It’s been fun to watch the progress of construction at Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Olympia, where a six-story building is going up fast. It will bring 138 units of market-rate housing to the city center, and it heralds a significant shift in the trajectory of downtown development.
It may ultimately be joined by another building of roughly the same scale just a block away, between Fourth and Fifth avenues on Water Street. That’s where the city is aiming to create a Community Renewal Area to stimulate redevelopment along both sides of the street. A CRA will allow the city to enter into a public/private partnership with a developer who could build market-rate housing with retail space at street level on the east side of the street. There seems to be a pretty easy path to consensus on this idea.
The west side of the street is a little more complicated. It’s now home to the much-loved Traditions Fair Trade store and café and a couple of other businesses, an empty building, and the bright red and green Little Danang restaurant. These buildings abut the Heritage Park Fountain. The city owns the aging empty building and the adjoining Little Danang building, and plans to demolish them soon.
The controversial question is whether this area on the west side of Water Street should become part of the Heritage Fountain Park, or a site for a one- or two-story building that might provide a café that faces the park, with patio seating where people could dine or drink coffee while watching children play in the water. Right now, the buildings on the west side of Water Street present a blank, windowless wall next to the fountain park.
The City Council will discuss the CRA ordinance at its Tuesday meeting and is likely to adopt a CRA ordinance in the next few weeks. The next step will be to solicit proposals from developers, and those proposals will be vetted in a series of public meetings later this year.
The Water Street site was chosen by a council committee as the focus for the CRA because of its potential to accelerate the trend started by the building at Fourth and Columbia — or, arguably, started by the new downtown housing in the Thurston First Bank project at Franklin Street and Legion Way.
That trend — the creation of the urban density and downtown housing Olympia has wanted since the 1994 adoption of its comprehensive plan — is clearly the most important element in the nascent downtown revival.
Some downtown business owners hoped the CRA would focus on redeveloping the forlorn mess that used to be Griswold’s — a burned out building on Fourth Avenue that has sat empty for over a decade. And though we share downtown merchants’ angst about that bit of blight in the center of the city’s retail core, it’s clear that the Water Street location has far more potential to bring more residents and more momentum to Olympia’s downtown.
Others had hoped the CRA would focus on the isthmus, but a long and star-crossed planning effort showed that we are still a very long way from community consensus about what should happen there.
It makes sense to put the isthmus on the back burner for a while, and focus on what we do agree on: the need for market rate housing that brings more customers to downtown businesses, creates livelier streets and provides a real alternative to auto-dependent suburban sprawl.