Board. That plan was set in motion after Wilson’s wife, journalist Elizabeth Jenkins, landed a new job with a public radio station in Juneau.
For the past three-plus years, Wilson has played a key role in achieving several goals for the Downtown Project, a multi-pronged plan to improve the city’s urban core.
A few highlights of Wilson’s achievements in Olympia:
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▪ Establishment of an Alcohol Impact Area to reduce litter and public intoxication.
▪ Creation of the Downtown Ambassador Program and Clean Team.
▪ Installation of “parklets” to provide outdoor seating in under-used parking spaces.
▪ Addition of alleyway lights and other design elements aimed at crime prevention.
“It’s not going to be a silver bullet,” he said of the approach to solving downtown’s issues. “It’s nicking away at the problem.”
Olympia City Council and colleagues have praised Wilson’s enthusiasm for making downtown a better place.
“His civic pride comes through in everything he does,” said Sharon Holley, program manager for the Downtown Welcome Center and the Downtown Ambassadors. “He set an example for a lot of us to really get passionate and fall in love with our downtown.”
Wilson sat down with The Olympian this week to reflect on the progress, problems and potential of downtown Olympia. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Q: When it comes to downtown Olympia, you’ve been keeping your eye on the ball. So what exactly is “the ball?”
A: If it were just a ball, this would be a lot easier. The City Council has a priority to champion downtown. One of the goals of that priority is to create a clean, safe and welcoming downtown for all users. They created the Downtown Project, which is a multitude of programs working together to accomplish that goal.
We don’t have one issue downtown. If we did, my job wouldn’t exist. Rather, we have several smaller opportunities to address. If you address those simultaneously, you’ll start to see a series of small wins add up to a great impact. And we have seen progress from the Downtown Project. Think of what we have today that we did not have three years ago — we didn’t have a walking patrol, we didn’t have an ambassador program, we didn’t have an Alcohol Impact Area, we didn’t have parklets, we didn’t have alleyway lighting. We had fewer murals and art installations. And the list goes on and on. This has been an incredible investment from the city and the stakeholder groups.
As for the issue with housing in downtown, we have 1,800 to 1,900 residents, and the primary type of residency is low-income or government subsidized — about 88 percent, which is good. Typically you see that type of housing in an urban core. But what makes a downtown healthy is having a diversity of housing. The market rate units that are popping up now, in about a three-year period, we’ve seen about a 100 percent increase. It only took about three projects to double the market rate housing capacity. It’s not gentrifying anything; we aren’t displacing any people. These are projects done in buildings that needed some help or areas that were underutilized. The effect we’ll see is that more eyes on the street will create a safer environment, which goes back to the Downtown Project.
Q: What has been the most transformative project or initiative?
A: People have a lot of different ideas of what downtown improvement is. I hate the term “downtown revitalization.” It comes across with the assumption that we need to revitalize from something.
I drove Interstate 90 from Seattle to Boston one year and stopped in a multitude of states, and it seemed like the same city over and over and over again. I’ve lived in Indiana, I’ve lived Tennessee, I’ve in lived in Idaho, I’ve lived in Washington. The more you’re away from downtown Olympia, the more you start to realize how special of a place it is and how good we have it already.
I think a big problem we have in this community is that we view our problems in a vacuum instead of realizing that our frustrations or “opportunity areas” are right in line with what everyone else experiences in urban environments. I present at the Washington State Main Street conference every year. ... At those conferences, you can eavesdrop and just replace any town with the one they’re saying, and it’s the same issue.
I know of businesses that are having their best year in 30 years downtown, saleswise. We still have 425 independently owned businesses in a 27-square-block area. That is what makes us different. I don’t know of any other city in the Puget Sound that has that many independently owned businesses in such a concentrated place. Those don’t survive because people are avoiding downtown or are scared of downtown. They survive because people do believe in downtown and people do come down here.
It’s hard to find a parking spot? That’s a good problem. The sidewalks are crowded? That’s a good problem. I didn’t get my ticket to “To Kill a Mockingbird?” That’s a good problem.
Q: The city has transformed the space near the artesian well over the past couple of years by creating the new Artesian Commons park. However, the park has attracted criticism because of the street community that congregates there. Do you feel like the Artesian Commons is misunderstood?
A: I think it’s been oversimplified. This goes back to seeing Olympia and its issues in a vacuum. We are an urban area. Every urban area sees a larger percentage of street population than rural areas. Think about it. We’re the downtown for South Puget Sound. And it’s not just services that are bringing people here. This is where people connect. And that’s not just homeless people. It’s people getting together on a weekend for a beer or what not. That’s what cities do. It does put a disproportionate burden on the city because we’re playing host for a three-county region on a city’s budget.
As for the Artesian Commons, it’s not surprising that folks hang out there, and we want to see people hang out there. We don’t want to see violent criminal activity there, but at the same time, if it’s not there, it’s somewhere else. You can shut that park down tomorrow, but those folks are not going to go home.
What breaks my heart, and why I get frustrated sometimes when people take cheap shots on that park, is that they don’t realize that for a lot of those folks, that place is safer for them than their home. And at the end of the day, they just need a place to go.
We’ve made a lot of improvements to that space over the past year. We have reduced vandalism by being able to manage the space better with the fence. The park has what is probably the most used basketball hoop in Thurston County. We had more than 200 hours of programming in that park just this summer. ... That park has a couple of years before it’s really going to get to where it is because funding is a challenge.
In order to solve it, you have to have a conversation about it. ...You cannot close that park and address the issue. You just can’t. It’s going to go somewhere else. It’s going to go in front of storefronts, then we’ll have those folks getting in arguments with store owners, or they’re going to go to the transit center and overcrowd sidewalks.
Q: Do you have to live and work in downtown Olympia to truly understand it?
A: It helps, definitely. It is so important for anyone who wants to help out in downtown to be someone who has experienced it and seen it outside of just the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We have an 18-hour downtown. It changes completely four times a day: 8 to noon is completely different than noon to 5 p.m. From 5-9 p.m. is the dinner crowd, and then there’s the bar crowd from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. If you don’t have that understanding of the players during those times and the different issues that you see during those times, because they are completely different issues, then you’re going to have a challenge making a substantial difference.